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keobooks's avatar

At what point did the British Royal family become figureheads of state?

Asked by keobooks (14303points) April 14th, 2013

I was watching this documentary series on Netflix called Monarchy UK. It was really gripping, but ended shortly after Cromwell’s death. They did mention re-instating the monarchy and putting Charles II on the throne, but there was no mention of what powers that king had.

I know that Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t have any real rights or responsibilities as a queen except for ceremonial purposes and I was just wondering when did this change happen? Did Queen Victoria have any power on the throne, for instance? I am guessing the decline of power began after Cromwell (Magna Carta aside, because Kings still had a pretty strong hand even with it) but I wasn’t sure how fast it took for things to change to what they are today.

I assume the change was gradual, but I was just curious as to about when did the position of King or Queen become almost purely ceremonial and symbolic?

Feel free to link to interesting sites! I was having trouble muddling through wikipedia because it just states the facts and doesn’t get into exactly how much power did each Monarch possess.

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10 Answers

glacial's avatar

I don’t have a direct answer to your question, but since you ask for interesting links, you might enjoy Simon Schama’s series A History of Britain. It’s all on YouTube, and goes from 3100 BC to close to the present day.

JLeslie's avatar

Interesting question. I don’t know the answer exactly, but I had been under the impression, (although it should be said my knowledge of history, royalty and government is pitiful, even regarding my own country) that the Queen actually still has sovereign power to actually make decisions affecting government, but the royal family chooses to allow the Prime Minister and other powers at be handle these things. Kind of at the perogative of the Queen at this point in history and later might be a King. I can’t see the royal family ever doing anything to exercise the power if indeed I am right.

Looking forward to more answers, and to be corrected if I am wrong.

Kardamom's avatar

As far as I can tell, Queen Victoria was the last British monarch with the “absolute” power to make laws. This changed during her reign, so her successor, Edward VII became the first monarch to start his reign without “absolute” power. You can read more about Victoria here: http://www.historynet.com/queen-victoria and Edward VII here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_VII

flutherother's avatar

These are the powers the Queen has:

Domestic Affairs

The appointment and dismissal of ministers;
The summoning, prorogation and dissolution of Parliament;
Royal assent to bills;
The appointment and regulation of the civil service;
The commissioning of officers in the armed forces;
Directing the disposition of the armed forces in the UK;
Appointment of Queen’s Counsel;
Issue and withdrawal of passports;
Prerogative of mercy. (Used to apply in capital punishment cases. Still used, eg to remedy errors in sentence calculation)
Granting honours;
Creation of corporations by Charter;

Foreign Affairs

The making of treaties;
Declaration of war;
Deployment of armed forces overseas;
Recognition of foreign states;
Accreditation and reception of diplomats.

We inhabitants of Great Britain are not citizens. We are all subjects of the Monarch.

zenvelo's avatar

It’s been a gradual process since 1215. And every so often over the centuries and internal wars, the Crown has ceded power. And, as @Kardamom pointer out, much of it changed under Victoria.

They still retain absolute authority over opening public buildings and hospitals.

keobooks's avatar

What exactly is the difference between being a citizen and a subject?

flutherother's avatar

Citizens are essentially equal to one another as in ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’
Subjects are not equal and have no rights other than those the monarch chooses to bestow upon us.

In practise in modern Britain there is no difference. In theory there is all the difference between freedom and serfdom.

keobooks's avatar

I think this is one of those things Americans will never quite get. I mean you say that subjects have no rights except what the monarch chooses to bestow. Does that mean that if the Queen went berserk she could bulldoze down all the public hospitals and that would be just fine? Could she just randomly decide to dissolve parliament and sell her subjects into slavery? Could she just randomly declare war against Antarctica and nobody could stop her?

I’m not trying to be a troll.. I’m just confused. As an outsider, it always seems that people from the UK try to say “Oh no! She’s NOT just a figurehead… she can do all this powerful stuff.. but she chooses not to and to be honest, if she tried, parliament could probably stop her.. and technically, she owns all of us.. but if she ever tried to do anything with that power, she’d be stopped..” So it comes down to that she doesn’t really do anything and can’t really do much even if she wanted to.

I just don’t get it.

janbb's avatar

@keobooks I have heard the analogy drawn that the monarchy is sort of like our flag, if that helps. I really think it is basically an anachronism although the new Prime Minister still visits the Queen for confirmation and it times of war, the monarchy can be an important rallying point, cf. “The King’s Speech.”.

flutherother's avatar

The powers the monarch once had have never been cancelled but today are exercised through the government of the day. The Queen now mostly just rubber stamps the government’s decisions. However Margaret Thatcher was able to bypass Parliament and use the authority of the ‘Royal Prerogative’ to go to war over the Falklands in 1982.

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