British Royal Ceremony in the era of regime change wars
As the Victorian and Edwardian era royal jamborees were rooted in the wholescale pillaging and destitution of India, the Elizabethan era and today’s Carolean pageantry are rooted in this geopolitical context.
Britain officially entered a new Carolean era with the grandiose coronation of Charles Windsor as King Charles III in May this year. It was the third time within an eighteen-month period that the British state showcased spectacular pageantry splendor to a global audience. First was the late Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum jubilee in February 2022 to celebrate 70 years on the throne, followed by her flamboyant funeral in September 2022, and then the aforementioned coronation. Each ceremony was heralded by the media with invocations to “tradition”, which supposedly represented “continuity” in constantly changing times.
When the late Queen was ceremonially buried, the London Times correctly editorialized that there “is a sound case advanced by historians that the ceremonial aspects of the Crown are of recent origin.” Indeed, much of what can be learned about the evolution of contemporary British royal ceremony is celebrated and packaged as outlined in Professor David Cannadine’s seminal essay, The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ 1820-1977’. Cannadine identifies four distinctive phases in the evolution of Royal Spectacle. Each phase is discussed in its specific historical context. What follows is a summary of Cannadine’s findings, interspersed with my own historical observations and concluding with some remarks on what the new phase with the coronation of King Charles III may mean for Britain.
In the Beginning
In the first phase between 1820 and 1870, Monarchs were known to meddle and interfere in governmental politics. They were seen as agents capable of making and breaking governments, therefore, there was no interest in politicians further glamourizing, venerating, or legitimizing that power with a show of pageantry. As such, royal occasions before the 1870s were haphazard, sloppy, low-key affairs, and of little interest to people outside of London. Cannadine further states that in the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, pageants “oscillated between farce and fiasco.” Another reason why there was limited interest in pageantry in this period is that Queen Victoria, who had acceded to the throne in 1837 following the death of her uncle William IV, fell into seclusion or “sop” after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Victoria had limited interest in public commemorations and this seemed to have also guaranteed her a negative reputation and unpopularity in her time.
Cannadine identifies the second phase between 1870 and 1914 as the most consequential and the period when the recently witnessed Royal Spectacles became normative. The main reasons why there was a shift from popular indifference to popular deference in the celebration of royal events were twofold. Firstly, on the domestic front, there was an immense change in society, that is, “the widening franchise, the railway, the steamship, the telegraph, electricity, the tram…” As such, the monarchy came to represent “a unifying symbol of permanence and national community." Secondly, Britain was beginning to be challenged on the international front. Within a few years, it would lose its position as the supreme superpower of the nineteenth century to rising powers such as the United States and Germany. As such, it found itself compelled to enter alliances with other countries. One of these alliances was the Entente Cordial with its traditional foe, the French Republic. The era of ‘splendid isolation’ had come to an end; that was the period when Britain was the global hegemon and was as powerful as its two nearest competitors combined. Therefore, with the growth of international rivalry, “national rivalry [between European states] was both expressed and sublimated in ceremonial competition.”
Cannadine argues that the modern royal ceremonial pageantry begins with Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Victoria hesitantly agreed to participate “because her recent unpopularity made it impossible to predict what sort of reception she would receive.” However, it transpired to be an enormous success and with hindsight the springboard for all future royal jamborees. Ten years later, the Diamond Jubilee was even more of a success.
The “advent” of the sensationalist ‘Yellow Press’, which is a national media that emphasized sensationalism as opposed to a regional, rational, and middle-class press, made these royal events popular. As mentioned, before the growth of the sensational national media, little attention outside of London was paid to them, as Cannadine writes “royal ceremonies were “remote, inaccessible group rites, performed for the benefit of the few rather the edification of the many.” Not so as the twentieth century came into sight.
Following Victoria’s death and the accession of Edward VII as King and Emperor of India, then-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who was later to become infamous for the ‘Balfour Declaration’, which promised the establishment of a Zionist-colonial entity in Palestine, decided to architecturally spruce up central London. He set up the Queen Victoria Memorial Committee, chaired by a certain Viscount Esher a.k.a Reginald Brett, which resulted in the “widening of the Mall, the building of Admiralty Arch, the re-fronting of Buckingham Palace and the Construction of the Victoria Monument in front.” These monuments all became the theatrical backdrop for the celebration of royal razzmatazz to this day. Edward’s reign saw the consolidation of the celebration of royal pageantry and also a revival of an old ritual. Firstly, under him, the royal opening of parliament was revived whereby the monarch would trundle in a carriage, in full regalia, into parliament. Victoria hadn’t bothered with this ritual for the last forty years of her life. The eclipse of the carriage as a mode of common transportation by the car and tram transformed the carriage into a romantic, novel, and “traditional” mode of travel. Before the advent of the tram or specifically the pneumatic tire, the carriage was simply a popular mode of travel, but with the advent of the tram and car, the carriage was deemed an elitist form of showmanship representative of a “tradition”. Secondly, upon Edward’s death, the new lying-in-state at Westminster Hall was invented. Cannadine credits Esher with the creation of this solemn ritual which 100 years later would captivate and impress the British public when Elizabeth II passed away and hundreds of thousands of British subjects queued in line to pay homage to her. At the latter’s ceremonial flamboyant funeral, it simply and solemnly became known as ‘The Queue’. By inventing this ritual, Esher proved himself to be the then Royal household’s equivalent of Steven Spielberg.
The third phase in the evolution of Royal commemorations and coronations occurred between 1914 and 1953. This was a period of consolidation and further popularity due to two factors, one domestic and the other international. Firstly, the BBC led the new media, radio, and television in reporting “the great ceremonies of state in an awed and hushed manner.” Britons could now directly admire and revere the ultimate symbol of their elite via the latest communication technology. On top of this, the ‘tradition’ of the Royal Christmas broadcast was invented in 1932. Secondly, in the mid-1930s, the British establishment began to boast that no one does ‘pageantry like the British’. This was true by default – the other European countries had rid of their monarchies and become republics. More so, the rise of the European dictatorships when compared with British pageantry also rendered the latter more ‘traditional’ when contrasted with the new commemorations of the European dictators. Indeed, the then editor of the left-leaning New Statesman, Kingsley Martin argued that if Britain dropped “the trappings of monarchy in the gutter…Germany has taught us some guttersnipe will pick them up." This is an interesting and valid observation that’s remained apt to this day: namely the British monarchy pageantry’s classification as a celebration and representation of “tradition”, “stability”, and “continuity with the past” hinders political fascistic movements possessing complete monopoly over these terms. For some reason, Cannadine fails to mention that among the consolidations in the period was the changing of the Royal surname from Saxe-Coberg and Gotha to the English ‘Windsor’. This was done in 1917 to circumvent any anti-German backlash during World War One.
A point of departure this writer has with Cannadine’s discussion of royal pageantry is his lack of interest in the net effect of British imperialism’s murderous exploitation of its Empire. As such, coterminous with the revival and consolidation of pageantry from the late Victorian era right through to the start of World War Two was the high point of the British occupation and pillage of India. One recent study has argued that $45 trillion was looted from India by British imperialism over the span of more than two centuries. In the 1930s, the average life expectancy in India was under 30, and millions had died from famine over the previous 150 years of British rule. One study argues that there were at least 50 million excessive deaths in India between the 1890s and 1920. In this era, pageantry was a celebration of imperialism, and for Britain that meant a celebration of the conquest, decimation, impoverishment, and looting of the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) and other parts of the world. In this context, the ordination of Edward VII as Emperor of India can be seen as the official embodiment and symbol in the glorification of the British pillage and plunder of India and other parts of the world the Empire controlled. Or as the historian Professor Alice Hunt diplomatically wrote, the “late 19th and 20th century saw the increased use of royal ceremony to promote the British Empire.”
The fourth phase, according to Cannadine, from 1952 saw the accession of Elizabeth II to the throne. Her coronation the following year differed from the previous coronations in two aspects. Firstly, Britain was no longer the supreme world power and secondly, Elizabeth was not crowned as Empress of India or anywhere else for that matter. The Empire had more or less ceased to exist. Instead, the international backdrop to Elizabeth’s Windsor coronation in 1953 was rooted in the American hegemony in Western Europe and to a much larger extent the wider world. Western Europe had survived World War Two by virtue of the Soviet Union militarily defeating Nazi Germany on the eastern front and the United States leading the fight in Western European from 1944 onwards. After the war, the United States strategized that a prosperous Western Europe was essential to its interests in fending off the appeal of Communism as exemplified by the Soviet Union. Western European prosperity depended on resource extraction on very favorable terms from countries that were part of their historic empires. The Americans also established a military security umbrella that became NATO which, inter alia, prevented Western European nations from fighting one another as was their custom in the previous decades. This hegemony gave Europe a new lease of life which hitherto has served them well. In effect, the Elizabethan era saw the United States militarily underpin British imperial interests as it did with other Western European nations. In effect, America gave a much-needed new lease on life to Britishness and Western Europe especially after they had simply militarily capitulated to the Nazis in 1940.
American global hegemony… on the rocks
American hegemony in the post-World War II period brought death and destruction to the people of the Global South, but in Western Europe, it not only brought its people salvation, peace, and prosperity but also underscored and secured European imperialist interests in Africa and Asia. One of these interests was the maintenance of the British-French divide and rule of West Asia, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. The agreement mainly covered territory that is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, occupied Palestine, and Jordan. This agreement’s "legitimacy" was “threatened” during the de-colonial era of 1950-1970 by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser and other anti-colonial leaders with their vision for a united Arabia. However, the late Elizabethan era and now Carolean era saw the ultimate victory of the Sykes-Picot division with British-installed nepotistic dynasties ruling over the oil wells in the Gulf showering the British economy with “investments” that helped to prop the British economy. Tens of billions of dollars have been plowed into the British economy by these puppet rulers propping up key sectors from the arms industry, infrastructure, and education to sport. As the Victorian and Edwardian era royal jamborees were rooted in the wholescale pillaging and destitution of India, the Elizabethan era and today’s Carolean pageantry are rooted in this geopolitical context. At one stage in the 1980s, Britain’s trade with the country it named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia equaled all the trade between Britain and South America. Britain today is awash and secure with no small contribution from the Gulf nepotistic dictators it originally installed. Rather than the oil profits being spent in the region and the local indigenous population, “investments” in Britain’s economy are prioritized. One could argue that a British-created engineered country such as Qatar partly operates as a geographical mechanism to launder oil profits out of the region into Britain in the name of “investments”. Simultaneously, Qatar funds sectarian Islamist groups to keep the region divided and aflame. Then London-based, Qatari-funded media such as Middle East Eye, New Arab, and Middle East Monitor whitewash these rebels as “moderate rebels”. One of the fruits of this London-Qatari matrix is the tallest building in Western Europe, entirely funded by Qatar, London’s Shard.
The crowning moment of American imperialist hegemony was the wars and sanctions on Iraq, which Britain inevitably and enthusiastically participated in. The sanctions imposed in the 1990s led to the death of 500,000 children, and the United States and British war on Iraq led to up to a million deaths. However, toward the end of the Elizabethan era, Britain took the lead in demanding more military intervention around the world specifically in Arab-speaking majority countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Overall, the regime change wars have displaced 38 million people, according to one study, leaving behind large swathes of refugee camps and causing migration flows within the region and into Europe.
One could argue that when Elizabeth acceded to the throne, American global hegemony was at its peak but by the time of her death and the coronation of King Charles III, the American superpower is clearly in decline, and another superpower, China, is now firmly on the horizon. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, Britain needed to ride on the back of the American global hegemon because that was the only global show in town. Britain had and still has global interests that it failed to singularly defend in World War Two. The alliance with France failed and briskly ended in defeat, betrayal, and scurry in May 1940. It was inevitable an alliance with the United States would be essential for British imperialism. Now that American power is in decline, the British may need to jump ship or at the very least revisit the strategy that has served them so well in the last 70 years – that is the close alliance with the United States. If the United States does not accommodate the British imperialist class and the imperialist possessions it craves with its attendant wars, then Britain may seek alliances elsewhere to pursue its global interests. As the British imperial presence in the Indian subcontinent attests, to keep Britishness thriving requires extreme perpetual exploitation and death. This is a very similar situation to what had occurred in the early twentieth century when Britain found itself in need of alliances and therefore recalibrated its foreign policy by establishing an alliance with its historical foe, the French Republic. Alternatively, the new Carolean era may see Britain maintain a foot in both camps until the wind delivers a conclusion in which direction it is blowing between these two colossuses.