It is good to be the king

Others will never be royals, but I already am! (Credit: Hendrik Sendelbach)

Others will never be royals, but I already am!
(Photo credit: Hendrik Sendelbach)

Today’s the 37th birthday of the heir to the throne of Sweden (Happy birthday, Vicky!) and tomorrow’s the 329th anniversary of execution of the would-be heir to the British throne, the Duke of Monmouth. Americans are rather ignorant of monarchies, not having one, Emperor Norton excepted, so here is a quick guide to monarchy.

Aren’t monarchs descended from a long line of previous kings stretching back to time immemorial?

It's who you sleep with that matters!

It’s who you sleep with that matters!

Only if you have a short memory. The current branch of the British royal family, the one Americans know best, only took the throne in 1714. And the Swedish royal family is descended from one of Napoleon’s ex-marshals, who married one of Napoleon’s ex-mistresses, and only took that throne in 1818.

Sorry, wrong legendary origin. They’re really great military leaders who hold their lands by right of conquest, right?

Try again. The current British royal family came to power by an Act of Parliament in 1701, and no British monarch had taken the field since George II in 1743. Ever wonder why his grandson George III never came over with the British Army to defeat George Washington? That’s because the British government remembered how poorly his grandfather did.

A lot of the other monarchies fared no better. Perhaps the most pathetic example is the Spanish monarchy, which was driven out of that country in 1931, and regained the throne only at the invitation of the winner of the subsequent civil war. Even then, they had to wait until he died in 1975.

At least it’s hereditary, father to son in an unbroken line, once they do come to power.

I could have been King of Sweden, or at least a Harry Potter clone! (Credit: Oskar Karlin)

I could have been King of Sweden, or at least a Harry Potter clone!
(Photo credit: Oskar Karlin)

You do know that the current monarch in Britain is a Queen? Not that women were eligible in Christian Europe until modern times. In fact, so venerable was the tradition of male rule that Sweden didn’t officially change the law to give women an equal shot at the throne until 1979. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden wasn’t born the heir to the throne; she became the heir at the age of two, displacing her younger brother.

Besides being female, supposedly the other major disqualification was being illegitimate. That’s why the Duke of Monmouth was executed: he was the oldest son of the previous monarch, Charles II, but he was illegitimate, and when he tried to take the throne he was guilty of treason.

And yet . . . Queen Elizabeth’s own hereditary claim to the throne runs in part through a woman named Katherine Swynford (1350-1403). Katherine was mistress to the Duke of Lancaster, and her children were all illegitimate. But they were legitimized after the fact, which in the eyes of some still left them ineligible for the crown. So, the real rule is that illegitimacy counts against you, unless it doesn’t.

Oh, and some monarchies ignore the principle of primogeniture altogether. The Saudis pick the heir among their royal family according to family consensus, while one of the Princes of Andorra is the elected President of France!

Let’s forget about all that. So what does a monarch actually do?

The man currently pulling Queen Lizzie's strings (official portrait)

The man currently pulling Queen Lizzie’s strings
(official portrait)

To take one example, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (shortly to be the Disunited Kingdom if Scotland secedes) summons Parliament, presents it with a program of measures she wants enacted into law, and dissolves Parliament when it defies her will.

Just kidding! Actually, it’s the Prime Minister who does all that. In these matters the Queen just does whatever she’s told, sort of like a puppet.

So what does Lizzie actually do? Well, she looks regal in ceremonies that require her presence. She administers her personal fortune, which is worth probably billions and had become largely tax-exempt. And one suspects she hopes to outlive her son to keep that tramp Camilla from ever becoming queen.

And that’s the state of most monarchies in the world, which are bound by constitutions and representative assemblies. The monarch is a figurehead. If they actually do something, it’s a Constitutional crisis. Though let’s give the previously-maligned Spanish monarchy credit: Juan Carlos I prevented the military from overthrowing a democratic constitutional government in 1981.

There are some absolute or near-absolute monarchies still around, in such places as Swaziland and Monaco. The only ones that matter are in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Brunei, where they help retard the nation’s progress.

Could we ever have a monarchy in the United States?

Not without completely changing the Constitution. The Constitution establishes the United States as a republic, and by a republic, the founders meant a nation whose government belongs to the people, as opposed to a monarchy, where the nation in theory belongs to the monarch. And, the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government to the states as well.

The one and only Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (Don't recognize him? Go look up Joshua Norton (c. 1819 - 1880))

The one and only Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico
(Don’t recognize him? Go look up Joshua Norton (c. 1819 – 1880))


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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6 Responses to It is good to be the king

  1. L. Palmer says:

    We have very romantic ideas of royalty, missing out on all the political and social trickery each generation has had.
    On a different note, I’ve heard there were discussions of George Washington being made king after the Revolutionary War.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      In the same vein, Laura, there was a proposed Constitutional amendment, which was never ratified, barring Americans from holding any titles of nobility. Some think it was to prevent Jerome Bonaparte, one of Napoleon’s younger brothers, who had married an American, from setting up a Bonapartist dynasty in this country.

      Oddly enough, while Jerome eventually chucked his American wife at his brother’s request, one of his grandsons through his American wife, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, became U.S. Attorney General in 1906-09.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    It’s good that you picked up on the major fault line in the English monarchy (yes, English, because it wasn’t British until much later). According to research, the REAL English/British monarch is an outback farmer in Australia. Now couldn’t that cause problems. While our surrogate monarch is really only a waving hand. Oops, did I say that. Many Brits aren’t royalists, yet we have the memory of the disaster that happened last time we got rid of the royals. We got Cromwell instead – who promptly banned Christmas, and singing, dancing, having fun . . . he was a major spoil-sport. So we keep to the hand. Heavens only knows what will happen when Charles takes to the throne. Pretty innocuous chap: he spends his off-hours talking to plants. Maybe he’ll develop the art of waving his ears. (At least we have freedom of speech – and the royals are the usual butt.)

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Hadn’t heard about the Australian claimant until now, so I looked him up. Thank you. I could just imagine the King’s order to allow sheep to graze on the grounds of Buckingham and Balmoral.

      One wonders what Charles and Camilla think of the whole succession. Even now, Charles would be the oldest individual to ascend the throne, beating out William IV, who came to the throne at 64. The Dutch queens have developed this nice habit of abdicating around age 70.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Personally, I think Dear Liz is bang out of order hanging onto the throne for so long. Talk about being anal retentive. But heaven forbid that she set a precedent. After all, let’s not forget it was only due to another’s abdication that she got the crown. Oh, the Australian claimant – there’s a documentary on 4onD, it’s probably available on YouTube, it was presented by Tony Robinson. If you can find it, it’s worth the watch.

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