Monarchs have been shot, ridiculed, worshipped, even canonised, but they have not made much impact on academics

June 19, 1998

Monarchs have been shot, ridiculed, worshipped, even canonised, but they have not made much impact on academics. American and British historians are about to change that

Over the years kings and queens have made incidental appearances at the huge annual gathering of Anglo-American historians but they have not been put centre stage - until now. In the past the conference has embraced subjects ranging from liberty to property, religion to revolution, biography to gender - but monarchs have somehow escaped.

This is odd. Throughout much of human history, peoples, societies and nations have organised themselves (or have been forcibly organised) as the dependants of royal rulers and the subjects of monarchical regimes. Notwithstanding the cogency with which the alternative, republican model has been articulated and defended as the ideal and idealised polity, it is monarchies that have generally been the norm - at least before the 20th century.

European monarchs have tended to be white, male and upper class. In theory, they were also supposed to be gods, law-givers, warrior kings and philosopher kings. But in practice, matters have often played out differently across the continent and across the centuries. Almost by definition, all monarchs are concerned with their legitimacy: the justification (or usurpation) of their position by ideology or pageantry or other appeals to precedent and tradition. These can be substantial props. But monarchy is also vulnerable to the accidents of birth, marriage, inheritance and death, to say nothing of the risks of family quarrels. It has staying power, but within limits.

Monarchies can be approached through the stories of individuals or through the histories of institutions. Or they can be considered more broadly, in a national, international or imperial context. How do Renaissance sovereigns differ from their medieval predecessors? How do monarchs function as the fulcrum of multinational empires, whether land-based or sea-borne? Why did so many thrones tumble during and immediately after the first world war? Is Queen Elizabeth II as significant a presence in her subjects' lives as Queen Elizabeth I was?

In considering these issues, historians are taking seriously a subject, the treatment of which is all too often blighted by snobbery, nostalgia, antiquarianism and parochialism. Their work may also throw some light on the predicaments and prospects of those still-surviving late-20th-century monarchies.

David Cannadine is director of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

The 67th Anglo-American Conference of Historians will be held at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, from July 1-3. The subject is 'monarchies'.

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