Word of the Week
Charles now reigns as king of England, and I hope may he be as temperate, dutiful, and modest as his mother, Elizabeth II. We call him Charles III, though I guess there are still stalwarts of the Stuart line who will deny that he is the legitimate heir to the throne — who might say that the real Charles III was Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” That dashing and amorous young fellow did try to reclaim the throne, but the Battle of Culloden in 1746 put an end to that. It was a turning point in the history of Scotland, because the English determined to break the authority of the ancient clans and their leaders. Scots are proud now to wear the family tartan, but for many decades after Culloden, the English forbade them to do so. They might as well have erected signs with a stick-figure Scot in a kilt, and a red diagonal band right through him. No Tartans Here!
If you were to judge by how much sweat and blood men spill to get themselves crowned, you might think that kings were the happiest of people. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” says the weary King Henry IV, in Shakespeare’s second play under his name. He should know, because he spent a lot of energy, and did a lot of political maneuvering, not to mention fighting in battle, to gain our Word of the Week from the hapless Richard II, only to find himself embroiled in war with the same men who brought him to the crown in the first place. Why, Richard even predicted that it would turn out this way, when Henry’s ally, his “ladder,” the Earl of Northumberland, thinking half a kingdom too little, would turn against him, because “the love of wicked men converts to fear,” and fear to hate, and hate to danger and death. “My guilt be on my head, and there an end,” replied Northumberland. He would come to regret that offhand curse.
Crowns, crowns! “My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head,” says Antonio to Sebastian, one man of sin to another, in The Tempest. All Sebastian has to do is to murder his brother Alonso, the King of Naples, in his sleep. It will not come to pass; it is a phantasm of a diseased mind. But isn’t that often the case, that the crown neither confers authority, nor is it a sign of authority, but it is rather a mockery, even a punishment? Think of the pathetic last king of Judah, Zedekiah, who wasn’t particularly wicked, but who didn’t care to listen to the constant warnings of Jeremiah, either. He was led off to captivity in Babylon, but not before the Babylonians slew his sons in front of him and then put his eyes out. It would have been better for Zedekiah had he been a mere vinedresser or a plowman.
Yet I think we can no more remove from our hearts the idea of a crowned king than we can remove the very ideal of nobility, power, wisdom, fatherly care, and self-denial combined in one man. An Indian chief wears a headdress; and if he is a good man, it will weigh heavy upon him. We see him, just as we see a painting of King Arthur seated with his knights of the Round Table, and we understand it immediately. It’s the president, the prime minister, the party leader, and the county commissioners who need explaining. Maybe we can also understand that when Jesus was crowned with thorns, it wasn’t as much of a mockery as the soldiers thought it would be, because in this world of ours, a good king must feel the thorns more sharply than he sees the gold.
What about the word, crown? We get it ultimately from Latin corona: think of the crown-like circle of fire that surrounds the sun in a total eclipse. In poetry, a corona was a poem made up of stanzas all bound up in a ring: the last line of each stanza would be the first line of the next, until the last line of the final stanza, which would repeat the first line of the first. The crown of your head is so called because it’s on top and it’s sort of round, and that’s what Jack broke when he came down from the hill with his pail of water. I’ve heard people use the verb not for putting a crown on, but for taking it off — that is, for pinching off the crowns of strawberries. Latin corona is a cousin of all kinds of words in our language-family that have to do with being round, not like a ball, but like something bent into a circle, like a ring. Yes, ring is a cousin, from Old English hring, where the initial h corresponds to the Latin c: as in Latin caput, English head. That English word entered Old French, and then came back into English as range and rank and, if you’ll believe it, ranch. I suppose you won’t see a man of Charles’ rank riding a horse in a ring around a ranch while his crown circles his head, but if he did, it would make linguistic sense, anyway!
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. Learn more about our subscription tiers by clicking the button below.
There's so much symbolism to crowns that we miss these days--or, rather, that we refuse to acknowledge, I think. We have this idea that crowns symbolize oppression, something beaten into our heads by modern politics. We're told that the crown is just a fancy hat worn by some "regular guy" who everyone pretends is a god, because humans like to grab power and hurt people. And no doubt, kings of the past have oppressed and hurt many people: they are men, after all. But I don't think most of us today, especially those spinning the narrative, realize that the idea of a king was never truly that of a man above everyone else. Yes, yes "divine rule" and all that...but almost everyone in the "olden days" knew that their king was just a man. He was a man with greater responsibility, perhaps even ordained by God, but still a man. Some kings forgot this...and they often paid for it.
And for all our hand-wringing about the "terrible" past, things were far more balanced then, I think. A feudal king had power, but he also had oaths to fulfill. He had to provide protection and justice, because if he didn't--well, you wouldn't want to be him when the peasants he relies on as soldiers decide they don't care for him anymore! These days, we've replaced crowns with suits, and rather than having a government that relies on us for its existence, just as we rely on it for protection, we have leaders whose wealth, capital, and manipulative influence have ensured that they essentially no longer need us. I'd much rather have a king who I knew relied upon my support as much as I relied upon his power than a Congress that has no need to care for me, because they own every resource I could use to force their hand. How very strange that we're told by modern authoritarians that the kings of the past were so much worse...almost as if they're trying to distract us from rediscovering something that might be a threat to their power.
The happiest of people include children wearing birthday crowns. teen-agers being crowned at a prom, party goers wearing hats and crowns on New Years Eve, and the best of anything awarded with a trophy or crown. Crowns have become so commonplace that when am antique, richly embelished, or jeweled crown is seen in a museum or at a coronation it reclaims its true significance and we are awed in its presence.