Like many Southern boys growing up in the 1950s, I recall fondly my father reading stories to me of “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, of the “Gray Ghost,” Colonel John Mosby, and of Marse Robert Lee who led Confederate armies during the War for Southern Independence.
But I also reveled in the exploits of noble knights and cavaliers of old, heroic monarchs of Europe leading their armies and peoples in great crusades; I was held spellbound by the courageous exploits of Jean de Valette at the Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Turks and of Don Juan of Austria at Lepanto. I imagined myself on the walls of Vienna in 1683 awaiting the fateful charge of King John Sobieski’s Winged Hussars to destroy the armies of militant Islam and save Christendom. I could visualize Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, or Lord Wellington on the field of Waterloo against that “disrupter of Europe,” Napoleon. There was a seamless connection—a direct line, it seemed to me—linking those great champions with the Southern heroes I grew up with.
In addition to the military brilliance these gentlemen soldiers exhibited, there was something else, something even more elevated, something that my mentor the late Dr. Russell Kirk called the “moral imagination,” a quality of character that integrated a discerning, reverent and appreciative view of life and history with the annealing power and legacy of our Western Christian civilization and the traditions which those men defended. They incorporated those elements not only into their actions but into their very being. Like countless generations before them, they received that inheritance as a kind of “unbought grace” solemnly deeded to them by their ancestors, and, as such, a continuation of a civilization that came into existence with Constantine’s vision—“In Hoc Signo Vinces”—at the Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.) and the Christianization of the old Roman Empire.
Drawing from three ancient capitals of wisdom and belief—from Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem—what became “Christendom” was re-sanctified by the anointing and coronation of Emperor Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on December 25, 800 A.D. And despite deadly plagues, famine and religious wars, the ideals and principles of Christendom remained a real and accessible model and guide for the inheritors of that civilization and culture for well over 1,000 years.
That civilization held up first and foremost the Faith as the necessary beacon and as essential for all men. It set boundaries and dictated manners and a standard of allocution and communication, it instructed our ancestors on what it was to be a true Christian gentleman, and it was the source and nourishment of the greatest and most sublime culture in all of history, producing great art, architecture, music, literature that glorified God and through that glorification and through the belief of the Faithful truly defined what it was to be elevated as “children of God” above the lower animals.
Integrally a part of this historic Christian vision was the idea of kingship, of monarchy and royalty as incarnating a special role and obligation for him who not only led his people and country, but who also represented them in his very person. It was St. Thomas Aquinas who in his works De Regimine Principium (On the Government of Princes, 1265) and De Regno (On Kingship) summarized the weight of history and millennia of experience that what he termed a “temperate monarchy” was the most ideally suited form of government for most of mankind (allowing, of course, for aristocratic republics in Venice, Genoa, and later in America). By that he did not mean the modern conception of an absolutist dictator who simply bore the title of “king.” His description was much more nuanced, including significant elements of what we would call today “representation” of the different strata and segments of society. A temperate monarchy was not at all incompatible with regionalism and regional autonomy, as it reflected diverse customs and traditions. Nor was it antithetical to elections if those elections would reflect the influence of families and corporate and professional organizations—those real and organic building blocks of society.
It incorporated the “father” figure, a paterfamilias, grounded in the very laws of nature and in the history of each commonwealth. That “father” ruled under laws given by God, Divine Positive Law, and he was bound strictly by those laws and the precepts of the Church. His primary duty was to the good of the commonwealth, to the “family” that composed his realm—modeled on the God-given and sanctioned nuclear family itself. The commonwealth was, in this sense, the nuclear family writ large.
St. Thomas was not the only medieval author to discuss forms of government and the significance of monarchy in the history and development of Christendom. One can cite the Englishman John of Salisbury in the 12th century, Vincent of Beauvais’s On the Moral Education of a Prince (ca. 1259), and various others, each in a sense reaching back to Aristotle and to both the wisdom and experience of the ancients and to the very Kings of Judah.
Like the father of the household, the monarch was responsible for—had the sacred duty of—insuring the common good and assuring that justice was properly and wisely meted out for his people. And as he represented his “family,” he also had the obligation to serve as exemplar and symbol for his people. Thus, in much of Medieval and Renaissance literature we hear the monarchs of various lands called simply by the names of those lands—“What will England [i.e., King Henry V] now do?” “How shall France [i.e., King Louis] react?”
And despite all the vicissitudes and disasters of war, famine, plagues, religious conflict, and revolution, the monarchical principle survived more or less in tact into the bloody twentieth century—past the Protestant Reformation, past the horrid Cromwellian interlude in England, past even the French Revolution and its bastardized children of the nineteenth (and twentieth) century. And even the Soviets could not snuff it out, despite their best efforts.
Yet what revolution and war, assassination and the triumph of liberalism could not do, contemporary monarchy seems intent of doing to itself.
And the most recent and searing example of this came at the wedding of English Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19.
Years ago when I was a graduate student in Pamplona, Spain, one of my closest friends (who aided me tremendously in the research for my doctoral dissertation), Ignacio de Orbe y Tuero, Baron de Pardinas de Montevilla and grandson of the great Spanish Traditionalist general Juan Nepomuceno de Orbe, Marquis of Valdespina, summed up the role of monarchs and monarchy in the modern world:
“Most of Europe’s kings no longer have thrones,” he declared. “But they, like those who do, have a special role and that is to keep alive the ancient traditions and legacy they inherited, not to bend to the current fashion or opinion of the moment, to stand apart and remind this generation—and the next—of the history and continuity they represent. In this they comply with their solemn duty as inheritors of a sacred and Christian inheritance and trust. They must remind us of not only who we have been but what we can be. They are increasingly a ‘sign of contradiction’; this must be their role in our world. If they fail in this—if they embrace all the tawdry excesses and excrescences of our times—they will forfeit that historic role, and rightly so.” [translation of a letter to me, September 1974]
In December 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated as King of England, basically over his love for an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, something deeply frowned on and disapproved of back then—yet scarcely forty-five years later the heir apparent to the English throne, Prince Charles, married Lady Diana Spencer, a disastrous matrimony that would assist immeasurably in discrediting the House of Windsor, which had already begun a decline many years earlier.
But like most current ruling monarchies today, the catch phrase is “relevance,” getting “with it,” so to speak, with all the current fads, breaking with tradition, basically turning a backside to the past and its critical importance in the survival of the nation. And if that means bringing in a flamer like Elton John and inviting a whole slew of disreputable Hollywood types, not to mention pseudo-celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, into the great halls and chapels that once beheld the noble figures of a King Charles the Martyr or Victoria Regina, then so be it.
And then there was the ungracious spectacle of the “Presiding Bishop,” Michael Curry, of what is called the Episcopal Church in the United States. Curry a few years back was the Episcopal bishop in North Carolina and distinguished himself for his leftwing social and religious views—he would much rather preach the gospel of “Saint” Martin Luther King than St. Paul: too many inconveniences and prohibitions in the Pauline message!
And he did not disappoint in St. George’s Chapel: jumping around like a jack-rabbit, pretending he was sermonizing to a group of illiterate Yazoo bayou dwellers in Mississippi, he brought, as gushing Fox commentators Shepard Smith and airhead Ainsley Earhardt fawned, “a wonderful and inspiring American element” to the wedding.
For thirteen minutes he basically said just one sentence: “How great is love!” But he managed to mix in bits of MLK (yes, King, that expert on conjugal love!), civil rights, and a social gospel totally extraneous to the supposed occasion.
The Windsors, for the most part, set stony-faced and amused, enveloped by the tide of nonsense and relevance that has overwhelmed them. Oh, certainly, it was said that the ceremony “combined the best of British tradition with a new and fresh ‘American’ approach.” But what it actually did was point out sharply the truth of my friend Ignacio de Orbe’s observation about monarchy and monarchs in the modern world: “They are increasingly a ‘sign of contradiction’; this must be their role in our world. If they fail in this—if they embrace all the tawdry excesses and excrescences of our times—they will forfeit that historic role, and rightly so.”
Our world is perishing for the lack of heroes, for the lack of those Don Juans of Austria, for those new and courageous Stonewall Jacksons and for kings like John Sobieski or St. Louis of France, who would stand manfully against the onrushing tide of Modernity and decay in our civilization. The awe and reverence, the understanding that the past is never really “past,” that it is always potentially within us, and that it can inform our steps and continue to inspire us and anneal us in its grace, is a precious legacy, an invaluable gift from our ancestors and Christendom. We forfeit it, and the blackness of despair and death awaits us.
When the traditional champions of our culture and civilization quit the field, as the Windsors have done, only Evil smiles.
[Image via By Northern Ireland Office [CC BY 2.0]]