The second chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew records the most celebrated example of royal generosity in human history, as the Three Kings, atop their camels, and guided by the star in the east, bear their gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. As this story makes plain, monarchs are customarily supposed to be vastly richer than ordinary mortals, and to give with truly regal generosity to those many unfortunates huddled at the opposite end of the wealth, power and status spectrum. But there was more to this mangered and magical moment than supererogatory royal beneficence. Even in the cosy, impromptu confines of the Christmas stable, the gift relationship was more subtle, complex and ambiguous. For there was also in it an implicit challenge, and a reciprocal presumption, that such exceptional presents, which were hardly of immediate relevance or practical utility, would eventually be matched by exceptional behaviour on the part of the recipient. And while those who offered these gifts were themselves only reputedly royal, the infant to whom they were given was unquestionably so, being none other than the future King of Kings himself. Monarchs, this story reminds us, not only make benefactions they also receive them – which adds a suggestively majestic connotation to the otherwise plebeian notion of ‘give and take’.
British sovereigns have until relatively recently been much more concerned with taking than with giving. Like most pre-modern monarchs, they were remorselessly acquisitive, seeking lands, booty and wives to enhance their riches, might and prestige. When they gave things away, it was with similar considerations in mind, which explains why they were more likely to grant estates and titles to close relatives or loyal servants than to hand out alms to the deserving poor. And when they spent, it was on themselves or their immediate family: on castles, palaces, pictures, high-living and conspicuous display – the essential accoutrements of confident, splendid, semi-divine sovereignty. At least until the late 17th century, this is what the British monarchy was: kings ruled as well as reigned, they dispensed justice, led their troops into battle, patronised painters and builders, governed the country, and made and modified its laws. By contrast, they spent little of their time, and fewer of their resources, on doing good works. From Edward II until William and Mary, they presented maundy money to a handful of deserving indigents once each year; and from the Normans until the early Georges, largesse was distributed to the poor at royal pageants and progresses. Even adding occasional personal gifts, and the sporadic exercise of the royal touch, this was scarcely significant: on the whole, they preferred to leave charity to the Church and the Poor Law.
In a world where the sovereign’s authority was divinely ordained and generally accepted by the majority of the population, and where poverty was the ineradicable condition which most people endured uncomplainingly, gifts to the poor were neither politically imperative nor socially worthwhile. But as the 18th century merged into the 19th, all this began to change. Many of the traditional royal tasks fell away, as monarchs ceased to rule, to make laws, to build magnificent palaces, to patronise great artists, or to lead the troops into battle. The easy assurance of the Crown’s authority was threatened by exceptional population increases, urban and industrial expansion, widespread popular unrest, the extension of the franchise, the growth of an intrusive state, new ideas about democracy, political revolutions abroad, and even occasional mutterings in favour of republicanism at home. As wealth was created in unprecedented abundance and distributed more widely down the social scale than ever before, poverty was no longer regarded as a condition to be stoically borne, but was redefined as a problem which should certainly be alleviated, and might even be eradicated – perhaps by the agency of the state, but more likely by the massively proliferated voluntary societies which were devoted to philanthropic endeavour.
According to Frank Prochaska, it was in these changed and challenging circumstances that British monarchs first turned their attention to the sort of deliberate, large-scale charitable activity that their forebears had disdained, but with which we are now all so familiar. Some did so out of a genuine sense of noblesse oblige. Others did so without pausing to try to fathom their motives. But in retrospect, this amounts to a momentous and very successful change in the direction of sovereign endeavour. It gave members of the royal family something new and necessary to do. It enabled them to re-invent themselves as anxious, concerned, generous, philanthropic, benevolent and public-spirited. And it held out the prospect that if they treated their subjects with such unprecedented consideration and condescension, then their subjects might remain loyal and deferential to them in return. In short, this book describes how the royal family, by a mixture of lucky accident and conscious design, came to exploit the reciprocal potentialities in the gift relationship as part of their strategy for survival in an increasingly uncertain world. More precisely, it describes how the traditionally acquisitive monarchy was replaced by a new give-and-take monarchy, and how the familiar cast of royal warriors, lawmakers, art patrons and demi-gods was swollen and superseded by a new and very different breed of royal social workers, hospital visitors, behind-the-scenes lobbyists, and champions of voluntary activity outside the state.
Although there had been signs and portents of these developments during the reigns of Queen Anne and the early Hanoverians, the British monarchy first seriously embraced good works during the time of George III, who in this as much else was the father and founder of modern royalty. He allowed his name to be associated with many new philanthropic ventures, especially London hospitals, and personally gave £14,000 a year to good causes, which makes him, in relative terms, the most bountiful sovereign that this nation has ever known. Even his sons, who enjoyed a bad press in their day, may have escaped complete derision because they were more involved with charitable associations and voluntary societies than posterity has generally recognised. Predictably, George IV was less generous to others than his father had been, while being much more generous to himself. By contrast, William IV’s erratic giving apparently helped redeem his generally deserved reputation as a reactionary buffoon, as did the conduct of his wife, Queen Adelaide, who on average was probably giving away some £40,000 a year. This not only made her, by a considerable margin, the most benevolent royal benefactress ever: it also prefigured those close connections between matriarchy, domesticity, kindness and charity which have been so marked a feature of the British monarchy from Queen Victoria, via Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary and the Queen Mother, to Queen Elizabeth II and the Princess of Wales.
These early royal philanthropists probably gave more in terms of money than they did in terms of time. But with Victoria and Albert, this state of affairs was reversed, and the familiar pattern was established whereby the main royal contributions to charity were sympathy, patronage, moral support and personal appearances rather than substantial regular subscriptions or occasional major benefactions. She concentrated on organisations concerned with women and children; he was more interested in educational schemes and the problems of poverty. Together, they spent a great deal of time on these good causes: perhaps more, Prochaska suggests, than on any other single activity. But Gladstone was unimpressed, and regarded philanthropic work as an inadequate training in royal statecraft for the young and wayward Prince of Wales. But since Victoria would not let him read state papers, or go to Ireland as Viceroy, doing good was just about the only thing left for him – apart from doing bad. And like Queen Adelaide, but in a significantly different way, he turned out to be unexpectedly accomplished. As Prince of Wales, and even more so as King Edward VII, he was extremely successful in persuading his rich, parvenu, socially ambitious friends like Cassel, Rothschild and Speyer to give seriously large sums to the Royal Hospital Fund. Here was the role that his successors have also made very much their own: urging others to part with their money for charitable purposes, rather than parting with it themselves.
During the First World War, these philanthropic endeavours moved into an even higher gear, as George V and Queen Mary started making regular, morale-boosting visits to factories and hospitals throughout the country. The demise of the Russian, German and Austrian monarchies, combined with fears for the future of the British throne, meant that these efforts were redoubled during the Twenties and Thirties. The Duke and (especially) the Duchess of York were dutiful, hard-working and good with ordinary people. But the Prince of Wales was much less enthusiastic, and as King Edward VIII he did not improve. The Second World War was an intensified and more highly-profiled repeat of the First, as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth regularly visited the bombed-out East End and blitzed provincial cities. But in 1945, with a Labour government hostile to voluntarism and enamoured of centralised planning, the whole world of royal-related charities suddenly looked at risk. In particular, the Welfare State meant the end of those many London and local hospitals with which the royal connection was so strong and had been for so long. Not surprisingly, the King looked on these developments with considerable unease.
These gloomy forebodings were not borne out, however. Even in the heyday of the Welfare State, widespread voluntary activity continued, and there was still plenty for the Queen Mother, the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret to do. And as the Welfare State entered both a political and an economic crisis from the late Seventies, the cult of voluntarism came back into its own, as a central tenet of Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian Values. With a few conspicuous exceptions, such as the disastrous It’s a Royal Knock Out, a new generation of Windsors has taken over where their forebears left off. Prince Charles devotes himself to rather idiosyncratic and unfocused inner-city initiatives. Princess Anne has transformed her public image by her work for the Save the Children Fund. And for a time it seemed as though the Princess of Wales was going to revive the legendary royal touch in her close, tactile encounters with Aids victims. Today, most members of the royal family work harder at charitable activities than they do at anything else, and most voluntary organisations are clear that in terms of good publicity and enlarged public subscriptions, the benefits are real. As the author mordantly concludes, the British monarchy will not be in serious trouble until the begging letters stop arriving at Buckingham Palace.
Such is Prochaska’s account of the apparently inexorable rise of the welfare monarchy, and he deserves high praise for the meticulous detail and scholarly originality which his book displays. Unlike most writing on the subject, he treats the Crown seriously rather than sensationally, historically rather than biographically, critically rather than deferentially, analytically rather than anecdotally. As a result, he opens up a whole world of royal endeavour which has been neglected by contemporary commentators such as Walter Bagehot (for whom charitable activity was neither ‘dignified’ nor ‘efficient’), and by countless recent royal biographers. But if we add this philanthropic monarchy to the ceremonial monarchy, the family monarchy and the imperial monarchy, then we can better discern the varied and interconnected means whereby the British throne has survived and adapted: bread and circuses, home and away. And of these new activities, changed identities and invented justifications, this charitable Crown has so successfully and so completely intruded itself into the remotest recesses of British life that no one has previously thought to ask just when this began to happen, why and how it did so, or what are the consequences of this relatively recent but by now very deep royal entrenchment in our civil society.
Thanks to Prochaska, it is easy to see why successive royal generations have taken so enthusiastically to what had once been an all but off-limits activity. There have for so long been so many charitable associations clamouring for royal patronage that they have to be shared around the whole extended tribe, and this has meant that all of them, however remotely related to the sovereign, can claim to be fulfilling some useful and important public purpose. Moreover, the values which pervade philanthropic voluntarism are comfortingly similar to those of the monarchical mind-set: amateur and unintellectual, sceptical of professionals and experts, distrustful of politicians and state activity, more concerned with ‘character’ than with circumstance, and more at ease with individual case-histories than with deeper social, economic or cultural forces. And in exchange for patronage, moral support, public appearances and limited benefactions, even the least admirable members of the royal family have been able to win the respect and support of many thousands of people, of all social levels and in all walks of life, actively engaged in voluntary work. Thus regarded, charitable activity has become the place where the royal culture of hierarchical condescension, and the popular culture of social aspiration, have successfully merged. From Guinness to Geldof, outsiders have been recognised and rewarded for doing good deeds. The fact that voluntary associations, royal involvement and the honours system, have all expanded together is, Prochaska rightly insists, more than mere coincidence.
As is the fact that the phrase ‘welfare monarchy’ can mean one of two things: either royal bounty – or royal benefits. Ever since the Civil List was instituted during the later 17th century, the royal family has been on welfare, enjoying state subsidies funded by the tax-payer. Perhaps this is why their charitable activity began under Queen Anne, who may have sensed the need for some reciprocal gestures. By the early 19th century, George III’s children were deeply in debt: they were getting far more money from the Government and from their father than they themselves ever raised or gave away. In The Black Book, the radical John Wade opined that the Crown was the premier beneficiary of the nation’s benevolence – a view, Prochaska notes, ‘which had much to recommend it’. Throughout her reign, Queen Victoria received many legacies as well as intestate estates in the Duchy of Lancaster, and accumulated a considerable private fortune out of her savings from the Civil List. During the first three decades of the 20th century, as royal tax exemptions grew, so did royal charitable work – the latter, unsurprisingly, obtaining far more publicity than the former. With the modern British monarchy (as with the Three Kings), there are close and important connections between royal giving and royal taking, and it is a pity Prochaska does not explore them.
The key to royal bounty, it seems clear, is mutual benefits and public relations. Only a small proportion of royal income goes to charity; and only a small proportion of charitable income is derived from royalty. But it is helpful for charities to have royal connections, and it is essential for royals to have charitable connections. Consider the forlorn counter-example provided by the Duke of Windsor. If, after his abdication, he had shown the slightest interest in helping anyone else, apart from himself and his wife, he would surely have enjoyed a much better press than he did. But as Prince of Wales and King, he had never grasped the importance of being seen to give as well as take, and thereafter, he was incapable of learning new tricks. By contrast, the endeavours of the Princess Royal have not only helped save many children: they have also helped save Princess Anne herself. Unlike her sad and separated siblings, this has enabled her to weather divorce and to remarry, while actually gaining in public esteem. Here is a classic example of the way charitable endeavour exalts the prestige and the status of the giver. As with all philanthropic activity, it is not easy to unravel the mutually-reinforcing motives of selflessness and self-interest, and Prochaska does not try to do so. All that can safely be said is that most members of the royal family have difficulty distinguishing between concern about society, concern about the social order and concern about what best to do so they can remain at the top of it.
Royal motivation is habitually unfathomable – as are the processes whereby the throne changes and adapts. To be sure, there were important moments in the evolution of the charitable monarchy: the decisions taken by George III, by Victoria and Albert and by George V after the First World War. And there were also important non-royals whose intervention was sometimes crucial: among them Sir Henry Burdett and the ubiquitous Viscount Esher, who successfully persuaded Edward VII to pressure his plutocratic friends into philanthropic gestures. But very often, the agents of change cannot be found or named, and Prochaska is frequently reduced to invoking that well-known abstraction ‘the Palace’. To make things more complex, there is the in-house royal view, memorably put by the Queen Mother, recalling her labours in the Second World War: ‘everybody just did their best.’ All this makes it extremely difficult to decide whether the evolution of the charitable Crown has been the result of deliberate calculation, or of gradual, piecemeal, unselfconscious evolution, or of a constantly changing interaction between the two. Prochaska is no more sure about this than he is about royal motivation, preferring instead to shelter behind an epigraph chosen from, of all people, Oliver Cromwell: ‘A man never rises so high as when he does not know where he is going.’ This can hardly be described as appropriate or helpful or incisive.
Nevertheless, it bears repeating that this book tells us more about the functioning of the modern British monarchy than any previous account. As the author rightly points out, if we seriously want to debate the costs, utility, and future of the royal throne (and the answer so far seems in practice to have been no), then the best place to begin is surely with an attempt to be better informed as to what it actually does. But despite Prochaska’s excellent, pioneering account, the inner dynamics and essential workings of this most tenacious and adaptable of national institutions remain in some ways as obscure and elusive as ever. The magic may have faded in recent years, but pace Walter Bagehot, the daylight which has replaced it is, by and large, pale, feeble, sporadic, un-serious, ill-informed and wholly inadequate. The British monarchy may neither want nor deserve better; the British people do. Or at least, they ought to.