On maintaining monarchical succession

Well it’s been an incredibly normal month to live in the United Kingdom. So normal, in fact, that I have mostly been gawping, horrified, as the most normal things possible unfurled about me like some sort of noxious algae bloom. As people queued up over-night in a very normal way, and people holding signs that said “Not My King” were threatened with arrest even more normally, I have been at times equally amazed and disgusted. Overall, however, the entire period has been instructive to me, as someone who works on propaganda and imperialism.

I have read and worked extensively on the measures that dynasties take in order to prove their “right” to rule, as well as the establishing the intended recipient of said right. It turns out that all these same propaganda tactics that Charles IV implemented when he needed to establish the Luxembourg dynasty in fourteenth century Prague were alive and well in THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2022 in London, and boy oh boy did I ever have to learn about it. So now you do. Sucked in.

One of the things that dynasties have to do in order to be allowed, accepted, or even tolerated, is they have to convince people that all of this is inevitable and that they, for some reason, have a right to rule everyone below them. This can be done in any number of ways and sometimes it is more urgent than others. See, when Charles IV (1316-1378) came to power in Prague he had an issue – no one liked his dad. His father, John of Luxembourg (1296-1346) had taken over Bohemia by marrying his mother, Eliška Přemyslovna (1292-1330) after her brother, the former King Wenceslaus III (1289-1306) died without heir, extinguishing the Přemyslid dynasty who had been ruling since the ninth century. In swooped John, who quickly set about draining the kingdom of all the money he could while dicking about at various tournaments in Europe. 

John and Eliška’s wedding. Bless ’em.

He was, in general, hated, and the Czechs referred to him as “John the foreigner” or “the Foreign King”.[1] This was bad. It was the sort of bad that made John’s wife decide to lead a rebellion against her husband and try to put a seven year old Charles (who was then known as Wenceslaus, or Vaclav, like a good little Czech) on the throne. John found out, imprisoned his wife, and sent Charles off to be raised at the French court where he picked up the name and also a bunch of high-fallutin’ ways. He never saw his mother again.

All of this meant that by the time Charles reached majority and returned to the Czech lands people weren’t exactly excited to see him. What differentiated him from any other foreigner? What right did he have to rule them?

The thing about Charles, unlike his father, was that he was a) smart, and b) actually was extremely down to Czech. So when his dad snuffed it and it was time for his coronation he went out of his way to connect himself to the Czech lands by calling on religious tradition, namely the cult of his ancestor the Good King (St) Wenceslaus. (I know you know the song.) Wenceslaus was, and indeed is, the patron saint of Bohemia, and Charles wanted to make it clear that while he was stuck with his garbage dad’s last name, he shared the same Přemyslid blood as St Wenceslaus himself. 

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So what did he do? He planned some parties. For his coronation as the King of Bohemia in 1347 he had the crown of St Wenceslas refashioned for use during the ceremony. He also straight up rewrote said coronation ceremony, allegedly after rooting around to go find old Přemyslid coronation rites to model it on. Then he threw a big parade that led from Vyšehrad castle, the legendary home of the Přemyslids in the south of Prague, through town, across the bridge, and up to the Prague castle.[2] In the castle grounds was also the cathedral of St Vitus and St Wenceslaus which Charles was having rebuilt. There, he had the crown placed on the head of a statue of St Wencelaus, establishing a physical connection between himself and his saintly ancestor. Everything about this was thought out to make it clear that he was Czech, understood Czech tradition, and should be understood as the rightful heir to the throne.

The crown goes incredibly hard, I am afraid.

Of course here in London this month no one was doubting that Queen Elizabeth or her son the now King Charles III were English when everything went down. However, there’s a reason for that –  it’s because they already did all of that management a couple generations back. In 1917 the current House of Windsor came into being because it was deemed that their original name the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It didn’t matter how mad Queen Victoria was for Prince Albert, the fact that Britain was at war with Germany meant that the name had got to go. So the very English Windsor was brought in to assuage any fears, with George V declaring that, “Now, therefore, We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all the descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor…”.[3]

So then, there has to be some sort of confection of a connection to a specific place on the part of ruling families. Even if you have already got your foot in the door, the glaringly obvious fact that a bunch of inbred people taking part in a ridiculous game of pass the parcel to rule sometimes just die out, or marry their cousins and take a new name, calls into question the legitimacy of the entire charade. As a result, there needs to be some kind of charm offensive to make sure that this is accepted. It is one thing for a king to proclaim his “Royal Will and Authority” but there needs to be a bit of myth-making behind that in order for people to let you grind them under your heel.

A bust of Charles IV from inside Prague Cathedral, 1370s.

Now this is all as may be, but even when particular monarchs like Charles IV or Elizabeth II were well liked and long lived, the question of succession will still be there. Because it doesn’t matter how good you were at the whole convincing people it is totally chill and also natural that you rule them thing, you will, eventually, die. And it would be an awful thing for all that property, power, and money to not go to your family or whatever.

Charles IV did all sorts of stuff to make sure that his son Wenceslaus (1361-1419) would inherit after him, and not just the crown of Bohemia, but the Holy Roman imperial crown. To do this he made all of the imperial electors promise that Wenceslaus was their guy, tried to get the then Pope Gregory XI to affirm that he would defo do that (it didn’t go well), and eventually even got him crowned King of the Romans.[4] That’s pretty good going.

Meanwhile back in Prague, Charles made it clear that Wenceslaus was the King in waiting prior to his death in a number of ways. But my favourite way is probably when he did it with very cool artworks. Check out this masterpiece by Master Theoderic of Prague. 

I am fully obsessed.

Up the top here you can see that Charles is kneeling on the left in front of the Virgin Mary. Standing behind him is St Wenceslaus. (Subtle!) On the other side of Mary is Wenceslaus, who has St Sigismund standing behind him. Charles was super into the cult of Sigismund, to the point that his other fail son was named for the saint, and this makes a clear connection between the dynasty and the saint. Here Charles is making it clear that there is a line between him and his son. If you accept that he is in his position as King because God wants him to be there (as does his holy ancestor St Wenceslaus) then you need to also accept that you have Wenceslaus coming down the pipeline afterwards.

And Wenceslaus did take over the crown after his father’s death. And he wasn’t very popular, and he was no match for the Hussites, but goddamn if his dad didn’t manage to sandwich him onto the throne. Before all of the previously unheard of and extremely cool revolts.

Here in the UK we have of course been primed to understand that Charles was meant to be king, but there have always been whispers, haven’t there? You know after the unpleasantness with Our Di™ maybe he would step back and it would go to William. Well, LOL absolutely not, these are monarchs we are talking about, and they do not care what you think about them. However, they also realise that you still need to get out in front of rumblings like this, lest people begin to ask why they exist in the twenty first century. This is why I toddled on down to the Royal Exchange the other day. I had a nice time seeing some dudes in silly livery carry a big old scepter, and then heard a bunch of trumpets. This was all fun and games in prep for the reading of the Proclamation of King Charles III which had previously been read at St James Palace, then Mansion House, and finally at the Royal Exchange.

In it, it was proclaimed that, “The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George is now, by the Death of our late Sovereign of Happy Memory, become our only lawful and rightful Liege Lord Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories, King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to whom we do acknowledge all Faith and Obedience with humble Affection”.[5] And well, there it is. It was necessary to announce that because as the Queen had died the crown had “solely and rightfully come to The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George”, and then they all gave three cheers and yelled God Save the Queen.[6]

I stopped having fun.

A portrait of Wenceslaus IV from the Wenceslaus Bible, 1390s.

And here is the thing, none of this is any different to the medieval conception of monarchy. Charles is apparently the King “by the Grace of God”, because that’s just the way the supreme being wants it, I guess? God just simply loves for one family to have a bunch of untaxable land for some reason. And this, we are supposed to understand, is a “right” because this family has magic blood. I suppose that while I knew this on an intellectual level, I had always just read about it in an abstract way. Sure, there was a queen in the UK, but I always sorta thought of it as just a bit campy and neither here nor there. There’s something about having a man in livery tell you that the guy behind the tampax phone calls is a king “by right” in the twenty-first century that feels very bad! We are being handed a new ruler and have no say in that. Even more, the tampax phonecall guy is now the head of the Church of England. And while I get that the institution exists specifically because a dude was very horny and wanted a divorce, it still seems odd to keep … doing this. This is, of course, as it ever was, but it feels really seedy when we are supposed to have stuff like human rites and, IDK, taxation, now.

A thing that I am thinking about here, and clinging to if I am totally honest, is that for all of Charles’s machinations to get Wenceslaus on the throne, none of it went well. Wenceslaus was never crowned Emperor – he stalled at King of the Romans and the crown eventually went to his brother Sigismund. Simultaneously when the Hussites got themselves some wagons and a pretty good battle plan, he remained nominal king of Bohemia –  but let’s just say the entire situation was curtailed. If these little wins were possible in the fourteenth century, when the odds were massively stacked in the favour of monarchs, then what might we achieve with a little ingenuity?

I don’t know, but we need a reason to be hopeful.

[1] Jiří Spěváček ‘Problémy královské moci v českých zemích a jejich evropské souvilosti’, in, Král diplomat, (Prague: Panorama, 1982); Jiří Spěváček, ‘Lucemburské konsepce českého státua jejich přemyslovské kořeny’, Sborník historický, 24 (1976), p. 16.
[2] František Kavka, Život na Dvoře Karla IV (Prague: Apieron, 1993), p. 82; Spěváček, Historie života velkého vladaře, (Prague: Mláda Fronta, 1998), pp. 335–33.
[3] No. 30186, The London Gazette. 17 July 1917, p. 7119; https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30186/page/7119 , <Accessed 16 September 2022>.
[4] Eleanor Janega, Jan Milíč of Kroměříž and Emperor Charles IV: Preaching, Power, and the Church of Prague, Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London).pp. 185-187. IDK what you want me to do. If you don’t want me to cite myself go write a better synopsis on this.
[5] https://www.whitehorsedc.gov.uk/uncategorised/the-proclamation-of-king-charles-iii/ <Accessed 26 September 2022>.
[6] Ibid.

For more on monarchy, see:

On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
On commemoration and royal death

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

7 thoughts on “On maintaining monarchical succession”

  1. From outside the UK and not knowing that much about the monarchy, I was under the impression that Charles was quite left-wing (and that the establishment hated him for that).
    Not that this legitimates monarchical succession, obviously, but in the “not my king” waves of protest I don’t see any mention of that (nor any “hate the game, not the players”).
    Was I manipulated ? Is Charles as conservative than the rest ?


    1. Charles does (I believe) genuinely care about environmental issues. He has had mixed reviews as landlord, made a model village for OTHERS to live in, prefers neogothic architecture, pushes for NHS to support homeopathy – a mixed bag.

      Disclaimer: not British, but lived there while the marriage to Diana broke up, very publicly.


  2. I can only add Porter’s Theory of Government:

    Government has two primary purposes. 1) To maintain a system of unequal distribution of wealth. 2) To maintain the mythology necessary to convince people to accept unequal distribution of wealth.


    1. I mean that in the sense that the monarch does not normally interfere with the actions of directly or indirectly elected officials in determining domestic policy.


  3. Theoretically at least, constitutional monarchy has the advantage over a republic of there being someone above politics who’s there a long time, and doesn’t have to care what people think at any given time, who can intervene if something has gone very badly wrong with the democratic process (the PM trying to proclaim himself dictator, legislation which would clearly violate human rights, etc.). Kerr’s actions in Australia in the 1970s are the best recent example of this I know, but Orwell wrote in the 1930s that this may have worked in a larger sense in that European countries with long-established constitutional monarchies did not develop significant support for fascists or other right-wing authoritarians when others at that time, obviously, did.


    1. I don’t think that the existence of a monarchy can ever be described as apolitical, nor can a monarch ever be seen to be “above” politics. Especially considering the guy who stood down as King of England was a full fledged Nazi.


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