It is regrettable, but the last significant image I have of the Queen is of her sitting alone in St George’s chapel at Windsor Castle during the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Not only sitting alone, but sitting alone masked.
I have avoided most of the reporting of the death of the Queen. I put on the BBC once or twice, but was sent away by the pompous and pious tones and also the intermixed anodyne and conversational tones. Broadcast news, especially at such a time, is unsure at any point of whether it should adopt a tone which identifies with the stories it reports or a tone which indicates critical distance and abandons the official manner. It was good to see the Accession Ceremony without any commentary, where one could feel the power of the ritual (especially a ritual in which the tone was wholly appropriate at every point). We usually forget that we exist in a civilisation which has behind it the inherited rituals of state – so distracted are we by the ‘media’, the mediators, the in-betweeners, those who interpose themselves and attempt to ‘control the narrative’, as we now say. It is good for an honest man or woman, a subject, to see such rituals: an honour, even. So on this occasion we saw the Privy Council, some of our representatives, acknowledge the King, our representative par excellence.
I have read a few things which have made memorable suggestions about the significance of the monarchy in our time. The first was by Ben Okri in the Guardian. He said that the Queen has entered our psyche. He meant something a bit confused, I thought: partly that her image has been imposed on us by what sociologists would call ‘symbolic violence’ for 70 years (on coins, stamps, etc.), and partly that she is loved for her particular and personal consideration of others – two very different points. But I was prompted by Okri’s mention of psyche to reflect on things which seemed to be no part of his concern.
The first is that we are in the territory of Jungian archetypes, as explored by Christopher Booker in his remarkable book Seven Basic Plots and by Jordan Peterson in his many online lectures. Peterson is putting Jung to good use: using the archetypes to defend concepts like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘marriage’, ‘faith’, ‘responsibility’. Booker put them to a related but far more specific use: he used them to claim that every story of any value that has ever been told has had the same point, which is to indicate a course by which order, responsibility, truth and love are established, or re-established after a season of disorder, irresponsibility, falsity or hatred. Here we have the Queen as the archetypal Good Mother or Wise Woman: the symbol, especially, of faith and love.
The second is more specific and political and even more mysterious. It is that we are also in the territory of the mysteries of state – which are just as mysterious as the mysteries of religion, and sometimes more obscure: obscured by the insistence, often found in politics, that things not be mysterious. This is where we have the paradox of ultimate sovereign power: the paradox which the Queen embodied and which the King now embodies. This is the paradox surrounding the question of whether power is above the law or law is above power.
In England, and consequently, in the United Kingdom and then the Empire, the particular achievement of our political tradition – which I was reminded of when Charles III was asked to confirm the rights of the Church of Scotland – was to establish what we call a ‘constitutional monarchy’. We usually date this to 1688, but the idea is older. Thomas Smith during the reign of Elizabeth spoke of the English ‘republic’, and even earlier John Fortescue spoke of dominium politicum et regale, a form of rule which was neither purely ‘political’ in the sense of our ruling ourselves, nor ‘regal’ in the sense of only being ruled, but somehow partaking of both. This was later established in the harmonising of King, Lord and Commons (‘King-in-Parliament’), and theorised by Burke – against the French revolutionaries – as being a state in which our representatives were not only found in Westminster but also in the Courts, the Church, and the Universities. This was a world-historical compromise, the great achievement of our politics, and it is probably one reason why everyone is coming to the funeral. We will celebrate not only a woman but a reasonably successful political order: a political order which appears to solve the question of law and power by holding it in dramatic and ritualised suspense.
And this compromise only being possible because, just as a politician is willing to bow down before the monarch, the monarch is willing to kneel before God.
But of course, despite this compromise, the Queen was sovereign. And in England, at least, we have never strayed far from the view that monarchy is not only the dignified part of the compromise (as Walter Bagehot thought) but, even when undignified, mysterious. Ernst Kantorowicz wrote an ageless book, The King’s Two Bodies, which pointed out that European politics was, by and large, formed by the Christian church on the one hand – using church concepts like ‘mystical body’, corpus mysticism, and a whole array of legal fictions which only the church was literate enough to invent – and by Gothic kings on the other hand. The king at some point was said to have two bodies, a body natural – the actual body which breathed, slept, lived and died – and a body politic. The first body could die; the second could not, since it was the people. Hence the immediacy of that great phrase: “The King is dead; Long Live the King.” The idea was that, unlike in other countries, in which every death involved a constitutional crisis, in England it would not: because the ‘body politic’ survived. In acclaiming a king we were acclaiming ourselves in the form of a fiction. Though the fiction was not fiction in the sense of a noble lie, but actually the marvellous truth that in relation to the Crown we were one people, one community, one communion.
This is a mystery. Our age is not equipped to understand it. Hence all the talk about Elizabeth II’s particular personality, which is important, now, at the time of her funeral, but irrelevant to the office or even to the achievement. She stood for everyone. This is what ‘service’ means: it does not mean ‘serving’. It certainly did not mean being a slave or a servant. But it meant standing for us, acting for us, in some manner being us: standing for us over the ministers, standing for us before God. One continued merit of this survival of medieval kingship is that no mere Prime Minister can ever consider him or herself to be England, Britain, the Commonwealth, the State, Us. This is a danger in republics, of course, and this is why republics are the means by which despotism perpetuates itself in the modern world. In general, monarchies are more honest. If they are despotic, they have to admit it frankly.
All of this brings me to the second thoughtful piece I read. Helen Thompson in UnHerd wrote that “the Queen possessed a seemingly innate capacity to practise self-discipline and humility”. “Could anyone have doubted,” she asked, “that the Queen unhesitatingly would have thought that the Covid rules about funerals applied to the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral?” Thompson explains this willingness to obey the law as a reason why even republicans could respect the Queen, and puts this in a highly contemporary context in which a secular public is taken not to understand ‘pomp and pageantry’. It struck me that this might have mattered to some people. Perhaps it was symbolically important to many that the Queen followed the rules. But I disagreed then and disagree now.
On that day I wanted the Queen to draw on prerogative, to remind the Government, as James I had reminded Coke, that although the King was ruled by law, the King was also the bearer of prerogative and as such above the law, though still ruled by God. We sometimes forget this, or are affronted by it. We imagine that the world can be, as David Hume put it, a “government of laws and not of men”. Well, the thing is impossible. There is no such thing as an abstract government of laws. Aristotle saw this as long ago as the fourth century before Christ. It would be pleasant, he reflected, if law was sovereign, but, alas, law cannot act, it is never alive: so someone must rule, or be seen to rule. And in a monarchy we are, I would say, committed to not forgetting this: to not forgetting that though law is above king, king is also above law. If the king were not above the law, then we would have a law which could be used, as Her Majesty’s Government has recently used the law (including, as Lord Sumption showed us, not very good law, or dubiously applied law), to do things that are unjustified and certainly undiscussed – and came into conflict with the Queen’s own concept of ‘service’, including her coronation oath declaring that she would defend the faith. I think not only was Her Majesty’s Government misled, and then misled everyone else, but Her Majesty was misled: and it was her very sense of service, ‘humility’ even, which turned her, during the funeral, into a serf, a slave, a masked individual, a strange sort of leper queen.
None of it should have happened. And the reason was not necessarily only the personal indignity to the ‘body natural’ of Elizabeth II, but the affront to everyone whose sovereign she was, whose representative she was. Nothing should have made it possible that we would ever see such a disgraceful sight as the Queen in a mask. For the Queen was the ‘body politic’ in its ideal and perfect form, and it is of the first importance that the ‘body politic’ of this England, this Britain, this Kingdom, this Commonwealth never be masked.
The Queen was both above and below the law – a contradiction if considered logically, and magnificent when properly understood as the suspension of a contradiction – and I think on that occasion it would have been good for us if she had been above the law.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.
Stop Press: Ed West has done a good round-up for his Substack newsletter of the best pieces he’s read about the Queen.