Wednesday 13 March 2013

Loyalty and Allegiance

I just witnessed the spectacular sight of a chap becoming British. It's like a caterpillar (from Late Latin Catta Pilosa or shaggy cat) becoming a butterfly or a tadpole (toad head etymologically) becoming a toad, except it's much quicker and takes place in a couple of minutes in Islington Town Hall.

Anyway, the oath that he was given to swear rather intrigued me. He swore his allegiance to the Queen and her heirs in the first paragraph, and then his loyalty to the United Kingdom in the second. The full thing goes like this:

I [Joe Winston Bloggs] swear by Almighty God that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

Now perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but loyalty seems to be set in antithesis to the allegiance of the first paragraph, and I can't work out why. Allegiance makes sense in so far as you become the liege-man of the Queen and are now her feudal vassal. Liege derives from old German ledig meaning free.

Loyalty comes from French leial, which comes from Latin legal and means... well the OED defines it as faithful in allegiance, which rather takes you back to the first paragraph. It just looks so wrong. I would have imagined that you were loyal to the Queen and bore allegiance to the state. It seems that the Queen gets the good stuff and the UK has to make do.

This makes me think that there may be some terribly technical legal distinction. So, are any lawyers reading this? Can you enlighten me? In exchange I will tell you that lawyers are not, etymologically, loyal. They come from law, which comes from Old English lagu meaning something fixed, and related to lay and layer.

A typical day in Islington Town Hall


  1. It puts one in mind of the fine distinction between the terms "illegal" and unlawful.

    Unlawful is of course defined as an act which is contrary to the law.

    Illegal ? - that's just a sick bird.

  2. The Oath of Allegiance that I swore upon becoming an American citizen is far more flowery. I had to swear to "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen".

    Sorry, Your Majesty!

  3. Despite constant references to the State in political theory, English legal and political history doesn't have a strong notion ofthe State, and certainly not as something reified. Hence the 'State' is not something that one can pledge allegiance to. In place of the State we have the Crown, and the whole King's (or Queen's) two bodies stuff (hence the King is Dead, long live the King). Hence why allegiance is pledged to the monarch, because we (well, most of us) are still her vassals (in theory) - we still very much function within the 'logic' or rationality of the feudal monarchies, even if many of the specific laws and effects of those laws have long since been repealed or changed. No idea on why 'loyalty' is pledged to UK though.

  4. Just a thought to add - if allegiance makes one a liege-man (with all that it implies historically and spiritually), that means to enter into a personal relationship. Presumably one could therefore be in allegiance, in this sense, to the person of the Monarch but not to something like a country or a state..? The oath still talks about being "faithful" to both. Fascinating, though!

  5. This quote came to mind:
    "Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul."
    Mark Twain