A gong by any other name . . .

There was an awful lot of insignia and medals (informally known as gongs) on display yesterday during the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Not least among the royals, and the many military personnel of course.

And, unfortunately, rather too many ill-informed and bad-tempered Tweets about who and why was wearing what medals, and the like.

Medals and the insignia of the many orders of chivalry in this country have been conferred by the sovereign on the great and the good for centuries. There are ten current orders of chivalry, some made at the sole discretion of the sovereign, others on the advice of the government. Most have several classes, such as member, officer, commander and the like.

Among the Armed Forces there are various campaign and service medals that serving personnel receive as well as personal decorations for specific acts of bravery and the like, such as the Victoria Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross, to name just two.

The most senior order of chivalry is the Order of the Garter, established in 1384 by King Edward III, and only outranked in precedence by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. Two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair are members of the order, among nineteen others.

The British Empire?
Many of those attending the state funeral at Westminster Abbey yesterday, or in the crowds lining the funeral route, proudly wore the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It’s the Order most familiar to everyone, and the most awarded.

The Order has Members (MBE), Officers (OBE – insignia on the right), Commanders (CBE), Knights Commander or Dames Commander (KBE or DBE), and Knights Grand Cross or Dames Grand Cross (GBE). Recipients are named (at least during Her Late Majesty’s reign) twice a year, in the New Years Honours or the Sovereign’s Birthday Honours. It is awarded for prominent national/international or regional achievements.

Until his death in 2021, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was Grand Master of the Order. That position is currently vacant, and presumably King Charles III automatically became Sovereign of the Order on his accession on the death of the Queen on 8 September 2022.

The Order was founded by King George V in 1917 to fill in gaps in the British honours system as, until then, most honors went to diplomats, civil servants, and officers in the Armed Forces. He wished to create an order to honour the many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combat roles during the First World War. Since 1918 it has two divisions: civil and military.

On 29 February 2012, I was made as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) during an investiture at Buckingham Palace in London, presided by the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. It was awarded for services to international food science.

Receiving my OBE from the Prince of Wales, and afterwards in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace with my younger daughter Philippa and wife Steph.

In recent decades, membership of the Order has become controversial, and there are several widely-publicized rejections of the honor. When, in November 2011, I received a letter (below) that my name was being put forward for approval by Her Majesty, I was given the option to accept or decline.

A new start
Some have called it a ‘preposterous charade‘, others have declined the honor because of its connection with the idea of the now-extinct British Empire. Indeed, during Tony Blair’s premiership in 2004, a House of Commons Select Committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence! Now that seems preposterous to me, and the change never happened.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully assess what is right and proper today. For far too many the legacy of the British Empire is painful. Dreadful acts were perpetrated on subservient populations in the British colonies. Should a prestigious honor still have that link? Perhaps it is now time to re-evaluate the honors system and how it is applied. And to whom.

I am proud to be a recipient of an OBE, and I would not wish to change its name. However, with the deaths of Her Majesty as Sovereign of the Order, as well as Prince Philip as Grand Master, I believe there is an excellent opportunity to ‘freeze’ the Order as such (it would become dormant) but replace it by a completely new order of chivalry with exactly the same purpose but without the disagreeable connections with empire.

A new way forward
Furthermore, while it might be unpopular to say so, the monarchy has, in my opinion, become a 21st century anachronism. I agree with this recently-posted tweet from Professor David Price of University College London:

It’s hard to see a place for monarchy when, in what is ostensibly one of the world’s richest nations, food banks are a lifeline for millions, and the cost-of-living crisis is the worst for decades. And the UK has lost its focus and place.

However, I do not favor an elected presidential system. Rather I would see us continuing as a parliamentary democracy (with MPs elected by proportional representation to ensure that every vote counts) with a non-executive president as head of state. Fulfilling many of the same duties that the King and members of the royal family undertake, but without all the kowtowing, pomp and ceremony – and expense. Just like in the Irish Republic or Germany, for instance.

In any case, I’ve written about the state of the nation and what needs to change in an earlier post. Her Majesty’s death should give us the space for reflection on how we want this nation to develop.


 

A day out in York . . .

York is an historic town, founded by the Romans in AD 71 and known as Eboracum. It was one of the most important settlements in Roman Britannia, sitting at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, and navigable inland from the North Sea.

Just over 80 miles south of our home in North Tyneside, we enjoyed an excursion to York last week.

From the magnificent York Minster (completed after several centuries in 1472) to the city walls dating mainly to the 13th century (but built on earlier earth banks), and the bustling and narrow streets of the medieval town around Shambles, York has a lot to offer any tourist. And even in the middle of September after children had begun the school year, the city center was extremely busy with visitors from the four corners of the world (if the languages I heard spoken were anything to go by).

While we appreciated the Minster from outside, walked through Shambles, and enjoyed a section of the city walls circuit west of the River Ouse (from Baile Hill, past Micklegate Bar, and back to the Ouse) we had traveled to York to visit the Treasurer’s House (a National Trust property behind the Minster), and Clifford’s Tower (an English Heritage property near the confluence of the two rivers, with a magnificent 360º view over the city). More images of York can be viewed here.

The journey south, on just the A19 the whole way, took around 90 minutes. Just outside York we parked at Rawcliffe Bar Park and Ride on the northwest of the city before 10:30, and took the bus into Museum Street close-by the Minster, and a 15 minute journey costing just £1.20 return (with our concessionary travel cards).


The Treasurer’s House sits just behind York Minster (off Minster Yard) and was the residence of its Treasurer (a position established in 1091) until 1547 when it was abolished during the Reformation.

The Grade 1 listed house we see today, from the early 17th century, was previously much larger comprising several additional wings that are now part of Grays Court hotel. Roman remains have been found beneath the house.

In the fading years of the 19th century, Treasurer’s House was bought by eccentric industrialist Frank Green (born 1861, right), who filled it with exquisite paintings, ceramics, and furniture. So none of the interior is contemporary to the house per se, rather a reflection of Green’s eclectic collecting passion.

The family wealth was founded by Green’s grandfather Edward, who established the an engineering firm in Wakefield in 1821. Edward Green patented (in 1845) a design—Green’s Economizer—to increase the steam-raising efficiency of boilers. The company is still in operation today.

Frank’s father, Sir Edward Green was Conservative MP for Wakefield from 1895 to 1892. He married Mary Lycett, introducing that surname into the family although it was not used by Frank but by his elder brother Edward who became the second baronet. Edward Lycett Green, 2nd Baronet took no interest in the engineering company.

L-R: Edward Green (grandfather), Sir Edward Green, and Mary Lycett (parents)

Frank Green never married. He was an irascible individual, obsessed by cleanliness and hygiene. Even down to the placement of furniture in the house, marking precisely where each piece should be replaced if it was ever moved for cleaning. And woe-betide any of staff who didn’t follow his instructions – to the letter! He even sent his laundry each week to London for cleaning. Nevertheless, he was, by all accounts, a genial host of York society, celebrities, even royalty.

He extensively remodeled the house, and opened the central part to create a great hall – because he thought all ‘good’ houses needed a hall (and a gallery). The magnificent staircase to the first floor was a purchase from another house, and none of the paintings displayed there have any connection with the house whatsoever.

A full album of images from our visit can be found here.

By 1930, and his health declining (perhaps because of the damp conditions in York), Frank Green moved away from the Treasurer’s House and set up home in Somerset. He gave the Treasurer’s House and all its contents to the National Trust which has faithfully looked after the property ever since. Even making sure that the furniture is always replaced on the marks on the floor! He is also reputed to have left one of his Rolls Royce limousines to his chauffeur who set up a taxi business. In Somerset, Green was instrumental in saving the Exmoor pony breed during World War II.


Clifford’s Tower stands atop a very steep mound – the motte, and until recently visitors could only enter and gaze up at the blank walls. That is until English Heritage constructed a framework inside that takes visitors on to the roof and affording those panoramic views over the city.

There are more photos here.

This Norman tower was built on the orders of William I (the Conqueror) in 1068, and rebuilt a year later after it was destroyed by Vikings.

York or Jórvík had been the Scandinavian capital in northern England. In 1190 the Jews of York died in a pogrom inside the tower.

By the 18th century the tower was being used as a gaol and continued as such until the 1890s. Across the River Ouse the remains of York’s second castle can be seen at Baille Hill alongside the city walls.


By the time we had walked that section of the wall, it must have been 15:30 and catching the bus in Museum Street back to Rawcliffe Bar we were on the road home by 16:00, arriving around 17:20. York is a fascinating city and has lots to offer, and we’ll have to make plans to return again.

 

 

“The august but elderly testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent . . .”

King Charles III signs the document to uphold the Protestant faith in Scotland, at yesterday’s Accession Council.

Yesterday, at a Accession Council in St James Palace—broadcast live on television for the first time—Charles III was proclaimed King.

He made a personal declaration about the death of the Queen and an oath to preserve the Church of Scotland—because in Scotland there is a division of powers between church and state.

For anyone interested in ancestry, genealogy, and genetics a simple question remains: Is Charles the true king? And if not, who should be?


Back in 2004, a Channel 4 documentary presented an alternative theory of succession of the British crown from George, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449-1478), younger brother of King Edward IV (1442-1483), and elder brother to Richard III (1452-1485). The claim was based on the supposed illegitimacy of Kind Edward.

The ‘rightful heir’ should have been Michael Edward Abney-Hastings, 14th Earl of Loudon, a British-Australian farmer, now succeeded by his son the 15th earl. The documentary was a bit of fun, and certainly not taken seriously by Abney-Hastings. However, besides this Plantagenet ‘claim’, there are other alternative successions to the crown.


Charles III has an impressive family tree that can be traced back to the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and even earlier it seems. Of course the line of descent through each monarch was not always direct, father to son or daughter. Some sovereigns never had children.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The key person in that family tree that links the monarch today with the Plantagenets and earlier is Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise. Her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, and daughter of Henry VII. Henry VII had married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, thereby linking the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties.

Mary’s son became James VI and I (1566-1625). As we enter a second Carolean Age it’s interesting to note that Charles III is not a direct descendant of Charles I or Charles II, the son and grandson of James.

Charles II (1630-1685) had several bastard sons (who were ennobled) but no legitimate children. However, if and when William, Prince of Wales (and now heir to the British crown) becomes King, there will be a ancestral link back to Charles II through his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

After Charles II’s younger brother James II (1633-1701) was deposed in 1688, and to exclude his Catholic heirs from throne, the crown was offered to James’ Protestant elder daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William III. They had no children, and in 1702, the crown passed to Mary’s younger sister Anne, who reigned until 1714. It was during Anne’s reign that the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union in 1707.

Anne had 17 pregnancies, but only five live births. None of her children survived to adulthood. So, on her death in 1714, Parliament had a dilemma. It would not support the stronger claim of the hated Catholic Stuarts to the throne, instead turning to George, Elector of Hanover, and great grandson of James VI and I through his second child and eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. George became George I of Great Britain, thus founding the Hanoverian dynasty that lasted until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.


George I was succeeded in 1727 by his son George II, and in 1760 by his great-grandson George III, who reigned until 1820. George III had fifteen children, some of whom never married, or never had legitimate children. The notorious eldest son became George IV in 1820, and the third son William IV in 1830.

Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn

George IV had one daughter who died in childbirth. William IV had a bevy of illegitimate children, none of whom could succeed to the crown.

Once again, the country was faced with a dilemma. The next in line, so to speak, was Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820) fifth child and fourth son of George III. He married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861) and they had one child—a daughter—born in 1819 who succeeded to the crown in 1837 (on the death of her uncle William IV) as Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Edward, Duke of Kent died less than a year after Victoria’s birth.

But was he Victoria’s father? And this is where the story becomes really interesting, and genetics comes into play.

Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had nine children, several of whom married into the royal houses of Europe.

Albert, Victoria and their nine children in 1857.

And they took with them a deadly genetic disorder: haemophilia, the ‘bleeding disease’. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the haemophilia gene, but before her there was (apparently) no record of the disorder among the Hanoverians or the families they united with through marriage.

Victoria and Albert’s eighth child and third son, Leopold, Duke of Albany was a haemophiliac. He married Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont; they had a non-haemophiliac boy and a carrier girl. The tragedy of the gene in the Russian Imperial Family is well known.

So where did the haemophilia mutation arise? How had Victoria become a carrier? The gene is carried on the X chromosome. Here’s a simple diagram to explain the genetics.

Well, there are two answers. Either, as distinguished geneticist Professor Steve Jones FRS has so eloquently put it (writing in The Telegraph in May 2011), a mutation of the blood-clotting disease haemophilia . . . originated in the elderly and august testicles of Edward, Duke of Kent; or Edward was not Victoria’s father. If so, then Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, had a haemophiliac lover, and Victoria was their illegitimate offspring.

Supposition, of course, but still a genetic mystery. DNA tests could solve the mystery, but that would require a comparison of Queen Victoria’s DNA with that of a confirmed relative of George III (or close relative). Just as was achieved when the late Prince Philip’s DNA was used to confirm the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. And testing the DNA of a descendant of the sister of King Richard III to confirm the identity of the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester.

If a match was not found, what should have been the succession? Presumably the younger brother of the Duke of Kent, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and his descendants. However, these German descendants were deprived of their peerages and honors for having sided with Germany in the First World War.

Charles III was confirmed as King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, fourteen other countries, and a host of territories. Should he be? It remains one of the intriguing ‘what ifs’ of British royal history.

Long Live the King!


You may be interested in this further reading:

 


 

The Queen is dead, long live the King!

Thus, the traditional proclamation as one monarch passes and another assumes the mantle of Head of State.

Official portrait of HM The Queen (on her 80th birthday) which was released on the announcement of her death on 8 September 2022.

It’s hard to imagine this country without Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the helm, so to speak. She reigned for more than 70 years, and could trace her ancestry back to William the Conqueror in 1066 and beyond. I was only three when she became Queen on 6 February 1952 on the death of her beloved father, King George VI, and too young to remember. Her coronation 16 months later was a different matter, however, when there were nationwide celebrations. Even in Congleton (where I lived at the time) the local children got in on the act.

Children from Moody Street and Howey Lane in Congleton celebrate the Coronation on 2 June 1953.

Head of State of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty was also Head of State of 14 other countries¹, as well as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations (the ‘Commonwealth’) comprising 56 member states.

Fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom served during her reign, from Sir Winston Churchill (on her accession) to Liz Truss, appointed just three days ago at the kissing hands ceremony at Balmoral Castle where Her Majesty passed away yesterday at the age of 96.

In fact it was this and other photographs of Her Majesty welcoming Liz Truss, published later that day or the following day, that caught my attention in particular.

Her Majesty had been looking increasingly frail since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in April 2021. At breakfast on Wednesday (the 8th) I remarked to Steph just how the Queen appeared to have gone down hill over recent weeks, perhaps her final chapter. Little did I realize.

Then, yesterday morning as I was scrolling through the news feed on my phone, I came across this news story about the Cambridges and their children, and I asked, on Twitter, why this was news at all.

Earlier this year, in the face of increasing political controversy, I wrote a blog post calling for major reform across government and society in this country. And although I’m neither republican or anti-monarchist, I expressed an opinion that the monarchy as such was past its sell-by date. Thus the last point in my tweet, little knowing that Her Majesty would pass away later that same day.

I did see Her Majesty in person on one occasion. In 1975, the University of Birmingham (originally the Mason Science College) celebrated its centenary. I and a group of fellow graduate students from Biological Sciences were among the crowds to welcome her to the Edgbaston campus. I was just a few feet away from her. I will always remember her warm smile.

When I was awarded my OBE in 2012 it was conferred by Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, now King Charles III. My good friend John Sheehy was also made an OBE but attended his investiture at Buckingham Palace two weeks earlier. We both thought it would have been nicer to have met Her Majesty. But, as John reminded me, Prince Charles would be King sooner or later.

Receiving my OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales on 14 February 2012

So what sort of King will Charles become? Known for his strong and often outspoken (and sometimes misguided from a scientific point of view) opinions, he has vowed—so I have heard just now in a BBC commentary—not to carry these across to his new role as King. But I cannot help thinking that he won’t be able always to hold back. And if he chooses the right issues, that might not be a bad thing after all. Our politicians need holding to account. He has already indicated that he wants to see a smaller royal family (those who are working royals and therefore supported by the state), and that can’t be a bad thing.

It’s the end of an era, the start of a new one. Rest in peace Your Majesty. I wish King Charles well, and although my sentiments are to abolish the monarchy, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime or the King’s. Charles is just four days older than me.


¹ Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu.