In our deep sadness about the terrible fire in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, it is apparent how close the peoples of Britain and the Commonwealth are to the people of France.
We sometimes forget how close our monarchs have been to reigning as Kings and Queens of France. After all, where did William the Conqueror, King William 1 come from? He was also Duke of Normandy before France came into existence as a nation.
In 1340, Edward III of England claimed the French throne with a not unreasonable case to be the successor to French King Charles IV. Thus in his Coat of Arms, you see the French fleur-de-lys, a stylised depiction of a lily alongside the lions rampant which symbolise England.
The result of his claim was the Hundred Years’ War, with King Henry V and King Henry VI of England reigning also in France. This continued until 1453 when Charles VII effectively expelled the English from France.
Despite this, English and then British monarchs continued to call themselves King or Queen of France until the formation under George III of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 January 1801. Thereafter the French fleur-de-lis was no longer included in the Royal Coat of Arms.
Two serious proposals for a Franco-British Union were made within living memory.
Now forgotten, they would have meant that Elizabeth II and her father George VI would have also reigned in France.
In 1940, as France faced defeat by an advancing German army with the French government contemplating surrendering, a proposal was agreed among the leaders of Britain and France to form a union of the two countries with joint citizenship.
The two governments met in Concarneau and agreed on the terms of the union.
But at a subsequent French cabinet meeting, the proposal was dismissed as a British plan to steal France’s colonies. Some said that becoming a Nazi province was preferable to becoming a British dominion. Field Marshal Philippe Pétain, keen to negotiate an armistice with Germany, even called the proposal as a fusion with a corpse, the corpse being Britain whom he expected to be conquered soon by Hitler.
The result was that Paul Reynaud, the last Prime Minister of the Third Republic, resigned. He subsequently said that the failure of the Franco-British Union had been the greatest disappointment of his political career.
Petain was granted dictatorial l powers. He dissolved the Third Republic, turning France into a fascist state and becoming not President but chef d’État, that is, Head of State. This was only the second time that this diplomatic term, so beloved by Australian republicans and some uninformed monarchists, was used internally as a constitutional office.
This was because he did not want to use the republican term, president. Just like Malcolm Turnbull. But that’s another story.
That was not the last occasion when our monarch might have reigned in France. In September 1956, during the Suez Crisis, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, a socialist, proposed a union between the United Kingdom and the French Union under Queen Elizabeth II. Alternatively, he suggested France join the Commonwealth.
The British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden rejected both. How close we came to seeing Elizabeth II reigning over France.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.