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.
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
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 ties to the British royal family remained strong in the 2000s. The monarch is New Zealand’s head of state, a leader shared with 15 other nations around the world.
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:
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 whom 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.
Members of the royal family have visited New Zealand many times. They have been welcomed by local dignitaries to towns and cities dotted with familiar names and adorned with statues of family members. They laid foundation stones, cut ribbons and attended military reviews, civic receptions, balls, garden parties and formal lunches. They saw agricultural shows rather than grand cultural events: New Zealand was presented as a rich and fertile land, Britain’s farm.
The first royal tourist, Prince Alfred, second son of Victoria and Albert, came in 1869. He saw the main cities and Nelson, and went pig hunting and picnicking. The naval captain had a good time, briefly returning the following year, and again the year after that.
Visits by royalty were tightly managed by officials of the royal household and by the New Zealand government, which paid for royal tours, including travel, accommodation and living costs.
Tours were arranged to acknowledge New Zealand's contribution to the South African War and both world wars, for example the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York – later George V and Queen Mary – in 1901. A number of visits occurred when the Commonwealth Games were held in New Zealand. Anniversaries of important events – such as James Cook’s first arrival in New Zealand, the battle at Gallipoli in the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – also prompted visits.
Royal visitors shook thousands of hands. During his 1920 tour, Edward, Prince of Wales, shook more than 3,000 hands at a single civic reception in Auckland. By the time he left New Zealand, the prince was estimated to have shaken over 20,000 hands. Sixty-three years later, Diana, Princess of Wales, had a similar experience. At the end of the day, her hands were red and sore after many enthusiastic greetings during walkabouts.
When Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), toured the dominions in 1920, both Britain and New Zealand were interested in what was called a ‘carefully arranged propaganda exercise’.1 George V, Edward’s father, sought to maintain and increase support for the empire after the First World War. New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey saw the prince’s visit as an opportunity to boost his own Reform Party, arranging an itinerary that included 50 towns between Auckland and Invercargill.
The prince attracted very large crowds. On arrival in Wellington, the press of people was so solid that his car was slowed to walking pace. By the end of his tour, the prince was exhausted and disgruntled; after the tour (which included Australia) he suffered a minor nervous breakdown.
During this tour, the New Zealand public were charmed by the Duchess of York, whose warmth complemented her shy husband’s dignity. The royal couple became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1936. Queen Elizabeth, known after her husband’s death as Her Majesty the Queen Mother, remained very popular in New Zealand.
A commission of inquiry into improper conduct on the part of the police commissioner, Eric Compton, ground to a halt when Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh toured in 1953–54. Compton oversaw security for the royal couple. Although the inquiry’s report prompted his voluntary retirement, Compton’s work during the tour resulted in his being made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (an honour entirely within the sovereign’s gift).
The visit of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1953–54 was the first visit by a reigning monarch. It took place after a world war in which New Zealand had supported Britain.
The crowds that greeted the royal couple were very large and wildly enthusiastic. The young queen’s first appearance – in Auckland – met with ‘wave after wave of cheering’ and ‘roars of approval’.2 People thronged to see her across the country, gathering to wave at her train as it went past tiny country settlements, and waiting for hours in main centres to secure a good viewing position.
Queen Elizabeth II made many later visits to New Zealand, including one in 1963 at which the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council was set up as the nation’s gift to her.
The visit of Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales, with their infant son, William, attracted considerable attention. The princess was the focus of much of it, with Charles detecting disappointment among the crowd on his side of the street during walkabouts. The visit, like others in the later 20th century, recognised New Zealand’s continuing relationship with the royal family.
Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, made a special visit to New Zealand in March 2011 to mark the November 2010 Pike River mine disaster, in which 29 men died, and the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011, in which 185 people died. William returned in 2014 with his wife Kate and their infant son George.
In 2018, William's younger borther Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan visited New Zealand five months after their wedding.
Other royal tourists prompted a quieter response. Although greeted by politicians at official welcomes, and watched by some of the citizenry, the crowds were smaller and less vocal, the decorations less elaborate. By the end of the 20th century it was possible for members of the royal family, including the queen, to visit almost unnoticed.
Visiting London and meeting monarchs of the day reinforced the importance of royalty to Māori. The first visit was made by Moehanga (Ngāpuhi) when he met King George III in 1806. Moehanga was followed by others, including Hongi Hika, who met George IV in 1820, Hoani Wiremu Hīpango, who met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1855, and the Māori King, Te Rata, who met George V in 1914.
Māori have a separate political relationship with the royal family because Queen Victoria was formally the British partner in the Treaty of Waitangi signed with tribes in 1840, and from that flowed a relationship with the Crown.
Māori made numerous, sometimes successful, attempts to speak directly to the British monarch in the 19th and early 20th century. The first occurred in 1831, when a group of chiefs wrote to William IV, asking that he protect them from the French.
From the mid-19th century, Māori contact with the monarch was often an attempt to get colonial wrongs redressed. But attempts to go over the head of the New Zealand government, either in person or through letters and petitions, did not work. Requests received from Māori were passed on to the New Zealand governor or government, which generally dismissed them.
Māori contact with royalty visiting New Zealand was carefully limited by governments of the day. Rotorua, home of Te Arawa (an iwi accustomed to entertaining and escorting tourists around the local thermal area, and which had sided with the government in the wars of the 1860s) was the venue of choice, from the 1901 visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York onward. Other iwi were expected to gather there to welcome royalty. Displaying a harmonious relationship between Pākehā and Māori was one reason to gather at Rotorua. Another may have been the government’s ongoing attempt to develop the town as a fashionable spa resort.
On 27 April 1927 Māori King Te Rata, his entourage, and hundreds of Kingitanga supporters waited on the Ngāruawāhia railway platform. They hoped the Duke of York’s train would stop, despite the government’s refusal to agree to the prince meeting Māori outside Rotorua. The train went by without stopping.
Many iwi were sceptical of Te Arawa’s focus on entertaining Pākehā. Waikato Māori refused to officially attend the Rotorua welcomes, wanting to welcome the monarch on their own home ground – Tūrangawaewae in Ngāruawāhia. But the New Zealand government firmly resisted this until the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was after this meeting (agreed to at the last minute) that a Māori king first swore allegiance to the British Crown.
The King movement, started in 1856, was not primarily about copying the British monarchy, but was an attempt to prevent land sales, limit European colonisation and maintain rangatiratanga. A Māori monarch whose mana could match that of the English queen was the aim.
Idealists within the King movement saw it as a form of co-existence with Pākehā: ‘The King on his piece; the Queen on her piece; God over both; and Love binding them to each other.’1 Rather than seeing it this way, the New Zealand government saw the King movement as a direct challenge to the queen’s sovereignty and Pākehā governance.
Māori demands that the Treaty of Waitangi be honoured were sometimes strongly expressed in the later 20th century. Radicals within Māoridom greeted the Prince and Princess of Wales with a whakapohane (bare-buttock salute – a traditional insult) in 1983 and the queen with calls to honour the treaty in 1990.
Whether Māori continued to have a strong interest in retaining a monarch as New Zealand’s head of state was questioned in the 2000s. Some public opinion surveys found Māori less committed to royalty than Pākehā.
Although New Zealand media provided coverage of royalty, commitment to royalty began to wane in the later 20th century. The central constitutional role played within New Zealand government by the monarch or governor-general continued, but the royal family itself became less important.
Political support for the royal family was not related to political party membership. Both a National and a Labour prime minister openly supported republicanism in the 1990s and 2000s. National Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s preference for a republic was sometimes attributed to his Irish heritage. When Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark went to Britain for the first time as prime minister, she did not meet the queen. This was a working visit and a formal meeting with the sovereign was not seen as necessary.
As the royal family’s ordinary foibles and behaviour were exposed – affairs, divorces and drunken high jinks – respect for them lessened. At its most extreme, expressed in the popular women’s magazines, the royal family was reduced to an aristocratic version of a television soap opera.
Queen Elizabeth II was largely exempt from this loss of respect. She continued to be widely seen as an admirable figure, reliably dignified and gracious.
Republicanism has been part of the New Zealand political landscape since European settlement. Among the migrants, especially among the Irish community, were many who believed the royal family had had their day; and once in New Zealand some argued for a republic.
Republicans in 19th-century New Zealand were admired by some and detested by others. John Robinson, superintendent of Nelson from 1857 to 1865, was known to be ‘a bloody-minded Red Republican’, but won three elections. 1 Samuel Lister, who argued that the queen was expensive and useless, published a radical newspaper in Dunedin from 1887. He was loathed by many among the respectable middle class, but his Otago Workman could claim a larger readership than any other paper in town.
After dying down in the late 19th and 20th century, debate revived in the 1960s. The Republican Association of New Zealand was started in 1966, and the New Zealand Republican Party in 1967. Articles arguing for a republic began appearing in left-wing journals and newspapers. Bruce Jesson, a founding member of both the association and the party, published The Republican, a newsletter, from 1974 to 1988.
Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand, set up in 1994, argued that a democratically elected New Zealander should be the nation’s head of state. The group encouraged debate through its website and press releases, submissions to government, policy papers and participation in conferences and seminars. The case for a republic and a Māori perspective on republicanism was spelt out in a 1997 publication New Zealand Republic.
An equally committed royalist group, the Monarchist League, was formed in 1995. From 2010 it was known as Monarchy New Zealand. It supported New Zealand’s existing form of government – constitutional monarchy. It sought to increase interest in, and understanding of, the value of the monarchy.
Both monarchist and republican groups drew members in small numbers from across the political spectrum. They were probably the most interested readers of each other’s websites, where they debated issues like the cost of the governor-general compared with that of a president.
Generally, New Zealanders’ feelings about republicanism were lukewarm. In part this was because of the respect still felt for Queen Elizabeth II. There was also a sense that the monarchy was useful and the alternatives uncertain.
This lack of interest in republicanism is sometimes attributed to the relatively few Irish migrants to New Zealand. A comparison is often made with Australia, where the push for republicanism is more vigorous and where there is a higher proportion of people of Irish descent.
Cox, Nigel. A constitutional history of the New Zealand monarchy: the evolution of the New Zealand monarchy and the recognition of an autochthonous polity. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft, 2008.
Davies, Valerie. Royal tourists: 120 years of royal visits to New Zealand. Auckland, Random House, 1989.
Phillips, Jock. Royal summer: the visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to New Zealand, 1953–54. Wellington: Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs, Daphne Brasell Associates, 1993.
This site includes information on the history of the monarchy, and the current royal family.
Monarchy New Zealand supports the constitutional monarchy, and membership of the Commonwealth.
The Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand aims to involve all New Zealanders in the republic debate.
This feature on the NZHistory website looks back at the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
An NZHistory feature about Queen Elizabeth’s first royal visit to New Zealand.