Story: Royal family

Page 1. Place of royalty in New Zealand

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From the time the British settled New Zealand, the monarch has symbolised the nation. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in Queen Victoria’s name. Since then government has been formally carried out in the monarch’s name, and his or her image has decorated New Zealand stamps and currency. The country’s highest award for military bravery is the Victoria Cross.

The royal family also modelled idealised family life. Royal coronations, marriages and deaths were celebrated or mourned, maintaining a connection made tenuous by distance. In the 20th century New Zealand let links to the ‘mother country’ go with noticeable reluctance, resisting change in the relationship with Britain and the royal family.

New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, embedded a relationship between Māori and the Crown.

Popular feeling

New Zealanders’ feeling for royalty has waxed and waned. Until the end of the 19th century, royalty were generally unpopular in Britain, which was the source of most of New Zealand’s migrants. This feeling was evident in New Zealand in the 1880s, when Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee prompted little enthusiasm.

In contrast, the queen’s diamond jubilee (1897) was celebrated nationwide. The statues of Queen Victoria sprinkled across New Zealand generally date from this period, as do institutions named after her, including Victoria University of Wellington and Queen Victoria School for Girls in Parnell, Auckland (now closed). Commitment to, and interest in, royalty did not abate until the 1970s.

Visits by members of the royal family confirmed the relationship, and the ‘Britishness’ of New Zealand. Sometimes this was made explicit. While visiting New Zealand in 1920, Edward, Prince of Wales, said that hard and difficult times needed the ‘steadiness and firmness’ that came from being British, and no country was ‘more solidly and unrepentantly British than … New Zealand’.1

Political feeling

New Zealand politicians expressed the late 19th century’s approval of the monarchy. Part of this was a greater involvement with royalty – it was from this point that prime ministers from across the British Empire began to gather in London to celebrate royal marriages and coronations.


The Maoriland Worker labour journal was one of the few voices speaking out against royalty in the early 20th century. Mocking those who ‘grovel with one accord at the chariot wheels of a decadent royalty, a royalty with its teeth drawn, led around like a dancing bear at a fair’, the paper suggested that ‘the motto of “Our Digger Prince” should be “I serve no useful purpose”.’2 This was a reference to the prince’s motto ‘Ich dien’ (I serve).

The image of royalty as ideal people was strained by the abdication crisis of 1936. Edward VIII’s wish to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson met opposition in Britain and within the empire. Like other leaders of dominions, New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was consulted. He was alone in not seeing the need for abdication. The popularity of the monarchy survived this challenge; the wholesome family life of George VI and his wife Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother) played a part in restoring public commitment to royalty.

Constitutional role

Constitutional ties to the British royal family remained strong in the 2000s. The monarch is New Zealand’s head of state, a leader shared with 14 other countries.

The governor-general is the monarch’s representative in New Zealand, although the reverence felt for the monarch was not transferred to the governor-general. A number of the monarch’s formal duties have been delegated to the governor-general. Some of these are to do with the political process, including:

  • summoning and dissolving Parliament
  • appointing the prime minister and other ministers
  • assenting to legislation.

Political power

In theory, the king or queen (the ‘sovereign’) has the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. In practice these rights are no longer exercised by the monarch or the governor-general on his or her behalf. Although the governor-general is appointed by the reigning king or queen, the prime minister tells the monarch who to choose.

For the most part, New Zealand’s link with Britain has been through government rather than royalty as such. When James Cook claimed New Zealand for the UK in 1769, he did it in the name of George III. But his instructions came from the British Admiralty (which had authorised him to annex territory that looked useful). This was the pattern from then on: things were done in the sovereign’s name, but managed and usually led by administrators.

  1. Quoted in David Colquhoun, ‘Royal scenes from the empire city: the Prince of Wales in Wellington, 5–8 May 1920.’ Turnbull Library Record, no. 42 (2009), p. 26. Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Royal scenes from the empire city: the Prince of Wales in Wellington, 5–8 May 1920,’ p. 28. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Royal family - Place of royalty in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 20 Jun 2012