Wednesday 11 May 2011

In my end is my beginning: reflections on royalty

I’ve been thinking about the institution of monarchy quite a lot recently. And not just because of a certain event, though I’ll come back to that. It’s more that I’ve been reading John Guy’s gripping biography of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a rare example of popular history being thoroughly grounded in original academic research.

What, you might ask, am I - a lifelong republican, whose historical reading normally focuses on the 18th century age of Enlightenment and revolution – doing with a book about a 16th century monarch and representative of the reactionary Stuart clan, who claimed to rule by ‘divine right’? Well, I've begun to stray a little from my usual historical territory recently, trying to make up some of the gaps in my knowledge. I should also confess to a longstanding, if rather guilty, romantic fascination with the Stuarts, rooted in my research into my family’s history (which I can discuss openly here, now that I’ve abandoned my semi-anonymity). My father's Aberdeenshire ancestors were Jacobites who (so family tradition has it) had a hand in the ’45, and indeed my 4 x great grandfather, who was responsible for relocating the family from Scotland to London, was christened Charles Edward Stuart Robb in honour of the Bonnie Prince. But I admit that my fascination with Mary is also a symptom of my ongoing love-hate relationship with Catholicism. I’ve been reading Eamon Duffy’s revisionist accounts of the Reformation period recently, and have become fascinated by the heroism, as well as the poetry, of the recusants.

Guy’s biography prompted a good deal of reflection on political and religious matters, and upset some of my easy assumptions about the period. Mary emerges more positively than in some other accounts, and comes across as an intelligent, dedicated ruler who made some poor choices under insupportable circumstances, but certainly wasn’t guilty of most of what her detractors claimed. The whole story has the feeling of a tragedy whose ending was determined from the outset: incidentally, I’d forgotten that ‘In my end is my beginning’, which Eliot used in ‘East Coker’, was Mary’s motto.

Mary’s story certainly illuminates the close link between the institution of monarchy and a certain kind of religious worldview. When Mary was under attack from her political enemies, she fell back on the defence that she was an ‘anointed queen’, first of France, then of Scotland. But this idea only ‘works’ within a sacramental Christian framework. After the Reformation split with Catholicism, and even more since the slowly-won separation of church and state in Britain, it became increasingly difficult to justify the ‘sacredness’ of the monarchy. Part of Mary's tragedy was to become queen of Scotland just as this process was getting going. A belief in royalty as symbolic of ‘continuity’ or ‘tradition’ isn’t quite the same thing: it prompts the questions, continuity with what exactly, and which tradition are we talking about? (Part of me feels sympathetic to Chesterton's defence of tradition as a 'democracy of the dead', while the other half believes with Jefferson that 'the earth belongs to the living generation' and the past cannot hold the present hostage.) The institution was so much easier to defend when you believed your ruler was put in place by an act of God. But does this mean, conversely, that a sacramental Christian worldview leads logically to a preference for monarchy, or at least quasi-monarchical political structures, over democracy? (Catholic readers, please feel free to comment.)

In other ways, reading about Mary made me re-assess my inherited Whig view of history, according to which the Protestant Reformation was a necessary step in the inevitable progress towards liberty, democracy, and equality – including gender equality. But it was Mary, the unelected Catholic monarch, who was schooled in literature and philosophy in line with the latest Italian Renaissance thinking about women’s education, and who provided an example of strong female leadership. This was in the teeth of ferocious opposition from architects of the Protestant Reformation such as William Cecil and John Knox, the latter notorious for his ‘monstrous regiment’, and both entertaining deeply misogynist notions about women rulers. There was a grimly masculinist strain in Calvinism, which characterised Catholicism as feminine and therefore wily and untrustworthy, and included a Manichean sexual revulsion which associated Catholic ritual with pagan perversity (echoes of all of this can still be heard in the sermons of Rev Paisley, and it’s not a million miles from the rantings of the Islamists).

Then again, it was the Catholic Mary who instituted a kind of religious tolerance in Scotland, at the same time as Knox and his cohorts were beating up Mass-goers and trying to prevent Catholic services being held, even in Mary’s private quarters, while further south Mary’s bête noire, Cecil, oversaw the Elizabethan persecution of recusants. Her religious policy may have been forced on Mary by circumstances, but she seems to have believed in it, and certainly provided a better model than her English Catholic namesake, Mary Tudor.

My growing sympathy for Mary Stuart certainly made me review my deeply-held opposition to the whole idea of monarchy – all of this as the royal wedding was approaching. Having read Guy’s book, I began to see the value of the monarch as a transcendent national symbol. Did that symbol really have to be elected to be recognised as valid? Is the reverence that Americans accord the institution of the presidency really all that different from monarchical symbolism? After all, despite the key difference that the US president is elected, it seems to operate in very similar ways: as a West Wing fan I'm always stirred by those moments when the whole room rises to its feet to welcome the commander-in-chief, or when a Republican swallows their political misgivings and declares 'I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States'.

On the other hand, is it possible to have a monarchy that is purely symbolic, without all the trappings of hierarchy and hangers on that seem to follow in its train, at least in Britain? I enjoyed watching the wedding, and wished the couple well. I suppose my feelings were much like those of other spectators, whether royalist or republican: the music was splendid, the ceremonial beautifully done, the Bishop of London’s sermon surprisingly spirited and refreshingly free from the usual Anglican waffle, Pippa was stunning, the Middletons carried it off well, and it seems that they (like Diana) will provide some much-needed refreshment to the Windsor gene pool (not least, if one may say so, in the looks department).

But then, shortly afterwards, someone told me that William’s aristocratic mates refer to Kate and Pippa as 'the Wisteria sisters’, because they’re such good social climbers – geddit? (Laugh? I nearly swallowed my silver spoon, dear boy.) And all my feelings of annoyance, resentment and frustration at the whole clapped-out system came rushing back.  If it were possible to have a reduced, bicycling royal family that symbolised the nation, without all the attendant deference, knowing your place, and being judged by your birth and not your abilities or accomplishments, then I might almost be persuaded out of my republicanism.

Almost, but not quite. Because, of course, as we Jacobites know, these Germanic interlopers aren’t quite the real deal. Which is a good excuse for posting this version of 'Come ye o'er frae France' by the French Celtic ensemble Boann, fronted by the splendid Celine Archambeau. There's something oddly winning about hearing broad Scots rendered in a French accent:

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