At present time, Queen Elizabeth II has been on the English throne for 61 years. If she lasts another three, she’ll tie the record for the longest reign by a British monarch (my money’s on her doing it. She’s only in her 80’s, and her mother lived to be 100). There’s a reason that The King’s Speech was such a big hit: very few people are old enough to remember anyone else being on the throne. There’s a level of legitimacy in that all its own.
The nature of the monarch is sacral, traditional. Aristotle wrote of the earliest kind of Greek monarchy, that “was exercised over voluntary subjects, but limited to certain functions; the king was a general and judge, and had control of religion.” (Politics, III.xiv) They “embody the law.” This is more or less the role that Elizabeth, as a constitutional monarch, has; she decides not a single political question, but all political action occurs under her crown. Her authority is non-existent, her legitimacy, absolute. She is a sacral figure, quasi-mystical. And thus, the longer a monarch hangs around, the greater that legitimacy grows.
There are places where monarchs do more than that. Michael Totten just posted a dispatch from one such place, Morocco, where the King, Mohammad VI, is a real king, a giver of laws and settler of causes. One would have to be an American to be surprised that Morocco is one of the more liberal and tolerant places in the Arab world. Mohammad VI has been the beaux ideal of an enlightened monarch: liberalising institutions, permitting a modicum of free press, setting free the political prisoners of his father Hassan II. He does this without fear, because, like Elizabeth, his legitimacy is without question: his family has ruled Morocco since the 17th century, and his people believe him a stabilizing force:
Nadia Bernoussi, the law professor who helped draft the new constitution, grumbled a bit about how some foreigners see Morocco’s democratic reforms as a sham.
“Well,” I said. “The king wasn’t elected.”
She was taken aback by my bluntness, and I felt slightly rude saying it, but it’s true and every single Westerner in the world who looks at Morocco’s political system notices that and takes it into account. It is the most salient feature of her country’s government from our point of view.
“It’s true that the king isn’t elected,” she said, “but he has a different kind of legitimacy. He has national, historic, and Islamic legitimacy.”
This isn’t the sort of political sentiment Americans like me can relate to, but I did hear something I could understand and appreciate easily. When I asked uncovered Moroccan women if they fear the Islamists, they all said they did not. (In Tunisia and Egypt the uncovered women I know absolutely fear the Islamists.) But even the feminists in Morocco aren’t afraid of the Islamists. And when I asked why, all of them said “because of the king.”
That’s the difference between a king and a tyrant/dictator. The one rules by right, the other by force. True, a king may be brutal, as Hassan II was. But a dictator must be brutal, or he risks his own head. The speed with which Mubarak fled Egypt, and the blood-curdling fate of Quaddafi, testify to that. Neither of those men could liberalize. But Mohammad VI could.
And in point of fact, so could Hassan, who never dissolved democratic institutions and gradually permitted them to function again in the 1990’s. By that point, Hassan had been King for thirty years, had survived all his potential opponents, had become an institution. Contrast that again with Mubarak and Quaddafi, whose longevity afforded them no legitimacy.
I don’t think this a new phenomenon, either. Success or failure of Medieval dynasties seemed to depend a good deal on the longevity of individual kings. Take the Capetians of France, who had the royal title for over 300 years between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. When Hugh Capet was elected King of France to replace the last Carolingian (who had died at the age of 20), in 986 AD, he had actual control over very little outside of Paris proper. The Viking and Saracen raids of the last two centuries had broken Charlemagne’s empire into a mass of semi-independent duchies and counties, who could tell the king to shove it when they pleased.
This is a recipe for failure. So how did the Capetians not only survive, but thrive? Legitimacy and longevity. Hugh Capet ruled for ten years (986-996). His son Robert II hung around for thirty-five (996-1031). His son Henry I, of whom almost nothing is said in praise, managed 29 years (1031-1060). And his son Phillip I managed a forty-eight year reign (1060-1108). Granted, Phillip was eight when he became king, but even chopping off ten years for a regency, that’s still thirty-eight years of personal rule. In a blood-soaked age, survival was it’s own success, and the Capetians were brilliant survivors.
After Phillip I the kings asserted themselves more. Louis VI gathered most of that red smear during his 29 years on the throne (1108-1137). His son Louis VII, who seemed to have no purpose other than as pathetic foil for Henry II of England, still managed to hang onto the throne for forty-three years, all personal rule (1137-1180). Which brings us to Phillip II, who became known as Augustus through the genius move of outliving his enemies (as another 43 year reign will do). First his father’s nemesis Henry II of England, died, and then Richard the Lionhearted, who struck fear into the heart of Saladin, managed to get himself killed just as his moment of triumph. Phillip ground poor, unloved King John into dust and ruled France in reality as no one had done since Charles the Bald.
Hilariously, Capetian rule ended with swift dynastic collapse. Phillip IV, the great-granson of Phillip II, died in 1314 with three surviving sons. Each of them – Louis X, (1314-1316), Phillip IV (1316-1322), and Charles IV (1322-1328) died, childless, within fourteen years. But if we tally all the Capetians together, we get:
- Hugh – 10
- Robert II – 35
- Henry I – 29
- Phillip I – 48
- Louis VI – 29
- Louis VII – 43
- Phillip II – 43
- Louis VIII – 3 (1223-1226)
- Louis IX – 44 (1226-1270)
- Phillip III – 15 (1270-1285)
- Phillip IV – 29 (1285-1314)
- Louis X – 2
- Phillip V – 6
- Charles IV – 6
For an average reign of 24.4 years per monarch (and if we throw out Phillip IV’s unlucky sons, we get 29.2). Not bad, especially considering the time period and the overall length. At 342 years of rule, the Capetians outdo every other French royal house, before or after them (The Merovingians ruled for 270 years, the Carolingians 236, the Valois for 261, and the Bourbons, even counting the post-Napoleonic restoration, only 220). Sure, other families accomplished more impressive things, but most of them followed the dynastic cycle of loading their achievements early on and then frittering them away, moving from energetic and forceful rulers to useless cyphers propped up by scheming underlings, kings in fact to kings in name. The Capetians did the exact opposite. Was it martial skill that did it? Political savvy? Alliance between church and state?
Sure, that helped. But nothing seemed to do quite as much as the mere fact of staying alive.