Let's say you're a rude tough baron of England, not too long after the Norman Conquest (1066) and suddenly get word that any minute King Henry I will descend on you for the night, as he travels about his realm.
The first thing you do is check out your best wine. When the king arrives, you will race out and bathe his horse's hoofs in it.
Custom is all. And that was the custom. Apparently it was Henry's idea, to remind you who the dickens you were receiving at your house.
Yesterday, it was quite clear who was being received in Washington, as the prince and princess of Wales arrived amidst all sorts of hoopla (though no washing of horses' feet) for their three-day visit. In the past, the monarchs of England were used to greater deference than now. A king could cure at least some diseases (scrofula) merely by touch. Magic inhered in his person, and not just magic but the delegated power of the Divinity. He was then (as now) consecrated. It was not simply a question that he had power; he held this power from God.
The old forms often endure, with totally changed content. At a modern coronation, for example, the old forms are retained -- the holy oil, and the rest of it -- but the subjects now see their ruler as a symbol of national unity and pride, rather than as God's regent in Britain.
The present monarch, Elizabeth II, has put up with a great deal on her own travels. Sometimes she will visit some minor king who changes the tour schedule without warning, and without consulting her. On such an occasion she is unflappable, though if she is human she is bound to be annoyed or angry. But she (through palace spokesmen) will never say this. She is above criticizing any host.
It was not so in the old days. Kings and queens were not so tactful then, if things did not go smoothly. Edward I, for example, one of the great medieval warrior kings, once ran into a simple fellow who got in his way. The man's eye and one ear were removed to teach him that simple folk do not impede royal progress.
On another occasion, Edward took over a monastery, threw the monks out, took all the food and whipped the monks. Heh, heh, heh. That'll teach 'em.
For all his great place in history, this Edward was not terribly popular with some of his subjects. His royal barge was prudently edged with a kind of lattice, since his loyal subjects sometimes threw bricks at him.
King Henry II (responsible for the murder of Becket, archbishop of Canterbury) had a great reputation in his day for vigor. He traveled about the kingdom unwearied, while his attendant courtiers were worn to a frazzle.
"The king is never tired," people said, "though those traveling with him are exhausted."
It is now believed this is because the king was put up at the best castle in the neighborhood, while his attendants had to sleep wherever they could. The royal marshals were supposed to find lodging for them, but did not always break their backs to do it, so that sometimes the knights got into actual fights for the privilege of a good roof and a warm bed.
From the time of William the Conqueror to the reign of Queen Victoria no English monarch ever left the country on a royal tour except King Henry VIII, who went to France and the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold.
This was a summit meeting between Henry and Francis I, and its public relations value was enormous. The English king wanted to show the world the grandeur of the island realm and its prince.
The two kings met in a fairy-tale setting (the very tents were of precious gold fabrics, and 5,000 men had worked to prepare the site with as much magnificence as the two kingdoms could manage) for two weeks of royal meetings, tournaments, feasts and other entertainments.
Henry one night left his encampment to dine with the queen of France, and Francis left his place to dine with the queen of England. Ceremony was observed, but competition between the kings was strong; each hoping to outdo the other in chivalry and general dazzle.
Henry VIII's entourage included 5,000 souls, and the attendants on Henry's adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, were almost as numerous. Henry was a physically strong man, even by modern standards, and a veritable giant by the standards of his day. When the king of France beat him in a wrestling match -- well, that was probably not the night to ask Henry a favor.
Elizabeth I was a great traveler in her realm. Presumably she wished to save money -- the cost of maintaining the court was great -- by holding court here and there about the kingdom with her host bearing the expense.
It is believed she sometimes descended on people to punish them (through the cost of entertaining her) but it is also clear she simply loved traveling about. It is said to have cost Leicester 1,000 pounds a day to entertain her on one of her visits -- a fabulous sum which would have bought an impressive rural palace. Still, Elizabeth's ministers managed to build mansions of such size as the world has rarely seen, so they had no cause for complaint.
Her secret service was made nervous on her travels by the number of people who ran up to greet her -- they did not wish to discourage displays of loyalty, but it's hard to tell an assassin from a fellow with a bunch of flowers -- especially in forested country. Once a subject leapt out of the woods with a drawn bow and arrow, which he presented to the queen, and with which she graciously shot a deer.
Another time she had the ears of a young deer cut off, but spared its life, keeping the ears as a sort of souvenir. There was no Humane Society then.
A weighty two-volume opus is packed with odd bits of information about Elizabeth's travels. It should not be forgot she was a woman of great learning, as well as a superb administrator.
"She made," a chronicler records of a Cambridge visit, "within St. Maries Church a notable Oration in Latin in the presence of the whole university to the students' great comfort."
She also gave due thanks when these somewhat uncomfortable jaunts were over, and this is one of her prayers:
"I render unto thee, O merciful heavenly father, most humble and hearty thanks for thy manifold mercies so abundantly bestowed upon me, as well for my creation, preservation, regeneration and all other benefits and great mercies exhibited in Christ Jesus, but especially for thy mighty protection and defense over me, in preserving me in this long and dangerous journey."
So much for a weekend at a country house.
Her successor, King James I, took a month to get from Scotland to London, pausing to hunt and visit along the route. A chronicler said he shot everything that ran and knighted everything that crawled.
Every road on which she traveled, by the way, was carefully swept beforehand.
Since King Charles II's travels were involuntary, perhaps they should not be mentioned. Upon his return to England after exile he brought his favorite spaniels with him, and they all went to the john on the deck of the ship. For some reason this is carefully recorded. What were the spaniels supposed to do, one may wonder.
King George III left large parts of England unvisited. He did visit a brewery once (in London, not too exhausting a trip) where he partook only of bread and butter.
The first English prince (later to become king) to visit America was William IV, who served on Adm. Digby's staff in the Hudson River during the American Revolution. Actually there was a plan to kidnap him and require him to appear before the Continental Congress, but he was never seized. George Washington agreed to the plan, provided no indignity or insult was offered to the person of the prince.
Serving in a war against us is hardly a royal visit to us, of course. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, were the first British rulers to come here, in 1939.
But a prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, paid a visit in 1860, while he was still in school at Oxford. It was on this New York visit that 3,000 people in New York were invited to a ball in his honor at the Academy of Music. Then as now, however, Americans had an insatiable enthusiasm for princes of Wales, and there were 2,000 gate crashers. Just before the prince was to enter the ballroom to a flourish of trumpets, the dance floor sank three feet under the weight of the 5,000. This was at 10:30 p.m., and by 12:30 the floor was fixed and the dance resumed. It is said the prince did not enjoy the dance all that much. He was 19, and had to dance with every matron in New York, rather than their somewhat more entrancing daughters.
On this same trip the prince, at Niagara Falls, was invited (quite unofficially -- the American government was not involved) to get in a wheelbarrow and be trundled on a tightrope over the falls. He was all in favor of this, but those responsible for his safety, close to apoplexy, dissuaded him.
His mother, Queen Victoria, never came to America, but traveled often to Scotland, the Isle of Wight and later to France. Her railway carriage was the last thing in comfort and luxury. To modern eyes it looks dreadful. It was padded all over to reduce noise and vibration, and the queen insisted the train should travel slowly, which probably disappointed the engineers aboard and the small boys along the route who were watching.
From the time of Edward VII royal travel picked up. There were journeys to India for a change.
Then after World War I another prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, who abdicated before marrying a divorced woman, Wallis Warfield Simpson) traveled 150,000 miles and visited 45 countries between 1919 and 1925. His visit to America was a sensation. In Quebec crowds broke through police lines. Somebody swiped the prince's handkerchief, while others tried to pull buttons off his jacket. "I rather liked it," he said.
In Toronto he was snatched from the saddle of his horse in an uncommon display of excitement and passed along (like a track hero) to the podium where he had to make a little speech. He was so pleased with North America that he bought a ranch near Calgary, Alberta. (His father was not much pleased at that.)
In Washington he visited the White House, though President Woodrow Wilson was ill, and the vice president entertained him. On a jaunt to Annapolis, two policemen leading his motorcycle escort got drunk, fell off and passed out.
In New York, as everywhere else, people went mad for the prince. He went to the Ziegfeld Follies, visited Grant's Tomb and other delightful places. He went to a night club, earning a newspaper headline, "Prince Gets In With Milkman."
Back in London his father, George V, was less than amused by the newspaper accounts.
It is hardly credible that even a young man could travel so much, garner such good will for his country, and not collapse, but young Edward did it. It was only on later trips -- to Australia, for example -- that signs of strain appeared. A certain arbitrariness and unwillingness to be hauled from one event to the next like a slab of beef was detected in the prince, and after his abdication some years later it was widely said that this showed his unsuitability for the throne.
But before the prince became an object of widespread contempt for failing to assume the obligations of a British king, he was far more widely idolized than any rock star or film person now among us. How are the mighty fallen.
The new prince of Wales, visiting here this week, will doubtless create the usual American enthusiasm for English princes, though since he is already married he will necessarily be a slight disappointment to ambitious persons with nubile daughters. Though the last American to marry a prince (Mrs. Simpson) led the life of an exile and few Americans would envy her.
This new prince will plant a tree, go to church, visit the Library of Congress and do all such good works as are expected of him, surely, and no dance floors are expected to collapse under the weight of gate-crashers.