Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Etiquette, Victoria and "European Conventionalities"

Coronation portrait of Queen Victoria ~ "Victoria must do precisely as her Premiere for the time being may ordain, without the power of dismissing him -- for Parliament, by refusing to vote money for carrying on the public institutions of the land, can compel the restoration of a Minister in whom it has confidence, there might as well, for most practical purposes, be only that gilded bauble, the mere crown, without a head in it, for supreme authority, as Victoria acting as a puppet. She is nobody in the State, though paid heavily for her share in the pageant. She is part of an imposing and costly ceremonial, and she is nothing more." NY Times, 1854

"It was said, wisely and wittily, by one who was both sage and satirist, that 'Majesty, deprived its externals, was only a jest.' Every now and then something occurs to evidence the truth of this. Monarchy, in most instances, is nothing but a mere form -- an expensive ceremonial. Even where the sovereign is absolute, as in Russia and Turkey, this is the case. Elsewhere, it is eminently so. Look at England, for example, and ask whether, if there was no Queen Victoria, no actual Monarch, the Government would not proceed quite as well as it does at present? The Crown which is carried before the British Queen on state occasions, is the emblem of sovereignity, and, though nothing but a golden circlet, ornamented more profusely than tastily with glittering gems, it actually governs the country as much as the lady who wore it (for the first and only time) at her coronation. It is an abstraction -- a something in whose name the executive business of the state is carried on -- a trifle in itself, but made of value by circumstances, like the seal attached to a deed to complete its validity. To give weight to this abstraction -- to endow it with form and presence -- a nominal representative of power is appointed or permitted. 

And thus Queen Victoria, the ruler of the British Empire, is allowed a large sum annually to keep up the 'dignity' of her situation; has the power of putting her veto upon any legislative act; has the power, also, of confirming the acts of her Ministry, and the appointments they may make, by her sign manual, but not only is virtually not free to choose her own Cabinet, but, of herself, cannot give an appointment, even to a petty clerkship of £50 a year, to say one whom it may please her to befriend! Is not this in itself, (not to multiply examples) an evidence that Majesty is only a jest, deprived of its externals?

As, in all political movements, Victoria must do precisely as her Premiere for the time being may ordain, without the power of dismissing him -- for Parliament, by refusing to vote money for carrying on the public institutions of the land, can compel the restoration of a Minister in whom it has confidence, there might as well, for most practical purposes, be only that gilded bauble, the mere crown, without a head in it, for supreme authority, as Victoria acting as a puppet. She is nobody in the State, though paid heavily for her share in the pageant. She is part of an imposing and costly ceremonial, and she is nothing more.

Being thus only part of pageant, reigning Royalty make up for want of power, by an excess of submissive ceremonials. Hence the display of Lords-in-Waiting, and Ladies of the Bedchamber, and Grooms of the State, and Mistresses of the Robes, and Maids of Honor, and Equerries and Gentlemen-at-Arms and Yeoman of the Guard, and Lord-Stewards, and Lord-Chamberlains, and Masters of the Buckhounds, and Earl's Marshall, and Masters of the Household, and Gentlemen-in-Waiting, and Aides-de-camp, and Pages of Honor, and a long, long array of other officers who surround the Sovereign, and swell his state, and make him dream that his authority is real, and that he is somebody. These are the externals which swell Majesty out -- even as coal gas swells out an air balloon; trappings which please the eye and prey on the pockets of Royalty's most loving and dutiful subjects, and, to render these yet more imposing, the nobility and the leading commoners fill these offices, receive payment for such flunkey services, wear the livery of the court, and walk backwards before the Queen 'their most gracious Mistress.' 


If there be one site more disgusting than another, among the many exhibitions in England which startled and pain and honest American, it is to see the hautiest nobility in the world playing the part of lickspittle in ordinary to the Sovereign -- to see such men as the Duke of Devonshire and Marquis of Westminster, whose annual incomes are at least a thousand pounds a day, walking backward before the Queen and her husband, bowing at every step, and carrying in their hands white wands to show that they are Lord Chamberlain or Lord Steward. The ceremony of the Koton, before the Emperor of China at Peking, is not so degrading, all circumstances considered, as this is humiliating flunkeyism.
John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, had niches cut out of the walls which formed the corridors of his castle, and if any domestic happened to encounter his Lordship in any such corridor, he had to retire into one of the niches, and remain until his haughty master passed by, in order that not even his wearing apparel would come in contact with the sacred person of the proud aristocrat.
As a set-off, the Dukes, and Marquises, and Earls, and Viscounts, and Barons, who thus act, (literally as menials to Royalty,) take it out in humble submission of their own servitors at home. The late Earl of Durham, (he who was Governor General of Canada in 1837-1838,) albeit a nominal and avowed friend of the people, actually had niches cut out of the walls which formed the corridors of his castle, and if any domestic happened to encounter his Lordship in any such corridor, he had to retire into one of the niches, and remain until his haughty master passed by, in order that not even his wearing apparel would come in contact with the sacred person of the proud aristocrat.

Ceremonial thus being an essential part of British Sovereignty, we were not surprised at reading, in a letter from Paris to a French journal here, that the sudden departure of the Kings of Belgium and Portugal, from the gorgeous hospitality of Napoleon at Bologne, was attributed 'to an anticipated court etiquette difficulty, as Prince Albert, not being a King, would have to let to his to Royal cousins take precedence over him, which would have offended John Bull's self-esteem.'

One of our own correspondents has truly stated, that Leopold of Belgium pleaded, in excuse for the brevity of his visit, that the sudden break-up of his Ministry rendered his immediate return to Brussels an act of necessity. It was believed, also, that the Portuguese King's hasty flight was occasioned by an intimation from Napoleon, that France would not consent to the elevation of a Coburg to the throne of united Spain and Portugal. But the intervention of Court etiquette is as likely as not to have had a large share in the occurrence.

Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, was deemed merely "a Prince of a fourth or fifth-rate family" by Germany, and treated accordingly ('as a nobody') when he and HRH Victoria visited there.
We think so, because, independent of earlier precedents, something of the sort had previously occurred. Some years ago, the Queen of England and her husband paid a visit to Belgium and Germany. At Brussels, as niece and nephew of King Leopold, there was a waiving of the more rigid etiquette, and to Albert was conceded all the courtesy which was extended to the Majesty of England. But, when Victoria and Albert proceeded to Germany, a difference was observed. Albert, though husband to the Queen of England, has never been elevated to the rank of King-Consort, which would entitle him to equal honors with his wife. Therefore, in Germany, he was simply a Prince, and a Prince, too, of a fourth or fifth rate family -- some of the counties of this good State of New York being considerably larger than the entire principalities of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

The Germans, most scrupulous in giving to each degree of rank its proper respect, and no more, declined paying the same compliments to Prince Albert who was a fifth-rate, and to his Royal Consort, who, (as Queen,) was a first rate personage. Accordingly, while the Sovereigns treated Victoria as their equal and sister, they treated Albert as a nobody. The result was, that annoyed at this, the Queen of England hastily abridged her visit, and returned to stately Windsor very greatly disgusted with the strict unpoliteness of German etiquette.

It is this circumstance, the truth of which is notorious, which induces us to think that there may be some foundation for the statement respecting the ceremonial of etiquette at Bologne. Anything more absurd, even amid the stupid and foolish conventionalities of Europe, cannot well be conceived. If it were of importance that an exhibition of alliance and friendship between France and England should publicly be made, how foolish to dispute, beforehand, whether Prince Albert, or the boy-King of Portugal, should set on the right hand of the French Emperor -- whether Prince Albert and the Majesty of England through him, should walk side by side with King Pedro, or one step behind him!
In the latter half of the 19th century, it might have been hoped that greater wisdom would have been displayed by the magnates of Europe. We perceive that the system maintains its folly. We declare that the system must and will be changed; for serfdom, such as this etiquette continues and represents, cannot much longer be permitted. The awakening of the nations cannot be far off, and with it will come the supremacy of common sense. – Originally published September 27th, 1854 in the New York Times



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