The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Selling of the Royal Family: The Mystique of the British Monarchy

by John Pearson
Simon and Schuster, 350 pp., $17.95

On July 29, 1981, a wedding took place in a large and well-known London church between two members of the English upper classes. He was a well-meaning man in his early thirties who came from a good family with unusually extensive Continental connections, had been educated at Cambridge University and had served in the Royal Navy, and after having discreetly sown his wild oats, had finally found an appropriate and acceptable bride, to his parents’ great relief. She was thirteen years his junior, with an unimpeachably aristocratic pedigree. Her beauty was more renowned than her brains, her virginity had been publicly vouched for by her uncle, and her fertility had been privately verified by her gynecologist. The wedding itself was faultlessly planned and executed: the groom’s family turned out in formidable array; the bride’s parents, although divorced, appeared together for the occasion; and the honeymoon was spent on a cruise.

Marriages like these, involving people not much different from these, take place all the time in the smart London churches and fashionable country parishes of England. Generally, they attract little attention. But here the man in question was Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England. And his bride was Lady Diana Frances Spencer, who was suddenly transformed from the daughter of an otherwise obscure aristocrat to a princess and future queen. Nearly a billion people, one eighth of the earth’s population, chose to watch it on their television screens, thereby providing the largest audience in human history to observe a single event. Never has there been such emphatic corroboration of Walter Bagehot’s famous dictum: “A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such it rivets mankind.”

Yet this celebrated aphorism, which was actually quoted on the wedding day by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is less universally valid than its undoubted appropriateness in this case might imply. In Britain itself, most nineteenth-century royal weddings were family affairs rather than public spectacles, and the marriage of an earlier prince of Wales in 1863—which actually occasioned Bagehot’s remark—was in fact a decidedly lackluster affair. And in the twentieth century, most of the surviving monarchies have evolved a ceremonial style so low-key and understated that their weddings, funerals, and coronations are rarely the subject of international concern. So, pace Bagehot, the worldwide interest in the pageants and personalities of the British monarchy is of relatively recent origin and without parallel in any other royal house today. How, then, can we explain the survival and efflorescence of this one European monarchy when almost every other dynasty has either disappeared completely, or abandoned all but a shadow of its ancient royal pretensions?

This question John Pearson addresses and answers in his fascinating and healthily skeptical book. As he rightly points out, the pomp and popularity we now associate with the British monarchy are both in fact relatively recent developments. In the seventeenth century, the English were the pioneers of republican endeavor and parliamentary sovereignty, executing one king and throwing out another. In the eighteenth century, they imported the Hanoverians, a dull and obscure German dynasty, who were looked down on by the great grandees of the realm and were rarely popular or beloved. Nor were Victoria and Albert seen as much better when she came to the throne: dutiful and high-minded, they seemed more German than English, they antagonized the ultrapatriot Lord Palmerston, and such triumphs as Albert’s Great Exhibition were distinctly short-lived. As the supreme believers in progress and improvement, the early Victorians were more interested in demystifying monarchy than in venerating it, and they regarded the flummery of its ceremonial as alien to the rational spirit of the age. Indeed, after the death of Albert in 1861, the royal reputation reached its nadir, and there were widespread demands for another British republic.

Accordingly, it was only during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the British monarchy came to assume its essentially modern form. The reasons for this development are complex, and may have had less to do with the personalities of the monarchs themselves than with the social turbulence, democratic politics, imperial rivalries, and international tensions which characterized the period, and with the consequent rediscovery and conscious manipulation of the irrational element in national life. From the late 1880s, the hitherto unpopular and reclusive “Widow of Windsor” found herself reincarnated as the mother figure of the world’s greatest empire, the most venerated woman on earth, more an icon and a symbol than a real human being. Her Golden Jubilee of 1887 and her Diamond Jubilee ten years later were unprecedented instances of splendid ceremonial and personal apotheosis; her death and funeral were genuinely global events; and she bequeathed to her successor a monarchy fundamentally transformed. Most of its “ancient traditions” are thus no older than the Statue of Liberty, and some are a good deal more recent.*

These were the beginnings of a revived and rejuvenated British monarchy which survived with only minor interruptions until the early 1950s. Edward VII enjoyed grand ceremonial with a gusto his mother had never displayed. George V was decent and dutiful, and added middle-class morality to majestic spectacle. Edward VIII briefly threatened both the probity and the pageantry of this royal regime, but his infatuation with Mrs. Simpson meant he had to be conveniently removed. And George VI repeated his father’s formula once more: simple yet sacred, mundane yet magical. Other thrones fell in the aftermath of war and revolution, but when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned amid universal rejoicing and widespread television coverage in 1952, the British monarchy seemed more secure than ever. Almost nothing was really known about the personalities of the people concerned; yet that was an integral part of their mystique and appeal.

But from the mid-1950s, this formula began to fail, as the much-trumpeted “New Elizabethan Age” fell rather flat. As the British Empire disintegrated, great-power status disappeared, and domestic attitudes began to change, it was no longer clear what role the monarchy should fill, and it came to seem increasingly remote and out of touch. During the late 1950s, critics like John Grigg, John Osborne, and Malcolm Muggeridge likened the Queen to a priggish and prissy schoolgirl, surrounded by crusty and snobbish courtiers, and Osborne attacked the institution of monarchy as “the gold filling in a mouth full of decay.” The weddings of Princess Margaret, the Duke of Kent, and Princess Alexandra failed to rekindle the euphoria of the coronation, and in the 1960s, the era of “swinging London” and Harold Wilson’s “white hot” technological revolution, the monarchy seemed increasingly irrelevant, anachronistic, and accident-prone. Even Prince Philip feared that it, and he, might soon become museum pieces.

But this did not happen, and Pearson’s account of the steps taken to avoid this fate is the most original part of his book. During the late 1960s, when Prince Charles reached the age to enter public life, a deliberate and highly successful attempt was made to relaunch the monarchy. In part, this involved adapting and updating ceremonial: Prince Charles’s public investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle was the first royal pageant to be conceived and planned throughout as a television spectacular. But even more inventive was the decision to present the members of the royal family no longer as public icons but as people and personalities in their own right by breaking the taboos against showing extemporaneous royal conversations and informal royal activities. Accordingly, Prince Charles was interviewed on radio and television, and talked engagingly and spontaneously about himself. And a major television film, Royal Family, gave the first real glimpse of the Queen and her relations as fallible if fabulous people. Shown in 140 countries, it was an instant success: the monarchy might have lost the allure that brought it sentimental deference, but it had become instead an object of unrivaled curiosity.

Thus, Pearson argues, the curtain rose on the most compulsive and original soap opera in the world, which combines scandal and splendor, personality and pageantry, in a way which neither Dallas nor Dynasty can rival, and which has been running with remarkable success ever since. On the one hand, the impeccably planned television spectacles continue, each attracting a greater audience than the one before: the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Lord Mountbatten’s funeral, the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Alongside this public theatricality is set the backstage drama of royal private lives. Is all well between Princess Anne and her husband, Mark Phillips? Will Prince Michael of Kent be allowed to marry a divorced Catholic? Is the Princess of Wales anorexic? As middleclass morality has changed, so these daily happenings in the lives of the royal family have become more fascinating, not less, and the press and television, once so discreet, have become much more revealing. As Walter Bagehot might have put it when Princess Margaret’s marriage to Lord Snowdon broke down: “A princely divorce is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such it rivets mankind.”

As a description of the undulating contours of royal renown, Pearson’s account seems, historically, entirely convincing. But as he also shows, neither the transformation of the British monarchy at the end of the nineteenth century nor its successful relaunching in the second half of the twentieth has happened by accident. The magic of monarchy requires magicians to manufacture and manipulate it, and Pearson’s book is much concerned to find out exactly who they were and are. In the first phase of royal efflorescence, much of the responsibility lay with blueblooded impresarios like Lord Esher and the Duke of Norfolk, who brought a new professionalism and sense of theater into the planning and staging of royal pageants. They were assisted by the journalists and press lords who, from the 1880s, took a far more well-disposed attitude toward the monarchy than had been fashionable in the earlier years of Victoria’s reign, and showed remarkable—and largely self-imposed—discretion at the time of the abdication. And they in turn were supported by Sir John Reith’s BBC, which deliberately projected the most favorable image of the monarchy in its broadcasts of great state occasions, its coverage of royal visits and events, and its transmission of the King’s Christmas message to the empire.

By the late 1950s, however, one symptom of the monarchy’s increasing isolation was its inability to keep up with recent developments in the press and television, whether sensationalist or serious, and it was only during the late 1960s that the decision was taken to relaunch the monarchy by exploiting rather than resisting them. The first equerry assigned to Prince Charles, David Checketts, also sat on the board of one of London’s smartest public relations companies, and it was he who coached the prince on how best to appear before the cameras. In 1968, a new press secretary, William Heseltine, was appointed by Buckingham Palace, and his handling of the press was noticeably more adroit and less hostile than that of his predecessor. And Richard Cawston, the producer of Royal Family, took the greatest trouble to ensure that his film presented the monarchy in the most relaxed, engaging, and acceptable way. Indeed, so successful were these three men in projecting this new, human face of royalty that no one at the time noticed what was going on or that the most ancient of British institutions was now, as Pearson puts it, being effectively “marketed like a packet of detergent.”

But this is not the only influence that Pearson sees as being significant in the making of the modern British monarchy. Of equal importance in establishing its image has been the contribution of a succession of formidable women. Historically, of course, monarchy is a quintessentially male enterprise: as priest or magician, warrior or warlord, lawmaker or governor, it is usually the man who is in charge, while his wife is expected to look beautiful and produce children. But as the modern British monarchy has evolved, it has been divested of most of its historical functions, and so its macho and mystical male roles have been much attenuated. A British monarch is no longer a god or a priest, he only makes laws in the most formal of senses, and although he wears a uniform and appears on horseback, he does not take charge of the armed services, either in peace or in war. Significantly, the Hanoverians were the last British royal dynasty to be dominated by the males of the family. Since then, the men may sometimes have reigned, but it is the women—whether as queen regnant or queen consort—who have really set the tone.

This new style of matriarchal monarchy was begun by Queen Victoria, whose husband Albert merely discovered the impotence of being earnest, and died young and unfulfilled, while she went on to old age and apotheosis. Edward VII lived most of his life in his mother’s shadow, reigned only briefly, and was outlived by his wife. George V was brought up to venerate his grandmother, and was a far less dominant personality than his consort Queen Mary. Even Edward VIII ran almost true to type, since he always had affairs with married women, and in Wallis Simpson found the ideal mother figure. George VI was very much the creation of his mother, Queen Mary, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, and it is she who remains the monarchy’s presiding matriarch today. Meanwhile, Prince Philip has made even less impact on events than Prince Albert, while Prince Charles is outshone by the dominant female presence: his grandmother seems immortal and beyond criticism; his mother seems set to bar his way to the throne for the rest of the century; and his wife is far more glamorous and sought after than he is.

Seen in this perspective, the notion of “the merry wives of Windsor” takes on an altogether new meaning: for it is their ideal of decency and dutifulness that has been successfully imposed on the royal males, while those with initiative or ambition, glamour or personality, cleverness or opinions, have been ruthlessly suppressed. George V and George VI conformed exactly to the preferred type, and Prince Charles shows every sign of doing so as well. Edward VIII did not, and had to go, and the same was true of Lord Snowdon, who merely got divorced. Not surprisingly, many of the Windsor women strongly disapproved of Lord Mountbatten, the only royal male in recent years who refused to conform, and actually got away with it. But with this conspicuous exception, the Windsor men have been effectively prevented from fulfilling any real male role, except one. Once they have done their bit toward perpetuating the royal line, there is virtually nothing left for them to do.

Yet oddly enough, the British monarchy is as much a monument to male chauvinism as it is to male castration, since all these dominant women have been visibly unemancipated, “always gracious, always feminine.” One reason why Princess Margaret and Princess Anne get such a bad press is that they resolutely refuse to conform to this stereotype, the one because she lives an eventful private life, the other because she is tough, competitive, and swears at journalists. And the tyranny of the double standard made it almost impossible for Prince Charles to find a suitable bride, since most of the available women were either too intelligent or had what was euphemistically called “a past.” By contrast, Lady Diana’s great merit was that she was, as Pearson says, “the absolute antithesis of the modern, self-assertive, liberated girl.” And although it has been impossible to maintain this view in the case of Prince Andrew’s fiancée, Sarah Ferguson, the circumlocutions to which the British press has resorted in its stories about her only show how conventional the ideal type of royal woman remains—and the more powerful within the family as a result.

In analyzing these recent royal revivals, Pearson is both stronger and more interesting on the supply than on the demand side: the entrepreneurs and image makers, the men in charge of public relations, and the women in charge of the men. But this is only half of the answer, since even the best salesman in the world needs to be sure there is an audience, and the most sophisticated marketing techniques cannot create one if it is just not there. So how is the continuing demand for the British monarchy to be explained? After all, the country over which these people reign is less important now than at any other time in its modern history; the monarchs themselves wield less effective power than Queen Victoria did even in her dotage; and as Pearson himself admits, by presenting the royal family as individuals, the new marketing techniques merely expose them for what they really are, “a group of rather ordinary people, none of them unusually intelligent or witty or accomplished or remarkable.” Why exactly do they have so much appeal?

In the case of Britain itself, it is distressingly clear that the royal family has thrived in recent years as the all-purpose antidote to international decline, economic decay, and social unrest. As the circumstances of life become more dreary, the pomp of monarchy becomes all the more magical. But in addition, it is held to bolster Britain’s battered selfesteem overseas, where it can also be presented as a unique national possession, one of the few remaining assets for which the country is still genuinely the envy of the world. But why, in turn, is this so? The Americans revolted against monarchy over two hundred years ago; the loyalty of Commonwealth countries is inexorably weakening, both to Britain and to the Queen; and what possible relevance can the Windsor saga have to the nations of republican Europe or the third world today?

But that question may itself provide part of the answer: for what makes the monarchy compulsive reading and viewing for so much of the world is that it is irresistibly irrelevant. It is not the British monarchy as monarchy that the world is interested in, but the British monarchy as harmless entertainment. In one guise, it is like a soap opera, but better: nature does not imitate art, it surpasses it. The personalities are more plausible, the houses more lavish, and the spectacles far more splendid than anything the Ewings or the Carringtons can devise. But in another guise, it is like the real world of power, politics, and propaganda, but nicer: impotently dignified rather than threateningly efficient. Compared with the personality cults of Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mitterrand and Chirac, Qaddhafi and Reagan, the British royal family offers more decency and greater glamour than any of them; and is mercifully free from the risk that its actions will bring about another world war. As one courtier put it at the time of the last royal wedding, “We’re in the happiness business.”

But there may be real dangers in this, especially for Britain itself. To begin with, as Pearson admits, this degree of exposure to the press inevitably trivializes the institution of monarchy by showing how much of the lives of those connected with it is concerned with being, and how little of their time is spent in doing. It is not so much that the Princess of Wales is an empress with no clothes as that, on the contrary, wearing clothes is the main thing she actually does. Moreover, is it healthy for a nation in Britain’s current condition to be quite so proud of this essentially ornamental and anachronistic institution? Romance and escapism are all very well, but it may also be that these very attitudes—which the monarchy engenders, legitimates, and depends on—impede any serious attempts to modernize a society that is desperately in need of modernization. To equate British selfesteem with the fact that the Windsor soap opera tops the world television ratings is ultimately to diminish a once great nation.

The real problem with the monarchy—and Pearson’s book illustrates it rather than addresses it—is that it is so successful in preventing any real discussion of whether Britain is better off with it or without it. By constantly dwelling on the trivia and the tinsel, the press and television give the impression that the continued existence of the royal family is absolutely indispensable to Britain’s national wellbeing, and they allow almost no space or time for the consideration of the republican case, which was more freely discussed in the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries than it is now. Indeed, it is taken for granted that anyone entertaining such views today is either demented or unpatriotic, or both. And in the same way, the royal ceremonial is value-laden, visual rhetoric, in which the medium is indeed the message, and the message is that no other system can possibly be considered. As a result, the very idea that there might be other constitutional arrangements than a monarchy is, for most people in Britain, literally unthinkable; and the fact that this is so, and that even a skeptical and irreverent writer like Pearson obviously thinks so, is the ultimate demonstration of just how successful the monarchy has become.

And so the royal roadshow continues serenely on its way. On July 23 this year, another high society wedding will take place in another well-known London church between two more members of the English upper classes. He is a sailor who fought for Britain in the Falklands, she is of a good family and has worked for a Mayfair graphics firm. The wedding itself has been faultlessly planned and will no doubt be impeccably executed: the ceremonial will be incomparably splendid, the world will watch and wonder, eyes will be moist, and disbelief will be willingly suspended once again. But before we lose all sense of perspective and proportion, a case should at least be made for the willful reassertion of some incredulity. The pomp will take care of itself; what we really need is a little more circumspection.

  1. *

    For more extensive treatment of this subject, see the following: T. Nairn, “The Glamour of Backwardness,” Times Higher Education Supplement (January 11, 1985); L. Colley, “The Apotheosis of George III: Loyalty, Royalty and the British Nation, 1760–1820,” Past and Present, no. 102 (1984); D. Cannadine, “The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the Invention of Tradition, c. 1820–1977,” in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983); and P. Ziegler, Crown and People (London: Collins, 1978).