This week just gone saw the death of Queen Elizabeth II who has been a constant in my life as somebody born and raised in the United Kingdom. It’s an event that’s had a justifiably big impact. But in the hours and days that have followed, I’ve watched with a quizzical eye some of the allegedly ancient traditions unfold. Normally involving men in strange costumes yelling proclamations around the country. But to what extent has much of this royal tradition been invented?
In other words, is it all as old as they’d like you to believe?
Well, it may come as a shock to both Britons and royal watchers around the world to know that some of these venerable traditions really aren’t that old. Unless you regard fifty, one hundred and even two hundred years as incredibly ancient. In fact, a great deal of the pomp has grown with the development of mass media and the public appetite for spectacle.
The monarchy has also been deployed during volatile political periods in the 19th and 20th century to curb radical and even revolutionary currents stirring within the British population. In an excellent book – The Invention of Tradition – edited by the late Eric Hobsbawm, things you may have regarded as both eternal and true like Scottish tartan were breezily demolished. The book showed how royal glitz has been an effective distraction from growing social unrest.
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The book also examined how royal ‘tradition’ was extended to the Indian Raj and colonial Africa to foster deference and the idea of an empire upon which the sun would never set. For example, the British took the idea of the ‘durbar’, a traditional royal feudal gathering in India, and turned it into the Imperial Durbar. Three grand processional events held by the British in 1877, 1903, and 1911. At the third one, King George V oversaw the proceedings in person as Emperor of India (a title invented in Queen Victoria’s reign and scrapped in the 1940s after Indian independence).
So let’s look at some other traditions around the monarch that may not be quite as old as if often claimed:
The State Opening of Parliament: The website for Parliament claims this ceremony is 500 years old. But then it lets the cat out of the bag admitting that in its ‘modern’ form – ie, what you see on TV – it’s only existed since 1852 when Queen Victoria established the route to be taken and much of the ritual. Indeed, in the early part of Victoria’s reign, a state opening would have been impossible because the Houses of Parliament had burned down and were being rebuilt.
The Honours system: If you think the honours system with the OBE, MBE, and CBE dates back centuries, I’ve got bad news for you. It celebrated its centenary in 2017 having been introduced in the closing years of the First World War and the same year as the Russian Revolution.
The national anthem: While the music and words to the national anthem, do date back to the mid-18th century, the anthem only started to be used in earnest at royal occasions from the mid-19th century. It wasn’t even played at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.
In short, we can rightly point an accusing finger at the Victorians whose love of kitsch – and frankly rather camp – takes on medieval history and ritual are well recognised. They created much of the royal ‘tradition’ that we believe dates back countless centuries.