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

Prince Charles
Prince Charles; drawing by David Levine

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…

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