The following is a note that I sent to tutors at Cambridge and Oxford.
I am writing this note on the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Hers was a great achievement. I do not know what may have been her sorer test – dealing with some of her principal advisers, or with some of that bloody family. Just staying sane with some of that lot was an achievement in itself.
She was to the end a model servant of her people – who are about, I fear, to find out just how much she meant to them.
Well, she can rest now – and may be even let her hair down.
As it happens, I was just having breakfast at a local café, and leafing through a small history of English law I wrote when my eye fell on the lines below.
They seem right for this time.
When I lived in the bush an hour out of Melbourne, I had a neighbour Old Jack, of whom I was very fond. Old Jack flew more than forty missions in Mosquitos during the war. He was an Irish Mick who inherited in full measure his father’s attitude to the English in general, and the Crown in particular. (He never mentioned Drogheda, but we all knew where it was, and I did not dare mention that Cromwell was one of the two people whose monuments stand outside the Commons.)
I well recall a conversation with Old Jack that went like this.
Whatever else you might say about the English, Jack, the Queen is OK.
She drove in the armed services during the war.
Yeah – we saw her and her sister beetling about. Didn’t seem to do much.
It struck me then that no bastard was safe – ever.
The queen made it to about the age of Old Jack. Whatever may have been her contribution during World War, her service to her people later is beyond measure.
She is now a sure and right part of their long history.
If you were to lift this up the ladder a rung or two, and use modern language, you might get: if the king does not discharge his obligations, his subjects may be discharged from theirs, when the king could lose his rights, and even his Crown. Certainly, Marc Bloch was of the view that ‘vassal homage was a genuine contract and bilateral one. If the lord failed to fulfil his engagements he lost his rights.’
There are real problems about saying that such a proposition may have had legal teeth back then, and there would doubtless have been what we would call ‘industrial’ implications of a vassal taking on a lord, but here is real food for thought. The idea is that obligations go both ways, and that those down the ladder have rights against those up the ladder. We may have had something that would later be called a political compact or even a social contract, way back in feudal times, even the Dark Ages.
Near the end of World War II, it was clear that England would survive against Germany and Hitler. France had fallen and disintegrated. Italy and Spain had displayed a penchant for ludicrous leaders in panto attire and had chosen the wrong side. In February 1945, a young English woman trained as a driver and mechanic to serve her nation in the war effort. Her name was noted as Elizabeth Windsor. Her serial number was 230873. Her rank was immaterial.
It is hard, off hand, to think of a better case of the concept of equality at work. This young woman was a princess, and the future Queen of England, and she is still reigning. More than two centuries after those controlling the Paris commune had pitilessly removed the head of a queen – Marie Antoinette, degradingly despatched as the Widow Capet – an English princess of the blood royal was helping to man the barricades in the cause of making Europe free.
She would be the second queen of that name. The first had also put on a uniform to defend her country, and at an even darker hour. But they came from different lines. The Germans had supplied England with its first kings, that we call Anglo-Saxon, or the House of Wessex. They also supplied the start of the current line that we call Hanoverians, or the House of Windsor, tracing back to a German lady called Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick and Zelle, who died in 1726. The English had finally lost all patience with the Stuarts, and casting round for the font of a new line, just like a football manager might cast round for a new captain, they lit on Sophia, ‘the most excellent princess, electress and duchess dowager of Hanover, daughter of the most excellent princess Elizabeth, late queen of Bohemia, daughter of our late sovereign lord, King James I of happy memory.’ But the line of Princess Sophia was put under strict contract, and, by and large, the English have not since then had any real trouble with their monarchs.