The William Blake Blog

One King, one God, one Law: Monarchy and Dissent
In the light of protestors being arrested prior to the Coronation of Charles III, what can we learn from one of the United Kingdom's great dissenters?

At approximately 7.30 am on Saturday 6 May, Graham Smith was collecting placards and drinks on the Strand for those gathering in London to protest the coronation of Charles III. Nearby, in Trafalgar Square, hundreds of demonstrators were assembling in yellow shirts, determined to draw attention to their claim that Charles was #NotMyKing, many of them members of Republic, the political organisation of which Smith is CEO.

Before he could return to Trafalgar Square, several of the 11,000 police officers brought into London to maintain the peace arrested him, along with 51 others. When he was released 16 hours later, some reports claimed that he had been arrested for bringing a megaphone to the demonstration and that police officers were concerned about potential disruption.

Republic had organised the protest with the co-operation of the Met and, according to The Guardian, "Security minister Tom Tugendhat referred to it as evidence that the coronation day would present Britain to the world as a 'showcase of liberty'." Although plenty of demonstrators remained, corralled in place according to tactics police had long used after the Poll Tax riots of 1990, the arrests and other restrictions, including against those who had handed out rape alarms the evening before or members of Stop Oil, appeared as anything but a "showcase of liberty".

I am not a monarchist. Other than a sneaky peak at the moment when Handel's Zadok the Priest was played (surely one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed), I avoided the Coronation performance - while also realising that I was probably denying myself a live view of an incredible piece of ceremonial magic punctuated by long periods of tedium. I also had little doubt what Blake would have made of such a celebration, having satirically written of a previous monarch, George III, in the guise of the false god, Urizen:

Lo! I unfold my darkness: and on
This rock, place with strong hand the Book
Of eternal brass, written in my solitude.
Laws of peace, of love, of unity:
Of pity, compassion, forgiveness.
Let each chuse one habitation:
His ancient infinite mansion:
One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure
One King, one God, one Law.
- The First Book of Urizen, 4.31-40.

While a Republican like Blake, to be honest I was largely just ignoring the Coronation itself, a spectacle which (I foolishly thought) has little impact upon me because I think little of it, while being fully aware that these arrests appeared a very heavy-handed implementation of the new Public Order Act which had come into effect on May 3, merely days before. The prompt to reconsider came from Carl Gopalkrishnan, an artist and activist in Perth, Australia, who - somewhat impishly I thought, knowing my interest in the hymn - tweeted:

While I cannot - and will not - here aspire to answer all the implications of that pithy but heavily-loaded tweet, it is very much worth pointing out that the author of what would become the hymn "Jerusalem" was also arrested merely months before he engraved the stanzas beginning "And did those feet...", and that Blake's Englishness had nothing to do with subservience to the Crown.

The context of Blake's arrest, unsurprisingly, was the ongoing war with France and the suspicion of "non-loyal" subjects who wished to view themselves as citizens. The treaty of Amiens, signed on 25 March, 1802, had provided a temporary ceasefire between the United Kingdom and France. This uneasy truce was ended in May, 1803, when the British declared war on France, having become increasingly alarmed at Napoleon’s reordering of Europe and his potential threat to the UK’s overseas colonies. Over the coming months, the south coast of England would become one of the most heavily militarised parts of Europe as soldiers were billeted in towns and villages along the English channel to see off a threatened invasion by Bonaparte. One such soldier, stationed at the Fox Inn in Felpham, was to change Blake’s life.

On Friday 12 August, John Scolfied was invited into the Blakes' garden as an assistant to a gardener working there. Blake, having noticed the stranger, came out to talk to him – during which time their conversation became rather heated. The engraver provided an account to his friend Thomas Butts, a few days later:

I desired him as politely as was possible to go out of the Garden, he made me an impertinent answer[.] I insisted on his leaving the Garden[;] he refused[.] I still persisted in desiring his departure[;] he then threatend to knock out my Eyes with many abominable imprecations & with some contempt for my Person[;] it affronted my foolish Pride[.] I therefore took him by the Elbow & pushed him before me till I had got him out, there I intended to have left him but he turning about put himself into a Posture of Defiance threatening & swearing at me. I perhaps foolishly & perhaps not, stepped out at the Gate & putting aside his blows took him again by the Elbows & keeping his back to me pushed him forwards down the road about fifty yards[,] he all the while endeavouring to turn round & strike me & raging & cursing which drew out several neighbours[.]
- David Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, p.732

This was not to be the end of it. Having been rudely left at the nearby Fox Inn, Scolfield then returned with another soldier, John Cock, and accused Blake of sedition. Among other things, as Scolfield reported to magistrates in a deposition three days later, Blake had said:

that the French knew our strength very well and if Buonapart wo.d come he wo.d be master of Europe in an hour’s time, that England might depend upon it that when he sat his Foot on English Ground that every Englishman wo.d be put to his choice whether to have his throat cut or to join the French… that he Damned the King of England – his Country and his Subjects – [and] that his soldiers were all bound for Slaves & all the poor people in general[.]

At his trial in Chichester the following year, Blake was acquitted and it was clear that Scolfield was an untrustworthy witness, although as John Linnell observed many years later, it was very likely that Blake had indeed damned the king. Whatever the truth of the events in August 1803, it was clear that Blake was both shaken and also more confirmed than ever in his opposition to all forms of militarism, a belief that he held onto ever more firmly when writing the Preface to Milton a Poem.

I am very much one of those who believe that Blake did indeed damn the king in his garden in 1803, not simply because it is something I would want him to do, but because if there is one constant in his writings - from his adolescent defiance of tyrants in Poetical Sketches to his mockery of Dr Thornton's "Tory" translation of the Lord's Prayer in the final year of his life - it is his opposition to one king, one god, one law. I try to avoid throwing words such as patriotic and patriotism (always dangerous, two-edged swords), but I would happily defend the writer of one of England's most famous lyrics as much more patriotic than, say, Neil Hamilton, the leader of UKIP who declared that all those who did not like living under a monarchy should "go and join Prince Harry!" Aside from leading his party to a grand total of zero elected representatives (a telling figure for one who claims to speak for a nation), Hamilton is most famous, of course, for having had to resign his ministerial role because of corruption in 1997 and lost his seat to an independent candidate, Martin Bell.

All too often, patriotism in the UK is identified with loyalty to the monarchy. Indeed, can it be any other way in a country that owes its very existence to being a United Kingdom? That is one of the reasons why I in recent years have become so much more interested in an alternative England which is a much more amorphous entity than those on the right often assume - as demonstrated the day before the Coronation when local elections in England delivered a drubbing to the Conservative Party. In contrast to elections, I have no choice in the UK as to whether I am a subject (unfortunately) or a citizen, and certainly to see the latter fulfilled the United Kingdom would need to cease to exist. My opinions on the matter are very much those of a small group (although I note with interest that while 89 percent of Britons watching TV on Saturday were watching the coronation, that number was 18.8 million or less than a third of the population, and considerably fewer than the 29 million who watched the funeral of Elizabeth II in September). The Royal Family remains generally popular, although none of the current incumbents according to YouGov polling comes close to the late Queen, and some, such as Prince Andrew, are distinctly unpopular among all groups. Equally pertinent for me, the Coronation was a reminder that the King is also head of the Anglican Church, very much a minority sect in the twenty-first century for all that it is the established creed.

Whether the monarchy is determined to succeed to another 1,000-year reign or not is far beyond my modest powers of prophecy, and certainly any opposition to Charles III seems very tame compared to that directed against another king crowned during Blake's lifetime; George IV was widely mocked when his original coronation plans were upset by the claims of his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, to be crowned queen consort. While the 2023 coronation was a model of propriety, in one respect the actions of the Establishment seemed very fragile on Saturday in that it enforced unity when the toleration of dissent would have been the nobler course of action. As many commentators have observed, this was a missed opportunity for Charles III and the Establishment (particularly the Met, which is hardly covered in glory these days) to demonstrate their magnanimity. Turning (in the spirit of dissent) to one of Blake's enemies, John Locke wrote regarding matters of conscience:

These accusations [regarding sedition] would soon cease if the law of toleration were once so settled that all Churches were obliged to lay down toleration as the foundation of their own liberty, and teach that liberty of conscience is every man’s natural right, equally belonging to dissenters as to themselves; and that nobody ought to be compelled in matters of religion either by law or force. The establishment of this one thing would take away all ground of complaints and tumults upon account of conscience; and these causes of discontents and animosities being once removed, there would remain nothing in these assemblies that were not more peaceable and less apt to produce disturbance of state than in any other meetings whatsoever.
- John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)