Monarchy of the United Kingdom

constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The monarchy of the United Kingdom is the constitutional form of government by which a hereditary sovereign reigns as the head of state of the United Kingdom, the Crown Dependencies (the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Isle of Man) and the British Overseas Territories. The reigning monarch, since September 2022, is King Charles III.

The monarch and his immediate family undertake official, ceremonial, diplomatic and representational duties. As a constitutional monarch, the sovereign has limited functions including the bestowing honours and appointing the prime minister, which are performed in a non-partisan manner. The King is also Head of the British Armed Forces. Though the ultimate executive authority over the government is still formally by and through the royal prerogative, these powers may only be used according to laws enacted in Parliament and, in practice, within the constraints of convention and precedent.

Quotes

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  • A conscientious, constitutional monarch is a strong element of stability and continuity in our Constitution.
    • Clement Attlee, address to the Oxford University Law Society (14 June 1957), quoted in The Times (15 June 1957), p. 4
  • [T]he sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.
  • There has been a King of the English ever since the ninth or tenth century; no other Monarchy in Europe (except the lands of our Scandinavian kingsfolk and except the Crown of St. Stephen) can boast of anything like an equal antiquity.
  • It is typical of the English that, retaining what was a good in the past, but reconstruing it—reconstruing the past itself if necessary—they have clung to the monarchy, and have maintained it down to the present, while changing its import and robbing it of the power to do harm. It is typical of them that from their 17th-century revolution itself and from the very experiment of an interregnum, they learned that there was still a subtle utility in kingship and they determined to reconstitute their traditions again, lest they should throw away the good with the bad. In all this there is something more profound than a mere sentimental unwillingness to part with a piece of ancient pageantry—a mere disinclination to sacrifice the ornament of a royal court. Here we have a token of that alliance of Englishmen with their history which has prevented the uprooting of things that have been organic to the development of the country; which has enriched our institutions with echoes and overtones; and which has proved—against the presumption and recklessness of blind revolutionary overthrows—the happier form of co-operation with Providence.
  • Since the settlement of [the] Constitution, now nearly two centuries ago, England has never experienced a revolution, though there is no country in which there has been so continuous and such considerable change. How is this? Because the wisdom of your forefathers placed the prize of supreme power without the sphere of human passions. Whatever the struggle of parties, whatever the strife of factions, whatever the excitement and exaltation of the public mind, there has always been something in this country round which all classes and parties could rally, representing the majesty of the law, the administration of justice, and involving, at the same time, the security for every man's rights and the fountain of honour.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech to the Conservatives of Manchester (3 April 1872), quoted in Selected Speeches of the Late Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield, Volume II, ed. T. E. Kebbel (1882), p. 492
  • Gentlemen, the influence of the Crown is not confined merely to political affairs. England is a domestic country. Here the home is revered and the hearth is sacred. The nation is represented by a family—the Royal Family; and if that family is educated with a sense of responsibility and a sentiment of public duty, it is difficult to exaggerate the salutary influence they may exercise over a nation. It is not merely an influence upon manners; it is not merely that they are a model for refinement and for good taste—they affect the heart as well as the intelligence of the people, and in the hour of public adversity, or in the anxious conjuncture of public affairs, the nation rallies round the Family and the Throne, and its spirit is animated and sustained by the expression of public affection.
    • Benjamin Disraeli, speech to the Conservatives of Manchester (3 April 1872), quoted in Selected Speeches of the Late Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield, Volume II, ed. T. E. Kebbel (1882), p. 494
  • The sovereign is the highest height of the system; is, in that system, like Jupiter among the Roman gods, first without a second... It is the wisdom of the British Constitution to lodge the personality of its chief so high that none shall under any circumstances be tempted to vie, or to dream of vying, with it.
  • The British Monarchy is the most ancient in Christendom. Its glory has in no wise worn thin with age. As a pageant it still takes the roughness of this world with splendour and romance. Moreover, Kings and their ways, their personal characters and private lives, as well as their public relations with the State, are, and always have been, of inexhaustible interest. Pope says: "Oh, 'tis the sweetest of all earthly things/To gaze on Princes and to talk of Kings."
    • Michael MacDonagh, The English King: A Study of the Monarchy and the Royal Family, Historical, Constitutional and Social (1929), p. 7
  • An impressive sense of antiquity and continuity of the Monarchy, as well as its stability, in its relations with the Legislature, is imparted by these ceremonies of the opening of Parliament and the giving of the Royal Assent. They are indeed rooted in the historic past. In form and substance the opening of Parliament is exactly the same in the twentieth century as it was in the sixteenth, despite all the incursions of the modern spirit since then. The King is now, as he was then, the central figure. He keeps his State in Parliament unaffected by political changes and innovations. From him emanates all the splendour of the spectacle, and all the power and authority it suggests. The Monarchy still has its purple, its Crown and sceptre. Changeless amid time's changes the Monarchy would appear to be; affording in that respect a striking contrast with Parliament which is peculiarly susceptible to change... But the Monarchy remains the same—an impressive symbol of Government, its continuity and authority.
    • Michael MacDonagh, The English King: A Study of the Monarchy and the Royal Family, Historical, Constitutional and Social (1929), pp. 196-197
  • Many of what we think of as age-old symbols and ceremonies are often newly minted, as each age looks through the past and finds what suits its present needs. In 1953, all around the world those who had televisions watched, with awe and fascination, the ancient coronation rituals—the monarch’s ride through London in the gilded state coach, the solemn procession into Westminster Abbey, the music, the decorations, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his magnificent robes, the elaborate ceremony of crowning. As a schoolchild in Canada, I was given a booklet that explained it all. What most of us did not know was that much of what we watched with such respect was a creation of the nineteenth century. Earlier coronations had been slipshod, even embarrassing affairs. When a hugely fat George IV was crowned in 1821, his estranged Queen Caroline hammered on the door. At Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837, the clergy stumbled through the service and the Archbishop of Canterbury had trouble with the ring, which was much too big for her finger. By the end of the century, the monarchy was more important as the symbol of a much more powerful Britain. Royal occasions became grander and were much better rehearsed. New ones were added: David Lloyd George, the radical prime minister from Wales, found it useful to have a formal ceremony within the ancient walls of Caernarfon Castle to install the later Edward VIII as Prince of Wales.
  • [T]o the mass of the nation it is the venerability and continuity of our monarchy that gives it so strong and wide a sentimental appeal.
  • There exists in human nature a liking for the dramatic and a love of display. Pageantry ministers to these inclinations. The sovereign thereby acquires an aura of grandeur and, as Professor Black has remarked, "it nullifies in the ordinary subject his feeling of smallness". It gives to royalty a glamour which as individuals they may not possess. The masses, not being really interested in abstract political theories, prefer to personify authority and to be more impressed by individuals seeming to perform interesting actions, than by institutions, organisations, and groups who perform what may appear to be uninteresting actions. Any good journalist, any advertising agent, is aware that the attention of the public is more readily aroused by personalities than it is by objects. It is the intense and yet glamorous personification of royalty that gives it a grace far deeper and wider than any President could acquire.
  • The sovereign, being accepted by her peoples as an example and symbol of the State and being by her title head of the Church and and defender of the faith, must, if she is to maintain the mystery so essential to the survival of monarchy, adopt and practise the highest moral code. In days of modern publicity it would not be possible for any monarch to retain among his subjects that sense of awe unless he were to practise the highest personal rectitude. The sovereign and the royal family are expected in their private lives to be patterns of perfect domesticity. The British public would today not tolerate self-indulgence such as that of George IV and flatter themselves that the sovereign and her family are stained-glass saints, shining as examples, and offering themselves as scapegoats for all the squalid sins of their people. It would be a shock to the British people if their scapegoat let them down.
  • Too much publicity will stain the mystery, even the dignity of the Crown. Too little publicity will be regarded as undemocratic and will render the gulf that yawns between the Sovereign and the ordinary subject an unfortunate barrier rather than a necessity of segregation. The real personality of monarchs is seldom revealed to their peoples until many years after their deaths. Few British subjects are aware that Queen Elizabeth II is a woman of exceptionally strong character and high intelligence. They realise that she and her husband are hard-working and possess a Coburg sense of duty. But they have little idea of what they are really like... All we can hope is that the Queen will seize every opportunity to share the interests of the common people, their sorrows and their laughter, and realise that she remains Bretwalda of the English and must seek to represent, to symbolise, to enhance, to elevate and to integrate the finest elements in the national character.
  • Commonwealth schoolchildren are often taught one of the key events in British history with the help of a mnemonic: "King Henry the Eighth, to six wives he was wedded: One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded." Beheaded! In 1536 Henry had his wife Anne Boleyn decapitated on trumped-up charges of adultery and treason because she gave him a son that did not survive, and he had become attracted to one of her ladies-in-waiting. Two wives later he suspected Catherine Howard of adultery and sent her to the ax as well. (Tourists visiting the Tower of London can see the chopping block for themselves.) Henry was clearly the jealous type: he also had an old boyfriend of Catherine’s drawn and quartered, which is to say hanged by the neck, taken down while still alive, disemboweled, castrated, decapitated, and cut into four. The throne passed to Henry’s son Edward, then to Henry’s daughter Mary, and then to another daughter, Elizabeth. “Bloody Mary” did not get her nickname by putting tomato juice in her vodka but by having three hundred religious dissenters burned at the stake. And both sisters kept up the family tradition for how to resolve domestic squabbles: Mary imprisoned Elizabeth and presided over the execution of their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, and Elizabeth executed another cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth also had 123 priests drawn and quartered, and had other enemies tortured with bone-crushing manacles, another attraction on display in the Tower. Today the British royal family is excoriated for shortcomings ranging from rudeness to infidelity. You’d think people would give them credit for not having had a single relative decapitated, nor a single rival drawn and quartered.
  • One thing above all they assuredly would not forget; Lancastrian or Yorkist, squire or lord, priest or layman; they would point to the kingship of England, and its emblems everywhere visible. The immemorial arms, gules, three leopards or, though quartered late with France, azure, three fleurs de lis argent; and older still, the crown itself and that sceptred awe, in which Saint Edward the Englishman still seemed to sit in his own chair to claim the allegiance of all the English. Symbol, yet source of power; person of flesh and blood, yet incarnation of an idea; the kingship would have seemed to them, as it seems to us, to express the qualities that are peculiarly England's. The unity of England, effortless and unconstrained, which accepts the unlimited supremacy of Crown in Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it; the homogeneity of England, so profound and embracing that the counties and the regions make it a hobby to discover their differences and assert their peculiarities; the continuity of England, which has brought this unity and this homogeneity about by the slow alchemy of centuries.
    • Enoch Powell, speech to the Royal Society of St George (22 April 1961), quoted in A Nation Not Afraid: The Thinking of Enoch Powell (1965), p. 145
  • When we speak of the pride and self-confidence of our nation, the Crown—the Monarchy—is absolutely central; nor do I know how better one would gauge the state of this nation's psychological health, of its national morale, than by its attitude towards its greatest, its unique, institution... Of all the sources of true and proper pride to a British person none is greater than the common possession of the Crown. I use the word "possession" advisedly, in its full and most literal sense. Because our Crown is the product of the history of this nation, because it grows like an oak in the soil of these islands, it is therefore the personal possession of every citizen and subject, however humble, however poor. It is a total misconception...to suppose that there is anything of class, anything which is restrictive or destricted, about the Crown. Whatever may be said of any other institution, the Crown is the common, precious and hereditary jewel of all British subjects and of all the people of this country. To approach that common possession, that symbol and personification, with the attitude, "How ungenerous can we be? How little can we contrive to spend upon it? How much can we clip?"—not of its magnificence, for it has ever been the pride of English greatness not to be magnificent through lavishness, but in more fundamental ways—"How much can we restrict the outward signs and manifestations of what the Crown is to this country?" is a sign that we are still divorced from the pride and self-confidence without which a nation cannot face the world and without which this nation cannot learn to face the world again.
  • The irony of England is that it was monarchical power that helped drive the shift away from early democracy, and so modern democracy incorporates an element of autocracy. It is for this reason that once Parliament became supreme after 1688, William Blackstone, the famous jurist, would write that it had “absolute despotic power.” While England initiated the development of modern democracy, it was slow to advance the process further. Even after what is commonly known as the “Great Reform Act” of 1832, only a tiny fraction of the total population could vote. Here we face a puzzle: while seventeenth-century English radicals like the Levellers first conceived of universal male suffrage as a way to govern a society, their ideas would first be implemented in North America and not in England. Though we often think of 1776 or 1787 as the beginning of American democracy, from the seventeenth century a very broad suffrage—for free white males— became the norm in England’s North American colonies.
    • David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (2020), p. 18
  • Instead of a little power, occasionally exercised at the expense of great unpopularity, the Monarch, by retiring from politics, acquired an immense popularity outside, and retained important influence behind the scenes. The new popularity of the Monarch was proved at the Jubilees of Victoria and of George V. The new English Democracy is in love with the Crown. Radicalism, founded by Tom Paine in the days of George III, had had strong Republican tendencies, but they had withered away as the Crown retired from politics. The modern Labour Party has no quarrel with the English Monarchy. The symbolic importance of the Monarch has greatly increased even in our own day. The Crown is the one symbol that all classes and parties can without reservation accept.
    • G. M. Trevelyan, 'Monarchy and the Constitution: A Historical Survey', The Times (11 May 1937), p. 41
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