From the ‘head of state’, to the ‘public eye’, to the ‘arm’ in army and the ‘footmen’ who comprise it, as a metaphor, the body politic is a rhetorical device used to make political communities knowable as a human body. In these ways, the thinking and practice of politics is profoundly embodied and embodies political communities through metaphoricity – the power of metaphor.
With regard to the metaphoricity of the body politic, political speech in times of transition becomes heavily littered with body parts and the occasion of the death of Queen Elizabeth II-accession of King Charles III is currently serving as a prime example of this while demonstrating the continuation of historical theological and legal-political traditions providing the monarch with not one but two bodies and breathing life into the still commonly deployed metaphorical ‘body politic’.
In his maiden address as King to the members of the House of Lords and Commons, in the Palace of Westminster on Mon 12th Sept 2022, Charles III explicitly acknowledged the lively body of our politic referring to ‘vital parliamentary traditions’ and describing parliament itself as the ‘living and breathing instrument of our democracy’ the purpose of which he described as being to ‘maintain the principles of constitutional Government that lie at the heart of our nation.’ And all this while the dead body of his late Mother, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II lay ‘at rest’ inside Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse during its 500 mile ceremonial journey through the United Kingdom and towards its final destination and ultimate resting place of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. However, the body politic is not just any body, but a very particular body.
The Queen Is Dead, Long Live The Queen!
I am not the first to claim that the use of bodily metaphor is more than mere word play. Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies (1957) famously traces the ‘mystic’ Medieval theological and legal texts identifying the monarch as having two bodies: One mortal body (the ‘body natural’) and one immortal ‘body politic’ which ‘cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any disability in his natural body’ and meaning that ‘the King never dies’. Described as ‘more ample and large’ than the ‘body natural’, over time – from the first Elizabethan period onwards – the capacities of the immortal body politic were gradually mapped out and written into law by Royal jurists who describe in relation to King James VI how ‘this body is not subject to passions as the other is, nor to death’ and how ‘he [the King] and his subjects together comprise the corporation… he is the Head and they are the members’. These two bodies came to provide the Monarch with twin legal identities – one as a mortal and one which ‘never dies’ – meaning even the execution of King Charles Stuart for treason was done ‘without affecting seriously or doing irreparable harm to the King’s Body Politic’ and in this way greatly contrasted with events across the Channel where in 1793 the last French Monarch Louis XVI was executed by guillotine and the French state was entirely transformed into a constitutional Republic. Indeed, more than ‘mystic’ the body politic serves a material as well as metaphorical political function and continues to do so today.
On the occasion of a British Monarch’s natural death, such as that of Elizabeth II last week, Kantorowicz’s ‘King’s Two Bodies’ describes how the body politic (as immortal) does not die but is rather ‘transferred and conveyed over’ from one ‘body natural’ to another and at this time we are witnessing such a ‘transfer’ taking place (between Queen Elizabteh II and King Charles III). It is a liminal time and certainly feels politically disjointed. Moreover, with Parliament taking a ten day recess the body politic – as well as the late Queen’s body natural – are ‘resting’ while the transfer takes place. Politically disjointed and delicate, it feels in the UK right now as though we as a body politic are coming apart all together – a split body with Royalists on the one hand and opposing parts on the other. In Edinburgh just yesterday, a heckler was shouted down by reflex reactions to drown out criticism of Prince Andrew – the late Queen’s second son – with chants of ‘Long Live The King!’ Meanwhile, across the UK debate continues to rage over the appropriateness of a costly Monarchical transition when other parts of the body politic are experiencing an increasingly unaffordable cost of even living itself. And all this as one political party (Sinn Fein) refused even to attend the new King’s accession proclamation ceremony in Northern Ireland due to the event being (in their words) ‘intended for those whose political allegiance is to the British Crown’.
Kate Cregan, inspired by Kantorowicz’s text has similarly picked up on the fragility of the transitionary, accession period. Here, Cregan returns to the liminal – 35 day – period between Queen Elizabeth I’s 1603 death and burial to highlight the simultaneous bodily and political desecration of Elizabeth’s twin bodies as, against her wishes, the late Queen Elizabeth I was opened by post-mortem by a gang of London ‘barber-surgeons’ in the run up to the state funeral. Through their act Cregan argues that:
‘the dissection of the Queen during the liminal period between death and interment, and its connection to both mapping and anatomy, undoes the supposed concomitant inviolability of the boundaries and borders of the state she worked so hard to embody.’ (2007: 52)
In this piece Cregan goes as far as to suggest that, by opening the Queen and uncovering a ‘membrana’ within her pelvis (what today might have been diagnosed as a disease like endometritis), the barber-surgeons offended not only the dignity of Elizabeth’s human form and ‘body natural’ but that of the body politic and the very borders of Elizabeth’s England and Ireland too. At a time when ‘the mapping of the country and the mapping of the human body underwent a significant conceptual shift’, it seems the undoing of the late Queen also threatened to undo the nation and perhaps, this explains why, over 400 years later, the Late Queen Elizabeth II’s personal physician Professor Sir Huw Thomas and the House of Windsor have been so guarded in his comments about the demise of our late Queen’s natural body.
At this time of transition the body politic is disrupted by the trauma of the Queen’s passing. However, this – like other collectively traumatic events – provides a chance to re-set and in this case reconfigure the body politic itself. King Charles III used his maiden speech to re-state the embodiment of the British populace by metaphorically evoking the institutional limbs and their functions and in this way our re-embodiment provides an opportunity, to consider the health of present collective body and to ask what kind of body our contemporary politic(s) needs? I ask my students every semester to consider this very question as they map out the contemporary body politic for themselves. In recent years they have responded by explaining impressively detailed diagrams of increasingly grotesque and severely disabled bodies – struggling to breathe, blind, or with protruding cancerous growths. Indeed, as a deeply unequal and increasingly polarised collective I think we all ought to use ‘this time’ to consider the body parts being worn down and depleted and how the body politic is made unwell through the demands of contemporary politics itself while questioning the traditions that keep the body politic ‘alive’ in this state through rituals such as those playing out now and surrounding the late Queen’s ‘two bodies’.
Cregan, Kate. 2007. ‘Early Modern Anatomy and the Queen’s Body Natural: The Sovereign Subject’, Body & Society, Vol. 13(2): 47–66.
Kantorowicz, E.H. 1957. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Medieval Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Purnell, Kandida. 2021. Rethinking The Body in Global Politics. Bodies, Body, Politics, and the Body Politic in a Time of Pandemic, London and New York: Routledge.