I’m generally not for the new trend of bio-pics about currently living people (Barry, Snowden, The Iron Lady, The Social Network, The Theory of Everything). While depicting figures from the past brings them back to “life” in a fictional sense, depicting living figures seems to me to be robbing them of their own ongoing, real drama in this world. Their story isn’t yet finished, so it’s objectionable to try to tell it—even a portion of it—because the end of their narrative, the conclusion that is necessary to cast the final light over all the rest of it, hasn’t yet come to pass. But I’ve made an exception in watching the Netflix original series The Crown, because the living figure which it depicts is exceptional.
There’s something undeniably fascinating about monarchy and monarchs, especially in our modern and post-modern world where monarchy is all but extinct. And where it has survived, it has had to evolve to do so. This theme of an evolving monarchy is a running thread throughout the entire series The Crown. In season 2, episode 5, Queen Elizabeth and her mother are reflecting on that evolution:
Queen Mother: That’s the way it goes, the stings and bites we suffer, as it slips away, bit by bit, piece by piece—our authority, our absolutism, our Divine rights. The history of the monarchy in this country is a one-way street of humiliation. Sacrifices and concessions in order to survive. First the barons came for us, then the merchants, now the journalists. Small wonder we make such a fuss about curtsies, protocol, and precedent: they’re all we have left—the last scraps of armor as we go from ruling, to reigning, to. . . .
Elizabeth: To what?
Queen Mother: To being nothing at all. — Marionettes.
The ideals of democracy and egalitarianism have obviously called into question the ancient, widely accepted practice of bestowing authority upon a monarch by birth-right, i.e. Divine right. In a world frantically trying to tear down all unearned privileges of class, race, etc., monarchical privilege—certainly the pinnacle of unfair advantage—isn’t spared.
But is that all that monarchy is? Extreme privilege for a single individual? Monarchy is, I think, rather less about the single individual his-or-herself and more about the system, the office. The Netflix series isn’t called ‘The Queen’, but rather ‘The Crown’, because that’s the object the main character, Elizabeth, is always wrestling simultaneously to be united to and distinguished from. She is constantly surrounded by people who think they could do her job better—strong willed, driven, motivated people. But for better or worse, “The Crown has landed on my head,” she says. And importantly, it has landed there not by might or vote or contest, but by birth. It’s a system owing more to nature than to human will. It’s a sane surrender of human volition to the cosmic order—or to chance, as the prevailing sentiment may be. Either way, it’s an intentional humbling of the human ego to something beyond its control or design.
But more than that, it’s where (apart from in the Church) we have—again, very sanely—invested our very finest pageantry and formality. But in the secular world, becoming ever more secularized over the last couple centuries, monarchy has become one of the last bastions for legitimate pomp and ceremony, a shrinking oasis in a growing desert. The value of ceremony and pageantry, of kneeling and curtsying and gesturing and processing, used to be self-evident. But now we need to be reminded of its value to our spirits; and the only way to be reminded is to experience it. And one of the last places to experience it is in the presence of a monarch.
The value of a monarch, of a Crown, is not only to our individual spirits, but to our collective spirit, too. C.S. Lewis once wrote,
It would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how, if by doing so, you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How if the monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship—loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendor, ceremony, continuity—trickle down to irrigate the dust bowl of modern economic statecraft?
Similarly—and potentially the only time he would find common ground with C.S. Lewis—the contemporary actor and atheist Stephen Fry, reflecting on Winston Churchill, the Queen, and America, has opined,
During these weekly audiences, the great political lion [Churchill] had to stand before her [the Queen], explain the conduct of his administration, outline governmental plans and problems and keep her informed as to the state of the nation before bowing himself backward from the room. Constitutional constraints decreed that she could do no more than “advise and consent.” A powerless monarch, but endued with all the symbolic authority of her nation and its long history. The aura this bestowed apparently caused even Churchill to be nervous and discomfited in her presence.
. . . . Do you not agree that it would be a very healthy thing for [American] presidents to make such a humble, supplicatory journey every week and be reminded that they serve a bigger idea than power, a nobler entity than a political party or a trending ideology? Perhaps mistakenly we think of theatrical rites and ceremonies like this as primitive throwbacks we can congratulate ourselves on having shaken off. But ritual and pageant, costume and custom are to public life what metaphors are to language; they bring it to life and move it from the abstract to the real.
America has an elected executive, but Britain has an elected executive and something else, too: a head of state who stands above the fray, personifying and representing our nation and its history.
I am far from claiming that Britain is anything other than a ridiculous country, nor am I denying that there are plenty of Britons who don’t buy into the drama of kingship. Rationally, a monarchy is an absurdity. Of course it is. But we British are not rationalists. We are empiricists and seem always to have been. Looking at 10 Downing Street and the American White House now, I wonder which nation is constitutionally most in danger of allowing a tyrant to arise.
This “monarchy of representation”, shall we call it, is, I believe, an extremely sensible and valuable prospect. Though sapped of all real power, it reminds us and points us on toward something more real. Lewis and Fry are right: Britain’s constitutional monarchy may not be rational, but it is eminently sensible.
But elsewhere, Lewis describes why this system is not only more sensible than the rationalist position of pure democracy, but also more sensible than the idealist position of pure monarchic absolutism:
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for [believing that]. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.
That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen…patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that ‘all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. [Emphasis added]
To be clear, it’s not equality of ultimate dignity or worth Lewis believes is a legal fiction, but merely an equality of natural authority in certain contexts.
Clearly democracy is better than fascism, which in a fallen world monarchic absolutism almost inevitably will become. So restraints on monarchs have increased over time, following the empirical recognition that power corrupts. But in Britain, monarchy has been preserved sans power, as a lingering sign of all that, in an un-fallen world, absolute monarchy should have meant, and as a beacon of another empirical reality: that we need to kneel, to curtsy, to bow ourselves humbly backward out of the presence of a sovereign. We need, even as we govern ourselves, to be reminded that this is a concession, because our sin precludes us all from the freedom of wholly putting our trust in any man. But in the figure of a Crown, we may remember that that freedom, the freedom of the happy subject, is an ideal that prompts us to look toward a reality beyond this world: to a Heavenly King.