In a few years there will only he five kings in the world—the King of England and the four in a pack of cards.
—King Farouk of Egypt in 1950, two years before a military coup forced him to relinquish his throne.
As Farouk’s fate demonstrated, the 20th century has been unkind to monarchies. When Queen Victoria died in 1901 there were 24 European royal houses and the number has since fallen to 10. But Britain’s Royal Family has withstood the strains of modernization— and managed to increase its prestige and popularity as Britain’s power has declined. Last week’s wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, splendidly performed for the television cameras, demonstrated that accomplishment. It showed again that few
other royal families have adapted so well to the requirements of the mass media without sacrificing the air of regal dignity that sets its members apart from ordinary celebrities.
Earlier this century, however, the future appeared to be considerably darker for the House of Windsor—a name the family adopted in 1917 to minimize its direct descent from a branch of German nobility, the House of Hanover. For one thing, Edward Vlli’s 1936 abdication prompted many Britons to question the royals’ commitment—and their usefulness. But Queen Elizabeth Il’s long reign and her conscientious attention to detail have helped restore popular faith in the monarchy. At the same time, the family has renewed its appeal—and retained its celebrity status—through such fresh, young additions as the lat-
est royal bride. Still, there is a serious, political side to the monarchy, and the Queen makes time each day to read government dispatches briefing her on current issues. In 1957 she exercised her royal perogative and appointed Harold Macmillan prime minister— but only after Tory advisers Winston Churchill and Lord Salisbury had assured her that Macmillan enjoyed the support of most cabinet ministers.
Enraged: In large part, however, the Queen reigns but does not rule. The last British sovereign who tried to impose his will on the country was King James II, a convert to Roman Catholicism whose support for that faith so enraged members of the English aristocracy that they removed him from the throne in 1688. That event firmly established Parliament as the ruling power of England.
With so few significant duties left to perform, members of the modern British Royal Family could have devoted themselves to such expensive recreational pursuits as polo and grouse hunting. And there have been occasions when the monarchy’s commitment to regal public ceremony has been decidedly lukewarm. The future Edward VIII, for one, had little use for royal protocol. Declared the teenage Prince of Wales in a passage in his diary: “What rot and a waste of time, money and energy all these state visits are.” Edward later resolved to strip away many of the monarchy’s sacred and ceremonial functions in order to bring it into line with modern values. But in 1936, barely 10 months after he had succeeded George V, Edward abandoned the throne to marry Baltimore divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson, provoking a crisis that shook the foundations of the House of Windsor and raised doubts about the monarchy’s chances of survival.
Edward’s niece, Queen Elizabeth II, deserves much of the credit for transforming the Royal Family into a stable, even stuffy, institution that still has worldwide superstar status. After the Queen’s 34 years on the throne, her
popularity is now so firmly entrenched that it is easy to forget the depth of dissatisfaction with the Crown during the first few years of her reign. In a 1956 editorial headlined “Is the New Elizabethan Age Going to be a Flop?” the London Daily Mail characterized the royal circle as a “dreary roundabout” and said that the time had come for the Queen and Prince Philip to adopt a new, more open style; Declared the paper: “The circle round the throne is as aristocratic, as insular and— there is no more suitable word for itas toffee-nosed as it has ever been.”
Tweedy: By the following year a national debate on the monarchy was in full swing. Writing in the National and English Review, Tory radical Lord Altrincham, described the young Queen’s advisers as tweedy and unimaginative. And a few months later in a blistering article that he wrote for a magazine, playwright John Osborne said that the Royal Family epitomized the wrongs afflicting British society, describing it as “the last circus of a civilization that has lost faith in itself and sold itself for a splendid triviality.”
Supporters of the monarchy quickly rushed to its defence. Declared the Earl of Strathmore: “Young Altrincham is a bounder—he should be shot.” And author Malcolm Muggeridge, who had described popular fascination with the royals as “a sort of substitute or ersatz religion,” was banned from British Broadcasting Corp. programs and lost his job as a columnist for the Sunday Dispatch. Still, there were indications that within Buckingham Palace the criticism was making an impact. Prince Philip, particularly, was stung by allegations that the Royal Family was isolated from commoners. As a result, he supported a remedy suggested by palace staff: informal luncheon parties that allowed members of the Royal Family to rub shoulders with Britons from all walks of life. In the same spirit, the Queen made her first live Christmas television broadcast to the nation in 1957, overcoming her dislike of appearing before the cameras.
Corgis: But it was not until the late 1960s that the Royal Family refined the mutually profitable relationship that it now enjoys with the press and the public. That process began in 1968 when the palace hired a new press officer—William Heseltine, a former political strategist from Australia. Heseltine said that the key to reviving the monarchy’s popularity was to give royalty a human face. To that end, one of his first projects in his new job was arranging for the filming of a BBC TV documentary. That 1969 film, entitled Royal Family, provided an unprece-
dented glimpse into the private world of the House of Mountbatten-Windsor, and its charm is still apparent, particularly in its most famous scene showing the members of the Royal Family at a riverside barbecue. It features Princess Anne cooking sausages, Prince Philip tending the fire, and the Queen, wearing a tweed jacket and pearls, preparing a salad. There are even scenes of ' the Queen playing with several of her beloved Welsh corgi dogs.
Heseltine followed that success by 1 planning the 1969 formal investiture of j 21-year-old Charles as the Prince of Wales. In his new book, The Selling of \ the Royal Family, John Pearson wrote j that Heseltine envisaged an elaborately staged mini-coronation. Declared Pearson: “The Queen’s own coronation had originally been planned as a solemnly traditional event built round its own historic and religious ritual, but this would be something different. Public presentation would be paramount. Television coverage would rule j the roost. And everything about it f would be deftly dovetailed into the i neatest selling operation royalty had ever seen.”
Pageantry: The use of pageantry to sell royalty has been clearly present at ! three recent royal weddings. In 1973 Princess Anne married Capt. Mark Phillips, Charles’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer followed in 1981, and last j week Prince Andrew and Sarah Fergu^ son had their turn. And like their predecessors they exchanged their vows in a ceremony covered by live, worldwide ; TV broadcasts. But 20th-century royal weddings have not always been regarded as fit subjects for glorious public spectacles. Indeed, when Princess Elizabeth married Lieut. Philip : Mountbatten in 1947, the bride’s father favored a simple, quiet ceremony in keeping with postwar austerity. It fell to Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee to convince King George vi that ! the war-weary nation needed a grand ceremonial occasion to lift its spirits.
Now 60, the Queen has grown accustomed to her role as an international superstar. Many of her admirers say that her skill at raising the monarchy’s public profile, while presenting members of her family as down-to: earth individuals, may be her greatest achievement. As British Conservative MP Norman St. John-Stevas said: “She has made the monarchy more popular and therefore more relevant to the people. Because of that, she has become a constant, a stabilizing force in an unprecedented period of social change.” That may be the secret of survival for the most successful modern monarchy in the world.
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