King Charles, the Cromwells, and the Need for Magic

King Charles, the Cromwells, and the Need for Magic
  • 2022-23

I was there on 1 July 1969. I was six years old. It remains a vivid childhood memory, being present in Caernarfon on the day of the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales.

I did not attend the formal ceremony at the castle, of course. But I was one of thousands of people lining the streets as Charles’s carriage rode past afterwards. It’s a blur in my mind, but my strong recollection is that I saw him wave.

Somewhere in a dusty box of photographs back in the UK there is a shot of me waving a Welsh flag and cheering in celebration.

Charles was twenty at the time, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, and direct heir to the throne.

Just nineteen days after that ceremony in north Wales, the first moon landing took place. It was an exciting month! Both events seemed sublime and outlandish to me. The world seemed full of superheroes – people launched in space rockets, and princes wearing crowns.

The tickertape welcome the astronauts returned to was even wilder than the scenes that accompanied Prince Charles’s investiture. If Charles was royalty, the status conferred on the astronauts seemed that of gods.

More than half a century later, there are plans once more to send astronauts to the moon. And Charles will be crowned King on 6 May.

The event will be splendid, of course, though these days there are few major countries in Europe that retain a system of monarchy.

Aside from the principalities of Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco, there are just 7 European nations that have a sovereign as Head of State. Spain apart, they appear in two tight clusters: the Benelux countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg; and the Scandinavian trio of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

The other major European countries –Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Ukraine – have all opted for a republican system of government.

There’s an interesting scene in the 1983 film Ploughman’s Lunch, scripted by the British novelist Ian McEwan in which James, a journalist, meets a young boy, Tom:           

TOM          Do you want to hear my list of English Kings and Queens?

JAMES       All right.

 TOM          It goes from Henry VIII. [In rapid monotone] Henry VIII, Edward IV, Mary, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, William and Mary, Ann, George I, II, III and IV, Victoria…

JAMES       What about the Cromwells?

 TOM          They don't count.

Oliver Cromwell became Head of State, and England became a republic, after King Charles I was tried for treason by Parliament and sentenced to death. The King was beheaded in 1649 – the first state execution of a monarch in England's history.

The republic lasted until 1660, when the monarchy was restored. Cromwell’s son had proved a poor leader. The republican experiment was over. King Charles II was crowned King.

Elsewhere in Europe, the most famous revolution in 1789 saw France instal a republic and guillotine its monarch, Louis XVI.

One of the leaders of that revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, became de facto leader of the French Republic from 1799 to 1804. In 1804 he had himself crowned Emperor, continuing in that role for another decade. 

The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven had dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Napoleon as a tribute to the revolutionary hero and his republican ideals.

After Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven scratched out the dedication so violently he made a hole in the manuscript. For him, the democratic dream had been betrayed. 

Adele, Elton John, and Harry Styles may have all turned down the opportunity to perform at King Charles III’s coronation, though their gesture has none of the radical force of Beethoven’s snub.

As a member of the royal family, Charles has always needed to be neutral on social and political issues. He has nevertheless been a champion of environmental issues and been vocal in his opposition to genetic engineering. (Ironically there have been few things more genetically engineered over the centuries than the British royal family.)

The advantages of a monarchy, as opposed to a Presidential system, include the virtues of tradition, continuity, and stability, as the sovereign is not subject to re-election every four or five years. By the same token, the key disadvantage is that the authority of a monarch relies on an accident of birth. The title is inherited rather than earned.

Many people enjoy the mystery and ornament, the decoration and spectacle that royalty affords. ‘We must not let daylight in upon the magic,’ said Walter Bagehot, meaning that royalty should remain largely invisible, inaccessible, enigmatic. In this, Queen Elizabeth II was exemplary. Her inner life remained a mystery until the last.

Charles will have a tricky path to pursue as King. He follows an immensely popular monarch. The celebrity status accorded a modern royal family and the inevitable media intrusion will always be at odds with the ancient need to maintain mystery and preserve the aura of magic.  

With one of his sons already renouncing his royal title and historical links with slavery making recent headlines, the way Charles III navigates the next few years may not only define his own reputation as King but could also determine the future of the institution in the UK.

We measure our own lives in relation to such reference points. I was six when Charles was declared Prince of Wales; my sixth decade is completed just at the time he is crowned King. He has been a fixture in my existence.

We wish Charles well as a human being. We wish him well, whether we prefer to be citizens or subjects. We wish him long life and happiness, as well as good luck in his reign.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

Coronation - BSM - British School 

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