“Ireland is very sentimental, and, like India, monarchist to the core,” Sir Edward Grigg, British prime minister David Lloyd George’s secretary, advised him in the summer of 1921. There can be few better illustrations of the British failure to grasp the dramatic rise of Irish republicanism during the first World War and its aftermath.
Fearful of socialist revolution on the continent bringing anti-monarchism to Britain, the British government had missed the actual revolution already occurring within the then United Kingdom, as Home Rule collapsed and Irish nationalists embraced the ideal of a republican state.
This clash of understandings was central to the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations 100 years ago. Often depicted as a moment of realpolitik, in reality the Treaty talks reveal a profound clash of ideals, between two concepts of state organisation, republic versus monarchy. Yet little attention has been paid by historians to the importance of monarchism as a factor in British decision-making.
For the British negotiators, Britain and its empire were one unified entity. The empire had no separate representation at the talks; the British delegation negotiated with the Irish on its behalf as well as Britain’s. In 1921, populations in Britain and its empire shared one common, universal, legal nationality, that of “British subject”. Being a subject of the monarch was the essential legal and cultural component of British identity.
Given their monarchist world view, there could be no question for the British negotiators of granting an Irish republic within the empire. It was not until after the second World War that the first republic – India – was permitted within the British Commonwealth and that Britain finally agreed that individual Commonwealth states could have their own separate national citizenship.
Having abandoned his original 1920 plan for two home rule parliaments in Ireland, Lloyd George was prepared to offer the Irish Treaty delegation dominion status within the British empire, but nothing further: the Free State could leave the UK but not the global British unit. Dominion status was literally the status of being one of the British monarch’s dominions. Monarchism and retaining British subject status were fundamental to its meaning.
This is why the oath of allegiance was non-negotiable for the British side in the Treaty talks. Every dominion parliament within the British empire had an oath of allegiance to the monarchy as the crown was what defined their common Britishness. “The Crown is the symbol of a common citizenship which makes all subjects of the King one in international law. No man can be a subject of two States. He must either be a subject of the King or an alien, and the question no more admits of an equivocal answer than whether he is alive or dead,” noted a British memo. The British also hoped that if the Free State remained a dominion, then Northern Ireland might one day unite with it, and all Ireland would become one British dominion within the empire.
Irish republicanism espoused a very different ideal of state, based on the model of American and French republicanism, with their concepts of egalitarian citizenship rather than monarchist subjecthood. In this concept, sovereignty was embodied in the people and not a living monarchical sovereign. The language of the 1916 Proclamation endorsed this republican ethos. Irish republicanism was galvanised by the spread of anti-monarchism following the first World War. For Treaty delegation member George Gavan Duffy the whole age of monarchy was ending: “we cannot agree to use the word allegiance. It is out of date. Loyalty is now due not to Governments but to Nations.”
This explains why the oath of allegiance in the Anglo-Irish Treaty triggered such anger that it was ultimately a factor in causing an Irish civil war. The Irish delegation to the Treaty talks fought hard to try to get the wording of the oath watered down, but only won some very minor concessions. Those debating the Treaty in the Dáil focused considerable time on the oath of allegiance, fully aware of what was at stake. Ireland wanted to issue its own passports; it wanted to have its own Irish citizenship. Dominion status would officially preclude these things, although the Free State ultimately later went ahead and unilaterally did them anyhow, with Britain refusing to recognise these moves.
While Lloyd George had granted the Irish Free State the concession of having its own independent army, a first for any British dominion at the time, this was not enough to make the oath more palatable. The oath was not merely parliamentary protocol but an acknowledgement of “British subject” status. Margaret Pearse argued the oath to the British monarch was perjury as it contradicted the oath she and other TDs had already taken to the Irish Republic.
Yet if anti-monarchism was spreading throughout Europe, dominion status too was evolving rapidly. Dominion status allowed greater domestic political autonomy to certain territories within the British empire than the status of colony or protectorate did. It had imperial racial associations as it was usually allocated to areas with large numbers of settlers of white British descent.
During the first World War, the existing dominions, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Newfoundland, had succeeded in getting greatly increased powers. In the war’s aftermath, they pushed for more, gaining complete control of their own domestic and foreign policy by the mid-1920s. Their battle for full independence from Whitehall and Westminster was matched by their canny exploitation of British monarchism – they chose to retain a symbolic link to the crown in exchange for steadily breaking all other ties to Britain.
All this reveals the ongoing power and importance of the British monarchy during the Great War and its aftermath. For all the alarm generated by the Russian Revolution, the British monarchy remained popular. In 1917, Lloyd George sent the king and queen to tour militant striking areas in northern England and Scotland because he knew that the royals were more popular with the strikers than his government. It was the monarchy that was chosen to console collective war grief, with the king acting as chief mourner at the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey.
None of this suggests a monarchy in danger. There was no toppling of royal statues or public attacks on royal symbols in Britain. The contrast with Ireland – never made by historians of the British monarchy – suggests that there was little real revolutionary anti-monarchism in Britain. The monarchy’s embodiment of the British state, of Britishness, in this period was secure. In fact, its association with the sacrifices of the first World War had helped sanctify it. All this helps explain, too, why Irish unionists emphasised monarchism as part of their British identity in 1921.
Irish Catholic views in contrast were very complex. Many were profoundly anti-monarchist during the War of Independence, such as Kevin Barry’s mother who refused to appeal to King George V to intervene to stop the execution of her son on the grounds that this would be to recognise the monarchy. Sinn Féin propaganda was heavily anti-monarchist.
In contrast, letters in British archives also show that some Catholics remained loyal monarchists, appealing to the king to help them against Sinn Féin. Others drew a distinction between disliking the monarchy, but not George V as a person, as he had reached out to Catholicism, was sympathetic to Home Rule and had opposed reprisals in Ireland. His 1911 visit to Ireland had drawn large crowds. Some saw him as a potential arbiter in the Anglo-Irish conflict: he was in constant contact with moderate nationalist intermediaries.
In 1920, he received significant numbers of petitions from Irish people who believed he would save Terence MacSwiney; behind the scenes, the king’s private secretary suggested, unsuccessfully, that MacSwiney be moved to house arrest and be cared for by his wife. King George V’s 1921 speech at the opening of the Northern Irish parliament, calling for reconciliation, was well-received and ordinary Irish people wrote to him praising it afterwards. Even Éamon De Valera told Jan Smuts in 1921 that he trusted the goodwill of the king but not the sincerity of the king’s government.
For all its importance, however, this history has been neglected. The 20th-century British monarchy is a decidedly difficult topic to work on. Its documents are hard to access and the sensitivities it raises remain acute. It is rarely the subject of serious scholarship as historians are put off by its association with popular hagiography or polemical criticism.
When I first became curious about its role in the era of the Great War, I was warned by English historians that it was a risky subject, incomprehensible and banal. But having grown up in Dublin in the 1980s, I already knew that it was risky in a different sense. I remembered an era when a royal visit to the Republic of Ireland was taboo. As a small child, I saw anxious British tourists and Irish locals discreetly hiding out in the television room of a Wicklow hotel to watch a royal wedding in 1986, afraid of being seen. On the news, I watched the heavy security of royal helicopter visits to Northern Ireland with unionist displays of loyalty and children waving flags. I wanted to know how this strange mix of pageantry, resentment and polarisation came to be.
The search took me back to the first World War and the Irish Revolution. The result is my new book on the British monarchy and monarchism in the Great War and its aftermath. It shows the monarchy's central importance to Britain and British identity in this period – a centrality much greater than the British monarchy holds today. Understanding what the monarchy meant back then is key to grasping the profound clash of values that tore through Anglo-Irish relations. It is also crucial to understanding Irish anti-monarchism in its historic context and to better comprehending its legacies.
Heather Jones is professor of modern and contemporary European history at University College London. Her latest book, For King and Country: The British Monarchy and the First World War, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.