The British Monarchy and the re-embracement of the four nations

The British Monarchy and the re-embracement of the four nations

This week, Dr Matthew Glencross (Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London) examines the 19th and 20th century British Monarchy’s relationship with the four nations.

When Alex Salmond stated ‘We’ll keep the Queen’ on the eve of the Scottish Independence vote he was inaccurate in what he was implying.[i] Scotland would not be able to retain the Queen as Scotland currently has no Queen to keep! This isn’t a dig at Alex Salmond. I’ve made the same mistake myself, as have many others. Back in 2007, during my MA studies, I remember referring to Queen Elizabeth II as the Queen of England. ‘Take a look at her list of titles,’ my tutor told me, ‘she is Queen of several Commonwealth realms, but one thing she is not is the Queen of England.’ As a historian of royalty, I am quite embarrassed that I once made this mistake but it surprises me how often I get the perplexed look from people when I inform them that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no Queen, that only the United Kingdom has a Queen. In a state that takes such pride in its royal heritage it is a simple fact that is often forgotten and misunderstood, partly because people from each of the four nations which comprise the United Kingdom identify and claim the monarchy as ‘theirs. How is this possible? The answer to the confusion lies not in constitutional history but in the cultural re-embracement of the four nations by the British monarchy and the willingness of a substantial number in each of the nations to be embraced.

Constitutionally, there has existed but a single crown in the United Kingdom since the Act of Union 1800. Yet, upon his accession to the throne in 1910 George V set out to transform the monarchy from something that existed high above on lofty thrones into a people’s monarchy. To him the crown was the symbol of the nation and he was that symbol personified. Whilst abroad he would be the symbol of the United Kingdom, representing his state in its foreign policy endeavours, but domestically he understood that there were four nations within his realm and that he would have to represent them as individual nations as well as four united ones. His approach to giving the monarchy back to the four nations was spearheaded by his re- embracement of the royal culture of the individual nations.

The first example of this was his returning the title of Prince of Wales back to the Welsh. George felt it had become a hollow title held by royal heirs who rarely visited the nation. Under the guidance of Lloyd George, the King decided that his son would be crowned Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1911.[ii] Lloyd George endeavoured to make the ceremony as Welsh as possible and it took the shape of a large Welsh pageant in line with the traditions that had been established during the nineteenth century revival of Welsh identity. At the King’s instance the Prince was even taught a little Welsh for the event, to further emphasise the fact the Prince’s commitment to his new title was genuine.[iii] The event was not a one-off as Prince Charles was also invested with his title in 1969 in an even larger ceremony, again at Caernarfon Castle. Welsh took an even larger role in the ceremony in 1969, as the Prince performed all of his lines in that language as well as in English.[iv] Subsequently, Charles has taken his schooling in the language seriously and is now apparently fluent. Whilst both investitures faced some opposition they were generally largely well received and recent polling suggests that the Welsh people want the title to continue and for any new Prince of Wales to be invested in a similar ceremony to the two previous ones in Wales.[v]

Proving cultural attachment to Scotland was an easier process for George V and his successors. Speaking in hereditary terms his family had a greater claim to the crown of Scotland than they had to the crown of England. In 1920 George declared that the Palace of Holyroodhouse was once again to be the official residence of the monarchy when in Scotland. By re-establishing Holyroodhouse, the home of the Scottish crown prior to the Act of Union, as the key official residence of the royal family when in the nation, George sought to show to the Scots he was as much there to represent them as he was to represent the English. He, like his successors, usually spent only one week of the year at Holyrood, but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the monarchy in Scotland. George’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, had cemented her own personal love of Scotland with her purchase of the Balmoral estate, a refuge that became even more vital to her after Prince Albert’s death. A county man at heart, George V, loved playing the part of the Scottish laird and spent significant amounts of his free time on his Scottish estate.[vi] It is, a passion shared by his son George VI and his granddaughter, our present Queen. The royal family notably wears the royal Stuart tartan when north of the border and engages in typical Highland pursuits. What this reflects is a desire to be part of the Highland tradition that goes beyond obligation something that would be hard to claim if the week at Holyrood represented the entirety of their Scottish stay.

The Irish situation is more complex. Before the partition Victoria made four official visits to Ireland whilst her son, Edward VII, made three. Then, after Irish independence, the royal family have continued to make genuine efforts to be seen to represent the people of Northern Ireland. George V opened the first Northern Ireland parliament in 1921, and also established an official royal residence there, in the shape of Hillsborough Castle, as he had done in Scotland and Wales. Whilst it could be argued that the monarchy spends a lot less time in Northern Ireland than they do in Scotland or Wales the present Queen still makes regular visits and has used her residence at Hillsborough castle to receive foreign visitors. In fact, her appearance in Northern Ireland is increasing as she has travelled there almost every year since 2002 a record for a British monarch.[vii]

The fact that the monarchy has felt the need to embrace the royal culture of each of the four nations is testament to the importance it places on the individuality of the nations. Despite being monarch of the United Kingdom only, it is viewed as part of their duty to represent the four nations individually. Therefore, to understand how monarchy can function in a democratic state such as the UK it is not simply a question of seeing how the crown fits into the Westminster system but a study of how the crown fits into the culture and politics of the individual nations.


[i] (Accessed 06/04/2016)

[ii] Harold Nicolson (1952) King George V (London: Constable).p148.

[iii] John S Ellis (2008) Investiture (Cardiff: University of Wales Press), p53.

[iv] Ibid, p185.

[v] (Accessed 06/04/2016)

[vi] Kenneth Rose (1983) King George V (London: Phoenix press) pp287-9.

[vii] (Accessed 06/04/2016) 

Dr Matthew Glencross is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London. His work includes the monograph The State Visits of Edward VII: Reinventing Royal Diplomacy for the Twentieth Century and the forthcoming edited collections  The Windsor Dynasty: Long to Reign over us? and Monarchies at War.


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