Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Persistence of Royalty

Clearly the British Royal Family should not exist. But many people like pageantry and fairy tales, and when we ditch aristocracy we should keep the parades and costumes.

In 1969, the British monarchy was in a spot of trouble. Revolutionary movements had sprung up around the world. Traditional authority was being questioned. London had gone from stuffy to “swinging.” Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge had commented a few years prior that “the English are getting bored with their monarchy,” and young people “regard the Queen as the arch-square.” “We were getting so boring,” said one of the Queen’s Private Secretaries. There was no explicit, imminent threat to the Crown, but a general anxiety about the future was hovering in the air, and figures in the Palace felt it couldn’t hurt to shore up the monarch’s legitimacy. Britain needed reminding of why, in the midst of progressive social tendencies, it ought to continue venerating its Royal Family.

As a PR move, the Queen therefore agreed to be filmed for a BBC documentary. The 90-minute special, called Royal Family, followed Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and other members of the House of Windsor as they went about their daily business. The tone is neither laudatory nor critical, and it is mostly a mundane, matter-of-fact depiction of royal life. The family has a barbecue. Prince Charles goes water-skiing. The Queen picks out some dresses and answers correspondence. She goes to a shop to buy young Prince Andrew a candy bar. She meets President Nixon, hands out medals, tours a factory, unveils a sculpture, presides over a garden party, and rides a hovercraft. One courtier said that the film was meant to show that royal life “isn’t all gilt coaches and Rolls-Royces, balls and banquets and champagne.” Indeed, the Queen and her family represent themselves very well. They seem like fairly regular people who work hard at their duties. There is little trace of the snootiness associated with the Windsors. The Queen comes across as elegant, diligent, and likable.

The documentary attracted a huge audience when it first aired. Hundreds of millions of people around the world saw it. Depicting the royals as relatable, ordinary folk might seem to be humbling, but the film implicitly justifies the monarchy by portraying the Queen’s work as useful. Nothing embarrassing about the family was exposed, except that the Queen does indeed appear to use “one” as a first-person pronoun in casual conversation. The Queen was reportedly “delighted” with the film when she first saw it. One (sorry) would therefore think the documentary had been a spectacular success on all counts.

But the film was not a success. On the contrary, while the initial reception was positive, and it was hailed as “the latest example of the British dynasty’s miraculous ability to reinvent itself,” the royals quickly regretted their participation. The Queen soon banned the film entirely, and it turns out that this kind of royal interdict actually carries some weight. The documentary has not been aired in the country for 40 years and was kept off YouTube and streaming services. (It was recently leaked and can now be watched unauthorized.)

Why did the Queen suppress a perfectly positive portrayal? One answer may be found in the warning that David Attenborough—the beloved nature documentary host who was then serving as BBC controller—gave to the Royal Family’s filmmaker, which, although it smacks of amateur anthropology, nevertheless has a certain explanatory power. “You’re killing the monarchy with this film you’re making,” Attenborough said. “The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut then the whole system of tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”

“Killing the monarchy” by showing the Queen relaxing and having fun sounds like something of an overstatement. But when watching the documentary, it’s clear Attenborough was onto something. The Queen comes across as a completely average, even uninteresting person. But if the Queen is totally unexceptional, what does it mean for her to be the Queen? By going behind the scenes, Royal Family makes the pageantry and ceremony look artificial, and therefore cheap and absurd. What looks—and was seemingly intended to be—pro-monarchy is in fact quietly subversive. The film gets viewers dangerously close to asking questions like: “What does a monarch do? Why have one?” Even if the BBC’s answers are “quite a lot,” and “because she is an asset to everyone,” the questions are probably not ones the Queen would prefer be asked at all.

Monarchies are, of course, strange institutions. Some modern countries, like Saudi Arabia and a few other Gulf states, have monarchs that actually govern, in the sense that their decrees have legal power and their will is directly executed in policy. In most other countries where monarchs occupy ceremonial or highly constitutionally-circumscribed roles, the usual justification for their existence is made through appeals to Tradition. Certainly, monarchy writ large is an ancient form of government, as far as we know. The first civilizations to transmit written records to us—in Sumer, Egypt, and the Indus Valley—talk about having kings. Of course, it’s important to remind ourselves periodically that the entirety of written human history spans just about 7,000 years, whereas our species Homo sapiens has survived for a staggering 200,000 years. How human societies constituted themselves during those other 193 millennia, and how they conceptualized their leaders, is all pretty dim speculation. In broader historical terms, we really have no idea if kingship is a very old human idea, or a passing modern fad.

So what is this creature, the monarch? Usually, kingship combines some idea of hereditary succession with some notion of divinity—the king is sometimes imagined to be a god himself, to be the spouse of some god personifying the land or the people, or to otherwise exercise his rule by will of the heavens. In Europe, modern monarchies claim cultural and in some cases direct hereditary inheritance from the kings of the early Middle Ages, when the northerly territories of the western Roman empire were in the dynamic process of reconstituting themselves into new polities with different centers of governance. Many European royal houses, such as the Capetians and the Habsburgs, trace their roots back to the ninth-century emperor Charlemagne. The ninth-century king Alfred the Great is often popularly viewed as the first true “King of the English,” because he successfully staved off Viking incursions into his southwesterly kingdom of Wessex, and thus set the stage for eventual political unification (under his grandson Æthelstan) of Wessex and the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia, aka the geographical area now known as England. Over the centuries, European kingship increasingly came to be defined by succession through agnatic primogeniture—the passing of the crown to the eldest surviving son—and the notion of rule by “divine right,” meaning that kings were in some sense preordained and anointed by God. (There are exceptions to the agnatic primogeniture bit: for example, the Holy Roman Emperor was “elected,” although only by a small clique of eligible nobles voting amongst themselves, much like rich assholes choosing a golf club president. The mountain kingdom of Andorra, meanwhile, is a rare example of a “diarchy,” in which there are always two ruling monarchs—who are, bizarrely enough, the President of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell. Sadly, the law does not require the president and the bishop to be married to each other.)

It’s this notion of being born into kingship by a narrow path of pedigree, and also chosen for kingship by a higher power, that gives monarchy its special romance, built up by generations of folktales, fantasy novels, and Disney films. A divinely-ordained blood monarchy picks out a lone figure of destiny to be history’s protagonist: the same impulse that makes us gravitate toward stories about Chosen Ones and Boys Who Lived is the one that piques our interest in kings. A lot of stories about kings—like the biblical King David, the legendary King Arthur, or the fictional King Aragorn—focus breathlessly on the time when they’re still monarchs-in-waiting, teetering on the brink of public recognition, when their triumphant accession to the throne will be accompanied by miraculous feats and the fulfilment of prophecies. In real life, however, people who get close to monarchs often tend to regard them in a less mystic light. Kings, like any other kind of boss, would usually have to be simultaneously instructed and appeased by those who hoped for anything resembling competent governance. “Mirrors for princes” was a long-running genre of literature in which courtiers gave current and future rulers practical advice about how they should run their kingdom, because relying on God to show the king the right path wasn’t a bet anyone wanted to make. In one such early 13th-century work, De principis instrucione, the cleric Gerald of Wales advised his reader on a range of characteristics the king was supposed to embody—from chastity to humility to prudence to bravery—and then spent a great deal of the rest of the book shitting on the late Henry II and his progeny, whom he believed had discriminated against him for a promotion because he was too Welsh. The personal life of kings was also a common subject of salacious speculation, long before the days when tabloid paparazzi were bursting into their vacation spots. In 18th-century France, the duchess de la Ferté reacted to the news that a bunch of noblemen had apparently held an orgy directly under Louis XV’s window at Versaille one night with a clickbait summation of the sexual orientation of every previous monarch in recent history: “in the history of the affairs of the kings, it has alternated one after the other: Henri II and Charles IX loved the women, and Henri III the boys; Henri IV loved the women; Louis XIII the boys, Louis XIV the women—and so at present the era of the boys has returned.”

Not only was the particular person designated as monarch by the laws of succession a person of ordinary human incompetence and horniness, the laws of succession, too, could be manipulated through old-fashioned human intrigues. Unloved kings or their undesirable heirs died in faked hunting accidents, vanished mysteriously from places of confinement, or were pressured to abdicate in the face of torture and death. As Christianity hived off into more and more varietals of Protestantism in the wake of the Reformation, religious arguments were increasingly used to reject candidates whom the rules of succession would otherwise have designated. In England, the idea that anyone with a stake in the matter truly believed that the monarch was specially chosen by God seems hard to sustain in light of the monarchy’s history. England’s nobility murdered quite a few of their monarchs by stealth, and others by law: most dramatically Charles I, executed for treason in 1649, whose attempts to call attention to the legal incoherency of his opponents’ position (“for the law of this land, I am no less confident, that no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King, they all going in his name: and one of their maxims is, that the King can do no wrong”) failed before the counterargument of the axe. England then restored the monarchy nine years later, only to panic when the laws of succession appeared poised to put another Catholic on the throne, at which point a bunch of nobles simply drove the king out of town, announced that he had “vacated” the throne, and invited his Protestant daughter and son-in-law to fill it instead. The law of the divine right of kings, it seems, is about as effective in practice as any other kind of know-your-rights presentation. 

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Over time, as European nobles began to organize themselves into bodies resembling legislatures, and then these legislatures were gradually transformed or violently overthrown to be replaced with more broadly elected legislatures, the difficulties of having a powerful leader chosen by birth—whose capabilities couldn’t be predicted and whose removal could be arduous to orchestrate—often seemed to outweigh the putative advantages of stability and predictability that agnatic succession was supposed to guarantee. Monarchical lawmaking prerogatives were absorbed by other governmental bodies, and many monarchies were transformed from absolute to “constitutional” monarchies, where the monarch had a role in government, but was not the government. With the growth of nationalist ideologies in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the idea that a monarch was valuable less as a political leader unto himself and more as a unifying symbol of an enlightened nation-state began to gain currency, and newly-formed or recently-unified states tried to draw on the costumery of monarchy to create an illusion of historical continuity in the face of totally new political realities. When the many linguistically and culturally disparate regions of the Italian peninsula unified into a single nation-state in the late nineteenth century, Italian nationalists invited the king of the house of Savoy—which then ruled over the island of Sardinia and a bit of southern France—to come to Rome and assume the monarchy of the newly-declared kingdom of Italy; at the state funeral for Italy’s first king, Italian politicians self-consciously designed funerary rituals that had a historic “feel” despite having no actual historical precedents. The example of European monarchies was also a pattern that states in other parts of the world drew upon: Japanese ministers deliberately studied the pageantry of European monarchies as they sought to reinvent the role and ritual trappings of the emperor during the Meiji period, as part of a bid to engender a sense of national identity in Japan’s inhabitants and present Japan to the world as a modern imperial power.

Thus, in modern times, it seems clear that the monarch, as a person, isn’t someone naturally endowed with special ability or divine favor; and it’s also clear that the little aesthetic touches that make monarchy feel ancient and sacred are often a fairly thin veneer with little historical substance. Many European countries, some dramatically, some quietly, have dispensed with their monarchies for this reason, while others have retained them as a kind of nostalgic artifact to comfort or amuse the public. In this age of many defunct monarchies, there are also many kings-in-waiting, like Arthur or Aragorn, mournfully eyeing their vacant thrones. Ultraconservative royalists in France are split between whether the true king of France is rich guy #1 (Louis XX, Louis Alphonse de Bourbon), or rich guy #2 (Jean IV, the count of Paris). The heir to the throne of Portugal periodically goes to the press to defend bullfighting or blame the country’s economic decline on its radical decision to become a republic in 1910. The obsession with the glamor of lost monarchies also goes well beyond Europe. In 2019, the New York Times ran a popular story about a family that claimed to be the lost royals of the Indian kingdom of Oudh, and persuaded Indian government authorities to let them occupy a half-ruined 14th-century hunting lodge, where the family lived in a state of moldering grandeur until their deaths by illness and suicide. The difference between these tragic pretenders and the royal family of England, substantively speaking, is simply that the Windsors enjoy a lavish public sinecure and vigorous merchandising.

Britain has clung to its monarchy even as many other European countries have abolished theirs. There are a few possible explanations for this. The most obvious is that the monarchy is a reminder of the time when Britainnia ruled the waves and the sun never set upon its plundered colonial possessions. As British global power shriveled, the monarchy helped its people maintain the illusion that nothing had changed. The Queen is, after all, the head of the Commonwealth, meaning that 54 countries recognize her as having some kind of symbolic position of importance. The Commonwealth may do very little, but the fact that it is headed by the Queen does help Britain maintain the illusion that it has some special global leadership role. India may no longer be a colony, but the sting is taken out by the fact that it recognizes the Queen on paper as the head of some kind of abstract political unit that it is still a part of.

Britain has also built its “brand” around its monarchy, to the point where the British tourism industry sells the country partly as a kind of royalty-themed amusement park. London’s souvenir shops are full of commemorative plates, mugs, and spoons with pictures of various royals. The monarchy is part of that curious thing known as the National Identity: without a monarchy, there would be no Palace Guards, no Royal Mail—the country would be unrecognizable. Without royal weddings, royal babies, and royal scandals, the tabloid newspapers would have to struggle mightily to find new ways to avoid discussing issues of substantive importance.

But the British monarchy has also survived in part because of diligent PR efforts on the part of the royals themselves. In 1917, the family famously conducted a top-to-bottom rebranding effort to convince people that they were authentically British. Up until that point, they had been the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, founded by Edward VII, the son of the German Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, herself the heir to the originally German house of Hanover. But during World War I, it was awkward for the occupants of Buckingham Palace to be German aristocrats, and so overnight they swapped their name for the most British one they could think of. They became the House of Windsor, and stripped Kaiser Wilhelm II of his British titles (“cousin Willy” was still technically colonel-in-chief of the 1st Royal Dragoons even as the two countries’ troops were massacring each other in the fields of Flanders).

The trick worked, and it would not be the last effort the royals made at manipulating public opinion in their favor. Cambridge historian Piers Brendon says the family has “systematically sanitized the documentary past in their own interest.” In his book And What Do You Do? What The Royal Family Doesn’t Want You To Know, former Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker shows that the family has had to carefully airbrush its history to remove or downplay parts that would make it seem shameful. For instance, its members’ fascist sympathies during World War II were far more extensive than is usually recognized—video footage released in 2015, over the objection of the Palace, shows the Queen Mother and the then 7-year-old Elizabeth learning the Nazi salute from Edward VIII. Edward, who both ascended to the throne and abdicated it in 1936, was an outright Nazi sympathizer, saying it would be “a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were to be overthrown.” Historians have been stymied by the royals when they have attempted to probe into this matter: the noted scholar Karina Urbach says that the Royal Archives clammed up “when she started demanding any material involving details of the British monarchy’s dealings with Nazi Germany,” and that:

“I was ostracized by the Royal Archives because I wanted these papers… The [Monarchy] pretend to be an open [institution] by publishing children’s letters Queen Victoria wrote, and beautiful pictures of royal babies. The things they are feeding us are charming and sugary. But it covers up the fact that they are not giving us the real historical material.”

Strict British libel laws also help the royal family conceal facts from the public. When Kitty Kelley’s tell-all The Royals was released in 1997, it could not be published in the U.K., and online booksellers would not even mail copies to British addresses. The book presents the royals in an extremely unflattering light. Princess Margaret is described as an anti-Semite who was disgusted by Schindler’s List (“I don’t want to hear another word about Jews or the Holocaust”) and who once confronted columnist Ann Landers and demanded to know “Are you a Jew?” The Queen Mother is presented as an alcoholic and a racist. While Kelley was criticized for her lack of careful citations, many claims have been substantiated elsewhere. A sympathetic biographer confessed that the Queen Mother had said something so racist to him (“beware the blackamoors”) that he felt the need to suppress it during her lifetime to preserve her image. (She also admitted to having “some reservations about Jews.”) The boozing was well-known: by noon the Queen Mother “had her first drink of the day — a potent mix of two parts of the fortified wine Dubonnet to one part of gin… followed by red wine with lunch and, very occasionally, a glass of port to end it.” The Kelley book’s contents were suppressed with Stalinesque effectiveness. British journalists could write about the book’s existence, but they couldn’t say what was in it. In fact, many newspaper writers couldn’t even get ahold of copies.

There is plenty for the royals to want to keep quiet. Norman Baker shows that British taxpayers subsidize the royals more than they might think, and that “totted up, the true cost to the public purse stretches well beyond £300 million a year.” The public, he says, lacks a “full appreciation of just how much public money goes to the royals, and just how much they have enriched themselves from public money over the decades.” Monarchs do not pay inheritance taxes, meaning that when the Queen Mother died, a vast amount of wealth was passed down to Elizabeth that would otherwise have incurred an estimated £20 to 30 million in tax. The royals have “special privileges… that prevent proper public scrutiny of their wealth, such as sealed wills and personal correspondence closed for a lifetime.” Baker notes that “[s]ecrecy over the royal family’s wealth has been a constant feature down the years.” Much of the family’s wealth is likely hidden from public knowledge—the Panama Papers leaks in 2016 revealed that the Queen had an offshore investment portfolio with money in some dodgy enterprises.

The Queen began voluntarily paying taxes in 1992 to ward off criticism, but Baker points out that there are countless ways in which she and other royals enrich themselves at public expense. Grotesquely, the royals also regularly plead poverty, with news stories about their impending “cash crises.” In 2016, an astonishing £370-million taxpayer-funded renovation of Buckingham Palace was approved, with little public debate over whether the billionaire queen deserved a giant new public subsidy during a time of austerity. Baker further documents the astonishing abuses of public money by some royals, including hundreds of thousands of pounds in unnecessary travel expenses. Prince Andrew, who had to step back from royal duties after the extent of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein was revealed, spent £325,000 in a single year on helicopters and planes. (In 2019, the British public spent £15,000 just to fly him to a golf club.) Harry and Meghan cost British taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million pounds on their 2019 trip to Africa with baby Archie. Prince Charles has gone on foreign jaunts with a “doctor, a dresser, a valet, and a travelling yeoman,” and occasionally a support team of 18 people. Baker concludes that:

“The indisputable fact is that most members of the royal family have no compunction about using very expensive forms of transport when much cheaper alternatives are available, and no compunction about leaving a huge carbon footprint while lecturing others on the need to tackle climate change.”

It’s somewhat strange that there hasn’t been more outrage at the idea of taxpayers funding the travels of useless rich people—travels that include jaunts to Jeffrey Epstein’s sex island to cavort with underage girls. Even though the monarchy is at best absurd and at worst abhorrent, there has been little push to actually get rid of it. Republicanism—that is, the belief that Britain should be a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy—has often been noisier in the past. Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, said bluntly in a 1901 address to the House of Commons that “as a believer in Republican principles, I can see no use for a Royal Family.” But more recent Labour leaders tend to have reasoned that going after the monarchy is simply not worth the struggle. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong republican, said it was “not a battle that I am fighting” after becoming Labour leader.

There seems to be a general belief, even among leftists, that the monarchy does not do enough harm to be worth bothering about. Perhaps in principle there is no reason to have royalty in the 21st century. And there is a good argument to be made that having “God Save The Queen” as a national anthem is ridiculous—shouldn’t an anthem celebrate the country rather than a single rich lady? But, then again, how many anthems are sung with great attention paid to their meaning? Isn’t it all just nationalistic theater regardless?

There are aspects even of the somewhat-benign constitutional monarchic theater that are unpleasant to behold. When Theresa May met Prince William she was forced by the code of etiquette to curtsey to him, and as Baker asks, “Apart from piloting a helicopter and producing children, what has Prince William actually done? Certainly nothing that merits a degrading curtsey from one of our most senior politicians, a woman twice his age.” The Queen’s Christmas message, sometimes delivered “in front of a gold piano, gold fireguard, gold clock, and gold mirror,” is a reminder of the grotesque divide between life inside the palace and life for the British working class.

It remains to be seen just how much the British monarchy is being held together by the present queen’s personal appeal. Far from becoming a Marie Antoinette figure, the BBC says that she “has been described as an ‘ultimate feminist,’ been the subject of endless lists titled things like ‘25 Reasons Why We Love the Queen’ and seen her outfits, hats and even her brooches eagerly dissected by a new generation.” Her reputation has been seriously at risk only twice; the first when she was perceived to be indifferent and aloof in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, and the second when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle publicly accused the royal family of ostracizing Meghan to the point of engaging in outright racism. They did avoid direct criticism of the Queen herself, and whether Harry and Meghan’s break from the family will lastingly affect public opinion of it remains to be seen. But it is clear that when the Queen dies and the crown passes to Charles, the royals will lose their most formidable public relations asset. The Queen has managed to keep the monarchy from being seen as silly, a difficult task given that its silliness becomes more and more evident over time. The papers avoid whipping up public outrage over the fact that the British public are literally giving portions of their own paychecks to a family worth billions. And the public accepts the monarchy in part because it has become as much a part of cultural life as a nice cup of tea.

Perhaps one of the problems with getting rid of monarchies is that people have a natural craving for both familiar routines and exciting spectacles: we have been conditioned to view royalty as something that offers both predictable annual rituals and the occasional prospect of secondhand glamor and romance. It’s surely no accident that interest in the royal family always seems to peak whenever one of its members marries an attractive, charismatic spouse or gives birth to an adorable child. William James, in the famous essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” voiced sympathy for pacifism, but suggested it was doomed until it could replicate the romantic and inspiring parts of militarism. “Military feelings,” he wrote, “are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade.” It’s perhaps also true that arguing vigorously for the abolition of monarchy feels politically futile when the spectacle of monarchy seems to offer some sense of pride and pleasure, however wildly overpriced, to some subset of the population, especially while the drudgery of modern life offers very few alternative flights for the imagination.

But there are other ways of giving people fun pageantry. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras has kings and queens, who reign for a day and whose job is to preside over a parade and a ball. A great deal of effort is put into making Mardi Gras grand and spectacular, and people can take pride in their costumes and feel special, but it features none of the downsides of actual monarchies. There are far better alternatives than just watching rich people on TV, but we need to think creatively about how to revive fun old traditions and come up with new ones, because any political project worth participating in must offer the kind of romance that draws people to tales about kings and queens. If that means wearing silly costumes and staging parades, so be it. But people need to have romance and fun and glamor—and deserve it more than just on special occasions. Even Americans are fascinated with royalty, and if the internal dramas of aristocrats are no longer the subject of our children’s stories, we will need new fairy tales.


Next: take our quiz to see if YOU could join the House of Windsor. Then read why monarchies are terrible and should be abolished.

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