by Peter Hitchens
If you want to fill yourself with gloom and sorrow, visit the great basilica of Saint-Denis in northern Paris. This district is not the jolly city of cafes and restaurants. It is far from the tourist boulevards, in an area once famed for left-wing politics and now notorious for crime. Yet it is one of the greatest buildings in France and full of history. The colossal and forlorn great church is also the necropolis of France’s defunct monarchy. Once it was the honored and elaborate tomb of many kings. But during the French Revolution’s wildest phase, it was obscenely desecrated, the tombs violated and the remains of the dead kings and queens spitefully hurled into a common pit amid macabre scenes of mockery and irreverence which I will not describe. The usual frenzies of the God-haters were unleashed, and afterwards the lead roof was melted down to make bullets, exposing the church to ruin.
Great efforts have been made since to restore what was lost, and the stately building is a place of beauty as well as of sadness. When I visited it, there were few people there, and I recall some grim crypts in which I found myself closer to the ancient, blackened coffins of the Bourbon family than I expected or wanted to be.
For an English monarchist such as I am, the sight was a reminder of how narrowly my own country escaped such events. The kings of France and of England would both, in 1500, have imagined that their futures stretched out uninterrupted into a placid posterity. How little they knew. But our revolution was reversed and our throne successfully restored, whereas France’s monarchy could not be persuaded to adapt itself to constitutional rule, and died again. At present I can visit busy, grand Westminster Abbey, perhaps England’s nearest equivalent to Saint-Denis, to see the sepulchers of many of our monarchs, and congratulate myself on our lucky escape. But I have for many years been haunted by a feeling that all this is terribly vulnerable. Soon after I had persuaded myself by reason to support constitutional monarchy, after many years of republican radicalism, I found myself admiring the royal insignia on some London building. How permanent and unshakeable it was or seemed, and the thought itself led me on to the chilly realization that in my short life I had already seen much that appeared permanent vanish away. I recalled especially the disappearance of the mighty Royal Navy, which had happened before my eyes. This great institution of sea power had once seemed quite essential to our national standing, and was a part of our life and culture (note the extraordinary tradition in which bluejackets from the Navy pull the funeral gun carriages of deceased monarchs through the streets of London, and the powerful presence of ships and the sea in our art, poetry, and literature). I am still haunted by the memory of a sultry August afternoon more than sixty years ago when, a small boy on the muddy Portsmouth shoreline, I watched the enormous battleship H.M.S. Vanguard towed off to the breakers’ yard. You will have heard Winston Churchill’s description of such ships, “Castles of Steel,” resembling “giants bowed in anxious thought.” I can personally vouch for its accuracy. Most of those who watched that event hated it and wished that it was not happening but they could not stop it. There had been perfectly good reasons for retaining this great emblem of sea power (the U.S. Navy preserved two such ships, U.S.S. Iowa and U.S.S. New Jersey, and even brought them back into service long years later). But cold little men with slide rules and adding machines had concluded that in the new age there was no room any more for anything so redolent of another time. So off she went, to be turned into razor blades and refrigerators, and there was not a shipyard left in the world which could recreate her once she was gone.
What if the Crown, another vast and impressive thing, apparently woven into our way of life, which now seemed so assured, went the same way? What if that, too, turned out to be irreplaceable once gone? Having seen empires fall, I know how fast it happens, when it happens. So in these past few days of mourning for or late queen, I have been troubled by the power of small minds in our world.
I have nothing against republicans as such and am happy to argue with them. I defend their freedom to protest, even quite rudely, against the continuation of the Crown. I understand that many Americans (even conservative Christians) think that monarchy belongs to the childhood of man. But I am quite sure that they are wrong. Surely a constitution which permits the election of such persons as George W. Bush and Donald Trump to real executive power is a more primitive instrument than one which gives ceremonial purpose and loyalty to a harmless hereditary man or woman, while reserving real authority to an elected parliamentary government subject to law?
What really worries me is that the mean-minded enemies of Christian civilisation have noticed the real character of monarchy, and realized that, even in its gentle British form, it is a menace to them. Like me, they have examined the Coronation Service, the last of its kind in the world, and they have noticed what it says and means. It is, for a start, an explicitly Christian document and so hateful to all utopians who think that man, far from being made in the image of God, is an alterable creature and a fit subject for social experiments. The monarch must promise that he will “to the utmost of [his] power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.” The archbishop, in presenting the new king with the Sword of State, prays to God to “so direct and support thy servant that he may not bear the Sword in vain; but may use it as the minister of God for the terror and punishment of evildoers.”
He continues: “With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order.”
There is much more in this vein, and its burden is that power comes from God and can only be exercised in His name and cause. The whole origin of the idea that human power is subject to law is on display and made explicit. As the new king is presented with the Bible, “the most valuable thing that this world affords,” he is instructed to be “ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes.”
This ceremony has not been conducted now for almost seventy years, and I shall be most interested to see whether attempts will be made to change it to swing with the winds of political and moral fashion (or “move with the times” as the reformers will say). The last time it happened, the people of the United Kingdom were very different from what they are now, in belief, in customs and in knowledge. And as the coronation is in reality a pact between us and our sovereign, in which we agree to embody our laws and freedom in that sovereign, its implementation depends just as much on us as it does on King Charles III. And what I have to warn you of is that it does not state that the king is above politics, as is so often said. It offers a profound and thoughtful counter to many modern and radical beliefs. And so we should not be surprised if it comes under attack, or astonished if in the past it has been the object of enraged and unhinged fury, such as took place at Saint-Denis in 1793.
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