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Read: One Thousand Years of Whims and Wars

A History of Royal Power in Britain

By Shannon Stockwell

King Charles III

Allison Jean White as Kate, Christopher McLinden as Prince William and Robert Joy as King Charles in the American Conservatory Theater production of King Charles III, directed by David Muse. Photo by Kevin Berne.

With Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, constitutional crisis is on the agenda in London. The politicians talk, the market falls and the people don’t know what to believe. While Brexit is different from the predicament in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, the play is extremely timely because it explores what would happen if a problem arose to which the British constitution had no answer.

Constitutional crises in Britain are pretty rare events. That’s somewhat surprising, given the state of the constitution itself, which Bartlett discovered when he began to research it in preparation for King Charles III. “The research that came back was that it’s sort of made up,” says Bartlett. “The United Kingdom doesn’t have a constitution. It’s all made up as they go along, which is fascinating in itself, that what you see as a rigid institution is actually totally flexible and subject to whims and changes.”

The United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy—at all times, the country has a king or queen who abides by the rules of the constitution. In the United Kingdom this is an uncodified constitution, which means that it’s not all written down in one place; rather, it’s made up of a collection of laws, treaties and charters, while some things are not written down at all.

The constitution says that the British monarch actually has quite a bit of power. Queen Elizabeth II, the current monarch, has a number of royal prerogatives. These include the power to give royal assent to bills coming from the Houses of Commons and Lords; to make peace treaties; to declare war; to call, suspend and dismiss Parliament; and to appoint ministers (including the prime minister).

But there’s a catch: it is expected that she will only do these things on the advice of her ministers. The queen can’t just wake up one day and decide to go to war. Rather, she could, but it would be difficult to get the public and the government to go along with a decision like that. (It’s also unlikely, given her personality.) The British monarchy hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when subjects had to do exactly as the reigning king or queen said. But over the course of one thousand years, the monarchy lost power—sometimes in little bits, sometimes in huge chunks. It all began with King John in the thirteenth century.





This article by Shannon Stockwell first appeared in American Conservatory Theater’s performance guide series, Words on Plays, in 2016. For more information about Words on Plays, visit www.act-sf.org/wordsonplays.

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