‘royal we’: meaning and origin

The expression royal we denotes we (the subjective case of the first person plural pronoun) used in place of I (the subjective case of the first person singular pronoun):
– by a monarch or other person in power, especially in formal declarations;
– frequently humorously, by any individual.

 

AN INFAMOUS USE OF THE ROYAL WE

 

The British Conservative stateswoman Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013), Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, infamously used the royal we on Friday 3rd March 1989 when she announced to the press the birth of her grandson. The following is from the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Saturday 4th March 1989:

‘Royal’ Maggie reveals news
WE ARE A GRANDMOTHER
A REGAL Mrs Thatcher proudly announced to the nation from Downing Street yesterday: “We have become a grandmother.”
The Prime Minister adopted the royal “we” when she revealed the news of her first grandchild to reporters outside No 10.

Margaret Thatcher’s use of the royal we drew a lot of criticism. For example, the following is from the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA) of Wednesday 8th March 1989:

Gaffes Tarnish Image
British ‘Iron Lady’ Shows Signs of Rust, Foes Say
From Reuters
London—It’s been an unsteady few days for the normally sure-footed Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s corridors of power are buzzing with the question: “Is the Iron Lady losing her grip?”
[…]
Even the usually staid Financial Times wrote a light-hearted column as political sketch writers reveled in a series of events which began Friday when Thatcher announced: “We have become a grandmother.”
Downing Street bristles at any suggestion that Thatcher, after nearly 10 years in office, adopts a regal style. But her use of the royal plural—“We” instead of “I”—gave Opposition Leader Neil Kinnock powerful ammunition at Tuesday’s question time.
Kinnock, long the victim of caustic prime ministerial rebuffs, has taken to blending brevity and wit in their twice-weekly verbal sparring sessions to score points off Thatcher.
Dismissing one Thatcher reply, Kinnock evoked gales of laughter as he mimicked a remark attributed to Queen Victoria and declared: “We are not amused.”

 

ORIGIN AND EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE EXPRESSION ROYAL WE

 

The expression royal we is apparently a loan translation from French nous royal 1 as used of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) by the French novelist and critic Germaine de Staël-Holstein (née Necker – 1766-1817) in her memoirs, published posthumously in 1821. The earliest occurrence of the expression royal we that I have found is from Ten Years’ Exile; or Memoirs of that interesting period of the life of the Baroness de Staël-Holstein, written by herself, during the years 1810, 1811, 1812, and 1813, and now first published from the original manuscript, by her son. Translated from the French (London: Treuttel and Würtz, Treuttel Jun. and Richter, 1821):
—Context: The French-Army general Charles Leclerc (1772-1802) was the husband of Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825), Napoléon Bonaparte’s sister. In 1801, Napoléon (who was then the de facto supreme ruler of France as First Consul) sent Leclerc to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) with an expeditionary army, in order to re-establish French authority there. Leclerc died of yellow fever during the failed expedition:

It was at this period that Bonaparte sent General Leclerc to Saint Domingo, and designated him in his decree our brother-in-law. This first royal we, which associated the French with the prosperity of this family, was a most bitter pill to me. He obliged his beautiful sister to accompany her husband to Saint Domingo, where her health was completely ruined.

This is the corresponding passage from the original French text, Dix années d’exil, ou Mémoires de l’époque la plus intéressante de la vie de madame de Staël, écrits par elle-même dans les années 1810 à 1813, publiés d’après le manuscrit original par son fils (London: Chez Treuttel et Würtz, Treuttel fils et Richter, 1821):

Ce fut vers cette époque que Bonaparte envoya le général Leclerc à Saint-Domingue, et qu’il l’appela dans son arrêté notre beau-frère. Ce premier nous royal 1, qui associoit les François à la prospérité de cette famille, me fut vivement antipathique. Il exigea de sa jolie sœur d’aller avec son mari à Saint-Domingue, et c’est là que sa santé fut abîmée.

1 The common French expression is nous de majesté, not nous royal.

I have found an early humorous use of the expression royal we in a theatrical review published in The Satirist; or, the Censor of the Times (London, England) of Sunday 24th November 1839:

ADELPHI.—The new pageant brought out here, under the title of The Knight of the Dragon, and the Queen of Beauty, has been received with a fervour that justifies the belief that it will carry the manager on comfortably till Christmas, with, it may be, a few odd entremets, or theatrical kickshaws, thrown in to whet the public appetite. In availing himself of the story of “Crichton,” 2 Yates 3 has put forth his best energies to produce a spectacle which may vie in splendour with theatres of double the size, and proportionately greater means and appliances. […] Henri de Valois, the polished Royal roué of a roué Court, is fitly and exquisitely represented by Yates. The air of self-satisfaction which marks the monarch’s demeanour is marvellously edifying, and his fascinating and truly Royal style of seducing female innocence, perfectly irresistible. […] The scenery, though there is not much of it, merits high praise. “The Royal Gardens of the Palace by Moonlight,” “The Ball at the Louvre,” are very effective; and the last scene, after the procession, when the dramatis personæ, knights, squires, men in armour, and men in none, with the attendant splendours of the Queen of Beauty, are marshalled in full, presented a coup d’œil of imposing magnificence, the effect of which was much heightened by the intense white and violet-coloured light thrown upon it. The spectators were taken fairly by surprise. The manager, at the fall of the curtain, appeared no less delighted himself, when addressing the audience, still using the Royal “we” appropriate to his stage character, he hoped that the Adelphi could not only produce Jack Sheppard 4, but a spectacle likewise, in its way, of equally lofty pretensions to public favour.

2 This stage play was adapted from Crichton (London: Richard Bentley, 1837), by the English novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882).—Cf. also the phrase admirable Crichton.
3 The English actor Frederick Henry Yates (1797-1842) was then the manager of the Adelphi Theatre, in London.
4 Jack Sheppard is a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth, first published in instalments from 1839 to 1840 in Bentley’s Miscellany (London, England).

In an article about the dismissal, by his superiors at Somerset House, of Mr. H. W. Parker, Assistant Poor-law Commissioner, published in The Railway Bell and London Family Newspaper (London, England) of Saturday 21st March 1846, a journalist criticised a particular use of the royal we—this journalist first quoted the letter of dismissal, then commented on it:

Poor-law Commission Office, Somerset House, 16 October, 1845.
My dear sir,—Looking at the importance and peculiar nature of the functions, delegated to an Assistant Commissioner, we have, after full consideration, come to the conclusion, that we cannot, consistently with our public duty, retain you any longer in your present office. It is therefore incumbent on us to request that you will send your resignation to the Commissioners.
We wish to assure you that we take this step with the utmost reluctance; and we willingly acknowledge the zealous and efficient services which you have on various occasions, rendered to the Commission.
I remain, my dear sir, ever yours, faithfully,
H. W. Parker, Esq.           Geo. Nicholls.
Now we have here the most startling evidence, not only of the utter want of union and regularity with which the business of the Poor-law Board is conducted, but of the total disregard on the part of the Commissioners of the express directions of the Act of Parliament under which they are constituted.
So grave a step as that of dismissing an Assistant Commissioner—and officer next in authority to themselves—ought, manifestly, to be well considered by the whole board before it is resolved upon. In the present instance, the individual upon whom the sentence was inflicted, had been ten years in office, and was confessedly well qualified by ability and experience for the duties of it. He had quitted the bar to accept the appointment; and his removal from it was an act of authority deeply affecting his character, and deciding the fate of his after life. And yet, with these afflicting consequences in the train of it, we find this documentary mandate issued by a single Commissioner. Mr. George Nicholls stands upon the face of it, alone responsible for the act. There is no evidence that his colleagues were consulted upon or concerned in it.
As to the use of the plural pronoun on the occasion, the introduction of it throughout the body of the letter, and dropping down into the “I remain,” at the conclusion, is truly ludicrous. Is it as one of “the three kings of Somerset House,” that this gentleman uses the royal “We?” It is only in assuming this, that we can account for the absurdity of it.

The use of the royal we by newspaper editors and reviewers was discussed in the following response to a letter that had been addressed to the Editor, published in The Weekly Telegraph (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 20th November 1852:

Eblana.—It would be more correct if a reviewer did not make use of the plural pronoun in his remarks; but is only because the “we” is looked upon chiefly as the distinction of the political editor. The objection, however, that its use would imply “a plurality in the composition,” is an entire mistake, for the editor universally uses the royal “we.” That a reviewer—and a first-rate one, too—uses the plural pronoun—you may see by a sentence in the last number of The Critic (November 15), in which the well-known and able “Frank Grave” writes—“Probably there are imperfections in the present combination system of the English printers, but, unlike Mr. Gladstone, we assure them that unless they can limit their numbers, the repeal of the taxes on knowledge will be of very little benefit to them.” Again—“If our readers have sometimes thought that we have devoted too much attention to the state and prospects of literary institutions,” &c.

The English educationist and lexicographer Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-1897) used the expression royal we in the following from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that have a Tale to Tell (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, [1870]):

We. Coke, in the “Institutes,” says the first king that wrote we in his grants was king John. All the kings before him wrote ego (I) 5. This is not correct, as Richard Lion-heart 6 adopted the royal we. (See Rymer’s “Fœdera.” 7)

5 Ebenezer Cobham Brewer was referring to the following passage from The Second Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. Containing the Exposition of many ancient, and other Statutes (London: Printed by M[iles] Flesher, and R[obert] Young, for E[phraim] D[awson], R[ichard] M[eighen], W[illiam] L[ee] and D[aniel] P[akeman], 1642), by the English jurist and politician Edward Coke (1552-1634):
—Context: Edward Coke was commenting on the use of the Latin expression Concessimus Deo, translating as We have granted to God, in the Magna Carta, as reissued in 1225 by Henry III (1207-1272), who reigned from 1216 to 1272 (Henry III was the son of John (1165-1216), King of England from 1199 to 1216; the Magna Carta is a charter of liberty and political rights obtained from King John by his rebellious barons at Runnymede in 1215):

Here in this Charter, both in the title and in diuers parts of the body of the Charter, the King speaketh in the plurall number, concessimus; The first King that I read of before him, that in his graunts wrote in the plurall number, was King John, Father of our King H.3. other Kings before him wrote in the singular number, they vsed Ego, and King John, and all the Kings after him, Nos.

6 Richard I (1157-1199), known as Richard Cœur de Lion, or Richard the Lionheart, reigned from 1189 to 1199.

7 Ebenezer Cobham Brewer was referring to Fœdera, Conventiones, Literæ, Et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica, Inter Reges Angliæ, Et Alios quosvis Imperatores, Reges, Pontifices, Principes, vel Communitates, ab Ineunte Sæculo Duodecimo, viz. ab Anno 1101, ad nostra usque Tempora, Habita aut Tractata; Ex Autographis, infra Secretiores Archivorum Regiorum Thesaurarias, per multa Sæcula reconditis, fideliter Exscripta, a collection of agreements between the English Crown and foreign powers from 1101 onwards, compiled by the English antiquary and historian Thomas Rymer (c.1643-1713). For example, in Epistola Ricardi Regis Angliæ ad Hubertum Cantuariensem Archiepiscopum, de liberatione sua (Letter of Richard King of England to Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury, regarding his liberation), written in 1193, Richard I (who was then held hostage by the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI) used sumus (we are), the first-person plural present indicative of the verb esse (to be), and the first-person plural possessive determiner nostra (our):
—as published in the first tome of Fœdera (3rd edition – The Hague: Jean Neaulme, 1745):

Certi sumus quod liberationem nostram plurimum desideratis.
     translation:
We are certain that you desire our deliverance very much.