On 23 January, Jacob Rees-Mogg reintroduced the country to the concept of prorogation – the suspension of Parliament by the monarch. Like Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg is fond of bogus erudition – the Brexit white paper was, he said, ‘the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Philip II at Le Goulet in 1200’ – and he must have enjoyed expressing his hope that it would ‘not be necessary for Her Majesty’s stay at Sandringham to be interrupted by her in person having to prorogue Parliament’. Speaking the next day at a Women’s Institute meeting in West Newton village hall, however, the queen herself appeared to suggest that she would prefer her subjects to sort this one out among themselves.
If even the queen wasn’t up for it, there probably wasn’t much of a constituency, outside the Rees-Moggs, for seeking salvation via the monarch. Or so I thought until an acquaintance mentioned that last year he had happened to attend the Mass for Charles I at Banqueting House, held every year on 30 January, the anniversary of the king’s beheading. His wife, who was helping with the music, had got him interested by saying that the hymns would include ‘O Holy King, Whose Severed Head’ by the Hon. Mrs Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. The sermon, he reported, ‘revolved around the notion that the constitution had been ruined since 1649, and that the common good required a reversion to the good old days of personal rule’. It had gone down well with the congregation, who had looked like members of Rees-Mogg’s extended family.
Unsure if my acquaintance was making this up or not, I found the Society of King Charles the Martyr’s website, which said that the organisation was founded by Ermengarda Greville-Nugent herself, in tandem with the Reverend James Leonard Fish, in 1894, ‘at the height of the neo-Jacobitism [sic], a Romantic-Decadent movement which reacted against cynical and self-interested influences in … contemporary politics’. No wonder it was still going. From Wikipedia I learned that it was one of the less militant groups to have revered the martyr-king at that time: in 1893, a ‘considerable detachment of police’, sent out on Gladstone’s orders, prevented the Legitimist Jacobite League from laying a wreath at an equestrian statue of Charles I. The SKCM had more of an Aubrey Beardsley vibe. Greville-Nugent – who’s mentioned under her maiden name, Ogilvy, in one of Browning’s letters – published a book of Pre-Raphaelitish verse, and, according to a website about Afghan hounds, once owned the cave in which Robert the Bruce hid out. I’d just confirmed that A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo was packed with neo-Jacobites when my acquaintance popped up online with further information about the annual Mass. ‘I should add, it’s this Wednesday,’ he wrote.
Wednesday, 30 January was a cold day in Whitehall, and I can’t have been the only visitor to think of Charles I’s request for a second shirt so that he wouldn’t shiver on the scaffold outside Banqueting House. Inside, men in tailcoats with occult-looking lapel pins were setting up rows of seats under Rubens’s ceiling, which depicts a piously surprised James VI and I ascending into heaven on an eagle and an imperial globe. They were wandsmen, one of them told me, from St Paul’s, there to help with the ushering. At the back of the hall, highly variegated clergy were taking stock. Were they rivals or fellow travellers? A Russian Orthodox priest made cautious small talk with a young man in extravagant blue and red robes who turned out to be a follower of the Western Orthodox rite from a monastery near Dumfries. At 11.40 a.m., the wandsmen ushered the growing crowd into a tiny courtyard outside the front door. From time to time, perplexed tourists shuffled through the expectant congregants. At last a priest emerged and began to address us about the king’s self-sacrifice in the cause of episcopacy. I scanned the crowd for possible signs of its being the European Research Group at prayer. ‘Very male crowd’, I scribbled in my notebook. ‘Mutton-chop whiskers, chin beards, Van Dyke beards. Blue Lennon shades. Camel overcoats.’ The priest spoke of the king’s renunciation of his ‘earthly crown’, pronounced ‘crine’.
Back inside and seated for the service, I spotted more birettas than I’d seen on Anglicans before. I hadn’t heard readings sung before either. The words of 1 Peter 2.18 – ‘Honour the King. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear’ – sounded less commandingly authoritarian when recited at a sustained G sharp. ‘One pair red trousers’, I scribbled, ‘one orange. Woman in Agatha Christie cloche hat.’ Ermengarda Greville-Nugent was remembered in the prayers. The sermon, when it came, didn’t allude to Brexit or prorogation. Instead the preacher quoted secular historians as grudgingly impressed witnesses to Charles I’s qualities, including, perhaps daringly, J.P. Kenyon’s description of ‘his feminine delicacy of feature, his tristesse, that Pre-Raphaelite droop so attractive to the old ladies of Anglo-Catholicism’. He was ‘the only post-Reformation monarch to be accredited with healing miracles after his death’, and there were those who believed that England had enjoyed special providential favours under his personal rule. We rose and sang of ‘the puritan’s fierce anger,/Blazing into civil strife’. At the side of the hall, a young woman and two young priests – low churchmen? proper Catholics? – were visibly struggling not to laugh.
After the final blessing I joined the queue for the ‘veneration of primary relic’. In an elaborate silver mount, held up by a priest, were a few hairs from Charles I’s head. I managed an air-kiss in the general direction before walking awkwardly to the back of the hall. The crowd was dispersing too hurriedly to be quizzed about their views on prorogation, but the conversations trailing out of hearing at the exit – ‘I think he’s a friend of Roger Scruton’s’ – suggested that there weren’t many Remainers around. Walking down Whitehall, I wondered whether Leave and Remain would be long-lasting identities, like Tory and Whig, and whether our grandchildren would inherit an Irish-style system in which they voted for one of two political parties based on which side we’d supported during the Great Brexit Contention. Outside the Houses of Parliament, where the Cooper-Boles amendment had been defeated the night before with no need for prorogation, there were strangely few protesters about. There was scaffolding everywhere and no sign, as yet, of providential favours.