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Scott Graber

Ruling as the empire dissolves

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It is Thursday, and Susan and I are in the United Kingdom.

Right at the moment we’re sitting in a high-ceiling room that comes with two lawyers — actually white wire sculptures of two robed men in the midst of animated argument. That argument animates our own discussion as we consume our complimentary breakfast in the Judge’s Lodgings on Lendal Street in York.

For the last couple of days, Susan and I have been riding the rails in the UK. As we’ve watched Durham and Newcastle flash by our railcar window, I’ve been trying to better understand the people, my ancestral cousins, and the government they transported to their American colonies.

I suppose it all started with the King John and the Magna Carta in 1215. Then there was Henry III, in 1236, who was obsessed with getting Aquitaine, Anjou and Normandy back under his control. For that invasion he needed money. And like John before him had to go to his Earls and Barons for his invasion money.

By 1258 the nobles had had enough, and they confronted Henry telling him to stop this overseas nonsense. But also adding that if you want to go down this road — now Henry wanted to invade Sicily — you’ve must appoint 24 barons to help you make these governmental decisions.

This confrontation became known as the “Provisions of Oxford” and was followed by the “Statutes of Marlborough” (1269) and similar meetings where compromise and concession gradually reduced the power of the King to act alone.

But the people of Britain liked the idea of a King — they liked the idea of a courageous, God-selected King who go would go on crusades against the Muslims and keep the French, Scots and Welsh in check. They wanted a protector — a wise and benevolent protector with the style, chivalry and charisma of King Arthur and his Round Table at Camelot.

Now, there has never been any archeological evidence that Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot or any Round Table ever existed. But the kings of that time, Edward in particular, wanted to believe Arthur existed and went to great lengths to prove that Arthur and Guinevere were buried at Glastonbury Abbey. It is said that during World War II, Winston Churchill wanted to firm-up this fable — and he threatened to prosecute those who questioned Round Table’s existence.

But if there was an heir to the idea of Arthur, it was unquestionably the beautiful daughter of Henry VIII — Elizabeth. When she ascended the throne in 1558, Britain was ravaged by disease — Black Death — and on the verge of revolution. But the real rot that threatened this small island was the internecine butchery underway between the Catholics and Protestants.

And yes there was Spain.

In November of 1588, the Spanish Armada was defeated and disbursed by Francis Drake. This unexpected victory over Spain ushered in years of peace and the eventual acquisition of colonies from Australia to India. And it also underscored the notion that a single person — in this case Elizabeth — could and should have extraordinary power when it came to foreign policy.

But the notion of one-person rule was forever changed by another woman, Queen Victoria. When she came to power in 1837 there was an unstoppable movement to give the vote to middle-class men. Not to women. Not yet.

This expand-the-vote movement increased the power of the House of Commons at the expense of the House of Lords and the Monarch itself. By 1867 Walter Bagehot wrote that the Monarch, in this case Victoria, only retained the “The right to be consulted; the right to encourage and the right to warn.”

There is no doubt that the English people believe their current Queen is no longer an essential part of their day-to-day governance. But a majority still believe that the trappings of the Monarchy — the jewels, the uniforms, the coronations and the weddings — are an inescapable part of the British past and those trappings should be retained. And there is no question that Queen Elizabeth is largely responsible for this attitude.

Her reign, which began in 1953, rivals that of Victoria. But unlike Victoria, Elizabeth has presided over the dismemberment of the Empire — something Winston Churchill said he could never do.

It is one thing to rule when you’re winning — when you’re turning back the Spanish Armada or cementing your control of India and Burma.

It is another thing when the British Empire is in the process of dissolution.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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