Power comes in many guises, in many ways. In 1520, we had the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ as just such a demonstration. Our Henry VIII and King Francis 1 of France each tried to outdo each other in the lavishness of their contribution to the celebrations designed ostensibly to promote friendship between the two nations.
The celebrations, the idea of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s main advisor, lasted for eighteen days and took place in a valley very close to Calais, then in the control of the English. Religious ceremonies, jousting, wrestling, archery and, of course, feasting took place in opulent tents and banqueting marquees. The construction of a ‘portable palace’ for Henry VIII and his retinue was vital. It required almost 6,000 men to erect such an impressive structure. Made from timber and covered in a canvas material painted to look like real stone, from a distance you could easily believe that it was real palace. There were even fountains placed at the entrance, providing drinks for the king’s guests.
Such expense was lavished on the event, with the tents and outfits of its participants adorned with vast quantities of cloth of gold, a combination of gold and silk, that the meeting was referred to as the Field of Cloth of Gold. The event was of course extremely demanding for those who had to arrange the beautiful settings and lavish catering for the estimated 10,000 royal guests.
Such a grand spectacle had a very important message to convey; the special bond between the two nations which had previously been antagonistic and competitive. it was a very expensive display of wealth by both kings and each tried to outdo the other in their ostentation. Unsurprisingly, the English side were sure that they were victorious in this unspoken competition. But both were aware that the display demonstrated the power of each of them and it produced at least a stand-off in hostilities … for about a year.
I was reminded of all this by the queen’s funeral. This was an event which again brought together the church, the state and the armed forces for a display of power, probably unequalled since the cloth of gold. The death of the queen dominated our screens for 10 days and it took over as the main story in many other countries. The funeral itself was broadcast around the world apart, of course, from in Russia, China and North Korea. Even in those countries though, at the time of the funeral, it was the most searched for topic on Google.
The ceremony was magnificently done with so many different uniforms, all in primary colours, and all so carefully choreographed. It seemed that there was a traditional way of doing everything, from the proclamation of the death and the accession of the new king by the heralds, to the presence of the worshipful company of archers with their bows and eagles’ feathers in their caps.
The need to make the same proclamation not only in each nation, but also outside the Mansion House in the City of London reminded us that William the Conqueror did not conquer the City of London, but instead, wanting their cooperation to facilitate trade, established a treaty with them guaranteeing their liberty. All of the hereditary kings and queens flew in, whether from Europe or Japan, along with heads of state from virtually every country on the globe. It was truly astonishing.
But what power was being demonstrated? The Queen had no significant power. Although a successor to Henry VIII, under our constitution she was able only to ‘advise, encourage and warn’ the actual elected government. She could not declare war and did not govern the country. The monarchy, so wonderfully garlanded by pomp and circumstance is actually quite hollow. Her ancestor would never have understood.
And yet, or perhaps because she was not in charge, the public loved her. She was nominally at the centre of things but still, in a sense, only looking in at government, as we do. Her role in life actually appeared to be mainly to mark events by cutting ribbons, unveiling statues, smiling, declaring things to be open and asking people at her garden parties if they’d come far.
But I suppose that we hoped that her advice, encouragement and warning might have had some effect and so possibly have deterred the government from some of its wilder excesses. Granted, however, that we had Johnson lying to her and now the mad woman Liz Truss in charge, I’m not sure that even the Queen could withstand such extremes. Indeed, may I suggest that having to shake hands first with Boris and then with Liz Truss was beyond anything which she had had to do before and it was that which finished her off?
Whatever happened – and we may never know – the queue to see her coffin eventually got to be 10 miles long with a waiting time of 14 hours. We are told that about 250,000 people filed past. But the journalists tell us that just as there was a queue to see the coffin, the queue itself became a major tourist attraction with far more people going to see the queue than were ever a part of it. Humans are strange animals.
When the queen succeeded to the crown, she was young and glamorous. Charles is now our king after waiting 74 years to take up the role. And he was never very glamorous. He has though made a pledge similar to that made by his mother – to serve us as king for the rest of his life. Which means in turn that William will probably be a similar age when he takes over.
Of course, the interest in the ceremonial side of monarchy continues to attract foreign tourists, for the moment. Having said that, they actually come to see the palaces and the guardsmen doing their parading about. They don’t often get a glimpse of the royals themselves.
What will ultimately become of our hollowed out monarchy is impossible to predict, but an institution which costs a fortune to run and has no obvious purpose will I suspect gradually wither away. Charles has already indicated that he will be reducing the number of royals on the pay-roll. And of course we have already seen this reduction in numbers and cost happen in other countries with monarchies in response to public pressure.
And so now we come down to earth with a bump. Instead of looking at the life of a queen who rarely put a foot wrong, we have the current group of venal politicians to endure. Those who have ideologies ready to inflict upon us rather than pragmatic solutions to this country's problems. At the last election, we had to choose between the mad ideologue Jeremy Corbyn and the clown Boris Johnson. At the next election it seems that we shall have a choice between the mad ideologue Liz Truss and the slightly dull Keir Starmer. I suspect it won’t be a difficult choice for most of us. I sometimes wonder though if democracy is all it’s cracked up to be. Pace Winston Churchill.
21 September 2022