Rant Number 475 30 January 2012
On this very day, a chilly morning of January 1649, a king of England left London’s St James Palace, under armed escort. He walked across the adjacent park, till he arrived at the Banqueting House, in Whitehall. There King Charles I mounted the scaffold and was beheaded. A dreadful, heart-rending cry went out from the assembled crowd such as, a man later swore, ‘he never wished to hear again’. Then the executioner held up the royal head, streaming with blood: ‘The head of a traitor!’ he shouted. No one dared to contradict him.
Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan dictator, cut off the King’s head after defeating him in the civil war years before. Had Charles been willing to give up episcopacy, the hierarchy of the Anglican Church of which he was supreme governor, he might have saved himself but his conscience prevented him. The King had principles. Unfortunately he also lied to his captors, promising compliance while simultaneously plotting and scheming. ‘There are people to whom you do not owe the truth’. A tricky notion in moral theology – Charles may well have subscribed to it. If he did, it did him no good.
Both Charles and Oliver were practising Christians, of course. The high doctrine of divine right of kings sustained and puffed up Charles but his foe had Parliament behind him. Cromwell aimed at theocracy, not democracy, mind. The Puritan rule of the Saints that followed abolished all popular entertainments like theatres – Shakespeare was dead by then, good career move – and made adultery punishable by death, first time since King Canute. But the Puritans’ triumph was hollow. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and the dead king’s son, Charles II, ascended to the throne. Cromwell’s body was dug up and subjected to indignities.
The Church of England does not canonise people – too Romish – but if it ever came close to that, it was for the murdered monarch. A special liturgy commemorating Charles, ‘King and Martyr’, was drawn up and inserted in the Anglican Prayer Book – it also enjoined a day of fasting on 30 January. Anglo-Catholics cherished it. Alas, the service vanished in Victorian times. The Church, divine right notwithstanding, had to swallow foreign usurpers like Dutchman William III and German George I. All very melancholy but...might, too often, is right.
Apparently, the present Prince of Wales will not elect to be Charles III, when his time comes, but another name. Can’t quite blame him. The Stuarts were a singularly jinxed and not always edifying dynasty. Mary Queen of Scots also lost her head, Charles II was debauched, James II was deposed and at Culloden the Hanoverians crushed Bonnie Prince Charlie’s tartan army. The last of the Stuarts was Henry IX, an amiable Cardinal of the Roman Church. Napoleon, rumour has it, would have put him on the English throne, had he succeeded in invading England. You know the end of that one.
‘Gold-filling in a mouthful of decay’, playwright John Osborne termed the British monarchy. A lurid, rhetorical tag by an angry thespian. He also opined that ‘the royal symbol’ was dead. Hhmmm... if so, why waste his ink? What is the point of attacking a corpse? I wonder whether Osborne was in his cups. Anyway, he was wrong. The huge interest, the controversies the Royals still engender all suggest the thing isn’t quite defunct yet. They stand for a bit more than mere, hideous celebrities like Beckham and Lady Gaga. The gold-filling keeps glittering and fascinating. Why?
Alan Watts, an old mentor of mine, suggested a theological, nearly supernatural explanation. The old divine right. Not quite in the sense the Stuarts meant it, no. Still, by virtue of being the honorific head of the national church the monarch represents, whether people are conscious of it or not, a link with Heaven. The Coronation Service exemplifies that well. The anointing of the sovereign with holy oil, like the prophets and kings of ancient Israel and English rulers since King Edgar in 959, his clothing with sacerdotal vestments like chasuble and dalmatic, the receiving of the Bible with the words ‘The most valuable thing the world can afford’ – all those and more gesture mystically towards the sacred, the holy, a cluster of symbols and meanings connecting the monarch and his people with something more than just human and secular - the supreme identity, the holy being, the King of Kings above. God may not quite be an Englishman but through the monarch and the Church the English people can perhaps feel a little more close to the Divine.
Republicans and sceptics will mock and scorn, sure. Fiddlesticks! Pie in the sky! Just tourist trappings! Actually, the critics’ own irrelevance shows them up. Cromwell’s challenge to Charles I was real. The Commonwealth had plenty of sturdy, fanatical supporters, fired by a powerful religious creed. Republicanism’s followers today could hold their meetings in a telephone box. They have no ideology, no strength, they mean nothing at all. Never mind the current austerities, there is simply no public taste for scrapping the monarchy in Britain. (The only Queen-hater I have met in years was a Canadian priest in Rome over Christmas – but then he was of Irish origin...)
A more cogent sceptical argument might be that, on the whole, British people are indifferent towards the Crown. Is there something in that? A wise old priest way back told me, ‘Frank, never forget, the relationship between the English and their Church and their monarchy is one between love and indifference.’ That might be true, I think, but how could the poor Italian priest be sure of that? Being English - birth bars me forever from that high honour. Anyhow, that lovely word, ‘love’, is still part of the equation. It all depends how it swings, no?
As he got up to go to his death, King Charles I decided to wear a double shirt. The morning air was freezing. ‘If I shake from the cold my enemy will think I am afraid. I will not expose myself to such reproach’, he said.
Spoken like a brave man. Martyr or not, I shall shout ‘All Hail to the King!’
Revd Frank Julian Gelli