Historical Notes: The professional risks of being a king

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The Independent Culture
MANY PROFESSIONS carry risks to the personality: teachers have to be careful not to talk to adult friends as if they were students; doctors should resist the temptation to assume that everyone wants their advice; professional sportsmen easily become saloon bar bores; politicians avoid answering questions. Being a king or queen also has its professional hazards.

A royal variant is to take at face value the exaggerated respect and deference that they are shown from a very early age. Equally important is the fact that they tend to be greatly impressed by the deference shown to their parents, especially after they realise that one day they will be top dog - or rather top person.

The danger has always been that a future king not only comes to believe that he is a superior person but also that he is above the law. If we go far enough back in history, of course, a king might get away with the occasional execution or selfish misuse of taxation. But there were always limits to what a king's subjects would put up with. King John faced his more important subjects at Runnymede in 1215 and was forced to sign a kind of contract specifying the limits to his power - the Magna Carta.

Part of a prince's education (or vocational training) is how to avoid pushing prerogative too far. There were occasions when Elizabeth I, perhaps the best educated of our monarchs in the purely academic sense, showed her lack of moral sensibility by wanting to punish courtiers in ways beyond her customary limits.

Her successor, James I, not only believed in "Divine Right of Kings", but wrote a learned treatise about it: his son, Charles I, paid dearly for his misunderstanding of the limits of his royal privileges and Cromwell had his head cut off.

In a democratic society a constitutional monarch has very few powers. Yet he is still treated as a superior being, different from his subjects. Perhaps the best example of this kind of disastrous upbringing was Edward VIII who not only (as Prince of Wales) acted as though Customs and Excise duties did not apply to him, but, more importantly, ignoring advice, made unconstitutional speeches of a political kind and believed that he could marry anyone he wanted to and make her his queen.

He was replaced by his younger brother, George VI, who generally behaved with much greater circumspection, but even he made occasional mistakes such as his attempt to influence the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee's choice of Foreign Secretary. Less seriously he was well-known within the family for his "gnashes" - breaking into a rage (in private) if his wishes were thwarted. He clearly felt a contradiction between how servants and courtiers behaved towards him, when they ostentatiously reminded him of his "majesty", only for him to discover that in reality he often failed to get his own way.

The present Queen has generally managed the contradictions or tensions much more successfully, perhaps because during her early years she was not expected to inherit the Crown - and her gender may have helped as well. But even successful constitutional monarchs often seem to believe in their own automatic superiority; what we might think of as doubtful privileges they regard as their birthright.

In the present reign this has shown itself over the question of money. What many of her subjects question as a very extravagant life-style (a royal yacht, a royal train, six palaces) the Queen jealously protects as the rights of a royal family. Prince Charles's attitudes on this question appear to be similar to those of the Queen, but he is also much less careful about his public utterances on political issues such as education.

Peter Gordon and Denis Lawton are the authors of `Royal Education: past, present and future' (Frank Cass & Co, pounds 25)

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