Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Anne Rowbottom (2002) 'Following the Queen: The Place of the Royal Family in the Context of Royal Visits and Civil Religion.'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 2, <>

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Received: 21/5/2002      Accepted: 13/8/2002      Published: 31/8/2002


The starting point for this article, following Bocock (1985), is that rituals focusing on the royal family form a central component of a British civil religion. In this context events such as the Golden Jubilee celebrations and the public mourning for Diana need to be viewed within the context of a larger cycle of royal rituals, some of which are performed only once during a reign, some annually and others hundreds of times a year. In these latter events, the royal visits, the civil religion and the legitimacy of the monarchy are being routinely produced and reproduced. Drawing upon extensive ethnographic fieldwork amongst a network of "real royalists" my argument is that lack of awareness of these routine practices leads to the mistaken viewing of popular responses to royal events as something new and exotic in British culture.

civil religion, monarchy, popular royalism, vernacular religion, ritual British ethnography


Over the holiday weekend of the Golden Jubilee a number of official celebrations took place in London and around the country. The majority of these events, church services, processions and pageants, lighting bonfires or beacons, and holding street parties are established ways of celebrating major events in the life cycle of the Sovereign. Shils and Young (1953) describe similar celebrations at the time of the Coronation and I remember them taking place for the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and to mark the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Commemorative items now being marketed for the Golden Jubilee, such as plates, mugs, and trinket boxes (ranging from the tasteful to the gloriously tasteless) have been mass-produced for royal occasions, some major some minor, since the Jubilee of Queen Victoria and for a smaller market since the time of Charles II. In these respects then the 2002 Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II fits into a general pattern of celebration and popular enthusiasm.

In recent years the emergence of cultural studies has established the value of studying popular culture on its own terms, as the developing body of literature on fandom demonstrates. However, although followers of football, science fiction or pop music have become increasingly respectable topics of study, popular royalism remains a largely neglected phenomenon. Consequently, mass responses to events such as the death of Diana Princess of Wales, the funeral of the Queen Mother and the current Golden Jubilee celebrations, are too often treated in isolation from the regular rituals in which the place of the royal family is routinely produced and reproduced.

As Head of State, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and, according to the government information service, 'the living symbol of national unity' (COI 1983: 10) the British monarch retains the traditional role of the constitutional, religious and symbolic centre of the nation. Drawing on two periods of extensive fieldwork at royal events and on ethnographic fieldwork with a network of ardent royalists, the theme I take up in this article is that public enthusiasm needs to be contextualized within a cycle of royal rituals that are central components of the civil religion of the British nation-state (Bocock 1985; Thompson 1986).

The Ritual Cycle.

The cycle of royal rituals is made up of both rectilinear and recurrent rites. Rectilinear rites, as defined by Van Gennep (1960) relate to events in the life cycle of the individual and are not usually repeated during his/her lifetime. The Coronation, which installs a monarch, along with the funeral which moves her/him to the realm of history, are the most obvious and important of these rites, but also included are the Investiture of the Prince of Wales and Royal Weddings.[1] These rituals are lavish performances that, through grandeur of scale and sheer spectacle, lay claim to be moments of national importance, a claim communicated and amplified to a national audience through the mass media (cf Dayan & Katz 1985). Similar claims to national importance are also made in the recurrent rites, calendrical events that structure the royal year. Spring is marked by the Royal Maundy at Easter, summer by the Sovereign's Birthday Parade (Trooping the Colour), autumn by the State Opening of Parliament and the Festival of Remembrance, and finally winter by the Queen's Christmas Broadcast. These rituals, following the natural cycle of the seasons from spring to midwinter, provide the framework for public display of the monarchy throughout the year. The rectilinear and calendrical rituals are the most obvious of the rituals of the civil religion, but supplementing them are the smaller scale "royal visits", the most frequently performed of all royal rituals (Hayden 1987).

Every year members of the royal family travel the length and breadth of the county visiting hundreds of civic, commercial and charitable organisations. For example, in 1997, the year of Diana's death, the royal family undertook 3,820 engagements (The Guardian 3.1.1998: 5). If only a quarter of these were royal visits, then almost 1,000 organisations would have taken part. Although the royal family no longer includes Diana, the Queen Mother, or the Duchess of York the number of royal visits remains high. This year during the month of May alone, one hundred and forty organisations received a royal guest (Monarchy Today May 2002). As the central symbol of the civil religion appearances by the Queen and her family at royal visits provide occasions upon which the civil religion can be routinely enacted, not just in the capital, but in diverse locations throughout the country.

Research at Royal Visits

As Billig (1992) notes, investigation of public responses to the monarchy is usually conducted through opinion polls whose preset questions tend towards controversial issues. Although these polls may show fluctuations in the personal popularity of individual members of the royal family MORI report that, "support for the monarchy is probably the most stable trend we have ever measured" (MORI 2002). In a digest of over thirty years of polling MORI found that support for the monarchy has consistently remained around 72%. As measures of public responses opinion polls are useful in providing a general background picture. Their limitation lies in the presentation of "a disembodied and desiccated picture of popular thinking" (Billig 1992: 15). What is required, as Billig suggests, are more qualitative studies to add detail to the general picture.

As ritual events where popular enthusiasm for the royal family is regularly manifested royal visits provide a rich site for qualitative research. Not only are they a recurrent phenomenon, but also there are few problems in gaining access, as anyone who arrives is able to join the crowd of onlookers lining the streets. In the combination of relevance, regularity and open access, royal visits are an ideal field for the conduct of participant observation. It was through observation and participation, and holding conversational and informal interviews with onlookers that I first became aware of the presence of the "real royalists", members of a loose knit network of women and men who travel the country to join the crowds at royal events.

The total number of "real royalists" is difficult to calculate with any certainty. They are not part of any formal organization, so there is no register of participants. Their association with each other is based on the friendship networks that develop out of encounters with like-minded people at royal visits. Links are maintained through letters and telephone calls in which information is exchanged and arrangements made to meet together at future events. The network I joined was that of "Dan", a local government officer who was in his late forties when I first met him. Dan, an enthusiastic and outgoing person was sympathetic to my research and, as he lived fairly near to me, invited me to travel with him and meet 'my royalist friends'.

In this network I mapped sixty people. In addition there were others I encountered only once, as well as people I never met, but heard about in the royalists' stories, or who I read about in newspapers and magazines, or saw interviewed on television. Therefore, it is likely that there are other networks in existence, as well as other individuals who do not wish to be part of any grouping, however informally organised. The crowds the real royalists join vary in size considerably. Visits by the Queen and her immediate family that have been widely publicized beforehand draw the largest crowds, usually of several thousand people. At the other end of the scale a visit by a member of the extended family, for example the Duchess of Kent that has not been well publicized may be attended by only half a dozen people, often consisting solely of the real royalists.

In Dan's network there are almost as many men as women and their ages ranged from mid teens to late sixties. Occupations range from florist (male) to civil engineer (female), but the majority fall into the categories of clerical/administrative workers, small business people, public service workers, housewives and the retired. Although claiming "there is no such thing as a typical royalist, we are a very mixed bunch", their occupations are predominantly those of the (lower) middle class. They also share broadly similar value orientations, tending politically towards the Conservative Party and religiously towards the Church of England, suggesting a high degree of uniformity rather than difference. However, if their claim to be a "mixed bunch" is taken symbolically rather than literally, it reveals an important aspect of their self image, that of being diverse individuals united through their support for the monarchy; an image that reflects the ideology of the civil religion.

My first of intensive fieldwork began in the early spring of 1989 and ended in the late summer of 1990. During this time I travelled the length and breadth of the country with Dan and his friends in groupings which varied from a dozen to one or two people. The composition of these groupings varied from visit to visit and I came to know sixteen people well and a core of eight people very well indeed. In total I attended thirty royal visits, as well as Trooping the Colour, the Garter Procession, Royal Ascot and the State Opening of Parliament. We also went on trips of three and four days duration to London, Windsor, Edinburgh and Ballater (Balmoral) not only to see members of the royal family, but also places associated with their lives and history. I also met with the royalists in their homes conducting in-depth, semi-formal and conversational interviews and we also talked regularly by telephone. In addition to the techniques of note-taking, audio recording and photography, I made extensive use of video recording at royal visits and in the royalists' homes. This amounted to thirteen hours of footage, some of which was edited into an ethnographic film (Henley & Rowbottom 1993). The second period of intensive fieldwork during the making of a documentary about the royalists for BBC television (Henley & Rowbottom 1997), ran from spring 1997 to autumn 1997, followed the same pattern and employed the same techniques of data collection. Later that year I went with two royalists to lay flowers at Kensington Palace and to watch the funeral procession of Diana Princess of Wales (Rowbottom 1999). In between these periods of intensive fieldwork I have maintained contact with key informants and travelled with them on a more intermittent basis. It is this twelve-year involvement with the real royalists that informs my discussion.

"Real Royalists" and Royal Visits

Since the Silver Jubilee of 1977 an integral part of any royal visit has become known as the 'walkabout', a point in the proceedings when royalty leaves the VIPs and invited guests to meet with the crowds of onlookers contained behind crush barriers. The royal visit, especially the walkabout, is part of the performance of a more ordinary, informal and accessible image of royalty. It is an image designed to counterbalance the extraordinary, formal and remote image of majesty displayed in the rectilinear and calendrical rituals. The latter image may be necessary for the maintenance of majesty, but it runs counter to the ideals of an increasingly populist democracy. Walking a tightrope between these opposing images is what Gluckman (1956) identifies as part of the "perennial problems of kingship", the placing of highly contradictory demands and expectations upon an incumbent (cf Blumler et al 1971). In the less formal ritual of the royal visit and especially the walkabout, a resolution of these contradictory demands is attempted. It is, of course, an attempt that can never fully succeed for, as Bloch (1987) observes, rituals cannot achieve the impossible. Furthermore, the resolution on offer exists only in terms of the contradiction the ritual recognizes and enacts. In this particular case the image of royal informality and ordinariness, central to the royal visits, only carries meaning in contrast to the image of royal formality and extraordinariness that is central to the rectilinear and calendrical rites. Therefore, as it is unable to effect the final closure that would make its further performance redundant, royal ritual "can only restate the contradiction and its resolution again and again but never progress" (1987: 297).

As the least formal part of the royal visit, the walkabout is a central component of this attempted resolution. This point in the rite, where royalty are at their most accessible to the general public, has become the focus of the royalists' participation, allowing them to make personal contact through the offering of small gifts, most usually bunches, baskets or bouquets of flowers. Goody (1993) notes wide cultural recognition of flowers as signifiers of affection and the royalists' conscious use of flowers in this way is evident in the following explanation. "We take flowers as a mark of respect and affection, to say 'Thank You' to the royals for all the hard work they do travelling the country, going to all sorts of places, taking an interest in all sorts of activities and all kinds of people". This explanation of their activities, common amongst the royalists, extols the consistent moral virtue of the royal family, over and above recent scandals about marital infidelity, making them worthy of affection and respect. Similar ascriptions of moral worthiness were found by Blumler et al (1971) in their study of attitudes to the monarchy at the time of the Investiture of the Princes of Wales in 1969. According to their findings, the ascription of moral excellence makes the esteem conferred upon the royal family different in kind from that given to the idols of mass entertainment and hence more analogous with religion than other forms of celebrity. Although Blumler et al, do not use the term civil religion, they do identify the monarch as the symbolic focus for British political religiosity.

The real royalists are not the only people present who show respect and affection through the giving of flowers during the walkabout. I regularly saw aides fill the back shelf and the boot of one and often two large cars with the flowers given by the crowd. At the mourning for Diana and, to a lesser extent that of the Queen Mother, people similarly travelled long distances, waited for hours to pay their (last) respects and gave flowers (Walter 1999). Although the response of the real royalists takes a very active form, they are of particular interest to a general discussion of popular enthusiasm for the royal family and the monarchy because they are representative of far more widely held sentiments and practices. At times of national celebration (or mourning) it is the concentrated expression of these sentiments and practices on a mass scale that makes them highly visible. It is only due to lack of awareness of the broader context that these sentiments and practices are then taken to be something new and exotic in national life.

"Real Royalists" and Civil Religion

When explaining what the monarchy means to them the real royalists invariably make reference to "Britain" and to "being British". For example, Dan would often observe that, "whenever I stand in front of the Queen, or any other member of the royal family, I am always filled with such feelings of loyalty and pride in being British". John, a clerk in his mid-teens describes his interest in the royal family as a hobby, but qualifies this by an acknowledgment that, "it goes deeper than that, basically I suppose its about being British". Marjorie, a retired administrative worker, likes to attach a red, white and blue ribbon to the flowers she gives to the royal family, because "being British is what it is all about really." Further links between monarchy and nation are also evident in their ideas about the unfolding of British history.

Finch and Morgan (2002) note in their article that in press reporting on the funeral of the Queen Mother links with history are not hard to find and that this is especially the case when these reports are based on interviews with members of the public. They also note that such historical linkage is closely tied to the nation and national heritage. In this respect the real royalists are again representative of wider public sentiments. The idea of the life and person of the late Queen Mother linking the events of the last century was a recurrent theme in their conversations both before and after her death. Not only did they see the Queen Mother as a link with the history of the nation, but they also referred to their own experience of attending major royal ceremonials as "taking part in history".

As with moral worthiness, the association with history is also used to distinguish royalty from other forms of celebrity. In the words of Marjorie, "The royals are born royal, they come from history and, you know, celebrities don't come from history, they are here today and gone tomorrow". In elaborating on the historical link she also stated, "The monarchy is part of this country, it's part of the history and part of today and it will be part of the future, I hope. [...] If we lose the royal family what is there? We are just an island with some people on it, with nothing to say we are British". In this statement Marjorie makes explicit the royalists' conceptualization of the monarchy as central to a particular national identity. Without the monarchy there would nothing they could recognize, or would want to recognise as worthy of unifying Britain's past, present and future.

The association of the monarchy and the nation is neither idiosyncratic, nor lacking in significance, what it reflects is the ideology of the civil religion. Billig (1992) found similar expressions of belief in the monarchy as the symbol of Britishness in family conversations about the royal family (1992: 33-35).[2] This association is flagged up, literally and symbolically during royal visits. Municipal buildings fly the national flag; shopkeepers and other local property owners often decorate their premises with the flag as well as red, white and blue bunting. Large crowds attract sellers of small flags and red, white and blue streamers for people to wave, and members of the crowd sometimes bring large Union Jacks to fasten to the crush barriers. Learning the association between monarchy and nation starts young. Primary school parties come ready equipped with small, often hand coloured flags, the product no doubt of several preparatory sessions in class. The association of monarchy and nation also goes beyond the visual to the experiential, as participation in royal ritual constructs feelings of unity and community.

One aspect of the creation of a sense of unity and community lies in the homogeneous identity of "the crowd". Contained together behind crush barriers outside differences in social status between people are temporarily suspended; social status does not provide any special privileges of access, or reserve a place along the route of the walkabout for anyone in the crowd[3]. General acceptance of this social levelling in the presence of royalty, is a major a factor in producing the camaraderie I found to be one of the most striking features of royal ritual. A similar sense of good will and unity was also noted at the time of the Coronation (Shils & Young 1953) and at the Silver Jubilee (Ziegler 1977). The royalists themselves often comment on the "marvellous atmosphere" that Dan attributes to the way "Royal visits bring out the best in everyone and everyone is happy at a royal visit".

The experience of this sense of unity and community can be related to a defining characteristic of ritual, the experience of liminality (van Gennep 1960; Turner 1969).

Although, following Turner & Turner (1978), it is probably more correct in this case to refer to a liminoid phenomenon as, like the pilgrimage of Turner & Turner's discussion, participation at royal visits is "voluntary rather than an obligatory social mechanism to mark the transition from one state or status to another" (1979: 254). As a liminoid phenomenon the royal visit fulfills the basics of ritual performance in that it "effects a transition from everyday life to an alternative context within which the everyday is transformed" (Alexander, 1997: 139). This transition begins by clearing parked cars and closing normally busy streets to traffic. Members of the crowd also suspend their mundane activities, leaving workplaces, schools, shops and homes to line thoroughfares that have been transformed into a quiet open arena. The transformation is completed through the sacralising presence of the monarch (or a familial substitute), the living symbol of national unity.

Unlike the state, with its geographically and legally codified boundaries, the concept of nation in a large, highly diverse society, exists as an "imagined community" whose image, irrespective of the inequalities that actually exist, is always viewed in terms of a deep and horizontal comradeship (Anderson 1983). In the performance of royal ritual a sense of membership of this ideal community is made possible. Bringing people together in the royal presence provides an instance of communitas, a communal bond that results from social levelling and the shared experience of liminality (Turner 1969). In this way royal ritual provides a means through which individuals may experience, however fleetingly, a link between themselves and the ideal of the national community. It is in the provision of this experience that royal ritual fulfills the primary aim of civil religion, the generation of a sense of loyalty to the nation-state.

Concluding Remarks

One of the more exaggerated claims for civil religion is that it provides a 'sacred canopy' (Berger 1967) able to unite and pull together all the complex elements of a modern society, a claim that is, as Bryan S. Turner (1991) reminds us, 'not wholly convincing' (1991: 58). Although Turner is dismissive of the usefulness of the concept I prefer to follow Thompson (1986) in seeing outright dismissal as tantamount to "throwing the baby out with the bath water". Rather than making na´ve and exaggerated claims for a socially integrating function, I feel it is far more productive to acknowledge a sense of belonging as being one possible response to the rituals of the civil religion. From this perspective the interesting project then becomes examining under what conditions a particular form of civil religion succeeds in offering, or alternatively fails to provide, "a basis for the relationship of the individual to the larger modern society" (McGuire 1992: 184). The pursuit of such a project requires investigation into the ways in which people actually invest royal ritual with personal meaning, but as a social phenomenon public response to the monarchy has generally been neglected by the social sciences.

A primary reason for this lack of interest appears to be rooted in modernist assumptions about the nature of society. When the monarchy is seen as an anachronism destined for the dustbin of history (cf Birnbaum 1955: Rose & Kavanagh 1976: Nairn 1988; Wilson 1989), it can be dismissed as unworthy of serious or sustained attention. Consequently, popular royalism is too readily dismissed as 'mere fandom', a categorization associated with the passive and pathological behaviour of the deluded, or backward (cf Jenson 1992). This approach, however, tells us less about the cultural significance of the monarchy, popular royalism or civil religion than it tells us about the way that, as social scientists, we chose to construct our own identities. As Jenson (1992) notes in relation to fans generally, taking a disdainful attitude allows "people like us (students, professors and social critics) as well as (the more reputable) patrons, aficionados or collectors" (1992: 9) to be distinguished from "them", fans, enthusiasts and royalists alike. When left unexamined the adoption of such a perspective serves to privilege certain models of society, rather than engaging with the experiences of others in their own terms. From a perspective of distaste, therefore, we are led into the danger of producing accounts of contemporary British life that tend towards the prescriptive, leaving a whole aspect of contemporary culture lacking adequate description and examination. So long as this situation remains unchanged we will continue to be periodically surprised by popular enthusiasm for major events in the life cycle of the royal family and by support for the institution of monarchy.


1Death and more recently divorce do allow for remarriage, but second marriages tend not to be performed on the same scale as first marriages. The remarriage of The Princess Royal in Crathie Parish Church suggests conformity to this custom, at least for the present.

2Also compare the comments of Finch and Morgan on newspaper reports.

3Exception may be made for school parties and for those in wheelchairs.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002