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Long to reign over us: Queen Elizabeth II waves from the palace balcony after her coronation in 1953 (National Media Museum/ The Commons)

From our earliest years, we delight in hearing about kings and queens, princes and princesses, without needing to know why we are drawn to these stories. The first reason to tell our children the history of our kings and queens is for pleasure. As J.H. Plumb remarks in his book on the first four Georges, “It is almost impossible for a monarch to be dull, no matter how stupid.” Here human passions, admirable and disgraceful, are played out for the highest stakes. No wonder Shakespeare wrote play after play about royalty and rebellion, ranging from ancient times to the still quite recent convulsions on the English throne.

From 1307 to 1485, England had nine kings, of whom four were murdered and one died in battle, while the other four died of illness, but fought battles in which they too might have perished. Even today, Henry V expresses English patriotism in its most cheerful form, as a perfect mixture of elitism and egalitarianism: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

These things are uppermost in my mind because I have just attempted, in a volume of brief lives of all 40 monarchs from William the Conqueror to the present Queen (Gimson’s Kings and Queens, Square Peg, £10.99), to tell the story for enjoyment rather than edification. I like knowing which monarch was known as “Dismal Jimmy”; which was probably the first to eat ice cream; which one locked up his wife for 32 years after hearing she was about to elope with a Swede; who told his valet, as the royal yacht approached the coast of Scotland, “Un costume un peu plus écossais demain”; and which heir to the throne inquired, when conversation flagged during lunch with a famous novelist: “Now you can settle this, Mr Hardy. I was having an argument with my Mama the other day. She said you had once written a book called Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and I said I was sure it was by somebody else.”*

But while drawing a picture of each of our monarchs, I couldn’t help wondering why they still have such a hold on our imagination. This is not a narrowly British point, or one which applies only to children. Go to some distant part of the globe, and you are far more likely to be asked about our Queen (who will be 90 in May) than our Prime Minister.

Yet with the exception of Bagehot (usefully derided by Ferdinand Mount in The British Constitution Now) not much has been written in the last 200 years which casts light on the attraction of kingship. Among political writers, the rise of democracy has tended to eclipse everything else. In a way this is right and proper, for here is the great new force which lends legitimacy to government. Our political system is acceptable because at a general election we can sack whichever set of rogues has been running the show, and can put in the other lot. Here is the most popular and indispensable check on the abuse of power, and I would not wish anything in the rest of this article to be taken as implying any kind of opposition to it.

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January 22nd, 2016
4:01 AM
The argument that a monarch keeps ultimate power away from other individuals, particularly politicians, is a strong one an I support. However, the lines are blurred when the monarch in question lives a bizarre luxurious life and the privileges of the position go also not just to the heir, but to endless hangers on with even the faintest blood connection. A European style monarchy would be much more acceptable, with a Monarch and the heir (and maybe a spare) supported by taxpayers, and the rest left to their own devices. Also, I find it bemusing that the current UK monarch (and ours here in Australia) is so highly praised? What has she done beyond staying alive a long time? I'm particularly bemused when people talk about how stoically she withstood the scandals connected to her children's marriages. Who was it that stopped her children (and her own sister) marrying people they loved?

Man of the people
January 21st, 2016
5:01 PM
It's so tiresome listening to you relics trying to argue for a 'divinely appointed' ruler in the 21st century. The monarchy's time is up and so is yours.

December 26th, 2015
5:12 AM
I'm not saying I don't prefer having a head of state separate from politics, but why does it have to be one stuck up family who live in unimaginable luxury? For all they do, we could make a robot that shakes hands and it wouldn't cost as much.

December 25th, 2015
9:12 AM
"Both approaches are wrong" well I do think that our present Queen is a *shining* example of how a really, really good monarch can change this country for the better. Listing the ways would take too much space, but giving us an identity would be uppermost. . Lastly, it's worth noting that leftists (we're all moving left a bit) have more or less successfully undermined Christianity, gender roles and patriotism - quite a lot of the structures that kept society together - they've made little headway against monarchy. . Probably because our queen is in a class of her own, and negative, pessimistic whingers pretending to be cleverer than everyone just don't match up

Frank Prochaska
December 21st, 2015
3:12 PM
This piece by Andrew Gimson on the monarchy, though of general interest, will not sit well with the many scholars who have written on the British Crown in recent decades, including Sir David Cannadine, Professor Vernon Bogdanor and a host of biographers. Given the extensive body of research on the subject it comes as a surprise to read that 'with the exception of Bagehot . . . not much as been written in the last 200 years which casts light on the attraction of kingship'. I myself have written a series of books on the importance of the monarchy and its adjustment to democracy, including 'Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy' (Yale, 1995), 'The Republic of Britain' (Penguin 2000) and 'The Eagle and the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy' (Yale, 2008). Mr Gimson should read more widely. Frank Prochaska, Somerville College, Oxford

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