As we have seen in the previous post, relinquishing a crown in England has always been a painful event, both for the monarch and for the nation. In the Middle Ages depositions and abdications were abrupt events that were often followed by the secret execution of deposed kings. As the nation graduated from the Middle Ages however political thinking became more subtle and unwanted kings began to be disposed in much more creative ways. So creative in fact that two of the royal depositions of the last 400 years went on to influence the development of monarchy all over the world, while a third deposition was achieved with such a degree of subtlety that it remains masked to this day.
1649: Charles I
Charles I, the second of the Stuart monarchs, inherited from his father James I a belief in the divine right of kings but unfortunately he did not inherit any of his father’s subtle wisdom. Charles' determination to rule without parliament and his obsession with imposing religious uniformity plunged the whole of Britain into Civil War, King on one side, Parliament on the other. Parliament’s wish at the start was not to depose him but to impose its views and policies on him, but that changed when it was discovered that Charles was talking peace with one face while arranging an invasion by the Scots with another. This was considered treason and he leaders of Parliament and the Army set out to dethrone him, but the way did it involved one of the biggest revolutionary steps in European history.
Until this point in British history, monarchs had been deposed by force and then murdered in secret (See previous post). The British 17th century however was a time of great intellectual ferment and innovation, and Charles’ conquerors decided to embark on a radical new experiment. Instead of brutal force they would use the force law to depose the king, and it would be done in the light of day. Charles was put on trial for treason, and if found guilty he was to be publicly executed like any criminal. The notion was unprecedented both in England and the rest of Europe, and it was truly revolutionary because their intention was not just to try a king but to try the entire institution of monarchy, and to dispose of the crown together with the king. The plan was carried out with fervour and precision: Charles was tried, convicted, and executed in Whitehall on 30 January 1649, and less than 4 months later the monarchy was abolished, replaced by a virtuous republic, the ‘Commonwealth of England’.
|The deposition that shocked the nation. |
Charles I is executed in Whitehall, before the Banqueting House.
It was bold experiment, but it failed for two reasons. First, those who abolished the monarchy represented a small minority among the English people and their groundbreaking experiment was not generally welcomed. The public execution of Charles as a common criminal truly shocked the masses, and to make matters worse the republican government that followed developed into a brutal puritanical regime, eventually descending into a dictatorship by Oliver Cromwell ( who became king in all but name). People thought Parliament and the army had gone too far and brought the country into chaos.
Secondly, the attempt to depose the monarchy failed because Charles, unlike his medieval predecessors, did not resign quietly to his fate. He refused to submit himself to the authority of judges at his trial, pointing out that there was no law allowing the king to stand trial. As his objections were swept aside he also warned the puritanical court that if the rights of the king himself were not respected then no one else in the kingdom could be safe from injustice (a rich statement coming from him, but nevertheless an accurate one). Finally, his calm and dignified demeanour at the time at his death convinced the English masses—half of which had sided with the king during the Civil War—that it was Parliament and the army who had become the real bullies.
It is often said that the best thing Charles I ever did was dying, and it is true. Despite his many flaws and catastrophic mistakes, Charles’s royal defence at his trial and his dignity in death saved the crown in the long term. The English Republic soon declined into chaos, and a mere 11 years after the monarchy was deposed Charles’ son, Charles II, was recalled from abroad along with the entire institution. The failure of the English republic was a lesson the country never forgot and is still relevant today as England continues to prize stability over chaotic change. For the rest of the world however, this very creative act of royal deposition served as a model of how to kill kings under the guide of law, like during the French and Russian Revolutions. It is in fact ironic that the destruction of monarchies all across Europe over the last 200 years can be traced back to this short bygone experiment in deeply monarchist England.
1688: James II
England was lucky to have Charles II on the throne when the monarchy was restored since he was, despite his fondness for carnal pleasures, a wise and prudent monarch. The same cannot be said for his brother and successor, James II, who inherited his father Charles I’s stubbornness and political blindness, not to mention his mother’s fierce Catholicism. Many in the country and the government considered him a threat and there were several attempts to exclude him from the succession even before Charles II’s death in 1685. Once King, James’ Catholicism became very overt, and his tendency towards absolutism a la Louis XIV left no doubts in people’s minds that England was in danger of becoming a Catholic absolutist country like France. There was some hope that his reign would just be a temporary aberration since James’ daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, had been raised committed Protestants. However when a baby brother was born in 1688 the country was plunged into turmoil because the baby was going to be raised Catholic, guaranteeing so a continuation of James’ policies.
The situation was critical but James’ enemies were torn on how to deal with it since no one wanted to plunge the country again into turmoil after the recent chaos of the Civil War. In the end, the plan to dispose of James turned out extremely creative. It began with a small group of Lords sending a secret appeal to James’ elder Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, who were living in the Netherlands as Prince and Princess of Orange. The appeal included an assurance that “19 parts in 20 of the people in the kingdom are desirous of a change”, and therefore they were invitating William to invade England to get rid of James, and for Mary to take the throne. William seemed to take the bait and invaded England in November 1688. After a few skirmishes, James’ support melted away and, after sending his family ahead of him, he fled the country with his trousers stuffed with royal jewels. (There was actually a touch of farce at this point: James was recognized at a Kentish port while fleeing and was brought back to London, whereby William let James flee again, this time successfully.)
|James II throws his royal seal into the Thames as he flees Westminster in the distance. An original drawing by Peter Jackson from Look and Learnmagazine.|
James of course had not technically been deposed, he had merely fled for his safety intending to raise support to regain control of the country. But the Parliamentarian organizers of this ruse cleverly declared that by absconding abroad (and taking his baby male heir with him) James had ‘abdicated’ his throne, which was now vacant and could be offered to someone else, i.e. his palatable Protestant daughter Mary. It was a clever move indeed, but William turned out to be even cleverer. He declared to Parliament that he had not crossed the sea with an army to play Prince Consort to his wife. He expected to be rewarded with the main crown or he would sail back to Holland—and curiously his wife Mary backed him up in his request. This placed Parliament in a conundrum. Although William was a Stuart (his mother Mary was James’ sister, so he and his wife were first cousins) he was only fourth in line to the English throne after James.
Parliament resolved the issue with a very creative constitutional compromise: they took advantage of William and Mary’s married status to declare them both monarchs in equal rights, the only time in English history when there were two monarchs on the throne at the same time, William III and Mary II. In return however, Parliament required William and Mary to grant a Bill of Rights, and to swear a new coronation oath that said they would govern "according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same." This in effect gave birth to constitutional monarchy which modernized monarchy in Britain and continues to make it prosper today here and the rest of Europe. And James? He tried to recapture his throne with an unsuccessful military operation in Ireland, but it was to no avail. Like all his deposed predecessors, he found that once a crown is lost, it is gone forever. He died in France under the strain of harsh self-penitential practices in 1701.
1936: Edward VIII
We finally come to what is considered the only true abdication in British history, Edward VIII’s loving self-sacrifice in 1936 in the face of opposition to his marriage to Wallis Simpson. This is my chance to be controversial and propose that this was no voluntary abdication but a carefully orchestrated, subtly executed, royal deposition in disguise. The official line has always been that the King found himself forced to abdicate because his government convinced him that the country would never accept Wallis as his Queen. However, when you scratch beneath the surface you find out that the government had other reasons for wanting him to step down, which were actually more pressing than the issue of his marriage.
The most obvious of the others reasons is the fact that Edward was unfit to be king, or at least unfit to follow his father George V on the throne. While George had been dutiful, hardworking, modest and utterly committed to service, Edward was lazy, selfish, extravagant, and dangerously careless in his words and actions, the affair with Mrs Simpson being an example of some of these tendencies. In addition, he had demonstrated a quiet admiration for the work Adolf Hitler was doing in Germany, and this caused great confusion and embarrassment as England slowly realized that Germany was again becoming an enemy. These were far bigger worries than marrying a foreign divorcee since they threatened the stability of the monarchy and of the country as a whole: even though George V had strengthened the British monarchy through modernization in the 1920s there was still no assurance that our monarchy would not crash down like other monarchies across Europe had already. Faced with such unpalatable royal prospects, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and palace officials began to ask themselves: why put up with such a questionable king when we could have a safe, decent man with a solid family on the throne instead—like his brother?...
|Poor, maligned Wallis Simpson was nothing more than a tool in the government’s hands.|
The reality of what happened in 1936 is that Wallis Simpson was used as an excuse to force Edward to abdicate and replace him with his brother Bertie, so as to save the monarchy from the damage Edward would have caused to it. The love story between Edward and Wallis was merely an excuse, and it has subsequently become one of the greatest smokescreens in royal history because nothing blinds one to reality more than the light of love. The reality is that the ‘abdication’ stands as the smoothest, most successful coup d’etat in English history, and one that shows how far Britain had come in 1936 from the execution of Charles I in 1649, when Parliament had killed the king to destroy the monarchy: this time the government chose to destroy the man to save the throne. (Edward’s abdication speech, by the way, was a masterpiece of subtle allusions as he proclaimed that he had found it impossible to "discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do" and that Prime Minister Baldwin "has always treated me with full consideration".)
|Ex-King Edward VIII covers his head in shame soon after his abdication.|
The Abdication Crisis greatly impressed itself on the Queen, especially the damage that her uncle Edward almost did to the monarchy. Luckily, her parents were there to restore credibility and they passed on to her a deep sense of duty towards the crown. It is very unlikely the Queen will ever contemplate abdication and risk undoing the work of her parents. And it is also inconceivable that anyone would force her to abdicate since she has been and continues to be a huge asset both to the monarchy and the country. So there is no chance of Britain following the Netherlands’ example when it comes to adopting the tradition of peaceful abdication. As we have seen, this country has its own traditions when it comes to abdications and depositions. Living monarchs in England are never waved goodbye in celebration for a job well done. Living monarchs here only remove their crowns under duress as a punishment for a job badly done. Let us therefore be thankful that we have no reason to expect abdication from our own Queen.
Read also my previous post on why the Queen will not abdicate.