When did the English Royalty lose political power?

Please excuse this American for his ignorance, but I was wondering if someone could help me out with something I’ve been wondering about the English Monarchy for a while…That is, when did the Royalty stop having any real power over the government? Queen Victoria seemed to be in control of things, but by the time WWII came about, it wasn’t George VI that went to Malta to meet with Roosevelt and Stalin. Can anyone enlighten me?
Well, thanks for your patience,

I think you can safely say it started in 1215 with the Magna Carta. However, you seem to mean when did the monarchy stop weilding any political power in the day-to-day running of things. I’m not entirely certain since the monarch of Britain still retains a good deal of political power…

The overwhelming majority of those “prerogative powers” (the technical term for the powers she retains as Queen) are exercised “on the advice of her ministers” – i.e., they tell her what she should do, and she does it. And her authority in countries other than the U.K. is exercised through her Governor Generals. In addition to which, the custom amounting to a constitutional mandate is that she must appoint a P.M. from among those who can command a majority in the House of Commons. Since each party in Parliament has a leader and only one party at most will have a majority, her choice is akin to the one offered by Mr. Hobson’s livery stable.

In answer to the OP’s actual question – Kings through Charles I (to 1649) were unquestionably in charge. The Civil War and Commonwealth tweaked that significantly, and Charles II (1660-85) had much power but had to deal with Parliament. James II attempted to use his prerogative in ways displeasing to Parliament, and got the boot in 1689. William III (1689-1702) and Anne (1702-14) operated much as Charles II had, with ministers advising and carrying out the royal will, but with the ministers having to be personally pleasing to the monarch.

With the Hanoverian kings, and their distancing of themselves from the English people, power shifted to ministers responsible to the House of Commons, though the monarch’s will could still strongly influence events. This continued, diminuendo, through Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), but her son and his heirs tended to take on the “royal figurehead” role that is most people’s impression of the present Queen.

It needs to be noted, though, that much of British politics works on a cooperative, advisory model and behind the scenes. The Queen is a moderately intelligent woman with over 50 years of experience dealing with power, and it’s a fool of a Prime Minister who doesn’t avail himself of her experience and insight. None of what transpires at their conferences is ever made public, however, save in vague snippets well after the fact, so the extent to which she influences decisions is not well-known. One interesting point which has been documented, though, dates back to 1947, when she was still a princess and recently married. Her permission was sought to send her wedding gown in an exhibition of British fashion design to America, and she cited five good reasons why this was politically unadvisable, convincing the minister responsible for approving the exhibition that it was a poor idea. I doubt she’s lost a whole lot of insight in the years since, and has probably gained a fair amount. She is kept abreast of all her government’s major decisions, and the grounds for taking them, before the fact, and no doubt speaks up, in private, when she sees a bad move about to be made.

Damn, that last sentence sure begs a question…

If you have to assign a particular date, it’d be 1688. Parliament and the Monarch disagree over who’s in charge. The King ends up being replaced. One assumes subsequent Monarchs got the point.

I’m not too sure myself, having not studied more recent British history in depth. However, for the actual point raised, I’d suggest a starting point would be WWI. The Germanic links to the Royal Family were an acute embarrassment - originally called “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” they took upon themselves the title of “Windsor” to sound more English - and it is likely that during this time the British PM was allowed greater reign. After all, you wouldn’t want the public thinking that the Germans controlled British politics. Likely the British King of the time (I forget who it was) settled into a more symbolic role that was simply never broken from, especially with the continuing tensions with Germany towards and including WWII.

Standard note about use of the expression “English Royality”.

Usual correction to : “British Royalty”.

Charles I tested the limits of the English people’s patience, and ever since then monarchs have had to tread warily, with their powers gradually fading like dew in the morning sun.
Even before his time, Parliament held the power of the purse-strings and periodically yanked the chains of rulers like Elizabeth I and James I/VI.

Forgot to mention (though I’m pretty sure you already know) that Charles I was the one who had his head sliced off for tring to act like an absolutist French monarch.

The last act of Parliament to which the royal assent was refused was in 1707. By the 1860s, Walter Bagehot observed in his book The English Constitution that the monarch would be obliged to assent to her own death warrant if Parliament enacted a bill for it.

There’s a lot of debate in Parliament in the 18th century over the power of the monarch, and the influence of the monarch, and how best to curb it … debate which anti-Royalists, on the whole, won. (Though of course some people in the colonies just had to go completely over the top on the whole issue in 1776 … )

I think Prince Albert was probably the last member of the British royal family to attempt to assume a proactive role for the monarchy … after he died, and Queen Victoria became a semi-recluse, the power of Parliament was essentially unchallenged, and has remained that way ever since. (And, traditionalist and Royalist that I am, even I have to concede that that’s the way it ought to be.)

The chronology sketched out by Polycarp is relatively uncontroversial. These are just some additional comments.

The first is that, however obvious the long-term trend may seem in retrospect, the issue was one which was always being contested by monarchs themselves, by their ministers, by Parliament, by the lawyers and, even occasionally, by the people. There has always been a tension between constitutional theory (or rather theories) and actual practice, not always to the monarch’s disadvantage.

The second is that one should not see this as simply a process involving two sides - it was never just a case of King v. Parliament. Indeed, it makes rather more sense to say that the role of Parliament was something of a side issue (sounds familiar?) and that the real change has been that power has shifted from the monarch to his/her ministers. This has partly been because of the complex changing relationship between those ministers and Parliament - ministers gained power because of their support in Parliament but equally they gained support in Parliament because they were gaining power. But, perhaps more importantly, monarchs themselves found it convenient to delegate power to their ministers, particularly as government itself became a more complicated process. More recently, monarchs have seen positive advantages in distancing themselves from political decision-making. Why bother doing the hard work of governing the country when one can just be a figurehead?

It should also be noted that monarchs gave up control of different policy areas at different times. Eighteenth-century British monarchs had little desire to influence financial policy, mainly because the details of financial policy could by then only be mastered by the most nerdish of policy wonks. Most, on the other hand, took a very active interest in military and ecclesiastical affairs. A interesting case is social policy which really only developed as a central feature of government activity during the nineteenth century. This was not one over which successive monarchs ever took a detailed interest as a political issue, but it is now recognised that they played a major role in the voluntary sector (particularly in hospitals) which was then seen as a necessary supplement to government action. By deliberately seeking a non-political role, they gained considerable influence over areas of policy the government wanted to keep non-political.

The area in which they tended to retain an influence for longest was foreign policy. (It helped that the nature of diplomacy has always made it difficult for Parliament to exercise direct control over foreign policy - again, this has a topical resonance.) I, Brian therefore has a point when he says 1914, but not for the reason he gives. So long as royal marriages were thought to be of diplomatic significance and royal relatives abroad had political power, the monarch retained some leverage over foreign policy. It would be fair to say that overall these were only minor factors in British foreign policy by the final decades of the nineteenth century, but there remained the possibility that they might become major ones. Even during her widowhood, Victoria’s ministers had to take her views on foreign policy into account, while Edward VII was still able to exercise some influence. Until 1914 it was not unthinkable that George V might do so as well. However, after 1918, when all the other remaining European monarchies were second-rank powers, dynastic factors simply didn’t come into it.

As for Yalta, I think you have to go back to the eighteenth century to find examples of British monarchs negotiating in person with foreign rulers at summit meetings held abroad. (Even then the parallel is not exact, as the only cases I can think of are ones when George I and George II met local rulers while on the Continent. One might have to go back to Henry VIII for an exact parallel.)

I’ve read the theory that the real reason that Edward VIII was required to abdicate in 1936 was not because of his marriage plans but because of his views on the power of the monarchy. Edward had made it clear he intended to reassert his power and parliamentary leaders, wishing to avoid the controversy, seized on his marriage as a plausible reason to oust him.

The truth is the power of the British, formely English monarchy was eroded throughout the centuries here are a few key events which are partially responsible for this:

The Magna Carta
The Act of Union
The Civil War, Protectorate and Restoration
The Glorious Revolution
The Hanoverian Succession
Queen Victoria’s reliance on her Prime Ministers to govern for her

Someone told me of an incident that happened around the turn of last century of a royal decree or something that caused controversy, but was strategically sound.

It involved the monarch modernizing the army by decree, possibly during the Boer War, to give military commands to those who were truly qualified, rather than to important, wealthy folk. A move that angered many, but was quite neccesary.

I think the real watershed was probably 1936 when the “civilian” government forced a king to abdicate. In point of fact, being British, it is not entirely clear what real authority the ruling monarch has. An intelligent, activist monarch would actually have considerable scope to influence events if he or she really wanted to. Imagine, for a moment, if Prince Charles were a cross between Lady Diana and Bill Clinton.

Of course, overplaying such a hand might result in the final overthrow of the monarchy.

This sounds like a confused combination of several separate interpretations of Edward VIII’s intentions. It is true that, on becoming king, some believed that Edward planned to be a great reformer who would ‘modernize’ the monarchy. This however was assumed to be about the style of the monarchy, not its political role. What was envisaged was a move away from the ultra-stuffy atmosphere of his father’s court. The reforms Edward actually achieved were, in fact, all very trivial and most were welcomed even by Queen Mary, the very embodiment of the court’s stuffiness. Edward later denied that he ever had any grand plan.

As for his political views, there are the two major controversies - his supposed support for social reform and his supposed support for Nazi Germany. The idea that he was sympathetic to social reform really only rests on a few public comments - ‘Something must be done’ is the famous one - and those were all little more than the sort of sympathetic platitudes that members of the Royal Family are expected to make. What else could he have said when he made tours of deprived areas? He was concerned about the social consequences of the Depression, but only in the very generalised way that many members of the upper classes of the time were. That did not amount to a political programme.

His supposed support for Nazi Germany is a much bigger question. Most of it has been blown completely out of proportion. The key point about him as king is that he did want improved relations with Germany, but then so did most of his subjects and such a position was also wholly consistent with the official policy of the government.

If anything, Baldwin happily edged him out not because he saw him as a threat but because he saw him as ineffectual. Of course, it should not need to be pointed out that the main reason he forced him to abdicate was because Edward’s proposed marriage was an issue of huge public controversy and getting rid of him was the simplest, least messy solution.

What you’re referring to was the abolition of the sale of army commissions in 1871. The constitutional point was that this was introduced by a royal decree rather than by statute. As such, however, it falls into the category of ministers using prerogative powers in the monarch’s name. It so happened that Victoria supported the reform, which did make things easier for her ministers, but it is unlikely that she would have refused to sign had she disagreed. The text of the warrant can be found here.


Yes, but only if he could persuade his ministers (in particular the Prime Minister) to go along with him. You may think that the Queen has lots of potential power, but that is nothing compared to that of a PM with a secure majority in the Commons. The PM is entirely within his rights to tell Her Majesty to get lost, although he would no doubt do so accompanied by lots of bowing and scraping.

All of this raises some (hopefully) interesting questions for me. Let’s say that tomorrow Queen Elizabeth dies and Prince Charles becomes King Charles. Unfortunately King Charles turns out to be considderably less than mentally stable. After his first meeting with his PM he declares Tony Blair a traitor to the crown and orders that his head be put on a spike at the tower of London. Should the British police or military fail to act on his order immediately he raises his own army out of the various help he has around whatever mansion he’s living in at that point. Because he never trusted the French Canadians he disbands Canada’s government and says that the Canadian parlament is now populated by all the sheep in Alberta. Finally, to round off his first hour as king he officially declares Wednesday as Free Pudding Day for his entire empire.

So, what would happen? Obviously there would be a move to replace him rather quickly but could an inbred monarch run havok with Britain before Parliment organized enough to put a stop to him?

related to this is, of course, who was the first proper “Prime Minister” - the answer probably being Robert Walpole