Few Londoners probably pay any attention to the ancient bronze statue of Charles I on horseback at the south corner of Trafalgar Square. It looks down Whitehall from atop a plinth of stone that is slowly but surely decaying in the caustic fumes of the traffic that swirls continuously around it. But once a year, on the morning of the anniversary of the beheading of Charles I, 30 January 1649, it becomes the focal point for an odd, yet meaningful, ritual that honours a Catholic monarch who helped t o plunge his country into civil war, all the better to uphold the idea of the absolute, God-given rights of kingship against Protestant demands for greater parliamentary democracy.
Picture this: Monday morning. A kilted, tartaned piper circles the statue, marching heel to toe, the solemn wail of his bagpipes expressing the bitterness of a deep historical grudge. A small, polite crowd gathers. Most faces are old or ageing, their cheeks reddened by the sharp, cold wind. Some hold wreaths.
Just before 11am, a priest in stiffly embroidered vestments, the Rev Royston Beal, vicar of St John's, Kensal Green, stands to invoke a blessing. Flanked by two trumpeters of the Royal Horse Guards in outlandish braided uniforms, with white gloves and black tights, he does his best to be heard over the roar of the traffic. "We gather once more to honour the memory of one who died for the cause of godly government," he intones.
Wreaths are laid at the base of the statue, representing bodies whose members still feel badly about the execution of Charles I and all that followed: the Royal Stuart Society, the Order of the Crown of Stuart (motto: "Remember"), and the Memorial of Merit of Charles the Martyr ("Sacred to the memory").
They hold, albeit in a sentimental rather than actively political way, that the present Duke of Bavaria should be king, as a link in a chain of royal legitimacy that was broken by the Hanoverian succession. True kingship belongs with the House of Stuart.In 1893, the idea was still so dangerous that police broke up a similar ceremony on this date.
Dr Evelyn Cruikshanks, a historian and president of the Royal Stuart Society, explains: "We are a non-political organisation, devoted to the history of the House of Stuart. ... We're not a subversive organisation. Even the Prince of Wales agrees with us about the Duke of Bavaria. These people ought to have justice. They were deprived and marginalised."
Wasn't it all a long time ago?
"Yes, but the whole point of nationality is history."
On another level, 30 January is about the mystical nature of kingship, its link with the divine, an idea that receives little emphasis in a nominally rational society. A leaflet published by the Society of King Charles the Martyr describes Charles I as "one of the great princes of heaven", a sort of deity who performed miracles while on earth and "provided these British Isles with what is nearest to a golden age".
According to the society's chairman, the Rev Barrie Williams, "Kings in this country who experience a violent death seem to be surrounded by a special kind of mystique. How this evokes things deep in one's psyche I'm not sure."
Peter Maplestone, warden of the church of St Mary, in the Strand, is sure. He points out that the only part of the cornonation of Elizabeth II not televised was her anointing as ruler, in which she assumes the divine aura of kingship - the very thing Charles I died for. Says Mr Maplestone: "The Constitution has changed, but the Queen is queen by divine right, and that position has not changed."
The wreath-laying is followed by a service of Holy Communion in the Banqueting House, Whitehall, where the beheading took place. Outside the Banqueting Hall, the small band of devotees watches as a cleric ascends a wobbly aluminium ladder, held firm by altar servers in smocks and frocks, to place a wreath under the bust of Charles I over the doorway.
The crowd is heavy-lidded and mystical, in a fogeyish, Jermyn Street way, clutching cracked, leather-bound prayer books. The author AN Wilson is the only notable face, although the cult attracts members of the Establishment of a traditionalist outlook such as Lord St John of Fawsley and John Gummer.
Inside, the service takes place under a Rubens' ceiling depicting the apotheosis of James I, Charles I's father. The service ponderously emphasises the Christ-like personality of Charles I: "His courtesy, his holiness, his love of beauty".
This year, the first 30 January after the ordination of women in the Church of England, the emphasis of the service is on Charles I's role as defender of tradition. Those who oppose change in the Church are like King Charles, "suffering bereavement and even martyrdom" for what they have lost. "He is surely a saint for our troubled times," the Rev Beal asserts.
It is as if the Civil War had never really ended.
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