When the thirteen colonies of British America decided to part ways with King George III, it sparked the Revolutionary War, also called the War of Independence. The American leaders vowed to be free from the ties of monarchs and create their own fate. We know what happened to the colonies, but what became of the king and his line?
The following centuries were not kind to the idea of the divine right of kings. During the 16th and 17th centuries, a king was deemed to be appointed by God, and, therefore, any decision he made was considered automatically right. Any rebellion against him was considered a rebellion against God. Yet, those days were ending.
With the French Revolution in 1789, the idea that kings and queens were beyond the reproach of mortal men came to an end across much of Europe. What royalty remained had to find a way to exist in a more egalitarian world.
Today, several European countries retain their royal families, but without the power they once had. Britain has kept its monarchy to this day – but it was actually one of the first European nations to question the absolute rule of a king or queen.
The English Parliament was formed in 1215, while the Parliament of Scotland was established in 1235. Since the signing of the Magna Carta in the year 1215, power slowly ebbed away from the monarch and toward the Parliament. Eventually, in 1707, the British Parliament was created from this tradition with the joining of the countries of the British Isles. The Parliament is embodied in the House of Commons and the House of Lords – the two chambers of government, similar in some ways to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. While the House of Commons is made up of ministers elected by the people, the House of Lords is filled with “lords,” who are either born into the position, or appointed.
In 1688, the English Parliament decided that King James II was not acting in the best interests of the country and removed him, installing William III on the throne; from here on, the crown would answer to the government. This brought with it a Bill of Rights and the end of the monarch’s power to remove a parliament.
The king was left with just two real powers. The first being that he could appoint ministers, the second that he could veto any law passed by Parliament. In reality, the last time this latter power was used was in 1708.
It is often said that the American revolutionaries threw off the yoke of the British Crown, but by this time, power in Britain resided with the Parliament.
From Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837 until Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, British monarchs have been largely at their respective governments’ whim. It is perhaps the worst position of all for a king or queen: plenty of responsibility but no real power outside of ceremonial duties such as opening a new parliament and inviting a new Prime Minister to form a government.
Today’s monarch does, however, retain two useful roles:
- In the event of a hung Parliament (one in which no side can form a majority), he or she can give strong “advice” on appointing a caretaker government.
- If the Prime Minister loses a vote of no confidence and refuses to step aside, the king or queen could dismiss the person (although they would only do so with the consent of Parliament).
After splitting in 1776, Britain and the U.S. continued to evolve on their own – but both have ended up following a path similar to many nations in the years since, which is away from the absolute rule that a royal family used to enjoy and toward a system where a government is voted in by the people.
Today, the British have a similar relationship with their government as Americans. They vote, and sometimes they stand for office. Despite the split between the two nations all those years ago, the governments and the people have followed a similar trajectory.