Common Touch

Michelle Obama’s embrace of the Queen recalls our long-ago monarchs who were more tactile - and much more touchy

Daniel Johnson

Like many people, I was intrigued by the pictures of the Queen with her arm around Michelle Obama at first meeting. Until recently, most people felt very awkward about the very idea of touching royalty – a residue of the miraculous powers once attributed to sacral monarchy, which Marc Bloch described in his great work Les Rois Thaumaturges. Dr Johnson was famously touched by Queen Anne for “the King’s evil”, ie scrofula. But now it is apparently fine for a perfect stranger to put her arm around the monarch – and expect her gesture to be reciprocated. I suspect that the First Lady was so thrilled that she got carried away. Whether or not Mrs Obama was a little too familiar, the Queen cheerfully entered into the spirit of things. What her private feelings about the matter are – if indeed she permits herself such feelings – we shall probably never know.

One anecdote springs to mind, though. Henry VIII was the most formidable and intimidating of all our monarchs; the one, moreover, who reinforced his sacral status by proclaiming himself Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Besides being the most brutal, however, the Tudor tyrant was the most tactile of kings. Not only did he wrestle and swap outfits with his fellow monarch, Francis I of France, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, he was also not above embracing a subject and a commoner, in exactly the same gesture that the world witnessed with the Queen and Mrs Obama.

The subject in question was not exactly everyman: Saint (or Sir, according to taste) Thomas More was not only one of the most celebrated humanists in Europe, but Lord Chancellor of England – the king’s most senior minister and judge. Like Thomas Becket and Henry II four centuries earlier, More and Henry VIII were at first as close as any monarch could be to a subject. In the contemporary biography by More’s son-in-law William Roper, we learn of Henry’s habit of dropping in unannounced at More’s house in Chelsea for a post-prandial chat. The two men would walk around the garden with the king’s arm around his chancellor, discussing everything from Erasmus’s latest adage to Luther’s latest heresy. They seemed the best of friends, but More was under no illusions: “If my head could win him a castle in France…it should not fail to go,” he confided. Again like Becket, More did fall out with the king, and over similar issues; both ex-chancellors paid with their lives.

If the present Queen lacks the charisma of her Plantagenet and Tudor predecessors, she fortunately also lacks the despotic temperament that came with it. The secularised monarchy that we call the Presidency of the United States has long since eclipsed kings and emperors. Today it is President Obama to whom the credulous attribute the thaumaturgical power to resurrect the (politically) dead. Mrs Obama, however, knows her husband better than to believe that. In her eyes, Elizabeth Regina has not lost her touch.

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