I know that some of you good people are avid watchers of the lives, antics and history of the royal family. The pomp and ceremony surrounding them can be fascinating and so this week I want to talk about some of the odd rules, laws and traditions concerning present, and previous, British monarchs.
Let's start by going way back to the year 1136. King Edward III was on the throne of England. He was crowned king at the tender age of 14 and ruled for 50 years, during which time he built the country into one of the strongest nations in Europe, established the role that parliament would play in government and developed a reputation as a great military leader. He also passed what to us may seem to be some rather strange laws.
The first was the Sumptuary Acts that said no one could eat more than two courses at any meal. This was not approved by parliament but a year later, he passed further laws saying only royalty could wear gold or purple cloth, forbidding the wearing of furs and dictating what other classes were allowed to wear according to their rank in society. There was even a rule saying anyone who earned less than 20 pounds a year was not allowed to wear a silk nightcap. Any one caught offending was supposed to pay a massive fine amounting to half a year's pay.
These acts were designed to protect English trade, especially the wool trade, from foreign merchants and for this reason they made some sense but other royal edicts don't seem to be so sensible. As an example, it is said that one of Edward's predecessors, King Henry III, passed a law prescribing the death penalty for anyone caught "killing, wounding or maiming fairies." The reason why he would want to do this is lost in the mists of time.
Soccer is my favorite sport but, if I'd been around in the year 1477 I wouldn't have been able to play it or watch it because that was when King Edward IV banned people from playing. In framing the law he said he wanted "every strong and able bodied person to practice with the bow instead, for the reason that the national defense depends upon such bowmen."
We can now move on to the 16th century and Queen Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen" of Shakespeare's era who is alleged to have passed a law forbidding any woman from enticing a man into marriage by the use of "false hair, make-up, high-heeled shoes etc." The punishment for these crimes was supposed to be the same as that for witchcraft. Since the queen herself is usually depicted as wearing a wig and heavy face paint this may well just be an old wife's tale.
It's not really clear if any of these odd laws was enforced but one of those passed by King Charles II in the 17th century certainly was and is still in use today. The law says that six ravens must be kept in the Tower of London at all times. Any of you who happen to visit the place today will see that they are still there. Indeed, there is a Royal Raven Master who breeds and maintains them and tradition has it that if they should ever leave, then England would fall.
Another tradition attached to the Tower is that if a Royal Navy ship moors on the River Thames next to the tower then the captain has to present the Constable of the Tower with a barrel of rum.
For centuries it has been the practice that every gentleman is supposed to take his hat off when in the royal presence, every gentleman except one, that is. In a tradition going back over 800 years Lord Kingsale, the premier baron of Ireland is allowed to keep his hat on when in the royal presence. He also has another privilege. A place is laid for him at all royal state occasions whether he attends or not.
Each county in Britain has a sheriff. This is not a law enforcement post like our sheriff but is a ceremonial position that takes a lot of time and brings few rewards. Nominations are listed and, by a tradition that goes back 500 years, each February Queen Elizabeth chooses the successful candidates by ceremonially pricking the list with a silver bodkin. It is the same bodkin that was used by her namesake way back in the 17th century.
The royal family own a lot of property but they don't necessarily get a lot of rent. Prince Charles owns land in the Scilly Islands - off the coast of southwest England - that is rented by wildlife trust. It doesn't bring him a lot of income, however, because the annual rent is one daffodil.
While we're talking of flowers, the Duke of Athol retains his estate at Blair Athol in Scotland from the queen, but only as long as he presents her with a single white rose each time she visits.
Queen Elizabeth actually receives rent for land on the island of Sark, although the amount is less than $2.50 per year. She gets more for grazing rights in the New Forest on the south coast of England. The rent here is 6 horsehoes, 61 nails and two knives each year.
These are just a few of the rather strange laws and traditions associated with the British monarchy. We've barely scratched the surface of the subject in this short article so, perhaps next time we can talk about the strange rules that govern modern royals. Things such as the fact that when the queen finishes eating, everyone has to finish eating, why the royals never touch shellfish and other such odd traditions.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.