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1822 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Liquid Lapis Coursing Through the Veins: Royalty

by Skip Eisiminger

I. Royals mostly seem like members of some anachronistic faith, like the Amish, peculiar in their gilded buggies.
Stacey D’Erasmo

Somewhere in the unwritten annals of history, before there were tribes, a family, led by its patriarch, hunted and gathered. If the patriarch died, the matriarch or their oldest son, assuming they had one, took the “reins.” (Domesticated horses would require a few more millennia.) For eons, this was the natural progression of power. As populations grew, families merged into tribes for guidance with the strongest in mind and body leading the risky search for meat. As the tribal leader’s powers began to wane, he (it was usually a male) often designated his favorite son or daughter to take his place, for nepotism was realistically the only way to rule from the grave. Power struggles were inevitable, but eventually a leader emerged. It didn’t take long before this “logical” progression was carved into granite or cast in gold. Soon the ruler appeared god-like to his followers, so his appointed priests spread the word that the royal sperm carried political legitimacy. When a sick or weak heir acquired the crown, it was assumed that the gods were once again working in mysterious ways. For millennia, this system functioned well with major exceptions as will be noted. Despite the exceptions, forty-three sovereign states currently are led by someone who inherited the post.

II. While Russian provincials were forced to beg,
the Czar sprinkled salt on a Fabergé egg.
The Wordspinner

I call that couplet “The Roots of Revolution,” and its roots extend at least as far back as 1958 to a memorable high school English class. We were discussing the scene in A Tale of Two Cities in which the Marquis St. Evrémonde sits cursing the peasants who have slowed his progress through Paris. The driver of the carriage had just run over a poor woman’s toddler, yet his passenger is more concerned about the condition of his horses. Parked beside the victim’s lifeless body and her grieving survivors, the marquis flips a gold coin on to the cobbles, but a bystander hurls it right back through the window it came from.

Sixty years later, I could still hear the rattling of that coin and feel the muscles in my shoulder tighten as I wrote that description above and the epigraph above that. I was raised under my father’s directive, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So, when I hear President Trump boasting of his “brilliant” evasion of Federal income taxes or the way he often cheated those hired to work for him, my hackles rise.

My German wife’s regard for the aristocracy is healthier than mine perhaps because her father had grown up in the 1920s in near feudal conditions on a landed estate in a quaint village near the Baltic Sea. Fortunately, the lord of the manor did not sit too high on his horse, and when her grandfather, the farm manager, was killed on the job trying to stop a team of draft horses panicked by lightning, the lord hired his widow to cook for his family.

When I met my wife in 1961, one impression I had of her was that she, like many German women at the time, was infatuated with the royal family of Iran. Who could blame her when the shah, his lovely bride, or their children dominated the magazine covers in every kiosk. Eventually, I was successful in redirecting her passions, and one sign of it came when she complained of a co-worker who personified “Snobismus.”

“Is that what it sounds like?” I asked.

“Yes, it reminds me of Germans who sprinkle French in a conversation like a lord tossing dimes to the peasants at his wedding.”

“And, yet, I’m expected to do the same at our wedding,” I reminded her.

“Yes, but you’ll do it gladly with no expectations.”

III. The institution of an insult to the human race.
Mark Twain

Twain is right, of course, but not all the problems lie with the royals; they also lie with those burghers aspiring to a higher station. One ambitious gentleman, after smelling urine in the gardens of Versailles, returned home and gave orders to his staff to urinate in the shrubs. If rigid fate had dictated that he could rise no higher than gentilhomme, he could at least smell like a duc.

During the French Revolution, the following sign appeared in London parks: “Gentlemen are required and servants are commanded to stay off the grass.” A short while after the revolution, some egalitarian groundskeeper at Oxford modified the order to read, “The charge for walking on the grass is £5.” Whereas peers could walk all over the grass in London, they like everyone else were forbidden to frolic on Oxford’s grass. Like the dew, change was on the lawns.

Nevertheless, on a visit to France, circa 1950, when the British Queen Mother decided she wanted a taste of café life, her worried security detail paid the locals to leave a café, dressed a half dozen of their own in civilian clothes, and invited her majesty in for a glass of Pinot Chardonnay. She never suspected a thing, nor was she ever in any danger. The Queen Mum’s “walk on the wild side” is sometimes compared to the Dalai Lama’s use of a telescope to observe ordinary children playing. Royalty, it seems, is a lonesome business.

Sealed in their castles, not much that is visible to the public ever changes with the British royals and their staffs. In July of 2017, when Queen Elizabeth II hosted a state dinner for King Felipe VI and scores of Spanish dignitaries, Elizabeth’s staff took three weeks just to set the table.

Even with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, when power began shifting away from the royals, the people were often reluctant to take revenge on those who’d retained a “divine right” to abuse them. Many tales tell of royals condemned to hang, who were granted the privilege of stuffing their pockets with stones or given a silk noose.

IV. Why, Governess, you have five fingers just like me!
Princess Maria Theresa, paraphrased

In the fifteenth century, many Spanish royals believed that the “blue blood” on their pale wrists was ocular evidence of their superiority to the Moors and Jews who lived among them. By 1588, King Philip was so enamored of good Christian breeding that he named the Duke of Medina Sidonia, his ranking Catholic aristocrat, to lead the Armada even though he was often violently seasick.

Despite King Canute’s admission that he could not turn back the tide, King Gustavus’ death in battle after declaring that God was his armor, and the Abbé Melchior’s belief that the rain would not dampen a king (to his credit, Louis knew better), many inside the palace and out were convinced that nature and God regarded royals as exceptional.

More evidence of royal self-importance includes:

  • Charles II’s belief that his “overnight bag” should include fifty horses.

  • Any number of monarchs who believed they could cure scrofula by touching a patient.

  • Louis XVI’s belief that he deserved a master key to every lock in France.

  • Marquis Nicolas Fouquet’s belief that given his status as French finance minister he was entitled to all land under three French villages.

  • The Grand Duke Alexandrovich’s belief that he was entitled to slow most of Europe’s trains when he travelled at 30 MPH from St. Petersburg to Cannes every winter.

  • The British queen’s belief, defined in 1482 by the Act of Swans, that she was entitled to every swan in England and Wales because cygnets are tastier than other waterfowl.

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s belief that she deserves an assistant whose chief job is breaking in her shoes.

Manners, family, schools, and bank accounts have often been confused with moral worth, but when you see a turtle atop a fence post, as President Clinton used to say, you know it had help getting up there. In Saudi Arabia, the “royal family” stands 30,000 strong, and every one of them is a “post turtle.” Were I to say that in Riyadh, however, I’d probably be flogged.

V. While the dukes dusted their wigs with bread flour,
the breadless reset the balance of power.
The Wordspinner

Stories like Queen Elizabeth I’s theft of silverware from her host take the luster off royalty, but petty theft with impunity is but half the story: Mohammed II the Sultan of Turkey, among others, is the other half. His success in expanding the Ottoman Empire apparently had gone to his head, for when he discovered a melon slice was missing from his table, he had fourteen of his attendants disemboweled in a search for the thief. His surgeons found no seeds, and the disappearance remains a mystery.

By the nineteenth century, many royal staffs had learned how to protect themselves. When King Otto of Bavaria told his guards that killing a peasant every day would assure his longevity, two of them devised a plan to foil their mad monarch. Every day one guard would walk by the king’s open window dressed as a peasant, while another supplied the king with a rifle that fired only blanks. Every day the king fired his rifle, and every day a peasant rose from the dead out of the king’s purview. The sad thing is that the king thought he’d killed an innocent every day and was justified in doing so.

VI. One test of a Victorian aristocrat was his ability to select the correct fork among nineteen without asking his wife.
Dr. Bernie Dunlap *

Marcus Aurelius left us his stoic Meditations; Alfred the Great set a noble precedent when he baptized the Vikings rather than execute or enslave them; Charlemagne promoted literacy among his clergy; and without James I, there would have been no King James Bible. Nevertheless, one must carefully screen history to find the good that most monarchs did for their people. As I have half seriously said elsewhere, perhaps the best thing Queen Elizabeth II has done in her sixty-five years as “figure-head of state” is shake two-million-plus hands. The Prince Consort has shaken somewhat fewer, for he walks two paces behind his wife. For these services and others, the royal couple is paid over a hundred million dollars annually.

Despite incompetent presidents, courts, and congresses, an overview of the royal follies should make all who live in the American democracy glad that the founders foresaw the virtues of separating state powers, excluding the church from the state, and placing control of the military in civilian hands.

As the novelist John Gardner wrote, “One doesn’t give the Prince of Wales an aptitude test and start him in the stock room,” but perhaps we should do this for presidents before granting them tenure. As for myself, I respect “the wisdom of the crowd.”


* Webmaster’s Note: Dr. Benjamin Bernard “Bernie” Dunlap, author of novels, poems, essays, and opera libretti, is an academic who attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1967. He worked as a writer, producer, and on-camera presenter for public television for many years and as principal dancer for Columbia City Ballet in the late 1970s.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury