Royalty’s role from feudalism to capitalism

One of the indexes of class struggle in the Middle Ages was the frequent issuing of sumptuary laws: legal ordinances about which people could wear what clothes, according to their station in the medieval hierarchy. Naturally, where status was reflected in such outward signs, people with ambition or on the make would strive to be seen wearing the clothes of their ‘betters.’

For aristocracy, station was based on inherent personal relations: family and royalty. Property was not alienable, it could not be separated from the person, or bloodline, but could only be passed on through marriage and inheritance. Worth was based on these outward relations, and not through any actual ability or personal merit.

This also meant that aristocracy had to live in a manner befitting their station: as they accrued the unearned (and proudly, unearned) surpluses from their estates, they had to spend in a manner befitting their status. They were the biggest customers of the ‘middling sort’, that commercial class that would go on to become the modern capitalist class. This was one of the central contradictions of medieval and early modern class struggle, as the middling sort became richer and began to assert themselves politically, it was to the detriment of their best customers and their own sources of income.

For example, Edward I of England chose to punish the burghers of London for their role in the second barons’ war by moving his wine supply from London vintners to Gascon merchants.

In eighteenth century Britain, after the war of the crowns and the English revolution, the aristocracy became relatively more politically marginalised, as power was moved to be exercised through the Parliament largely elected by those middling sorts. Although some aristocrats had ‘jumped ship’ as it were, and begun to invest in trade, forming what is sometimes known as the ‘Whig old corruption’, many feudal remnants remained, increasingly running into debt to try to maintain their status.

This led, in part, to the cult of taste: refinement, fashion and taste replaced overt sumptuary laws, as taste went along with breeding, and blocked routes of advancement, as outsiders were quickly marked in the corridors of power. This can be seen in fashion statements that live on, in some ways, to these days.

Wealthy aristocratic men were dandies, in fine fashions with laces, frills and all the gaudy, individualistic, trimmings: the middling sort (recalling the puritanical routes of their revolutionary ancestors) wore a plain uniform, usually black. This can best be represented by the characters in the third series of Blackadder, where Rowan Atkinson as the surly servant wears black, while Hugh Laurie’s Prince George wears a fabulous array of patterned satins.

This is not to say that the capitalist class totally hid its wealth: just as now, the uniform allows for expensive watches, costly tailored suits and ties. But, also, the wives of the middling sort could become fashion statements. To this day, the convention, as expressed in many a comedy, is precisely that women at formal occasions should not wear matching outfits. To an extent, these class differences meant that aristocratic men of that period have been depicted as effeminate, because their behaviour was that which the middling sort reserved for women. It also conveys part of the clash of ideologies that was going on.

Eighteenth century debate around ‘justification by faith or by deed’ abounded, and reflected the old class lines of inherent inward ability versus outward status symbols. However, the outward signs remained desirable, and a badge of having made it, so the rising class began to find ways to be given honours, titles and badges of status, and in return, retained some of the symbolism of the old aristocracy, even when it had been politically muted (and, let’s not forget, that up until 1911 the House of Lords retained power and parity with the Commons, and it took until the Blair government to remove most (but not all) of the hereditary peers).

Royalty became all about pomp and circumstance, a means, much like the bourgeois wives, of reflecting achievement and status that puritanical capitalists formally repudiated for themselves. Local Tufton-Buftons on county councils lived for the day they could meet the monarch at a Buckingham Palace tea-party. To borrow Graeber and Wengrow’s account of schismogenesis, the existence of the royalty became a badge to differentiate Britain from the republics such as France or the USA, and thus the pomp and symbolism became part of the selective invented tradition of British nationalism.

At home, royalty became a badge of success, with a whole alphabetti-spaghetti of honours to throw around for bootlickers to enjoy: OBE, CBE, KCMG, CH, OM, etc. Abroad it became part of the British brand. In the meanwhile, it allowed for a residuum of political power to remain in the hands of the monarchy, and for it to retain a style and comfort to reward the puppet aristocrats who would dance a monkey dance for the new owners of the country.

In the age of mass communication, royalty has become part soap opera, part propaganda tool, as the press use them and attitudes towards them as part of a blend of conservatism and patriotism. One of the most serious charges they brought against Jeremy Corbyn was his republicanism, and any sensible politician knows it isn’t worth the political capital to fight the storm of press odium to stick their heads above the parapet and criticise the royal system.

That is, the class interest that once struggled against the gatekeeping power of the aristocracy now finds it useful to use royalty to circumscribe the bounds of political debate, which also allows it to buy the loyalty of a whole range of toadies and hangers-on who want to bask in the reflected glory.

The now late Elizabeth Windsor spent a life in service to this system of inequality and power, protecting her own and her family’s interests. She had a despicable job in the service of a despicable system. The best memorial should be for us to sweep it all away.


Next article: Cooking the Books 1 – A fair price for power? ⮞

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