Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

On monarchy and royalty

‘With the monarchy, there are really only two options: abolish it, or exploit its strength’ - The Economist, 12 September 1998

Queen Elizabeth, the "Lightness of Being" - 3D-portrait by Chris Levine (2007) - National Portrait Gallery, London

Reflecting on his own ejection from power, the English­ educated King Farouk of Egypt famously predicted that by the end of the twentieth century there would be only five monarchies left in the world: the kings of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades and the King of England. The remark has the whiff of cigary worldliness about it that enabled Farouk to pretend that his own overthrow was the result of irresistible forces of history. In fact his departure from Cairo to the fleshpots of Monaco had as much to do with the fact that he was a pampered, kleptomaniac lard mountain: it was enough to look at his fat face and elaborately waxed moustache to want to punch his nose. But his moustache was sharper than his mind. He was right about the British monarchy, which survived into the twenty-first century because, by force majeure and good sense, its shape and powers had been trimmed and trimmed again, having learned the lesson of the great republican Thomas Paine that kings are deposed in the hearts of their subjects long before they are got rid of by legislative decree.’ (Jeremy Paxman, On royalty (2006)


A lot of words has been written on the British constitutional monarchy and especially the persons who were part of the British royal family in recent times. This section of Hereditas Historia only wants to offer a small selection close to the research areas of Irène Diependaal.

The selection starts with some quotations from the famous book by Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867). Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) was editor-in-chief of The Economist. In honour of his contributions The Economist's weekly comments on current affairs in the United Kingdom is called "Bagehot". The selection is followed by an article of The Economist, written on occasion of the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. According to this article Spain, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Portugal, Greece all presented practically the same type of constitutional monarchy. After more than 20 years of research, Irène Diependaal thinks the situation is more complicated, but it is an interesting article to start an selection of voices of journalists who followed the British monarchy in recent times. Irène Diependaal doesn’t share all the opinions of the journalists. The voices are collected because of the thoughtfulness of the contributors, who changed opinion in time, and the quality of the argumentative analysis at time of writing. Some collected materials give background information to people - part of the British nation or part of an international audience - who don’t read a broad range of British newspapers daily.

Artist Chris Levine poses next to his lenticular image of Queen Elizabeth during a press view at the National Portrait Gallery.

The Economist, 12 September 1998:

‘Part of the reason why it is popular is precisely that the queen is not a politician, and that this independent, arbitrarily chosen woman holds a reserve power to control politicians' behaviour. It is hard to say whether that is a huge part of why the monarchy is popular or a small part, but it does play some sort of role. Opinion polls invariably reveal distaste for the idea of a President Hattersley or Patten, in other words a head of state elected from among retired or second-rank politicians on the German model. Take away this reserve power, vague though it is and unexercised though it remains, and people may reasonably ask what is now the point of the monarchy. Is it merely to preserve Britain as a heritage park?’

‘Sweden is the only one of the continental monarchies to have made this sort of change. In Belgium, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands the monarch continues to exercise these constitutional powers - indeed, with proportional electoral systems, these monarchs have to be far more politically active than Queen Elizabeth.’