Alfred the Great in Winchester

Of Kings and Queens …

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

Of cabbages — and kings…

Lewis Carroll

This is not a treatise on the benefits of a Constitutional Monarchy. Nor an argument for the advantages that might come from being a Republic. It’s more of a meandering musing around some aspects of Monarchy.

We have experienced both Monarchy and a Republic in this country. Albeit a Republic, or as called at the time, Commonwealth, for only a brief time. The people, or at least their political leaders of the age, preferred after that short experiment to return to Monarchy. However, one might add a Monarchy that was more answerable to Parliament than God.

The concept of social strata within groups and thus recognising a head of that group goes back to the earliest humans. Separate groups valued their people's skills, attributes, beliefs, or knowledge differently in separating one level of society from another. But humans have an innate need to create and live within a hierarchical social structure. Recognising a head or chief also seems to be a natural condition of our psyche.

We can never know who the first ‘Monarch’ was. However, the first to claim they were ‘King of Everything’ was Akkadian of Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria) around four thousand years ago. The first recorded female ‘Monarch’, Kukaba, ruled Sumer (modern-day south-central Iraq) some four thousand five hundred years ago.

The English word ‘King’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon, ‘Cynig’. This comes from the German ‘Kuningaz’, derived from a phrase that means ‘one who comes from noble birth.’

Belief is that the word Queen, on the other hand, derives from the Germanic Kwen, meaning woman. In Anglo-Saxon, it became cwen, meaning the wife of a King.

The Bible first records the concept of primogeniture with Isaac’s son Esau. Being the firstborn gave him the entitlement of ‘birth right’ over his younger brother. The Bible also recognises a woman’s right to inherit if there is no male heir. In contrast, under Roman law, there was no differentiation between heirs of either sex if the emperor did not name an heir before the emperor’s death. However, military power tended to influence who came to power and thus favoured a male.

In England, primogeniture came to the fore in medieval times. Anglo-Saxon times were more democratic. The Witan, a form of a council of Ealdormen, Thegns and Clergy, selected the Monarch. The Witan chose the Monarch and advised them during their reign. This process did not prevent women from attaining the highest office. The Witan of Mercia selected Alfred the Great’s daughter Aethelflaed to be ‘Lady of Mercia’ and to rule over the Kingdom after the death of her husband, the King. As an aside, while Alfred’s contemporaries recognised him as a great thinker, leader, and reformer, he didn’t become ‘the Great’ until the 1500s.

The concept of the Divine Right of Kings in England came first from the often absent from England; Richard I, “I am born in a rank which recognises no superior but God, to whom alone I’m responsible for my actions”. This offered as his defence against the accusation by the then Holy Roman Empire, Henry, of Richard’s collusion with the Saracens. Richard then adopted the personal motto, “Dieu et mon Droit” to echo that he felt he held England by God’s will. Henry V (he of Agincourt) made it the royal motto it remains today. Then again, Henry claimed it as his right to rule France and England.

The first King Charles set great store of his Divine Right to rule. He brooked no challenge to his authority by ‘ordinary’ men. But, as everyone knows, such thinking did not end well for Charles. Indeed, it was to counteract such beliefs that the Constitutional Monarchy we recognise today was born.

People make much of the fact that every King or Queen of England can trace their roots back to Alfred the Great. Charles III is the 32nd great-grandson of that great King. Not down the royal line. It’s taken too many diversions for that to be possible. The Bowes (and Bowes-Lyon) family offers most of the links. They take us back to the late 1400s. Then through other great families, we eventually return to an early English King, Henry II (who had a falling out with Thomas Becket), in the 1100s. From there, we have a direct link to William the Conqueror. Finally, after a diversion through some grand families in Flanders, we reach Alfred.

Some disparage the use of grandiose words to address the Monarch. “Your Highness”. “Your Majesty”. Nothing like bigging up someone’s ego. It wasn’t an English Monarch who first felt that ‘Majesty’ was an appropriate address. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne decided ‘Highness’ wasn’t high enough. Henry VIII, feeling he was of equal status, asked for the same address. Before Henry VIII, one addressed Kings and Queens as “Your Highness” or “Your Grace”.

“Your Highness” wasn’t just for those of royal birth. Oliver Cromwell, that ordinary man of the people and Parliamentarian, asked people to address him in that way. There was also much debate in the USA about the address to the first President, George Washington. Some favoured “Your Highness,” and the then Vice-President John Adams advocated “Your Majesty”. But, as we know, such arguments came to nought and saw the adoption of the more mundane Mr (and one day, Madam?) President.

Whatever your view on Monarchy, I leave you with a couple of quotations from the only King the English felt worthy of the title, ‘Great’.

“The saddest thing about any man is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.”


“To speak briefly: I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and after my life to leave to them that should come after, my memory in good works”

He achieved that, and they are good words for anyone, wherever they are in the social hierarchy, to follow.

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