Churchill and the Monarchy

By Ziegler, Philip | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview
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Churchill and the Monarchy

Ziegler, Philip, History Today

|You are Monarchial No. 1 and value tradition, form and ceremony.' But was Clementine Churchill's encomium of her husband always reflected in Winston's personal relations with Britain's kings and queens over six decades? Philip Ziegler presents an account of a colourful but chequered relationship.

Clementine Churchill wrote to reproach her husband when he had failed to do his duty as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports by meeting Queen Juliana on her arrival at Dover. |It was just a slip,' she added, |because you are Monarchial No. 1 and value tradition, form and ceremony.'

|Fealty to the monarch was a religion with the prime minister', the Canadian historian, Brian Villa, more recently concluded. |His respect for the monarchy amounted almost to idolatry', affirmed his private secretary, Sir John Colville. If the general public were asked for its impression of Churchill and the crown, the image that would most probably come to mind would be that of the bare-headed old statesman standing before a slim, young queen, his attitude a nice blend of the deferential and the avuncular, his expression radiant with affection. Like most popular images it is substantially correct; like most popular images it conceals a multitude of qualifications and tells only part of the truth.

The family into which Churchill was born was far from one in which loyalty to the blood royal transcended every other consideration. Dukes tended to believe that they were as good as any monarch. Winston's father, Lord Randolph, had quarrelled so ferociously with the Prince of Wales that there had been talk of a duel and he became for some years a pariah in London society. That was far in the past by the time Winston Churchill began to come into contact with the royal family; his father had long been forgiven and his mother was high in the royal favour. But though he was brought up to regard the monarchy as a powerful institution deserving of respect, there was no suggestion that the occupant of the throne should be treated with undue deference. |Will it entirely revolutionise his way of life?' Churchill asked his mother when Edward VII succeeded to the thorne. |Will he sell his horses and scatter his Jews...? Will he become desperately serious? Will he continue to be friendly to you? Will the Keppel [Mrs Keppel, the Prince's mistress] be appointed First Lady of the Bedchamber?' These may not have been the questions of a young republican, but they do not suggest that Churchil viewed his monarch with the awe that the king-emperor might have felt his due.

This disrespect did not imply any serious reservations about the institution itself. He did indeed, as his wife said, value |tradition, form and ceremony'. In 1897, commenting in retospect on Queen Victoria being made Empress of India, he admitted: |I must array myself with those who "love high-sounding titles", since no title that is not high-sounding is worth having.' But even the most high-sounding of titles did not excuse weakness or stupidity on the part of the holder.

The relationship with Edward VII began with considerable goodwill on both sides.

The kind wrote: It is quite true that we

have known your parents for many

years... and you and your brother since

your childhood. Knowing the great

ablities which you possess -- I am

watching your political career with

great interest. My one which is that the

great qualities you possess may be

turned to good account and that your

service to the state may be appreciated. The wish was sincerely held, but the king had his fingers crossed. By the time he expressed it he had already had cause to protest over Churchill's description of the army leaders as |gorgeous and gilded functionaries with brass hats and ornamental duties' and to dismiss his opinions of Lord Milner as |simply scandalous'. When Churchill, then at the Board of Trade, argued in favour of large cuts in military expenditure, the king, with the schoolboy ribaldry so characteristic of his house, remarked |the latter's initials -- WC -- are well named.

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