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Flights of Angels

Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others that have been tried, and we may similarly wish to conclude at the end of an extraordinary few days since the death of Queen Elizabeth II that constitutional monarchy is also the worst form of government apart from all the others that have been tried.

The outpouring of grief for her loss and the gratitude for her devoted service, alongside the loyalty and expressions of support for King Charles III, suggest that the British people are not yet ready to give serious consideration to significant changes to the constitution.  Those calling for a republic look to be in a significant minority, their arguments for an elected president alongside an elected prime minister surely undermined by the particularly poor quality of those who have succeeded in elections in recent times.

As a teacher of history, not least with the course that I deliver to the Lower Sixth about the trials and tribulations of the Stuarts in the seventeenth century, it has been fascinating to see the emphasis at the various ceremonies on the new king’s role as the protector of the Protestant faith.  Many of the rituals we have witnessed in recent days go back hundreds of years in their origins, and they are only being seen by most people for the first time during this change of monarch thanks to the power of television.  The ones with a focus on religion relate directly to what happened during the Reformation and the subsequent struggles to secure Protestantism as the national faith.

First Martin Luther in Germany, then in England with the political manoeuvrings of Henry VIII as he sought to break with Rome to allow him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, the following 150 years were dominated by the struggle for supremacy between Protestantism and Catholicism, not just here but across Europe.  The Thirty Years’ War from 1618-48 has been judged by people far more expert than me to be the bloodiest and deadliest war Europe has ever seen in relative terms, including the two world wars of the last century.

James II lost his throne in 1688, forced out because of his insistence of pursuing his Catholic faith and appointing Catholics to positions of authority.  He was replaced by the Dutch prince, William of Orange, a Protestant to his core, and his wife Mary, the daughter of James II but herself a Protestant, in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’.  This led in 1701 to the Act of Settlement, which made it clear among other things that no Roman Catholic could ever again be king or queen of England, and nor could a monarch marry a Catholic and keep the throne – a clause only amended as recently as 2015.

History is always a fascinating mix of accident and chance, sometimes with key individuals to drive it in a different direction.  Queen Elizabeth herself only came to the throne because her uncle, Edward VIII, fell in love with the divorced American Wallis Simpson and decided that his love for her was more important to him than being king.  His abdication in 1936 meant that the crown passed to his brother, George VI, and then in turn to the Princess Elizabeth.  Times, of course, have changed, with Charles’s divorce and his love for Camilla seemingly having had no impact on his accession.

Elizabeth did not have any brothers.  If she had, even a younger brother would have inherited the crown before her, another law that was only changed in 2011.  As things now stand, Charles will be succeeded by William, then George and then whoever is George’s eldest child – unless, of course, another twist of fate changes everything in the years ahead.    

It has been fascinating to watch some of the arcane rituals associated with the change of monarch and the funeral arrangements, not least the use of what must surely be one of the great words of the English language: ‘catafalque’, which is the frame that supports a coffin lying in state.  It has also been interesting to witness the wider reaction to what has been happening.  While there does not seem to be the same collective hysteria that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, there has nevertheless been a groundswell of strong feelings from many people, not least the sense of the need to pay their respects to a queen who served them so well.

Although it is not something that I would especially feel the need to do, I can understand why people want to pay their respects by watching as the funeral cortège passes by – whether in a Scottish village near Balmoral or in Central London – or by filing past the coffin as it lies in state.  It seems a shame that more people will not have the chance to do so, but I suppose there can only be a finite time to allow such things to happen.  Given that government in the country seems to have been paralysed since early July, and given the extent of the problems we are facing, there does seem to be a pressing need to get back to normal as soon as possible.

It seems a shame that someone did not think early on to ask people to make a donation to one of the many charities of which Queen Elizabeth was a patron instead of spending so much collectively on flowers.  If each bouquet costs an average of £10, I imagine the total amount spent could well be over a million pounds, money which could surely have been better used in aid of good causes – and the plastic waste from the wrappings is not likely to help anyone either.

Among the solemnity and the seriousness, there have been some rather surreal moments as well, usually in the course of interviews with members of the public.  One man said he had come to Balmoral as soon as he heard the news because he hoped to meet the new king and express his condolences in person, which seemed somewhat ambitious and highly unlikely to be possible.  A family in Green Park looking at the floral tributes brought their cat with them, for reasons that seem hard to comprehend, and another man said he had brought his four-month-old son to see the coffin pass by because it would be a moment the child would remember for the rest of his life, which is really not how the neural development of infants works.

In the end, I suppose it is all just very British, not least the willingness to queue for so many hours to file past the coffin in Westminster Hall.  Although I deplore the exceptionalism that leads too many to think that we are somehow superior to the rest of the world because we once had an empire and were on the winning side in global conflicts, I am nevertheless drawn to the spectacles and will watch as much of Monday’s funeral as I can.  This is indeed a moment of history and it seems entirely appropriate to pause and reflect accordingly, regardless of how each of us may feel about it all.  As King Charles wished last week for his mother, our queen, ‘May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’   

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