My new book, Best Eight, is about a royal family of the future trying to use dynastic manoeuvrings to overcome divisions between Earth and settlements on Mars. Unlikely as this scenario sounds, there is plenty of history behind the book’s fanciful future. In our own divided times the UK’s Queen is a source of national pride. We should remember, though, that until relatively recently, the interests of a monarch typically went across borders.
The history of monarchy in Europe has had an international flavour, ever since the Roman Empire collapsed. From the ninth century, a monarch known as the Holy Roman Emperor presided over a loose confederation of European territories centred on present day Germany and Italy. From the eleventh century, the Norman and Angevin kings ruled both England and areas of present day France. From the thirteenth century, the Hapsburg monarchy began to develop, like a multi national company, with branches in Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia and Spain.
I could go into a lot more complicated detail, but suffice to say the story of European royalty is not about nationalism. In fact a historian with the great name of H.G. Koenigsberger, has come up with the term “composite monarchy” and “composite state” to describe a typical European monarch and their domain.
So for centuries, monarchs had presided over composite states rather than countries. This very much included the UK royal family. Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II’s great great grandmother, was known as “the grandmama of Europe”. Members of her largely German derived family were present in royal courts across the continent. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Victoria, was actually mother of the Kaiser, the monarch of Germany during the First World War. You’d have thought that such fraternal links would have helped prevent something as terrible as the First World War. And, indeed, once they realised the gravity of the situation, Europe’s royals did try to stop what was happening. But despite a blizzard of telegrams between royal cousins in different countries as war approached, they were not able to resist generals, politicians, arms manufacturers, mobilisation timetables and nationalist fervour whipped up by popular newspapers. The war happened, and by its end the three great royal houses of Europe – the Russian, Hapsburg, and German had all disappeared. The British monarchy only survived by hiding an international nature behind a patriotic disguise. George V identified himself with the wartime lives of his subjects, touring hospitals and arms factories. He changed the family name from Saxe Coburg Gotha to the more British sounding Windsor. Other royal titles also had a make-over. It was a question of here’s a map – choose somewhere British, that’s not too industrial. The Duke of Teck became the Marquis of Cambridge; Prince Alexander of Teck became the Earl of Athlone; Prince Louis of Battenberg became the Marquis of Milford Haven; and Prince Alexander of Battenberg became the Marquis of Carisbrooke.
In this way the British monarchy survived, by denying its reality. That reality had been crushed in the nationalism of the First World War. Monarchy had hardly been a perfect system of government – the Russian royal family acted as autocrats, and the Kaiser has been described as a bombastic sabre rattler, who was too late in his desperate efforts to make amends by using his family contacts to try to find peace. But though governments largely ended any role for monarchy after 1918, previous arrangements were perhaps preferable to what followed. The fall of international kings and queens led on to the rise of nationalist dictators, the legacy of which remains with us in independence movements to this day. It is almost symbolic that the trigger for the First World War was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, by a Serbian separatist.
So next time you see the Queen held up as a national symbol, it is worth remembering that the history of monarchy does not support this. Best Eight is a whimsical picture of that history translated into the future.