In the Guardian last week, republican Polly Toynbee wrote a waspish demolition of the monarchy: “What’s to celebrate?” she asked acidly. Some wag later described this contribution to the nation’s festivities as being “like Richard Dawkins at Christmas”. Quite so; it’s not exactly the season for republican sentiments.
Commenting on Her Majesty’s 60 years of service to the British people, many commentators made the observation that, but for a quirk of history – the abdication of Edward VIII without an heir and the accession of his brother, the Duke of York – Princess Elizabeth of York would never have become Queen. It led me to muse on earlier quirks of royal history that have played their part in her destiny: the unanticipated accession of Queen Victoria as the only legitimate successor to William IV; then the accession of George V in place of his older brother, the Duke of Clarence, who had died of typhoid in his 20s; then, of course, George VI, who replaced his brother and who was followed by his daughter.
I also noticed in the Telegraph last week that the Royal Stuart Society happened to hold its annual Restoration Dinner on May 29 – days before the triumphant House of Windsor Jubilee weekend. What was this all about? Surely the diners were not scheming to restore the Stuart dynasty after all these centuries? It turns out that they weren’t. Apparently the Royal Stuart Society took over from various Jacobite factions in 1926, with the aim “to uphold rightful monarchy and oppose republicanism”. Members don’t raise their glasses to “the little gentleman in black velvet” which was the ancient Jacobite toast; they just write learned papers on Stuart history and mark the birthday of James II, deposed in favour of William and Mary, whose statue is outside the National Gallery. I’ll have to check it out. James was our last Catholic king; if he had not been deposed subsequent royal dynasties would have been Catholic rather than Protestant.
Doing a quick genealogical survey, I note that the House of Stuart takes its descent from Henrietta-Anne, daughter of Charles I; it then passed through the Houses of Savoy and of Modena-Este and came to rest in the House of Wittelsbach (Bavaria). The current head of the House of Stuart is a German called Duke Franz.
The website of the Society makes it clear Duke Franz is not claiming the British throne. It would be a forlorn pursuit anyway, for by the Act of Settlement (1701) the Stuart (Catholic) line was deliberately excluded from the line of succession. This succession was settled on the Protestant heirs of the Electress Sophie of Hanover, a granddaughter of James I and niece of Charles I. That’s how we got George I of Hanover as King of England, a German who allegedly couldn’t speak a word of English. Reading about all this made me think there must be something very tenacious in the British psyche that consistently demands the magic of monarchy; we would rather beg or borrow monarchs from elsewhere than go down the republican route; poor Ms Toynbee.
She considers our outburst of royalist sentiment as a matter of hollow pomp and unearned privilege. She is not a romantic, as most of us (over the Jubilee weekend, anyway) appear to be. It must be a lonely struggle being a republican. I think the Royal Stuart Society should invite her to be their guest speaker at their Restoration Dinner next year. Who knows? She might fall for the romance of royalty and decide that past volumes of the Almanach de Gotha, the directory for all the European grand dynasties, is her bedtime reading.