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A time for Anglican Royalism

The renewal of British tradition

Artillery Row

The days following the death of Her late Majesty the Queen revealed something of the complexities and ongoing relevance of the religious history of the United Kingdom. Passing from this mortal life in Scotland, she died, noted many commentators, a Presbyterian: north of the border, the monarch worships in the Kirk. As for The Queue, those hundreds of thousands who waited long hours to pay their respects to the late Queen as she lay-in-state, comparisons were drawn with pre-Reformation pilgrimages and the honour shown to relics by the Roman Catholic tradition.

Not as evident in the commentary, however, has been recognition of how the days of national mourning revealed a deep well-spring of rich and historic Anglican Royalism. Such Royalism was, for centuries, inherent to the Church of England which emerged from the Reformation. This was a Church whose Articles of Religion declared “The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his dominions”, with the chief authority over “all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil”; whose Prayer Book petitioned for deliverance from “all sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion”; and from whose pulpits, over centuries, allegiance to the Crown was taught as a God-given duty, securing the peace and well-being of the realm. That many parish churches over centuries displayed the Royal Coat of Arms aptly summarised how a vision of sacral monarchy was integral to Anglicanism.

It was the first Elizabeth, Gloriana, who was the foundational icon of this ecclesiastical Royalism. Not only did her religious settlement define the Church of England and its cultural influence (royal supremacy, a national church, the Book of Common Prayer, modest but resonant ceremonial), her defence of Church and State in the face of the Armada provided a moment which embodied providential blessing. As the great 16th century theologian Richard Hooker exclaimed, “By the goodness of Almighty God and his servant Elizabeth we are”. 

This was not mere civic respect for a titular head of state

It is notable, therefore, that comparisons with the first Elizabeth were encountered throughout the period of national mourning. The King, addressing Parliament on the day after his mother’s death, began with words from Shakespeare regarding “the earlier Queen Elizabeth”. The BBC’s coverage of the late Queen’s funeral and committal concluded with historian David Cannadine quoting the first Elizabeth and applying the words to the second Elizabeth: “And though you have … mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better”. Bishop Anthony Burton, a retired Anglican bishop in the Dominion of Canada, provided perhaps the most incisive comparison between the first and second Elizabeths when he described the late Queen as “our Gloriana”.

Such invocations of the foundational icon of Anglican Royalism not only place the second Elizabeth in the context of a national story. They also hint at an allegiance more profound and compelling than Whig contractual theories. The second Elizabeth, no less than the first, embodied the realm and her Church. Her reign, no less than that of the first Elizabeth, was the gift of providence, to Church and State. Loyalty and devotion to her had much deeper, more enduring roots than our secular culture would at first suggest. She was our Gloriana.

The vivid outpouring of popular Royalism witnessed during the days of national mourning was a robust rejection of whiggish, rationalist, contractual accounts of monarchy. This was not mere civic respect for a titular head of state. Here, rather, was a primordial allegiance and devotion to the anointed monarch as the embodiment of the realm. As Roger Scruton said, “the legitimacy of monarchical rule arises “transcendentally”, in the manner of the duties and obligations of family life”. It is this which is found in the Book of Common Prayer’s intercessions for the sovereign: “that we and all his subjects (duly considering whose authority he hath) may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey him, in thee, and for thee”. In the Book of Common Prayer, the monarch is “our most gracious Sovereign Lord” and “thy servant” (that is, God’s servant, from which flows service to the realm). At Mattins and Evensong, the prayer is offered “O Lord, save the King”: a twice-daily recognition of the transcendental roots and sacral vocation of the monarchy. 

Contemporary liturgies shy away from such expressions of Anglican Royalism, offering infrequent and predictably banal references to the Sovereign, contractual rather than transcendent. By contrast, it is the Book of Common Prayer which majestically articulates the primordial allegiance revealed in the days of national mourning. 

As for The Queue, the quarter of a million people who stood for hours in order to pay reverence to the late Queen during her lying-in-state were providing an echo of an older custom. Not, however, the mediaeval pilgrimages or veneration of relics mentioned by some commentators, but rather a custom that was the apogee of Anglican Royalism until the early 18th century: the curiously named “Touching for the King’s Evil”. This was a royal healing ceremony, in which those with scrofula sought the physical touch of the monarch. The High Church and Tory Queen Anne was the last monarch to perform this ritual, the liturgy accompanying it routinely found in the Book of Common Prayer until the accession of the Hanoverians.

The health of the realm is caught up with the Sovereign

It does, of course, all sound a bit much for 21st century minds. Until, that is, we consider the hundreds of thousands who queued long hours and overnight, in order to stand in physical proximity to a great Queen, lying-in-state. The ancient ceremony of “Touching for the King’s Evil” grasps what contemporary enlightened opinion cannot envisage: that the health and well-being of the realm is caught up with the Sovereign; that the monarch is no mere civic functionary, but anointed for a sacred vocation. The historian J.C.D. Clark’s words regarding the early 18th century ceremony can also be applied to the queue of a quarter of a million who sought physical proximity to Her late Majesty, for it too shows “the persistence of a non-secular image of the monarchy”.

A recovery of Anglican Royalism — for centuries a significant and characteristic aspect of the Anglican tradition — would be a means of enabling Anglican churches in the United Kingdom to connect with a popular Royalism, recognising its spiritual significance and seeking to integrate it into the Church’s life and worship. This, of course, would go completely against the grain of liturgical revision and challenge the cringing social embarrassment that afflicts fashionable Anglican opinion when it comes to the monarchy, patriotism and the place of Anglicanism in our national story.

As for a suitable focus for a recovery of Anglican Royalism, here too there is historical wisdom to guide us. In 1660, after the dark years of the rule of the usurper Cromwell, the Church of England inserted into its liturgical calendar an observance of King Charles I, the Royal Martyr. Each 30 January, the Royal Martyr was solemnly commemorated with prayers and sermons. This occurred yearly until the mid-19th century, when the whiggish sensibilities of Queen Victoria resulted in the suppression of the commemoration. But for nearly two centuries, 30 January was a day on which the place of sacral monarchy in popular piety found meaningful expression in the prayers, teaching and ceremonies of Anglican Royalism.

A similar observance for Elizabeth II is now surely called for. Whether the date of her accession (6 February) or coronation (2 June), it would enable a renewed Anglican Royalism in the United Kingdom to recognise the spiritual elements of the devotion to her and the popular desire for a remembrance of her reign. On 6 February or 2 June, we would commemorate a monarch whose reign and Christian witness should be remembered with thanksgiving unto Almighty God: the commemoration of Elizabeth the Confessor.

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