It's a 1,200-year-old institution that has weathered wars, disease, and everything in between. But why has the British monarchy survived when so many others have faltered?
The modern British monarchy can trace its roots back centuries, to the period when the island of Great Britain was a collection of disparate kingdoms in England, Scotland, and Wales. That changed over time, as these kingdoms consolidated into a single monarchy.
Why does the British monarchy still exist? Though the monarchy has evolved, one theme persists: the delicate, shifting relationship between the monarch, the government, and the people. What kind of power does the monarch claim? Is it absolute? Is it limited? The answer to this is arguably the key to the British monarchy's longevity.
Britain is a constitutional monarchy; the monarch is the "head of state" but doesn't direct the government. That means Parliament does the actual work of governing and has long put checks on the monarch's power. The British monarchy's willingness to submit to the law, as well as its adaptability, has given it new leases on life when other kingdoms ousted their kings. The monarchy's money matters, for better or for worse, have also impacted its longevity, even as the royal family continues to spend money on ridiculous things.
Will Britain ever abolish the monarchy? Nobody knows for sure. But, if history is any indication, the British monarchy has shown its will to survive by adapting and relinquishing power. That could mean the monarchy will persevere, or it could mean that it will simply drive itself into oblivion. Only time will tell.
The King And Queen's Authority Is Limited - A Reality That Helped The British Monarchy Survive The Age Of Revolutions, A Time When Royal Heads Rolled
The Age of Revolutions - which lasted from the late 1700s to the early 1800s - was an anxious time for monarchies. After all, it was an era in which institutions were upended, for better or for worse. American colonists cast off their ties to the British Empire, and the French abolished their monarchy and took the heads of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.
Why did the British crown persevere? Britain's monarchy was completely different from France's. While France was an absolute monarchy in the century before the French Revolution, Britain placed boundaries on its monarch in the form of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which took away some regal authority.
Ironically, the very laws that limited the monarchy's power helped preserve it. By the time revolution came to France 100 years later, Britain's King George III had become, according to historian Marilyn Morris, "the embodiment of a British heritage," rather than a director of the state's affairs.
The Monarchy Has Represented Stability And Reassurance In Times Of Crisis
The 20th- and 21st-century monarchy transitioned into an institution primarily interested in serving its subjects, a belief that Queen Elizabeth II articulated in 1947 when she was still princess:
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service [...]
To that end, the royal family patronizes charities and sheds light on issues affecting British and Commonwealth subjects.
Historically, the royal family has also played an important role in boosting morale in times of crisis. During the Blitz, the German air force's targeted, relentless bombing of British cities during WWII, the royal family offered support in the form of visits to impacted subjects and radio addresses.
More recently, Queen Elizabeth II delivered an address to the nation and Commonwealth on April 5, 2020, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, she urged unity and evoked the language of WWII:
Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it. I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.
The BBC praised the speech as one "designed to reassure and to inspire."
England's Short-Lived Fling With Republicanism 'Immunised' The Kingdom Against It
The monarchy hasn't been one long, unbroken chain of kings and queens. In the middle of the 17th century, England had no king at all.
King Charles I butted heads with the English Parliament so frequently that it led to the English Civil War, which, in turn, led to Charles's beheading in 1649. England became a republican Commonwealth - that is, a state with no king under the protectorship of Oliver Cromwell.
The kingless Commonwealth was short-lived, however. After Cromwell's passing in 1658, the monarchy was restored and Charles I's son returned from exile to rule as Charles II.
As historian Sarah Gristwood theorizes, England's period without a monarchy ultimately protected the institution in the long term:
We executed King Charles I at a time, 1649, when the major states of Europe hardly knew an alternative to monarchy. After that we were immunised against revolution, and the immunity has lasted until the present day.
Monarchs Are Subject To Parliament
Since the English Civil War in the 17th century, Parliament has demonstrated again and again that the monarch must submit to its will.
That conviction was put to the test in 1688. In a bid to keep England and the monarchy Protestant, Parliament ousted King James II, a Catholic, and invited his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William to rule in his place. The so-called "Glorious Revolution" affirmed that Parliament, not the monarch, was really in charge. It wasn't a peaceful transfer of power, however, since it led to violence in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Fully understanding who put them on the throne, William and Mary endorsed the Bill of Rights of 1689, which affirmed that the monarchy was subject to Parliament, not the other way around. Thus, the monarch's power was officially limited.