Down with the Crown!
End the monarchy, that obsolete vestige of a less-evolved time.
We don’t care.
We aren't caught up in your love affair,
And we'll never be royals.
It don't run in our blood.
PRINCE PHILIP died this past week. He was born a royal, lived a rich royal life that lasted a few months shy of a full century, and died a royal. With his widow a few weeks shy of 95, the question has come up in Britain and beyond: Should Queen Elizabeth II be succeeded by Charles, her dour and unpopular eldest son, or by her genial grandson, William?
My answer is: I don’t give a shit. As an American, an individualist, and a creative person, the idea that certain individuals, from special “royal” bloodlines, are born to rule is anathema to me. I don’t like it in literature, whether it’s the Harry Potter series or the Gospels. And I reject it entirely in real life.
The Coronation, when it happens, will be fascinating spectacle—there has not been one in Great Britain since 1953—but the notion of holding an opulent ceremony to crown a new king, in twenty-fucking-twenty-one, is ludicrous. This ritual has as much place in the modern age as the wedding-night custom of displaying the bloody sheet, to “prove” a bride’s virginity. If we’re being honest, the person who should succeed Elizabeth is: NO ONE. When the queen is dead, the monarchy should die with her.
Down with the Crown!
Kings and queens are archaic, vestiges of a long-bygone era, when human beings operated in tribes, when clear lines of succession helped stave off war. As a form of government, monarchy—even constitutional monarchy—is a relic, a museum piece, incompatible with true democracy.1 It should be dragged to the recycle bin of history, with conquistadors, slave traders, and blackface. Crown Royal is a fine title for a brand of ho-hum blended whiskey; for a person, not so much.
And yet to repudiate monarchy is to reject our own collective DNA. We have been conditioned, through ten thousand years of recorded history, to pay homage to kings and queens. We have been trained to honor their regality. To genuflect. To kiss the ring. The first writing concerned either debts—who owed what to whom—or lines of succession. The Hebrew Bible takes great pains to tell us that Adam begat Seth begat Enos begat Cainan begat Mahaleel begat Jared begat Methusaleh begat Lamech begat Noah begat Shem. We know very little about the Bible: when exactly it was written, where, by whom. But we know Lamech was Jared’s grandson, and not the other way around. Patrilineal pedigree was of the utmost importance to our ancestors.
I’m citing Genesis here, but codifying regal bloodlines is more or less universal. There was a dynasty of satraps that ruled Western India from 30-405 CE; we know little about them save for the names of their rulers, which they had struck on their beautiful silver coins. Kingly lineage gave them authority to rule—the absurd genealogical fairy tale that they were installed by the gods.
In ancient Rome, emperors, not kings, held sway over the vast dominions. The “Good Emperors,” as designated by the legendary historian Edward Gibbon, included Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). What is notable about those five rulers is that none was the son of a sitting emperor. These were men of honor and accomplishment who were chosen as heirs. By contrast, the successor to Marcus Aurelius, whom we remember as the Stoic philosopher who wrote Meditations, was his biological son Commodus, whom we remember as the villain from the film Gladiator. So: a period of relative peace and prosperity that lasted almost a full century was ended because one of the wisest men of his time tapped his own, spoiled-rotten kid to succeed him, rather than a more competent non-relation. Lesson: nepotism sucks.
The advantage of an absolute monarchy is that it’s easy to get shit done—if the right individual is in charge. In the annals of Rome, the best emperors, almost without exception, were either chosen for their leadership qualities, or were outright usurpers. Justinian, the great Byzantine emperor, was a distant relation to the Augustus he succeeded. He was chosen to inherit the throne, because the guy was a dynamo. He married the sixth-century equivalent of a cam girl, Theodora, because she was just as brilliant as he was, and the two of them codified Roman law, brought prosperity to their lands, and would have reunited the Eastern and Western Empires had most of the military not been wiped out by the Plague of Justinian (he should have seen that coming!). Justinian was not “born in the purple,” as were subsequent and less effective Byzantine emperors. He was a success because he was a success, not because he had an imperial old man.
I would argue that Rome’s laxness about pure bloodlines vis à vis lines of succession helped it endure as long as it did. I would further argue that Europe grew mighty in spite of, rather than because of, its sad parade of whey-faced kings and queens, tsars and tsarinas, princes and dukes and margraves and electors and archbishops and emperors, Holy Roman or otherwise. The zenith of European monarchy corresponds with the age of empire, when greedy royals dispatched their ruthless conquerors around the globe to plunder and pillage, to enslave and exterminate—and, oh yes, to convert “savages” to Christianity. So much of the world’s suffering can be laid at the feet of the Ferdinands and Isabellas, the Stewarts, the Victorias, the Leopold IIs, and the popes who blessed the rape and the butchery.
In Europe, the obsessive fixation on dynastic families—on bloodlines—has been a disaster. When royal families only marry other royal families, we wind up with the sort of incestuous genealogical chart studied in biology class. The House of Habsburg was so inbred that an unusual recessive trait, a giant lower mandible, is known as a “Habsburg jaw,” because of its prevalence in that family. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) was known as “Leopold the Hogmouth” because of it (that’s his handsome profile on the coin pictured at the top of the page). But his cousin was even worse. Look at this crazy family tree of Charles II of Spain, the poster boy for inbred royals, whose mother and father were niece and uncle:
His heirless death in 1700—he was, among many other maladies, impotent—led to the inexplicable War of Spanish Succession, which continued a long tradition of Europeans slaughtering one another to determine which inbred ass should park itself on which plundered throne. Discover Magazine describes Charles II’s plethora of birth defects nicely:
The Habsburg King Carlos II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child.
But yeah, by all means, let’s make that dude king! Only the noblest families for us! He is superior because of his lineage! He has royal blood, after all!
One way we can identify royal blood, apparently, is that it doesn’t properly coagulate. It’s no accident that hemophilia was rampant among the royal houses of Europe. Britain’s Queen Victoria was a carrier of the disease, and it was passed along to any number of Continental cousins—including, famously, Alexei, son and heir to the throne of the Russian tsar Nicholas II, who was first cousins with George V of England (and looked exactly like him).
The Russians, historically, were sticklers about royal lineage. After the death of Feodor the Blessed, the hapless son of Ivan the Terrible, in 1605, the country suffered through a period of famine, war, and economic disaster known as the Time of Troubles. The lack of a viable heir, and the credulousness of the court, led to the boyars installing Dmitri I on the throne, because he claimed to be a long-lost son of Ivan. In fact, Dmitri was just some random Polish con man. Nevertheless he ruled the country for almost a year before anyone figured out the ruse. I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but it actually happened. Why? Because the Russian nobles were so hung up on family trees. Plus: vodka.
After the “False Dmitri” disaster, and the ensuing parade of similar nebbishes and frauds, the decision was finally made to make teenage Michael Romanov tsar. The Romanovs were a noble family, and he was first cousin once removed of Feodor—but through his great-aunt, which, because she was a woman, was not the usual way things were done. By 1613, though, the Russians were desperate. Michael founded a dynasty that lasted until 1917—sort of. Catherine the Great was a German princess named Sophie who married into the Romanov family in 1762; she assumed the throne herself when her husband, the vapid, ineffectual Peter III, turned up dead. She reigned for 34 years, and her son and heir, Paul I, was almost certainly not Peter’s kid. Which means that none of the subsequent Romanovs were actually Romanovs.
But back to poor Prince Alexei, the hemophiliac. Because Russia was so hung up on 1) bloodlines, and 2) having only men inherit the throne, the tsar and tsarina moved heaven and earth to keep their frail boy healthy. The only person in all of Christendom who had the ability to stop the young prince’s bleeding was Rasputin, a freakishly tall mystic with a long beard and an even longer [expletive deleted]. The Russian people didn’t like Tsarina Alexandra, a German import, to begin with; they liked her even less when they caught wind of the rumor that she was schtupping the creepy faith healer. Making matters worse, Nicholas II decided that, because he was royal and therefore special, he should lead the Russian armies as the supreme commander during the Great War. This was an unmitigated disaster, because, despite the many medals on his dashing uniform, “Nicky” was an abysmal general.
This madness is what the Bolsheviks put a permanent end to. Nicholas II abdicated in 1917; Russia pulled out of the Great War; and a year later, the ex-tsar and his entire family were clumsily, brutally executed. Thus ended, emphatically, the dynastic monarchy in Russia.
The First World War marked the end of the Romanovs, and also of the Hohenzollerns in Germany and the Habsburgs in Austro-Hungary. Good riddance. In Britain, meanwhile, in 1918, the ruling family changed its name from the Teutonic-sounding “House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to the quainter, more Englishy “House of Windsor.” But, I mean, these are Germans, not Britons. Which explains why Edward VIII—Queen Elizabeth’s dandy of an uncle, who was king for a year before abdicating to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, the Maria Butina of her day—was down with Hitler. If Edward hadn’t been so hot for the sexy spy from Pennsylvania (Simpson was the alleged lover of the Nazi foreign minister von Ribbentrop), he wouldn’t have abdicated, Elizabeth would never have been queen, and we wouldn’t be wondering if she will be succeeded by her asshole son or her simp grandson. Sliding doors, yo.
It is no coincidence that the two great superpowers of the twentieth century are also the two great powers that eschewed monarchy. The Soviet Union, as we’ve seen, wiped out their monarch and most of his family, to ensure that there would never be a Romanov restoration. The United States broke up with their king 250 years ago and never looked back:
To be sure, we Americans do like our political dynasties. John Quincy Adams was the son of John Adams; Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison; Teddy Roosevelt was a distant cousin of FDR (and Eleanor’s uncle); George W. Bush is the son of George H.W. Bush. And there are many more examples of political families at the state level—Andrew Cuomo, to name one close-to-home example, is the son of Mario Cuomo, also a governor of New York. But for every Liz Cheney, there are thousands who don’t pan out. Pedigree can help in politics, as it can in any specialized career—Wall Street, Hollywood—but a name and a pile of cash only carries you so far. In the U.S., you also have to have some talent. Which hard truth is what Matt Gaetz, hack son of a wealthy politician, is just now realizing. We like our political families if they produce JFK, RFK, and Ted Kennedy, or even Jeb Bush, but we will not abide an Elagabalus.
There is no king of America. Nor is there a dynastic royal family in Russia (say what you will about Vladimir Putin, and I’ve said plenty, but there is nothing remotely noble about his peasant bloodline). Germany hasn’t had a monarch since the end of the First World War. Netanyahu may run Israel until he dies, but there is no talk of his kin succeeding him. China is not ruled by the sons of Chairman Mao. Japan still has an emperor—twenty bucks says you can’t name him—but he is a “symbol of the state,” more mascot than king. The only dynastic royal with any real clout on the modern world stage is the Charles II of our times, Mohammed bin Salmon, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, whose sociopathic personality disorder is almost certainly genetic.
In Britain, meanwhile, the queen is thought to have no power but actually has plenty (which is why her mug is still on all the currency). She allowed Russian blood money to flow unabated into her Crown dependencies, to enrich herself and her corrupt spawn. She hobnobbed with Robert Maxwell, as her lecherous son Andrew partied with Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein. She presided over the massive child abuse scandal in Jersey and authorized, knowingly or not, its cover-up. And, to top it off, she sat idly by as her country voted Leave.
When Scotland splits off to re-join the E.U., what will remain? The southern half of a remote isle—less British territory than the first Elizabeth controlled—funded in the main by money laundering operations for tax cheats, organized crime syndicates, and corrupt Russian oligarchs, overseen by a compromised prime minister named Boris. Yikes. That prim and proper wave she does might as well be a farewell to her country’s status as a major player on the world stage.
On Elizabeth II’s watch, the sun finally set on the British Empire. Let the monarchy die with her.
Note: This piece was inspired by a rant I did this past Friday on Narativ Live.
Photo credit: Silver kreuzer of Leopold the Hogmouth, ECC.