AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BRITISH MONARCHY
Great Britain has had a monarchy for nearly 1,000 years. The British monarchy is easily the most famous in the world and is currently led by Queen Elizabeth II, seen on the right hand side. She has been our Queen since 1952 making her the longest reigning monarch in world history. The Queen belongs to the House of Windsor. The Windsor family has not always been our royal family. Since the monarchy began we have had six royal houses:
1. The Normans: 1066 - 1145
2. The Plantagenets: 1145 - 1485
3. The Tudors: 1485 - 1603
4. The Stuarts: 1603 - 1714
5. The House of Hanover: 1714 - 1901
6. The House of Windsor: 1901 - Present Day
People generally accepted as members of the royal family are either descendants of Queen Elizabeth II, or male-line relations of her father, King George VI. The Queen is the most senior person in the United Kingdom, as such she outranks everyone in the country, including her own family and all politicians.
The British monarchy is what is known as a constitutional monarchy, which means that the power the King or Queen has is limited. Their role is mostly ceremonial, acting as a figurehead for the nation. The Queen is the head of the armed forces, which means that anyone in the army or navy for example would ultimately call the Queen "the boss". The Queen is also responsible for appointing a Prime Minister, once the British people have democratically selected one in a general election. Constitutional monarchs do not outwardly display any political opinion or attempt to dictate the way in which the country is ran. The role of the monarch is also inherently tied to religion. Unlike a Prime Minister who is appointed, the Monarch is anointed. They are crowned in an abbey, not a parliamentary building.
Another big difference between the monarchy and parliament is the way that power is transferred over. A Prime Minister does not hold that job for life, and will invariably be replaced by someone else from within their own political party, or by the leader of another political party. This is the opposite of a monarchy. The Queen will remain Queen until she dies, unless she chooses to abdicate which is when a King or Queen gives up their position. Based on Queen Elizabeth's past speeches and dedication to duty, most believe that she would never consider abdication. As such when she dies, her heir apparent Charles Prince of Wales will become King. An 'heir apparent' is the name given to the person who will succeed the current King or Queen. This means that for now, Prince William Duke of Cambridge is not the 'heir apparent', but once his father Charles becomes King, William will then become the heir apparent and so on.
There is a very defined "order of precedence" within the royal family. The order of precedence is the set of rules which dictate the position of members of the royal family in relation to one another. This is outlined by two sets of rules - the line of succession or the precedence of birth right. A page dedicated to royal protocol and the way Royal titles work can be seen via the Royal Protocol box below.
One of the key roles of the Queen and royal family is as patrons to thousands of charities across the world. The Queen along with members of her family carry out many charitable engagements, greatly increasing the visibility of the causes which they are most passionate about.
Great Britain did not always have a constitutional monarchy. Up until 1688, we had what is known as an absolute monarchy. An absolute monarchy works quite differently, with the King or Queen holding all the power to govern a country as they see fit. This means that the policies and laws which the King or Queens subjects must abide by are set out and controlled by the monarch and their advisors. The Tudor dynasty was an absolute monarchy and as such the six King's and Queen's who ruled during this time had the power to run England as they saw fit.
The issue with an absolute monarchy is that in the wrong hands, it enables that person to act more like a dictator than responsible ruler. Worst still, if the monarch is surrounded by a council of advisors who are working for their own personal gain, then soon true democracy begins to crumble. A good way of looking at this from the perspective of the Tudor dynasty is to compare the religious policies of Edward VI and Mary I against that of their half sister, Elizabeth I. The policies outlined by Edward VI and Mary I were driven by their own religious beliefs, despite being at complete odds with each other
on which religion to follow.
People in the Tudor times were very religious, often being prepared to die to defend their beliefs. Edward VI was a staunchly Protestant monarch, Mary I an equally committed Catholic. Protestantism and Catholicism were the two main branches of religious belief within England during the time of the Tudors, and greatly divided opinion. The Catholic faith was the older and more traditional religion of the two, with the central Catholic mass a major part of religious observance. People who adhere to the Catholic faith ultimately answer to who they believe to be God's representative on earth - The Pope. The Pope is the most senior Catholic in the world. At the start of King Henry VIII's reign, he was a devout supporter of the Catholic faith. That was until he wanted a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon which the pope refused to allow. To get his divorce, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church in Rome, and instead set up the Church of England. It would be incorrect however to say that Henry then became a Protestant. Much of the Catholic way of worship remained the same, except that it was the King who was the spiritual head of the English church, not the pope. The bible in English also began to circulate more freely. Before it was written solely in Latin, and was therefore only understood by those who spoke and could read the language.
Things changed a lot when Henry's son Edward became King in 1547. Edward has been raised as a devout Protestant and so he expected his people to adhere to his religious beliefs. He was also surrounded by a very pro-protestant group of ministers, being too young to rule independently on this own - he was nine when he became King! Edward insisted that all Church services should be held in English and he allowed Catholic people and bishops to be treated very badly for their beliefs, sometimes having them put in prison or even executed. The situation changed very dramatically six years later when Edward died and his sister Mary became queen. Under Mary I, all the work that her father and brother had done was reversed. England would once again join the Catholic Church in Rome, and all church services were changed back to Latin. Mary was particularly cruel to anyone who opposed her beliefs. During the last three years of her reign, 300 leading protestants would be executed for their beliefs. Please see portraits of Edward VI and Mary I below.
Once Mary died and Elizabeth I became Queen, England's religion would once again be changed, but rather than attempting to dictate one set of beliefs over another, Elizabeth sought an end to religious differences, preferring overall peace between her people irrelevant of their religious beliefs. Elizabeth herself was Protestant and so England became a Protestant country once more, however, Elizabeth successfully established the true Church of England and allowed many traditional Catholic methods of religious observance to continue such as having bishops, ordained priests and allowing church decoration and ideology. She oversaw the release of the common English prayer book and authorised a version to be printed in Latin as well. She disliked extremists on both sides of the religious debate and was not against punishing people from within her own protestant faith if they tried to convert Catholics away from their beliefs. Elizabeth famously said that she "did not wish to make windows in to men's souls". In other words, she would settle for outward obedience to her rule as Queen, even if behind closed doors the religion her people practised was at odds with her own.
This approach is what I mean when I talk about a dictator versus a responsible ruler. Elizabeth was an absolute monarch, but unlike her brother and sister she was happy to settle for a middle ground in religious policy. She did not try and force her people to act one way or another. She therefore upheld democracy and attempted to rule fairly.
England would continue having an absolute monarchy until 1668, although by this time the power the monarch was able to wield had been considerably reduced. The biggest change in policy came during the reign of King Charles I, the second King in the House of Stuart. His father, King James I had succeeded Elizabeth I, ending the Tudor dynasty and introducing the House of Stuart. The Stuart's had been the ruling house of Scotland since 1371. James was the King of Scotland as King James VI, and
upon ascending the English throne, he became King James I of England. The crowns of England and Scotland would continue to be ruled in parallel with one another, before the Act of Union in 1707 in which the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united as a single sovereign state, becoming known as Great Britain. Queen Anne was therefore the first ruler of Great Britain. 58 years earlier however, the whole notion of monarchy came crumbling down at the hands of King Charles I.
During King Charles I's reign, the English civil war broke out. The civil war was a series of conflicts between two key groups - Parliamentarians, who believed that the role of the monarch should be reduced and ultimately governed by the will of the parliament, and the Royalists, who adhered to the view of an absolute monarchy. In the end the Parliamentarians, led by a man called Oliver Cromwell, successfully deposed King Charles I, exiled his eldest living son, also called Charles, and replaced the English monarchy with a self-governing republic. For King Charles I, this resulted in his execution - the one and only time a reigning monarch of England has been executed. He would be beheaded on the 30th January 1649. Portraits of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell can be seen below.
Unsurprisingly, the republic of England did not last long. By 1660, the exiled son of Charles I would return to England claiming the throne as King Charles II. The republic was over, the monarchy was restored. The work that Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentarians went to however was not quickly forgotten. At first, King Charles II's highly royalist Parliament began the process of removing all legislation that had been enacted during the years of the republic. Although the Monarchy had been fully restored, there were still significant religious tensions between the people that Charles governed. The Catholic faith was now regarded with severe suspicion, and soon protestant members of parliament began to worry that King Charles II was leading the Anglican Church towards being more predominantly Catholic. Many began to believe that there were plots to wipe-out Protestantism in Europe, led by Catholic Jesuits in support of the Pope. Roman Catholic rule was associated by many with the notion of absolute monarchy and religious persecution. In 1670 King Charles II made a secret treaty with the French King, Louis XIV, the Treaty of Dover. Charles agreed to convert to Catholicism and support Catholic France against the Protestant Dutch, in exchange for French trade subsidies. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Charles' staunchly protestant parliament opposed this treaty, and perhaps remembering what happened to his father when he attempted to govern without a government, King Charles II abandoned his treaty.
Charles' successor, King James II chose to rule without a sitting parliament. His method of rule became increasingly dominated by his Catholic religious beliefs, in effect taking England back to being ruled by a absolute monarch. Wanting to save the protestant faith in England and give power back to parliament, several British peers orchestrated a coup, in which they invited a relation of James II, William of Orange to invade England, displace James and take over as our ruling monarch. The coup was successful and William and his wife Mary were crowned as dual-monarchs in 1689. It was under William and Mary that a true constitutional monarchy came in to effect. At their coronation, they were required to swear to an oath that they "promise to swear and govern the people of England, Scotland and Ireland according to the statues of parliament". Portraits of William and Mary can be seen below.
The reign of William and Mary brought with it the constitutional monarchy that we would recognise today. A moderate and restrained system of rule which places democracy at the heart of it's existence. Those that rule the United Kingdom are in parliament, selected by the British people in a fair and democratically sound system of election. Our monarch overseas this parliament from a purely ceremonial perspective, granting ascent to changes in law and appointing the prime minister of the day once they are chosen by the British people. The monarch is the living embodiment of what it is to be British. Queen Elizabeth II is in effect an ideal, a set of codes and beliefs. Her true "self" is from a constitutional perspective unimportant. This is why she never reveals political opinions or comments of affairs of the day, because the moment she does, she will have compromised her impartiality and undermined the central sanctity of the role she plays.
Kings and Queens of Great Britain have roman numbers after their name. This number tells you how many monarchs have come before them with that same name. Our current queen is Elizabeth II (2), because we have only ever had one other monarch in Great Britain called Elizabeth - Elizabeth I (1).
The roman numerals are laid out like this:
I = 1
II = 2
111 = 3
IV = 4
V = 5
VI = 6
VIII = 8
IX = 9
X = 10
When Prince Charles becomes King, he will therefore become King Charles III, as we have had two other King Charles' before him.