In episode 5 of The Crown‘s season 4, a desperate out-of-work painter named Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace, enters the queen’s bedroom, sits on the foot of her bed, and asks her for a cigarette. “Filthy habit,” she replies. “Yes, I know, I’m trying to quit,” he says. Then he gets down to business, by asking her to provide relief from his dire economic condition. The incident is real, occurring on January 9, 1982, during the time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. In light of the bizarre circumstances of the encounter, both parties were remarkably calm. When security officers arrived, the queen asked them to delay arrest until she could shake the intruder’s hand.
Watching this I was struck by the way it represented a much broader historical phenomenon: the longstanding practice of people petitioning the sovereign for the redress of grievances. In many ways, this practice is an answer to the question of why monarchy was such a durable form of governance over the centuries. The answer is that, except in absolutist regimes, the king was able to position himself as head of state rather than head of government. Government was the domain of his ministers, who set policy and passed laws. The king appointed his ministers but could claim some distance from their policies, able to dispatch them quickly — by dismissal or decapitation — if the policies didn’t work out. In this way, the king could represent himself as the guardian of the people while the ministers were just the functionaries of government. And as sovereign, he granted ordinary people the right to petition him when government policies put them in jeopardy. This gave a remarkable durability of the monarchy, as it was able to evade responsibility for bad outcomes and earn affection from the populace by occasionally redressing their grievances. It was a very effective good-cop/bad-cop arrangement that has endured right up to the present.
As constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth appointed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, but she had plausible deniability for being responsible for Thatcher’s draconian policies, which had caused so much economic harm to UK workers like Fagan. So it made sense for him to approach her directly in seeking relief, as so many had approached monarchs in the past. In his extreme state — barred access to his children, perpetually out of work, and with no hope in sight — he had nothing to lose by his daring palace break-in.
There is a long history of petitions to the crown. In 1774, the First Continental Congress of the American colonies sent a petition to George III requesting relief from a set of grievances they put before him.
Most Gracious Sovereign: We, your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of those Colonies who have deputed us to represent them in General Congress, by this our humble Petition, beg leave to lay our Grievances before the Throne.
After laying out these grievances in detail, the Congress closed the petition in a tone of hope and respect:
We therefore most earnestly beseech your Majesty, that your Royal authority and interposition may be used for our relief, and that a gracious Answer may be given to this Petition.
That your Majesty may enjoy every felicity through a long and glorious Reign, over loyal and happy subjects, and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and Dominions till time shall be no more, is, and always will be, our sincere and fervent prayer.
The king, of course, did not respond as they had requested and the ultimate result for the American war of independence. So petitioning the sovereign has been no guarantee of success, but the sheer possibility of the king’s intervention has kept hope alive.
Consider another famous petition, whose outcome was both faster and worse. In January of 1905, a group of 135,000 workingmen presented the following plea to Tsar Nicholas II at his winter palace in St. Petersburg.
We working men of St. Petersburg, our wives and children, and our parents, helpless, aged men and women, have come to you, О Tsar, in quest of justice and protection. We have been beggared, oppressed, over-burdened with excessive toil, treated with contumely. We are not recognized as normal human beings, but are dealt with as slaves who have to bear their bitter lot in silence. Patiently we endured this; but now we are being thrust deeper into the slough of right-lessness and ignorance, are being suffocated by despotism and arbitrary whims, and now, О Tsar, we have no strength left. The awful moment has come when death is better than the prolongation of our unendurable tortures.
After a long list of grievances and demands, the petition closed with the following words:
Those, Sire, constitute our principal needs, which we come to lay before you. Give orders and swear that they shall be fulfilled, and you will render Russia happy and glorious, and will impress your name on our hearts and on the hearts of our children, and our children’s children for all time. But if you withhold the word, if you are not responsive to our petition, we will die here on this square before your palace, for we have nowhere else to go to and no reason to repair elsewhere. For us there are but two roads, one leading to liberty and happiness, the other to the tomb. Point, Sire, to either of them; we will take it, even though it lead to death. Should our lives serve as a holocaust of agonizing Russia, we will not grudge these sacrifices; we gladly offer them up.
The Tsar chose Door No. 2 and several hundred workers were gunned down in front of the palace, an event remembered in history as Bloody Sunday.
Michael Fagan’s petition didn’t end well either. Thatcher’s policies remained in effect; he was declared insane by a court and sentenced to a mental hospital. Released three months later, he spent years in and out of prison. But he’s also been talking about the incident ever since. Wouldn’t you?
Constitutional monarchs like Queen Elizabeth continue to enjoy the benefit of being head of state without the responsibility and accountability that comes from being head of government. Presidents, in governments like the United States, don’t have the luxury of enjoying prestige without power, of being the symbol of the nation while remaining above the fray. On the other hand, maybe pinning your hopes on someone who can’t deliver for you is a fool’s game. Maybe we’re better off with a leader who can be held to account.