Is monarchy just an illusion, used to dignify shadowy forces?

“There is no power but from God.”

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The Efficient and the Dignified

Walter Bagehot, an enormously influential writer on the English constitution, wrote that there are two parts of government.

“[F]irst, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population – the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts – those by which it, in fact, works and rules.

“There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved: every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority; it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and then employ that homage in the work of government.”[1]

The “most dignified” institution of all is, of course, the Crown.

Elsewhere, Bagehot writes:

“As long as we keep up a double set of institutions – one dignified and intended to impress the many, the other efficient and intended to govern the many – we should take care that the two match nicely, and hide where the one begins and where the other ends.”[2]

And further:

“[The English constitution] contains “dignified” parts – parts, that is, retained, not for intrinsic use, but from their imaginative attraction upon an uncultured and rude population.”[3]

To state things in simplistic and cynical terms, Bagehot presents a picture in which “the dignified” institutions are used as an ruse to trick “the many” into being governed properly by “the efficient” institutions.

Bagehot’s theories have shaped how many have viewed the monarchy – not least, we are told, the monarchs themselves. No doubt this is an accurate description of how ceremony and pomp are used to achieve the ends of government.

But is it true, that the monarchy can be completely understood in this reductive and utilitarian way, as theatre at the service of brute force?

Is the monarch nothing more than a figurehead, imparting a dignity and legitimacy to those who actually wield power?

Would this even be a negative thing in itself, aside from being open to abuse?

Some of these questions are expressed in a very simplistic way. But to consider the ideas, let’s look at the teaching of Holy Scripture about power and civil authority.

Monarchy and Holy Scripture

In his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul writes:

“[T]here is no power but from God: and those that are ordained of God.” (Rom. 13.1)

He then applies this to civil authorities:

“Princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil […] For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain.  For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” (Rom 13.3-4)

These injunctions of submission, reverence and honour towards civil authorities run through the New Testament. In his First Epistle, St Peter tells us:

“Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good.

“For so is the will of God, that by doing well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free and not as making liberty a cloak for malice, but as the servants of God.

“Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” (1 Pet. 2.13-17)

St Paul writes to Titus:

“Admonish them to be subject to princes and powers, to obey at a word, to be ready to every good work.” (Titus 3.1)

Similarly, we see St Paul calling for us to pray for the monarch.

“I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men: for kings and for all that are in high station: that we may lead a quiet and a peaceable life in all piety and chastity.

“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2.1-3)

Our Lord tells us:

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22.21)

And he says to Pontius Pilate:

“Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above.” (John 19.11)

It is very difficult to reconcile these texts with a reductive understanding of Bagehot’s theories. Civil authority is more than brute force, and it finds its root in God.

However, this does not justify a tyranny in which the Monarch’s whim is law. Above both the King, and those who use his dignity to further their policies, let’s recall the words of the St Peter and the Apostles:

“We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5.29)

Most importantly of all, let’s remember that civil society is obliged to recognise the sovereignty of Christ the King, and to govern in accordance with the natural law.

St Thomas and Law

St Thomas Aquinas summarises these scriptural texts:

“The king is indeed the minister of God in governing the people, as the Apostle says: There is no authority except from God (Rom 13:1) and God’s minister is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4). And in the Book of Wisdom, kings are described as being ministers of God (Wis 6:5).”[4]

So civil authority is a good thing, and not a mere illusion covering up brute force. And what do we find at the heart of civil authority?


The purpose of the civil authority is to order society towards peace and the common good, in accordance with reason – in other words, to govern in accordance with law. Even if our liberties are being progressively eroded, those which we continue to enjoy come from being ruled in accordance with law.

St Thomas defines a law as:

“An ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”[5]

This brings us to the question of who can make law. St Thomas tells us:

“A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good. Now to order anything to the common good, belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people.

“And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.”[6]

God can and does bestow civil authority and the right to govern and to make laws in different ways in different states.[7] Leo XIII acknowledges that the chief power may be held by one, many or all – and that the recipient or recipients of this power might be designated by inheritance, law or election. But to return and summarise again the Scriptural texts, he continues:

“[A]s regards political power, the Church rightly teaches that it comes from God, for it finds this clearly testified in the sacred Scriptures and in the monuments of antiquity; besides, no other doctrine can be conceived which is more agreeable to reason, or more in accord with the safety of both princes and peoples.”[8]

St Thomas also lists the various types of law according to the various forms of government, including monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy and democracy.[9] But he concludes with this comment:

“[T]here is a form of government made up of all these, and which is the best: and in this respect we have law sanctioned by the ‘Lords and Commons,’ as stated by Isidore.”[10]

This is our form of government in England, and the United Kingdom.

The English Constitution

Laws in the United Kingdom are made with the sanction of Lords and Commons – but always with Royal Assent.

The Crown is crucial to civil authority in our nation. There are different and disputed understandings of what exactly “The Crown” means. A recent Parliamentary briefing gave a range of ideas, including one legal scholar saying that “the Crown ‘means simply the Queen’” [Ed.: and now, the King].[11]

This will suffice for our purposes, because this is not an essay proposing to resolve legal debates, nor to be speaking in precise constitutional terms.[12]

The supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom is “The Crown-in-Parliament” (the Monarch, together with the House of Commons and the House of Lords), and there are no laws without both the Crown and Parliament.

With regards to the judicial system, the Crown is referred to as the “Fount of Justice.” The briefing already mentioned quotes Martin Loughlin (whose references to the Queen evidently now refer to the King):

“All jurisdiction is […] exercised in the name of the Queen, and all judges derive their authority from her commission. Every breach of the peace is a transgression against the Queen. She alone has the authority to prosecute criminals; when sentence is passed, she alone can remit the punishment.”[13]

We can see these ideas elsewhere: for example, the UK Government is properly called “His Majesty’s Government”, and many of the powers it exercises are based on Royal Prerogatives.

It is easy to see how this mixed government could be described in the terms used by Bagehot, and how one may come to see Bagehot’s reductive theory as a taxative account of the purpose and person of the monarch.

But we know from revelation and the teaching of the Church that this cannot be. Civil authority in our nation is exercised by and in the name of one man – who must, in turn, receive this civil authority directly and immediately from God.

This man is King Charles III. Whatever authority has been exercised in our land, even through ministers and delegates, remains that of the Monarch. The exercise of this power is, in many cases, limited by constitutional convention – but the Crown remains the principle of this authority.

No-one else but King Charles III shares the unique privilege of receiving this civil authority, directly and immediately from God. Each such exercise of civil authority derives its power and force from him.


Let everyone in government and even the monarch himself consider the Crown to be an illusion, retained solely for what Bagehot called its “imaginative attraction upon an uncultured and rude population” – this does not make it so.[14]

Let everyone think that by denying this, we are merely enhancing the illusion even further.

The dignified parts of our constitution may well make government smoother and more efficient, and this may be abused by wicked men. But this is not the whole story.

Whatever anyone may think of Charles III, his politics, philosophy, religion, theories of kingship, or of unknown “efficient” forces benefiting from his “dignity”, he is our King.

Far from being an illusion, our monarchy is more real than many of its establishment proponents realise, or might wish to be true. As King, Charles III is the living principle of authority, order, law and liberty in our state – and even, in a sense, embodying these things.

Perhaps we would have these same good things under a different form of government. But in fact, we have this form of government, in which civil authority is derived from the Monarch, who in turn receives it directly and immediately from Almighty God himself. If we value these good things, then it is right and proper to reverence the King.

This is not to say that we must feel “grateful” to him for our liberties and rights as subjects, nor to imagine him as a heroic figure with no moral responsibility or agency. We do not honour him for what he does for us, but rather for what he is: our Sovereign, and the actual source of civil authority in our nation.

For all these reasons, there can be no shame in honouring and praying His Majesty King Charles III, celebrating his coronation, and wishing him well for his reign.

Finally, those who fear that King Charles III will advance (or be used to advance) certain agendas should recall that we cannot expect any help from God if we do not ask for it. There are indeed reasons to be concerned when we note certain positions held by the King. Acceptance of a man as head of state does not entail acceptance or compliance of anything contrary to the truth or the law of God. To this end, the antiphon sung in England after the principal Mass each Sunday is included below.

Further Reading

The WM Review – Why ignorance and prejudice are a dangerous mix – Cardinal Newman and the British Constitution

The WM Review – Should Catholics avoid celebrating King Charles III’s coronation?

The WM Review – Why we are mourning Queen Elizabeth II’s death

Why do we celebrate a coronation? A sermon by Mgr Ronald Knox

Sir John Fortescue’s On the Laws and Governance of England (and for UK readers), published in the sixteenth century, with frequent reference to St Thomas Aquinas.

Walter Bagehot – The English Constitution (1867)

St Thomas Aquinas – On Kingship. Despite the title, this is about more than just Kingship: it also deals with the purpose of civil authority in itself. In Opuscula I, from the Aquinas Institute (UK readers) and online at

Aristotle – Politics (and for UK readers and online)

Fr Edward Cahill – Framework of a Christian State (and for UK readers and online)

Mgr Paul F. Glenn – Sociology

V. O Lord, save Charles our King
R. And hear us in the day that we shall call upon thee.

Let us pray.

We beseech thee, almighty God, that thy servant Charles our King, who through thy mercy has undertaken the government of this realm, may also receive an increase of all virtues. Fittingly adorned with these, may he be able to shun all evildoing, and, together with the Queen consort and the royal family, to come by thy grace unto thee who art the way, the truth, and the life. Through Christ our Lord.

R: Amen.

Source: The Society of St Bede


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[1] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, 1867, pp 4-5 Chapman and Hall, London 1867. Available at:

[2] Ibid. 204

[3] Ibid. 252

[4] St Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, Chapter 8, available in Opuscula I, Aquinas Institute, 2018 (and for UK readers). Available online at

[5] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q90 A4. (and for UK readers)

[6] ST, I-II, Q90 A3.

[7] Pope Leo XIII taught in Diuturnum: “5. Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.

6. It is of importance, however, to remark in this place that those who may be placed over the State may in certain cases be chosen by the will and decision of the multitude, without opposition to or impugning of the Catholic doctrine. And by this choice, in truth, the ruler is designated, but the rights of ruling are not thereby conferred. Nor is the authority delegated to him, but the person by whom it is to be exercised is determined upon.

7. There is no question here respecting forms of government, for there is no reason why the Church should not approve of the chief power being held by one man or by more, provided only it be just, and that it tend to the common advantage. Wherefore, so long as justice be respected, the people are not hindered from choosing for themselves that form of government which suits best either their own disposition, or the institutions and customs of their ancestors.

Encyclical Diuturnum, 1881, available at:

[8] Leo XIII, Encyclical Diuturnum, 1881, n. 8, available at:

[9] ST I-II Q95 A4

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sir William Wade, ‘The Crown, Ministers and Officials’, in M. Sunkin and S. Payne, The Nature of the Crown (and for UK readers), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p 24. Quoted in David Torrance, The Crown and the Constitution, House of Commons Library, 4 February 2022, p 6. Available at

[12] “The terms ‘the sovereign’ or ‘monarch’ and ‘the Crown’ are related but have separate meanings. The Crown encompasses both the monarch and the government. It is vested in the Queen, but in general its functions are exercised by Ministers of the Crown accountable to the UK Parliament or the three devolved legislatures.” Torrance, 6.

[13] Martin Loughlin, “The State, the Crown and the Law” in M. Sunkin and S. Payne, p 58. Quoted in Torrance 46.

[14] Bagehot 252.

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