How and why Britain’s greatest inventions of royal ritual and pageantry came about
Historian David Cannadine begins his chapter in ‘The Invention of Tradition’, the 1983 book edited by two Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, by discussing what it means to enjoy over-the-top pageantry.
He quotes ‘The Black Book’, an 1820 critique of the English Establishment, which reads: “Pageantry and show, the parade of crowns and coronets, of gold keys, sticks, white wands and black rods; of ermine and lawn, maces and wigs, are ridiculous when men become enlightened, when they have learned that the real object of government is to confer the greatest happiness on the people at the least expense.”
And yet, by the 1980s, Britain had become “better educated” but was still not inured to the pull of pageantry. In actual fact, it had become even more attached to pomp and royal flummery. “With the possible exception of the papacy, no head of state is surrounded by more popular ritual than Queen Elizabeth II,” Sir David writes.
This can be properly said to have been a plan, executed as such from 1877, when Victoria was made Empress of India, until the 1914 outbreak of the First World War. The period was “the heyday of ‘invented tradition’, a time when old ceremonials were staged with an expertise and appeal which had been lacking before, and when new rituals were self-consciously invented to accentuate this development.”
After the end of the First World War, until Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, came aneven more confident period of embedding ritual and pageantry in British royalty’s public profile.
Sir David notes that “the British persuaded themselves that they were good at ceremonial because they always had been” and were assisted in their self-belief in exceptionalism because other European “rivals in royal ritual – Germany, Austria and Russia – had dispensed with their monarchies, leaving Britain alone in the field.”
A telling example of invented tradition is the rather grand state opening of parliament. It was King Edward VII who revived it as “a full-dress ceremonial occasion, with a procession in the state coach through the streets of London, and with the king, clad in his full regalia personally reading the speech from the throne”.
Of particular resonance today, as Queen Elizabeth II lies in state, was the pomp that marked Edward’s funeral. “Of especial significance,” says Sir David, “was the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall — ‘an innovation which proved extremely popular’.”
This, as well as the ceremony of taking the coffin in procession through the streets of London, on a gun carriage pulled by naval ratings, was to be followed at other royal funerals, including George V and VI.
Since 1953, Sir David says, Britain’s “decline…as a great power, combined with the massive impact of television” has profoundly changed the ‘meaning’ of royal ceremonial. “Old ceremonies have been adapted and new rituals invented, the combined effect of which has been, paradoxically, to give an impression of stability in periods of domestic change, and of continuity and comfort in times of international tension and decline.”
Some might say invented traditions have become a proxy bedtime story.
As the author Jeanette Winterson has said Queen Elizabeth II was “an icon, and it doesn’t matter how much of that was projection … Her private self was irrelevant to an understanding of her symbolism.”