The sun never sets on the British Empire

The reign of Queen Elizabeth saw the complete disintegration of the British empire, the mighty Royal Navy reduced to a handful of ships, Scotland on the verge of leaving the United Kingdom and London’s financial center moving to the continent. Only the collapse of the Soviet Union rivals it in great power failure. Yet the monarchy continues in pomp like it still rules half the globe. People fete her like these past seventy years have been a royal triumph. Imagine trying to explain this to Queen Victoria. Two fifths of the world, willingly or very unwillingly, was under her rule. Elizabeth has a fractious Britain, a chunk of Ireland, a smattering of mostly tiny islands about the globe, and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders who just can’t seem to part with Dear Olde Mum. Glorious indeed. I don’t get it. Must be an English thing.

The Lion in Winter

[Just found this, a pretty rough first draft from a while back, but I’ll post it as is.]

A Lion In Winter would be a lot less Lion In Winter without all that beautiful English, which in all likelihood none of the characters personally could actually speak much of, if any. Rather all the soliloquies would have been intoned in a variety of the French languages at the time. Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in Norman (which was the language of the English royal court till Henry IV was raised speaking English a couple centuries later). Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke Poitevin, and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I in Occitan. I’ve no idea what form of French Geoffrey connived and young John sniveled in. Philip II, I assume, was speaking what eventually became standard French though doubtless he could make himself understood in a variety of the regional Frenches of the north, though perhaps Richard I’s Occitan would have been a stretch. I’m not sure what language mistress Alais did her sulking in, she was raised everywhere by everybody. Any of the above, I suppose, and as she’d been spent some of her childhood in England she probably picked up some English from the household help. In what tongue the various characters would have sniped, raged, conspired and hit on each other is anybody’s guess. Various of the Frenches, mostly, though Henry II and Eleanor both were fully conversant and literate in the Medieval Latin of the time (which is considerably closer to the Latin of the Catholic mass than the Latin of Caesar’s Commentaries), which would have been useful in front of the children. Qui auditunt quod stupri nocte?

Despite the characters enunciating some of the most glorious English you will ever hear on film—“he came down from the north with a mind like Ariistotle and a form like mortal sin; we shattered the Commandments on the spot”—it’s unlikely that any of the characters could utter more than a smattering of English. Enough on some rare trip across the Channel to order some peasants this way or that, or curse like in Beowulf, or say something filthy to a maid in the market. Otherwise the only character in the whole of the film that could actually be fluent in English would have been William Marshall, who spends the movie scurrying about obeying Peter O’Toole or arresting people. He’s the character you forget. O’Toole’s Henry II, though, is unforgettable. “I hope we never die!” he bellows at the close as only Peter O’Toole can bellow. “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” Alas, there wasn’t, he was gone soon enough, as was Eleanor. Indeed as was every man of royal blood in the story, beginning with Geoffrey, trampled to death at a jousting tournament. It’s William Marshall who came close to never dying, by medieval standards anyway, outliving Henry and his wife and sons by decades. He died in his bed at 72 and was buried with honor in London, the mass said in Latin, the eulogies in French, the throng of onlookers murmuring in English.

It would be two centuries before an English king could bellow at his wife and sons in the same language as Chaucer, another couple centuries till an English speaker could rage like Lawrence Olivier’s Richard II raged three centuries after that, and it’d be deep into the twentieth century before they could bellow like they bellowed in A Lion In Winter, a high medieval Francophone drama spoken in twentieth century English.

(Previously posted on

Her Majesty’s dictator legibus scribundis et rei publicae constituendae

I haven’t seen this pointed out yet, but the reason that prime minister Boris Johnson was able to suspend Parliament legally is because Great Britain is a monarchy. It’s a parliamentary monarchy, sure, but it is first and foremost a monarchy and if the monarch says sure, suspend parliament, then that is the law. The vaunted unwritten constitution of Great Britain essentially delineates what powers the democratically elected legislature has and what vestiges of absolute power are still retained by the monarchy. You just saw one. The right to suspend democratic rule.

Were Britain a constitutional republic the queen would be a tourist attraction and nothing more. But she has far more powers than the subjects—that is what they are, legally—either own up to or are aware of. And now her subjects in Great Britain are painfully aware of the scale of those powers. Why Great Britain and the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand persist in remaining officially subjects of the monarchy defies my understanding. Tradition, apparently.

And while I’m not sure how much of a bearing this had on the origins of the parliamentary rule in Britain, there’s always been distant echoes of the Roman Republic in British politics, structural echoes, as if the institutions were shaped with Roman history in mind. Certainly the scholars and aristocrats of Renaissance and Enlightenment England were steeped in Roman history, and in the original Latin. And is it a coincidence that the Roman constitution, also unwritten, allowed for the Roman legislature to be suspended in times of emergency and a dictator appointed? Results of such dictatorships were mixed for the Romans, and such appointed dictators helped hurry along the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. Within a few generations any pretense to democracy was shed and Romans lived under totalitarian rule. And when fascism was born in Italy after the cataclysm of the World War One it saw itself as the rebirth of Roman dictatorship and absolute rule. Mussolini fancied himself the new Caesar. He wasn’t. But ancient Rome is like a template for Europe. Or templates. There’s a Roman era for everything. But I digress.

Is Britain now finding itself in a political situation which has its roots in using parts of the Roman constitution as a model for Britain’s own? I don’t know, I just wonder, but when I heard the news that the Queen had agreed to allow the suspension of Parliament, I immediately thought of two things: the Queen nullifying an election in Australia in 1975 because she didn’t like the result, making a travesty of the democratic process, and I thought of Sulla, appointed dictator legible faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa, that is Dictator for the making of laws and the settling of the constitution. That was in 82 BC. He retired after a year of furious change and reorganization. He fixed what was broken. Yet he set a precedent for Julius Caesar, and The Roman Republic lasted only another 37 years, when it replaced by an emperor to vast popular acclaim. Democracy died then, stone cold dead, not to revive for a thousand years.

We certainly have our own problems here is the US, but the worst of them—our president—can be taken care of by a regularly scheduled election. President Trump, were he capable of understanding the analogy, would see himself as the American Sulla, as would his followers, were they capable of understanding the analogy themselves. But unlike Sulla he flounders, a wannabe strongman but hopelessly incompetent. A buffoon. There’s no place in the American political system for a Sulla, and quite deliberately so. The men who drew up the constitution were as aware of Sulla as is Boris Johnson, who studied the classics at Oxford and can doubtless quote Roman histories in the original Latin. It’s hard to see how he doesn’t see Sulla as a role model here. The comparisons are too close. The vaunted British unwritten constitution has the influences of Roman constitutional law laced deeply within it, and that right now doesn’t seem like a good thing. It’s made this moment possible. It makes this new English Sulla possible. That can’t happen here without the US constitution being chucked out completely. But in Great Britain, as in the Roman Republic, it is laid out in the constitution itself. It is perfectly constitutional.

Has this been a profound moment in English history? Has something fundamental been shaken loose? Will there be other Sullas, ones who won’t step down after a year? Who can say. That’s a Rubicon to be crossed anon, if ever.