- Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy by Frank Prochaska
Yale, 352 pp, £19.95, October 1995, ISBN 0 300 06453 5
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.