The pomp and revelry surrounding the coronation of King Charles III cannot hide the fact that the British monarchy is in trouble.
More and more people consider the institution an anachronism in an age in which equality is the defining principle of British society. Anti-monarchy protesters now heckle Charles wherever he goes in an act of lèse-majesté almost unthinkable during his mother’s seven-decade-long reign. Instead of a symbol meant to unite the country, the monarchy is increasingly a source of division within Britain itself.
Charles has been acutely sensitive to evolving public opinion about the Firm, as the Royal Family is known, and has strived to play up the monarchy’s good deeds and play down its obscene wealth. He planned his coronation with this in mind and aims to reign accordingly.
Most interestingly, he has expressed a willingness to expose the monarchy to harsher political scrutiny in a way Queen Elizabeth II would never have contemplated. He has, for example, welcomed an examination of the monarchy’s ties to slavery and vowed to “deepen his own understanding” of the matter.
After The Guardian last month unearthed a 1689 document showing the transfer of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company to King William III from Edward Colston – the company’s deputy governor whose statue in Bristol was pulled down by Black Lives Matters protesters in 2020 – Buckingham Palace dispensed with the usual protocol of silence with which it would have treated a similar report in the past.
Instead, it seized the moment.
“This is an issue His Majesty takes profoundly seriously. As His Majesty told the Commonwealth heads of government reception in Rwanda last year: ‘I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact,’” a palace spokesperson told the newspaper. “That process has continued with vigour and determination.”
Indeed, the spokesperson revealed that Charles had opened the Royal Archives to an independent researcher who is working on a project exploring “the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries.”
That era coincides with the height of Britain’s rule over its North American and Caribbean colonies prior to the British Parliament’s abolition of slavery in 1833. Under George IV, Britain ruthlessly suppressed slave uprisings in the Caribbean in the 1820s. William IV was king when Britain abolished slavery, though he personally opposed the move. While subsequent monarchs attended plenty of ceremonies over the years celebrating Britain’s role in abolishing slavery, none expressed a willingness to explore the Crown’s role in abetting and profiting from it.
None until Charles.
This all appears to be another step toward the royal apology, and perhaps even reparations, that Charles has been pressed to offer by civil rights groups, descendants of slaves and the governments of some former British colonies.
“If we are to forge a common future that benefits all of our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past,” Charles told the Commonwealth meeting, where he praised Canada’s efforts at reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples. “Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
Not everyone thinks that is such a good idea. In her astonishing interview this week with the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault, Princess Anne made it clear she is no fan. “Not really a subject of conversation that I would even go down,” the King’s sister replied when Ms. Arsenault brought up the monarchy’s ties to slavery. “A historical perspective, which is slightly different, maybe more realistic … And the modern contexts are very different. Slavery hasn’t gone away. You know, come on. Don’t be too focused on time scales and periods. History isn’t like that.”
There are plenty of royal watchers who think Charles is pandering to progressives by accepting their narrative about the monarchy’s links to slavery. They see danger in judging historical events and people based on contemporary values. No person or institution, least of all the monarchy, can come off looking good when examined under the unforgiving light of presentism.
In the end, critics argue, Charles’s complicity in this endeavour only ends up further undermining support for the monarchy by encouraging questions about its legitimacy.
“Charles is becoming so woke he may end up abolishing himself,” Petronella Wyatt wrote in The Telegraph. “Charles would do better to please monarchists and the nation as a whole, not bend to every prevailing fad and foible. His mother would not have done so.”
So be it if the end result of Charles’s efforts to “deepen his own understanding” of the Crown’s ties to slavery is the abolition of the monarchy. History might just regard him as the best king ever.