The Windsors Have The Ability And Resources To Adapt To The Modern World, They Just Keeps Refusing To Use Them
It all stems from The Abdication.
When news over the rift between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the Royal Family shifted our attention from the pandemic for the first time in a while earlier this month, Americans asked once again why an institution that most countries got rid of over a century ago, still exists in a country as modern as Britain.
The truth is – and it is rather hard to believe having seen how the Royal Family has reacted to the Meghan Markel situation – the institution has outlived all the rest by being comparatively populist and progressive.
And that’s how it would go until 1936, when the Abdication changed everything. That, with the death of Prince Harry’s mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, were two events that have left the monarchy in a constant state of panic, forgetting the past lessons that allowed it to survive for almost a millennium.
The People’s Monarchy
To really understand why the British Royal Family has managed to hold on to their crown for so long, you have to go back to how it all started – at least in its current form. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William of Normandy, who seized the crown in 1066 after King Edward the Confessor died without an heir.
Though William was the son of a Norman duke, his mother was a commoner, likely the daughter of a tanner, making William a bastard. Subsequently, in ongoing skirmishes between the monarch and the nobility, English monarchs would leverage the fact that they descended from the son of a commoner to appeal to the people. Though more often the not, the nobility would win – such as in the establishment of the Magna Carta in 1215 and the English Civil War that toppled the monarchy for a decade in 1649 – the monarchy always kept the faith and popularity of the common folk in ways their colleagues didn’t in other European countries. It some cases, it did work: The Tudors were masterful at being faux populists. Henry VIII exploited feudal anger at the corruption of the Church to break away from Rome and secure his divorce from his first wife. His daughter, Mary Tudor, leveraged her public support as rightful heir to depose a coup attempt by her noble cousin, the Duke of Northumberland. Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth, painted herself as a “woman of the people” in order to keep the Catholic aristocrats put in place by Mary from overthrowing her, and commanded that populist leadership into a patriotic frenzy that helped defeat the powerful Spanish Armada.
The monarchy’s survival is also rooted in the fact that it was among the first to actually be abolished. In the mid-17th Century, the rift between the Stuart kings, who ruled Scotland as absolute monarchs before inheriting the English crown, and the nobility who made up Parliament exploded into an civil war that ended with the king’s head on a pike and an oligarch dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. Though the monarchy was restored a decade later after Cromwell’s death, a lesson was learned. The Stuarts had allowed the nobles in Parliament to gain the trust of the British public and mount a populist rebellion against the monarchy. Such a thing could never be allowed again. The monarch would always need to be seen as God’s chosen soldier fighting the nobility in the interests of common man.
In fact, I would argue one reason the United States appears to be an oligarchy today is because we misinterpreted the American Revolution to be a populist revolt against nobility, and not a continuation of the ongoing battle for power between the British nobility and the monarchy. The Founding Fathers were mainly wealthy landowners who wanted seats in Parliament, joining the ranks of British nobility, but the existing aristocracy opposed it and King George III was too weak or too apathetic to assert a different view. The American Revolution was a victory for breakaway nobles against the monarchy, establishing what was, and still is, a country governed by nobles.
The Enlightenment provided another opportunity for the monarchy to position itself as guardian of the people against corrupt oligarchs; the Hanovers through Queen Victoria prided themselves on being thorns in the backsides of the nobility, and a voice for a English public increasingly asking for a larger voice in their government. It was Victoria’s grandson, and the current queen’s grandfather, George V, and his wife, Mary of Teck, who decided to take a royal tour of India, and visit with working people in the industrial heartland of England, something nobles loathed to do. They sought to keep up public support for the institution at a time when monarchs were being knocked off thrones across the continent and worker-based political movements began to grow.
In fact, Queen Mary made it her duty to keep the Royal Family in the good graces of the public, even as labor movements and suffragette movements threatened the social order of the kingdom after the Russian Revolution. By 1935, with the monarchies in Russia, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Greece having been ousted in her time as queen (and Italy not far behind), George and Mary were greeted with fawning crowds during their Silver Jubilee. The monarchy seemed secure. Britain’s institution would once again endure.
The Abdication: That Traumatic Event
Eight months later, in January 1936, George V died. He was greatly mourned by the British people. For more than 200 years, the British crown passed from relative to relative without any issues, father-to-son-to-grandson-to-son-to-brother-to-niece-to-son-to-son. It appeared that would continue when George V’s eldest son, Edward, was declared king.
But the seamless transition would quickly unravel. Edward was single and 42 years old, while his three younger brothers had all married. More importantly, Edward had been dating Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, and intended on marrying her. The British government and the Royal Family was not too keen on having Wallis as queen, and neither was the British public, whose good graces Edward’s parents had fought so hard to stay in. Edward marrying a divorced women would counter the teachings of the Church of England, which did not permit remarriage after divorce. Edward would be head of the Church of England as king.
The country was plunged into a Constitutional Crisis that threatened the monarchy. To fully understand why this was such a problem, it is important to know what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time. In 1936, Europe was just two decades out from the collapse of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and 12 years removed from the Greek Royal Family being exiled from Athens. In Spain, the Spanish Civil War has broken out after municipal elections all but abolished the monarchy. The monarchy as an institution, which had ruled Europe since antiquity, was on the verge of being extinguished. It wasn’t clear Britain was in any less perilous a situation, and the fear of losing the support of the public, and thus suffering the fates of Europe’s other royal families, permeated Buckingham Palace. For once, it seemed the nobles and the public were on the same side for the first time since 1649: there simply could not be a Queen Wallis.
To save the monarchy, Edward VIII abdicated the throne, leaving his eldest younger brother, Albert, to reign as King George VI. It was George and his queen, Elizabeth, who were able to restore the public’s faith in the institution of the monarchy, perhaps saving it. They famously refused to leave London during the Blitzkrieg in World War II, and walked among the rubble in the working class East End of the city after the bombings. Elizabeth, the current queen’s mother, became so popular with the British people, Adolf Hitler referred to her as “the most dangerous woman in Europe” and a major threat to his plan to break the will of the British.
The Abdication Crisis, and how close it came to sweeping away the monarchy, made the royals of that time obsessed with keeping as many segments of British society happy as possible. It appeared they had succeeded…for now.
How It Shaped Her
When the palace was plunged into crisis in 1936, a ten-year-old girl was thrown in the center of it. The Princess Elizabeth, eldest daughter of King George VI, went from being an obscure granddaughter of a monarch to heir to the throne in a matter of months. While all this may seem like ancient history to us, that little girl is still alive today, and at the age of 96, still wears the British crown.
What is happening with Harry and Meghan is a direct result of the trauma Queen Elizabeth II personally faced when watching her family nearly ruined by her uncle’s actions and her family’s overreaction to the instability of the monarchy as an institution in Europe in that era and the decades to follow.
Netflix’s The Crown has done a tremendous job of really dramatizing how meticulous the royal family had been about protecting their status in the wake of the Abdication Crisis, and how they have often gone overboard and made mistakes in being overtly careful and cautious to avoid scandal and disfavor with the public. While the shows storylines are largely fiction, they are based on real life events. The queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was barred from marrying Peter Townsend, because of concern over how the public would view the match. Sir Anthony Blunt was allowed to remain in service of the Crown despite being outed as a Soviet spy, because of concerns that it would damage the credibility of the monarchy, and while it is never been confirmed, it widely accepted that Prince Charles was pushed into his marriage with Princess Diana because of his ongoing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, whose lifestyle was considering ill-fitting for a future queen.
In the first season of The Crown, there is a scene where Queen Mary, played by Eileen Atkins, writes a letter to her granddaughter who is returning home after learning of her father’s death. Her words set the foundation for the show’s plot, but it also explains the many actions and mistakes of the Royal Family through the modern day.
“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes…the crown must win.”
Though the letter is almost certainly fictional, the sentiment is certainly true. Mary implored on her granddaughter that every decision she makes and makes for her family must put the survival of the crown first, even at the cost of her and her relatives’ own personal happiness.
It was a perfect explanation of the driving force behind whatever the Royal Family has done and continues to do, and how always being stuck in 1936 mentality has left it vulnerable. Once an institution that smartly shifted with the times, holding on to some traditions, while getting in front of societal changes on others, the monarchy has instead found itself a deer in the headlights, too afraid to step too far ahead of the curve, and risk its tenuous survival.
The overreaction to the Abdication has led to many bad decisions, most notably the decision for Queen Elizabeth II not to put forward a public show of grief and mourning after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, perhaps the greatest threat to the monarchy in her time. Princess Diana had a very rocky relationship with her in-laws during her time as princess.
The marriage was unhappy and Diana’s very-public distress inspired empathy in the British public, an empathy that grew as Diana charted her own course in charitable causes. For whatever reason, the Royal Family refused to capitalize on Diana’s magic; instead they saw it as a threat. Critics would argue the queen was jealous of Diana’s popularity, which is shortsighted if true. More likely, they saw the progressive actions of the princess as the threat to the monarchy Queen Mary spoke about decades earlier. Her very public lifestyle focusing on divisive causes, seemed as if she was putting her own personal ambitions over duty, which older royals, including the queen, were taught jeopardizes the monarchy. Diana, who would have been Britain’s next queen consort, was the future of the Crown. Leveraging her people skills would have ensured its survival well into the 21st Century, but the Royal Family could not escape from trauma of 1936 and could not see the lessons learned in the first half of the 20th Century no longer applies in the second half.
And Diana’s death was an opportunity for the Royal Family to make past sins right, but instead led to them doubling down on the bad decision making. Rather than capitalize on the grief surrounding her death, and kick the troublesome press while it was down, being blamed for Diana’s death, the monarchy allowed the press to redeem itself by going into hiding and giving the British tabloids fodder to exploit the public’s grief. At the end of the week following Diana’s death, the monarchy had been more unpopular than it ever was in Elizabeth’s reign, with a quarter of Britons ready to exile her majesty.
To this day, the survival of the monarchy is always in doubt. There are only a handful of monarchies left on Earth besides the United Kingdom; Japan, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and some Muslim nations like Malaysia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia Though republican sentiment is not currently high in Britain, the Royal Family is often advised to keep the media on their side to avoid quick public shifts of opinion, like the one that blindsided them in 1997.
Which brings us to Meghan.
How They Messed Up Again
What the Windsors keep missing is this: It is not longer 1936. The world has changed, society has changed, and what the public expects from the Royal Family has changed. Gone are the days when the royals were expected to just to an example of nobility and piety to give the “little people” something to aspire to. The public no longer wants to sit on the sidelines and see well-dressed nobles and royals go to garden parties and debutante balls. Today, the public expects the Royal Family to lead; the put their names and their money to work in charitable causes and causes to lift up the British nation. We see this with other royals around the world. Queen Rania of Jordan has become an advocate for education and cross-cultural understanding worldwide, and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands was the first royal to support the rights of LBGTQ people.
Queen Elizabeth II has shown that she has learned this since 1997. Her popularity has remained quite high and her speech to the public at the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic helped rally the British public during the initial lockdown.
However, the Windsors were never more popular than when Diana was out in the world finding landmines and hugging children with AIDS. The Royal Family remains largely blind to how that helps them survive in the modern world. To them, hugging AIDS patients, standing up against the use of landmines, and for other causes goes against the advice to remain apolitical given to them by ancestors like Queen Mary, who feared political involvement would doom them. Today, however, it is remaining apathetic in the face of divisive issues that makes people question the continued relevance of the institution.
The arrival of first Kate, and then Meghan, to the Royal Family brought new excitement and promise, but the British press savaged Meghan in a way they didn’t Kate, and the Royal Family did not back Meghan up, give her the help and support she asked for, and keep her and her husband, no doubt feeling he was reliving the trauma his mother suffered, from breaking with the family and triggering the current crisis. After all, to do so risked angering the press, and who knows where the public would fall on the issue. It is likely the Royal Family, unsure of how the younger son of the future king marrying a divorced biracial American actress would play in the British public, treaded carefully in a way that was unfamiliar at best, cruel at worst, to the California-born Duchess of Sussex.
For her part in this, Markle really hasn’t done herself any favors. The Oprah interview almost came across as a kamikaze mission on her and her husband’s part. Their popularity has soured in Britain, but she may have also hurt the Royal Family in the process, and the damage was entirely preventable for them. Maybe that was the goal, but maybe the duchess is responding the only way an American thespian knows how – to tell it to the world and lay it all bare. Perhaps the Royal Family will luck out again and leverage Meghan’s mistake and now growing unpopularity to their benefit, by presenting themselves as victims. It might be their best card to play.
It is time for the Royal Family to escape from the constraints of 1936. The Abdication was nearly a century ago. There are very few Britons still around who were alive to really remember it, fewer who were old enough to have an opinion. The British monarchy is threatened, as it has been for its entire existence, but as Elizabeth’s ancestors learned, oftentimes the hard way, the key to survival is to meet the people where they are. That meant something different in 1936 than it does now. Today, it may have meant throwing your support behind a princess whose background looks more like the emerging diversity of the nation, and allowing her and her husband to chart their own course. Clearly, though, it’s too late for that now.