The British royal family is an object of intense public interest in Japan. Its relations with the Japanese Imperial family run deep, and figures such as Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, and Princess Catherine have worldwide appeal. In writing this book, the author focused on the achievements of the most important kings and queens of Britain. Its intention is to explain Britain’s systems of politics and government, the nature of its society, and the lifestyles of its common people from late antiquity to the present. At first glance, the king may appear far removed from commoners, but in fact tracing the history of the monarchs is the same thing as tracing the history of the English people. British society traditionally set clear lines of demarcation between royalty and aristocracy and other classes. Even if the former was riven with repeated conflicts and feuds, the latter escaped more or less unscathed.
However, kings and commoners never lived in entirely separate worlds. For example, without popular support, the royal family could not hope to prevail against the united ranks of the nobility. The historical trends of the British royal family thus simultaneously reflect and symbolize the history of the common people.
Japan has already seen the publication of numerous general histories and monographs on British history with extensive coverage of individual monarchs and dynasties. Thus, this publication does not confine itself to tracing the flow of political and institutional history, with a focus on monarchs. Instead, it tries to shed light on the cultural and mental traits that characterize British history as a whole. Britain’s contributions to world history include a wide range of legal and political innovations, such as common law, local autonomy through the exercise of authority by the gentry, the organization of centralized government, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and colonial imperialism (the British Empire), among others. From the medieval period to modern times, these innovations have been shaped by power struggles between monarchs and the aristocracy, as well as by the rivalry between Britain and the other European powers. On the surface, tracing this process is indeed the theme of this work, as it is of other such publications. However, this book also has another ulterior theme, i.e., to highlight the aspects of British life unknown to the continent—the interplay between the strength of egoism (self-help) and the wisdom of compromise; the distinctive balance of cruelty/kindness, refinement/barbarity, and curiosity/indifference that form the British individual; the diffusion of empiricism and pragmatism through all levels of society; and the shadow of nihilism that uncannily shrouds all of these. It is this which the author has attempted to capture during each time period as a gestalt phenomenon.
This publication is composed of seven chapters. The first half of each chapter sets out the main achievements of an individual monarch (this work gives at least some coverage to each of them) along with coverage of the parliaments and laws, the birth and development of administrative systems, and so forth. The second half of each chapter is devoted to a cultural and social history of each monarch's era. These cultural and social history sections include coverage of literary works and engravings of the time to make the content more accessible. Since Britain is renowned for the culture of everyday life, this work accordingly sheds light on trends in the private sphere—the custom of tea-drinking; indifference to the culinary arts; devotion to gardening; the attention paid to furniture, tableware, and other domestic objects; and finally, the contributions made in these areas by the royal family.
(Written by Shunichi Ikegami, Professor of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences / 2018)