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About this blog

Below you will find my most recent writings on the British royal family, as well as some of the articles I’ve written about the House of Windsor over the last couple of years.

I am also using this blog to keep readers updated on developments with my new research project, which focuses on the symbolic role played by the monarchy as part of the decolonization of the British empire.

I hope you enjoy your reading and please do post any comments or questions you might have.

Why Elizabeth II’s message on the 70th anniversary of her accession matters

Elizabeth II’s message to her people, published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of her accession, is remarkable for a number of reasons. 

First of all, it bears all of the hallmarks of the royal public language carefully crafted by Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang and Clive Wigram, private secretary to George V, back in the mid-1930s. With its emphasis on service and self-sacrifice, the message attests to the resilience of these (Victorian) themes which became central to the monarchy’s image in the interwar years and which were used to generate public support for George VI when he unexpectedly came to the throne in 1936. The message clearly evidences the impressive institutional memory at work at the palace, which continues to guide the monarchy’s public relations strategy. This royal public language has been passed down through a long line of private secretaries, as well as from monarch to monarch.

Secondly, the queen draws on the pathos commonly used in royal messages to evoke a sympathetic response from readers: see the references to her father, mother and Prince Philip. Again, we can trace the origins of this kind of direct emotional appeal to the 1930s. Thirdly, the reference to her 1947 broadcast (in which the then Princess Elizabeth dedicated her life to the service of her people) acts as a key reminder that the defining theme of her reign has been ‘duty’. This is how she, and those around her, wish her to be remembered. Fourth: ‘duty’ is transactional. It is performed by the queen in return for the ‘support’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘affection’ of her subjects. This subtle messaging is straight out of the George V playbook for royal PR: remind one’s audience of the personal bond that links them to you.

Fifth: the message indicates that it is Elizabeth II’s own wish that Camilla become queen consort when the time comes. This is a smart move. The royal family are working to smooth the path of succession by dispelling uncertainty over the duchess of Cornwall’s future title. Since Charles and Camilla’s marriage, there has been some debate over whether or not the duchess would be named queen consort, given lingering questions over her popularity with the public, and her status as a divorcée and the second wife of the king to be. Elizabeth II’s intervention thus amounts to the royal stamp of approval. It suggests attitudes have changed and that the crown is moving with the times when it comes to the status of divorced persons. It also silences dissent: to protest is to now go against the queen’s personal wish.

Sixth: the references to technology and social and cultural progress (again, reminiscent of the first Christmas broadcast of 1932) help to give shape and meaning to the queen’s long 70 year reign. This first (official) draft of history clearly presents Elizabeth II’s reign as one marked by ‘positive developments’. For example, there is nothing here on how Britain’s decline as an imperial power also ‘coincided’ with Elizabeth II’s reign. Nor is there mention of the complex and often messy process by which the empire became the Commonwealth.

Finally, this message is less forthright, compared to those of earlier decades, when it subtly alludes to the state of the British nation in the last paragraph. It is the queen’s hope that her Platinum Jubilee might work to bring people together this year. But Elizabeth II and her advisors will be painfully aware of the disunity of the body politic at this juncture. This message is thus an appeal from a queen to her people to, temporarily, put aside their differences in order to celebrate the enduring institution of monarchy. 

For more on the development of the modern ‘royal public language’ referred to here, please see Chapter 2 of my book, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-1953, which you can read for free here.

William, Harry and the myth of Princess Diana

The unveiling of the Diana statue was the most recent ceremonial act in the mythologization of the Princess of Wales. Her sons, Princes William and Harry, are the ‘high priests’ who have given power to her myth since her death in 1997.

Simply by being her bereaved children, William and Harry, aged 15 and 12 respectively at the time of their mother’s death, were transformed into symbols of human tragedy. Since then, the media has drawn constant comparisons between them and Diana, while simultaneously trying to penetrate the psyches of both princes in order to reveal to us (the audience) how their personalities have been shaped by the loss of their mother.

However, William and Harry have both been active in promoting the Diana myth too. They have emphasized their mother’s saintliness and the idea that she was an innocent victim of press intrusion. We know full well that Diana had her own complex private life and that she played a key role in the creation of her media image. The princes’ mythmaking has therefore been carefully calculated in the way it downplays their mother’s agency and the destabilizing impact that her actions had on the monarchy.

We must ask then: what purpose does William and Harry’s mythmaking serve?

To answer this question, we need to remind ourselves that the princes have developed a more aggressive approach to handling the press than any previous generation of royalty. The message they have promoted – that journalists were complicit in the death of Diana – has worked to justify their own high-profile battles for privacy while also evoking sympathy for them among sections of the UK public.

It would thus seem to be a ‘win-win’ public relations strategy for Diana’s sons.

However, the princes’ combative attitude has also fuelled the fire that has raged periodically between the House of Windsor and some of Britain’s leading newspapers. Harry and his wife Meghan’s difficult experiences with the tabloids in 2019 and early 2020 show how the royals can get burnt in this process, coming off worse as a result of particularly hostile exchanges with journalists. 

William has remained largely untouched by such venom – the sacrosanct king-in-waiting. But this has not prevented him from taking the attack to the media and, in the process, further refashioning the Diana myth to suit his own ends.  

In what now seems to have been an insidious attempt at historical revisionism, the duke of Cambridge made a public statement after it was revealed journalist Martin Bashir had lied to senior BBC managers over how he secured his 1995 Panorama interview with Diana. William used the moment to take aim not just at the unscrupulous Bashir but at the entire BBC. He claimed that the interview drove his parents to divorce and that it played a part in the events that ultimately led to Diana’s death. 

This is, to put it frankly, a fanciful reimagining of the period from late 1995 to 31 August 1997 – the day Diana was killed by a French chauffeur driving dangerously at more than twice the speed limit while under the influence of alcohol. 

It is clear that there were indeed institutional failings within the BBC establishment that meant Bashir’s unsavoury methods were not properly scrutinized. But William’s attack did not aim to set the historical record straight. Rather, it was an ominous attempt to muzzle the broadcaster and suppress the Panorama interview in a wider effort to rewrite the history of the 1990s.

The BBC has, since its founding in 1922, been almost unfailingly loyal to the monarchy and in return has gained special access to royal events and personalities. However, the Panorama interview – now more than a quarter of a century old – represented an unusual break with the sycophancy of the past, something that we viewers were again privilege to in 2019 when Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis grilled Prince Andrew on his connections to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in what was another extremely embarrassing moment for the monarchy that sent deep shockwaves through the institution.

William’s statement was thus a warning shot over the bows of the BBC: toe the line or we will throw you to the wolves. The broadcaster has been cowed by his words having agreed to never show the Panorama interview in full again. At a time when trust in media institutions like the BBC is in decline, the duke of Cambridge’s stinging criticism has also given succour to the enemies of the broadcaster who would like to see it humiliated and undermined.

For the public, this wilful suppression of a historically important interview, and with it the princess’s voice, is the newest dimension of the ever-evolving Diana myth. We are now told to regard the hard, uncomfortable truths that the princess articulated as the irrational ravings of a woman who was, according to her eldest son, not only deceived but paranoid.

The Diana myth, as promoted by those closest to her, is thus developing a hagiographical quality as time passes. Reality is being silenced. Fantasy increasingly fills the void.

There is, though, one force that might work to offset this whitewashed reinterpretation: the story of Diana as presented in Peter Morgan’s The Crown, which has so far proved a major hit with television audiences around the world.

The reason why the current generation of royals would rather forget about the 1990s is that the decade marked a serious low point in the monarchy’s standing in Britain. The Crown has steadily been building to this moment. While the series certainly relies on embellishment as much as it does on truth in its storytelling, the fourth season captured the way the real Diana helped to transform the image of the House of Windsor by making monarchy appear more accessible and personal, despite her own private struggles and misgivings about the way ‘the firm’ operated.

In the final seasons of The Crown (due to begin again in 2022), we will be presented with a version of the failure of the Wales’s marriage and Diana’s dramatic death. In real life, these events led to serious introspection on the part of the royal household, with Queen Elizabeth II and her closest confidants forced to rethink the implications of making modern monarchy about the lives, loves and losses of a single family, when the specific family group in question was so dysfunctional.

Post-Diana, the public image of the British monarchy (and the Prince of Wales) was carefully reconstructed with a focus on brothers William and Harry and their futures. We know that Prince Charles aimed to downsize the monarchy, cutting out those relatives (like Andrew) from frontline service because they could become liabilities. He also sought to build an image as a loving father to two sons who, once he was king, would be his reliable deputies. 

We can therefore characterize the period from 1997 to 2019 as one defined by coherent and largely successful rebuilding. But this positive trajectory was disrupted by the Epstein scandal and to an even greater extent by Harry and Meghan’s decision to give up their royal positions in order to pursue their own personal and professional goals.

The repercussions of ‘Megxit’ – the origins of which can at least partly be attributed to the struggles of an emotionally-troubled prince to reconcile the public role he was required to play with his desire for a happy private life – now mean that the royal family is again engaged in soul searching and undergoing change with increased attention on William and his family to the detriment of his younger brother.

As yet, it is unclear whether the rift that separates the brothers will ever be healed. Their dispute has so far been narrated by the British tabloid press in such a way as to reflect the temper of a politically and generationally divided nation, with William standing in for ‘tradition’, and Harry representing ‘wokeism’. Even if the two men manage to put aside their differences, the media have invested so much in the creation of this royal ‘culture war’ narrative that it seems unlikely it will simply disappear.

Thus, it is through her sons that Diana’s story lives on. Her myth is one of fact and fiction; her legacy one of innovation, rupture and renaissance. And with so many questions unanswered about the futures of William and Harry, doubtless the myth will continue to change and shape shift as the travails, triumphs and tragedies of the House of Windsor unfold for all to see.

Featured image credit: Princess Diana, June 1997. John Matthew Smith. CC. 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What next for the monarchy?

A lot of overheated media commentary at the time of Prince Philip’s death insisted that his passing marked the end of an era. Certainly, he was the last British royal to have meaningful connections to a wider network of royal families – a result of a culture of European dynastic intermarriage that persisted through the first half of the twentieth century. And, as a leading member of the House of Windsor, the duke of Edinburgh unquestionably did more to ensure the survival of monarchy in Britain than any other royal man since the Second World War.

But his death did not signal the end an era. Rather, it was an unfortunate but timely reminder that a period of history is steadily drawing to a close and that is the Second Elizabethan Age. As we near this terminus, it is worth asking: what comes next?

In the week after her 95th birthday, media reports on Queen Elizabeth II remain fixated on her bereavement. There is real grief here; but also imagined grief. In the absence of any true insight into the queen’s inner thoughts and feelings, journalists have cast the monarch in the age-old role of ‘suffering royal widow’, embellishing their accounts with lashings of sentiment so that we might identify with her. 

Historically speaking, Windsor family tragedies, as much as the triumphs, have worked to engender empathy for the royal individuals concerned. This emotion has often translated into a more profound respect for the institution they represent. This is particularly the case when the royal protagonists are seen emerging from their grief in order to ‘get on with the job’. The same script played out when Elizabeth II’s father died prematurely in 1952 and she became queen aged 25. A language of duty, service, and self-sacrificepredominated then too.

Almost seventy years on, it is clear this will be the monarch’s final performance; and the last act in this royal drama is largely predetermined. Since her official period of mourning came to an end, the queen has returned to public life accompanied by much journalistic fanfare on the difficulties of carrying on without Prince Philip by her side. The fact that the duke’s ailing health regularly prevented him from accompanying his wife at public events over the last decade will likely be overlooked as part of this story of royal grit in the face of adversity.

As well as a return to the world outside Windsor Castle, the queen will be looking inwards and getting her house in order in preparation for what comes next. To this end, there is already a review of internal procedures underway in light of the allegations of royal racism set forth by Harry and Meghan in their interview with Oprah Winfrey. Just as significantly (although less publicized), the monarchy appears to be moving with the tides of history in re-examining its role in the nation’s complex imperial past. 

Empire has long been the elephant in the room for the royals. However unpalatable sections of the public and commentariat might find it, the reassessment of Britain’s history is well underway and, despite the current UK government’s attempts to obfuscate at every turn, the legacies of a coercive and often violent colonialism are becoming clearer to see. As part of this revisionism, Royal Palaces (the charity that manages unoccupied royal residences on behalf of the queen) is undertaking research into the monarchy’s historic links to the slave trade. The uncomfortable truths this work will uncover will lead to increased scrutiny of the central role played by the crown from the 16th to mid-20th centuries in the formation and maintenance of the empire – the remnants of which we today call the Commonwealth. 

As historian Philip Murphy has shown, Elizabeth II and her family played key roles in the transformation of the British empire into the modern Commonwealth in the decades that followed the Second World War. The crown lent the new enterprise substance and, with its sprinkling of glamour, helped to soften the rougher edges of empire. It seemed that the duke and duchess of Sussex were destined to oversee a new phase in Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth centred on an increased sensitivity to racial inequalities and social justice – possibly as a way of confronting past injustices. Given the couple’s impromptu departure, Elizabeth II and her advisors will now be rethinking the monarchy’s approach, particularly given the renewed calls by some Commonwealth nations to cut ties with the crown. 

Prince Charles is already guaranteed to succeed his mother as Head of the Commonwealth when he becomes king, as was agreed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018. This is just one example among many of how the queen’s powers – symbolic and real – are already transitioning to her heir. Charles’ succession will therefore be defined by a sense of continuity, but we should also anticipate innovation. 

The queen’s strict interpretation of duty is not shared by her eldest son. He will undoubtedly continue with the steady programme of royal public engagements, which is the bread and butter of modern monarchy. However, the environmentalist king-in-waiting has, as Prince of Wales, demonstrated a determination to have his voice publicly heard on issues that matter to him in a way that is anathema to the ever-discrete Elizabeth II. Such advocacy has been deemed broadly acceptable, given how it addresses non-partisan issues that governments, no matter the shade of colour, can get behind. Problems have arisen only when the prince has held forth on controversial topics – such as the medical benefits of homeopathy – that run counter to conventional wisdom. His ‘black spider’ memos also indicate that he is ready to use his high position to lobby – however subtly – elected government officials.  

In terms of family life, Charles fares less well than his mother again. Whereas Elizabeth II’s time on the throne has been defined by narratives of service and virtuous domesticity, the prince’s colourful private life means he will begin his reign not as a fairy-tale monarch (as was the case with his mother), but instead as a slightly drab, tarnished figure with a second wife and queen consort (Camilla) who is yet to win the full acceptance of a British public still largely enamoured with his first spouse.

Without Harry by his side, Charles’ plans for a slimmed-down-monarchy look as though they have at least temporarily been put on hold too. The recent recruitment of a wider circle of family members, including the Wessexes, to preside at important public events suggests that since the Sussexes broke ranks there has been renewed concern about the number of royals available for service. With the spectre of his brother Andrew haunting the court, desperate it would seem for a way back to respectability, the heir-to-the-throne has a complex balancing act if he is to ensure the House of Windsor maintains its presence in all areas of national life while simultaneously avoiding accusations that there are too many expensive ‘hangers on’.

Prince William is a less complicated figure than his father and is notably more popular. Yes, the rift with his brother leaves questions unanswered about the longer-term image of the monarchy, particularly if Harry and Meghan pursue an advocacy agenda incompatible with that of the royal family back in Britain. But the duke of Cambridge has a ‘family man’ appeal and has done a better job than Prince Charles of disguising his opinions while at the same time clearly working to establish the monarchy’s new global aims. Also vying for the moniker of ‘environmentalist king-in-waiting’, William has created an international platform through high-profile collaborations in order to address the most pressing problems affecting the natural world. His launch of the ‘Earthshot Prize’ alongside David Attenborough in 2020 to tackle climate change was the most significant example to date of this desire to align the crown with the biggest challenge facing not just the UK but all nations. 

Back at home, William and his wife, Kate, have spearheaded the royal family’s support of NHS workers through the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps more than ever, Britain’s National Health Service seems to be an organization celebrated universally across the political spectrum. Given this breadth of support, royal advocacy here has been non-partisan and has arguably done much good in focusing attention on the difficult jobs of individual healthcare professionals. 

Mental health, though, is another matter. William and Harry both promoted awareness of this issue over the last ten years and were able to do so as it was a policy area neglected by successive governments. Now, with mounting calls for a strong state-led response to Britain’s looming mental health crisis, it is unclear whether the royal family risks continuing its work in this area given how politicized it could quickly become. Government budgeting for mental health services may well prove contentious and the patchwork of royal-sponsored mental health charities may hinder any state-led response, as much as assist it.

These developments are a reminder that the royal family’s fortunes will be determined as much by a wider social, economic, cultural, and political context, as by themselves. On the surface it appears that Britain is more divided than it has been in many decades. Journalists’ claims that a nation gathered on the day of Prince Philip’s funeral to mourn him were – while touching – plainly wrong (13 million viewers tuned in, equating to about one-fifth of the national television audience). This kind of royal reporting is typical and over many years has done much to conceal the true contours of public opinion in an increasingly complex country. 

The media thus needs to do more to better reflect the diversity of attitudes espoused by the public towards the crown, be they royalist, republican, apathetic and everything in between. For a start, this would provide ‘the firm’ with a richer understanding of the people the royal family claim to represent and better equip them to deal with the kind of turbulent changes in national life that we have come to expect as a result of the last decade of politics. 

For now, we can expect a return to ‘business as usual’. The period of royal mourning for the duke of Edinburgh is over and we have entered what historian Anna Whitelock has aptly described as the ‘twilight’ of Elizabeth II’s long reign. While change is clearly afoot, it will also be a period defined by a continuation of the royal public service that has been her hallmark as queen. Questions will persist over the internal struggles that are shaping the monarchy from within. But of greater significance are the bigger societal forces changing the institution from without. It therefore remains to be seen how and whether the crown manages to adapt to the wider transformations of a period that historians of Britain will one day refer to as the late Second Elizabethan Age.

Featured image credit: The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Cornwall and Princess Anne. Library and Archives Canada. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A royal love story that might never have happened

As first published by Talking Humanities in April 2021.

Prince Philip, who was one of the most popular and long-serving members of the House of Windsor, has died aged 99. Dr Ed Owens, historian, royal commentator, and author of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53, looks back at a royal love story.

Had it not been for Lord Louis Mountbatten, it is unlikely Philip would have ever succeeded in marrying into the royal family. ‘Uncle Dickie’, as he was better known to Philip, played a pivotal role not only in encouraging a romance between his nephew and the then Princess Elizabeth, but also in soothing public concerns regarding what many in Britain saw as the young Philip’s problematic family connections.

When rumours of an ‘unofficial engagement’ between heiress presumptive to the throne Elizabeth and Philip of Greece first emerged in gossip columns in late 1946, several of Britain’s leading national newspapers questioned whether such a match was wise. At the time there raged a civil war in Greece between royalists and communists. It was felt by commentators and politicians on the left that, if such a marriage went ahead, it would be interpreted as Britain signalling its support for the Greek royalist faction. At a time when many in Britain saw the communist Soviet Union as an ally, this would not do.

Britain, the empire, the US, and USSR had come together to win the Second World War against the Axis powers. But in another unfortunate turn of events, all four of Philip’s sisters had married German noblemen who had supported the Nazis. Many ordinary British people harboured a deep loathing of Germany in the aftermath of the war. Philip’s inauspicious family history could therefore prove a major public relations disaster for the British monarchy if openly publicised. One newspaper even announced a national poll (the first of its kind on a royal topic) which, after explaining the geopolitical complexities of the rumoured marriage, asked readers the question: ‘should our future queen wed Philip’?

After one week, the poll results suggested that 40% of respondents opposed a marriage between the couple with most claiming they were concerned about Philip’s ‘foreign’ pedigree or the problems that a union between the British and Greek dynasties might create in terms of European ‘power politics’.

Luckily for Philip, Uncle Dickie had anticipated this kind of criticism and, weeks earlier, had embarked on a secretive series of meetings with some of the most influential news editors and reporters on Fleet Street. He pleaded with them to give his nephew a positive write up; asked that they downplay Philip’s connections to Greece; and instead that they play up his ‘Englishness’. Indeed, Mountbatten provided each of them with a ‘biographical information pack’ which highlighted how Philip was British ‘in all but birth’, having been schooled at Gordonstoun, served in the Royal Navy as a sailor during the war, regularly attended Church of England services, and spent most of his life in the UK. Also, in this information pack were photographs of Philip looking particularly dashing in his navy uniform (see below).

Mountbatten’s carefully coordinated campaign did the trick. The alarm that had initially characterised the British press’s response to the rumoured marriage quickly faded and was replaced by a happiness that Princess Elizabeth had fallen in love with a handsome navy officer who, it suddenly seemed, had impeccable British credentials. By the time the couple’s engagement was finally officially announced in July 1947, the press had stopped labelling Philip a prince of Greece and instead only referred to him by his new, English-sounding name, ‘Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten’, which he took when he became a naturalised British citizen in February that year, forgoing his right to the Greek throne in the process. His family ties to Nazi Germany were also quietly ignored.

Elizabeth and Philip would face a number of other challenges before they were married in November 1947. But the first and most important battle had been won thanks to the cunning of Uncle Dickie.

Featured image credit: ‘The man she will marry’ (Prince Philip) as presented by the Daily Express, 16 July 1947. © The British Library Board.

Another annus horribilis? ‘The Family Firm’ one year on…

As first published by Talking Humanities in November 2020.

In a speech marking the 40th year since her accession to the throne, Elizabeth II described 1992 as her annus horribilis. In the 12 months prior to this, three of her children’s marriages broke down in full sight of the public and a fire tore through Windsor Castle, destroying several rooms along with many priceless antiquities. 

The year stretching back to autumn 2019 (when, coincidentally, my book The Family Firm was published) could similarly be characterised as marking a low point for the crown. Last week, a YouGov poll judged that the queen’s personal popularity remains undimmed, but the same cannot be said of all of her family members after a series of high-profile royal flops and feuds. And, as well as short-term turbulence, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shift in the national mood present a number of more serious problems to the crown with no easy fix.

On the face of it, much has changed for the monarchy since last November in ways we couldn’t have imagined or anticipated. First came Prince Andrew’s unceremonious fall from grace because of a bungled interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, which centred on the royal’s friendship with paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Less than one year on, it’s rumoured that the duke of York is already planning his ‘comeback’, but the timing feels premature. The Epstein saga isn’t over. The disgraced financier’s former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, is awaiting trial on charges of enticement, sex trafficking and perjury, stemming from the wider investigation into Epstein and his associates. 

Next was Megxit. One of the most popular members of the House of Windsor, Prince Harry, decided with his wife, Meghan, that they’d had enough of life as working royals and duly left the UK for North America, citing as their motivations a loss of personal liberty and an excess of public scrutiny. The release of a book which put across their version of events pointed to internal family discord, including a royal rift between brothers Harry and William. 

Historically speaking, self-serving exposure of this kind of domestic spat has cheapened the public image of the monarchy and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sussexes have along with Prince Andrew experienced a sharp decrease in their popularity since the end of last year. This loss of support may help explain why Meghan initially sought a ‘summary judgement’ in her court battle with the Mail on Sunday, which would have enabled her to avoid a full trial in the glare of the media spotlight. This request was not granted and the case has instead been adjourned until autumn 2021. Should it have gone ahead as planned in January, it would have likely led to another welter of negative headlines at a time when public sympathy for privileged celebrities seems to be at an all-time low.

This brings us to Covid-19. While the pandemic has disproportionately affected the poorest and most vulnerable in society, it has also created challenges for the most powerful, the crown included. An institution that has come to rely on its representatives being active in the outside world – as patrons of charities and public organisations, and as figureheads of the UK on the international stage – has suddenly found its philanthropic role vastly expanded, with the royal family trying to acknowledge the efforts of caregivers and the sacrifices of the nation at large. 

And yet, at the same time, the royals have been prevented from performing their public roles in the direct, human ways to which they’ve become accustomed (first, because of confinement, and subsequently because of restrictions on physical interaction). Elizabeth II’s age means she has to be particularly careful, and so her public engagements have been limited to Zoom calls and televised messages

Indeed, a recent attempt to reintroduce the monarch to the ‘real’ world met with criticism as well as the usual enthusiasm. This was because she did not wear a mask or observe social distancing when she appeared alongside Prince William at the Porton Down defence laboratory. Although the queen’s health wasn’t put at risk – everyone she and her grandson met had returned negative tests for Covid-19 – media commentators demanded to know why the royal pair were exempt from the sanitary measures imposed on the rest of the population. 

Reconfinement and the difficult winter that lies ahead of the UK will create more challenges for the monarchy as it seeks to tread an uncertain path between trying to set a good example by adhering to new behavioural norms, while also preserving the kind of intimate connections with sections of the public that have been key to the House of Windsor’s survival over the last century. The lack of transparency over the duke of Cambridge’s Covid-19 diagnosis back in April indicates that there are real uncertainties within the royal household over what it should tell the public. This PR failure is another instance where royal silence on a matter of importance has given rise to public distrust of the palace’s communication strategy.

Alongside the immediate issues of family breakdown and the pandemic, the last year has also highlighted a series of deeper-rooted problems that the royals will now need to face up to, many of which have surfaced because of the political, economic, and cultural shocks of the last 12 months. Perhaps the most notable of these are the lingering questions over the monarchy’s complicity in Britain’s imperial project in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

The empire centred on the symbolic power of the crown, and earlier generations of British royalty derived wealth from the slave trade. However, the Windsors have done little to confront the troubling legacies of the nation’s colonial past. Racial inequality continues to blight society, and whereas royal outsiders Harry and Meghan have begun to speak out against these sorts of injustices, the rest of the royal family have remained stoically silent.

The need for some kind of reappraisal is urgent. For the first time, one of the 15 countries outside the UK where Elizabeth II is also sovereign has determined to remove her as head of state. To quote the government of Barbados, ‘the time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.’ Calls are also growing notably louder to rename the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in an effort to disentangle the UK’s honours system from its imperial origins. One of the main sources of pressure for change comes from the Black Lives Matter movement and, with the continuing rise of this global network, the monarchy must act to ensure it stays on the right side of history.

The tumultuous political events of the last decade have partly resulted from the UK’s regional divisions and class-based inequalities. Along with the caregivers and heroes of the pandemic who received awards as part of the queen’s birthday honours list was the footballer Marcus Rashford, who has shone a light on the child poverty that persists in Britain. Because of the pandemic, these problems will get worse before they get better, but we can expect many more questions to be asked about how inequality is tackled in the UK and how the country’s wealth – including that in the possession of the crown – is distributed.

It is also likely that previously ‘safe’, uncontroversial topics that the royals have campaigned on, for example mental health, will become increasingly politicised as the nation’s emotional wellbeing further deteriorates under a second lockdown and the government deems it necessary to introduce funding cuts to support services. If state funding for mental health becomes an increasingly contentious issue, the royals will need to abandon their advocacy in this area or risk behaving unconstitutionally by involving themselves in party politics.

Similar difficulties lie in wait for the House of Windsor when it comes to post-Brexit royal diplomacy. The UK’s rural community has long been on the receiving end of royal patronage. However, with the nation’s farmers up in arms over the prospect of future trade deals that could undercut British food standards (and prices), the monarchy may well find itself at odds with the agricultural community if it is forced to grease the wheels of international relations in ways that run counter to the latter’s interests.

It is because of the fractiousness of national life that we see the monarchy seeking instead to carve out a role for itself in a global context on topics where there already exists broad public consensus. The crown has chosen two pressing issues: climate change and the protection of the natural world. 

Prince Charles has long been viewed as the environmentalist king-in-waiting, but it is the second-in-line to the throne, Prince William, who has launched the Earthshot prize to devise new ways to counter climate change. And, in a sign of how concerned the palace is with ensuring the next royal generation are associated with these issues, William’s three children recently took part in a filmed exchange with conservationist David Attenborough where he raised his concerns about the future of animal species in an increasingly unpredictable world.

The final deep-seated issue that the crown will at some point need to deal with is the growing polarisation of British politics and the coarsening of public debate. For too long, the monarchy has helped conceal the underlying differences which divide Britain behind a façade of national unity centred on the throne. The Windsors have also been poorly served by a coterie of fawning royal journalists all too ready to promote misleading narratives of popular royalist fervour and togetherness at the expense of reality. 

The last decade has exposed the realities of discord and disunity and at times it has felt as though the country has never been angrier. Given its position above the political fray, the monarchy is uniquely placed to lead a process of national healing by launching a national programme intended to promote genuine shared understanding between Britain’s heterogenous communities. 

Some will say that the royal family’s activities have been pointed in this direction for some time already. Clearly, though, these efforts have not gone far enough. The year 2020 has been a grim one for the crown and the nation as a whole – an annus horribilis indeed. But as well as highlighting the challenges that lie ahead of the monarchy and the British people, the events of the last 12 months have also created an opportunity which, if seized, could lead to better times for all.

Featured image credit: Elli Gerra, Elizabeth II portrait of 2012. CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In profile: Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II

As first published by History Extra in October 2020.

The only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Anne has often been a stalwart face of duty and (relative) normality throughout many of the royal family’s more turbulent periods. Yet the Princess Royal’s own life has not been without its challenges. From an infamous kidnap attempt to an at-times rocky marital road, Dr Ed Owens reveals more…

Princess Anne’s public image in 2020 comprises many of the tensions and contradictions that have defined the monarchy’s complex evolution over the past 100 years. Today she projects an image of a workaholic who is perhaps more committed than any other member of the House of Windsor to public duty. And yet it would seem she is simultaneously a happy wife, mother, and grandmother, who finds solace and joy in the ordinary pleasures of home life.

But who is the real Anne and how does she reconcile her different roles? How has her image changed over the past 70 years? And what is her significance to a royal family undergoing a dramatic transformation, not only after the fallout of ‘Megxit’, but also in readiness for the eventual succession of a new king?

Princess Anne’s early life

When Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise was born at Clarence House in central London on 15 August 1950, the royal family was once again experimenting with its self-presentation. Against a backdrop of rising divorce rates and public concerns about the figure of the ‘single mother’ in British society, the royal family tried with renewed vigour to set a good (Christian) example to the rest of the nation.

Anne completed the image of the idyllic nuclear family group and was cast in the role of energetic and fun-loving playmate to her quieter and shyer brother, Charles, two years her senior. The royal children were also integral to public perceptions of their mother, Queen Elizabeth, who projected a loving maternal image, particularly after she became queen in February 1952.

As she grew up, Anne’s enthusiasm to go to school, rather than be educated at home, worked with the grain of a royal public relations strategy which has, since the 1920s, aimed to convince media audiences (with some success) that the royal family are ‘just like us’. Aged 13, she took up a place at Benenden, an independent girls’ school near Cranbrook in Kent. Notwithstanding the lurking paparazzi at the school gates, those who knew her then have suggested she enjoyed a relatively normal education. Despite her high station, Anne was not accorded additional privileges but instead treated the same as her classmates. She even had to sit exams, leaving school with six O-levels and two A-levels.

Much was made of Anne’s ‘normal’ adolescence. For example, she was the first royal to wear a miniskirt, aping the style of many other young women of her generation.  However, behind the façade of ‘royal ordinariness’, the princess was anything but ‘normal’. Her competitive and determined spirit found its main outlet in that most elite of sports, equestrianism. A keen horsewoman who had ridden since childhood, Anne would go on to excel in this field, winning gold aged 21 for the British team at the 1971 European Eventing Championships aboard ‘Doublet’, a horse given to her by her mother. And, having won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 1971, Anne competed at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games – a feat bested by her daughter, Zara, who won silver for her performance at the London Olympics in 2012. Indeed, Zara received her medal from her mother, who is now president of the British Olympic Association.

Public work

Today, Anne is perhaps best known for her commitment to her public work. Her great grandfather George V, who pioneered a new kind of royal PR based on active engagement with the ‘common people’ and royal patronage of charities and organisations, would be proud.

The princess’s activities have for many years ranged far and wide. She accompanied her mother and father on a royal tour of Australia in 1970 and helped to forge a more intimate relationship with the public there by personally greeting the waiting crowds. This experiment became known as the ‘walkabout’ and it has been successfully repeated by Anne (and other members of her family) on many royal tours since.

A year before this, in 1969, the princess was made colonel-in-chief of the King’s Royal Hussars and is, in 2020, the regiment’s longest-serving member. She continues to be involved in more than 60 military organisations and was recently promoted to the ranks of general and air chief marshal by the army and RAF, in celebration of her 70th birthday in August 2020. She is affiliated with 300 charities, including Save the Children.

She first became involved with the organisation as its president back in 1970 and in 1990 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda for her philanthropic work overseas.

Back in the UK, Anne is also chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, playing a symbolic role in linking the union, as is also the case when she is seen supporting the Scottish national team from the side-lines of the rugby pitch.

It is this sense of responsibility that led Elizabeth II to give her daughter the title of ‘Princess Royal’ in 1987 in recognition of her service.

Marriages, the public eye, and an infamous kidnap attempt

It was through sport that Anne would encounter her first love interests. After a brief relationship with horseman Andrew Parker Bowles (who went on to marry Camilla Shand, the now Duchess of Cornwall), she would meet Captain Mark Phillips, a British army officer and another Olympic star. As with all of the big Windsor weddings that were staged in London in the 20th century, their marriage in 1973 was presented by the media as a love story around which the nation gathered in emotional communion. The wedding day on 14 November 1973 at Westminster Abbey was a sumptuous spectacle for the television age, and it would be the first royal marriage ceremony broadcast live in colour.

Four months into the marriage, the couple’s names made headlines again when they were attacked by a would-be kidnapper who had planned to ransom the princess. Anne and her husband had been returning to Buckingham Palace from a charity event on 20 March 1974 when their car was forced to stop on the Mall by gunman Ian Ball, who shot and injured the couple’s protection officer and chauffeur. Ball demanded that Anne get out of the car and leave with him, but she calmly refused, reportedly replying: “Not bloody likely!’”

When he tried to drag her from the vehicle she was pulled back in by her husband. Fortunately for the couple, a former boxer named Ronnie Russell was passing by and intervened, punching Ball to the floor. Ball was subsequently arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, hero of the hour, Russell, was awarded the George Medal by a very grateful Queen Elizabeth II.

“Ball demanded that Anne get out of the car and leave with him, but she calmly refused, reportedly replying: ‘Not bloody likely!’”

Recalling the event as part of a TV interview with Michael Parkinson several years later, the princess played down her role in deterring her armed attacker. In part, her nonchalance can be put down to a terse, no-nonsense manner that she has inherited from her father, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. But it is also part of a cool personality that simply refuses to divulge too much publicly. The princess’s coyness, particularly when it comes to discussing her private life (or airing personal grievances), and her disdain for social media as a publicity channel, distinguish her from a younger generation of royals – most notably Harry and Meghan. Indeed, Anne has recently expressed her concern about the way the younger royals have sought to do things differently.

True to form, the princess is today reluctant to publicly discuss the breakdown of her marriage to Mark Phillips. The couple had two children, Peter (born 1977), and younger sister Zara (born 1981), but the 19-year marriage was dissolved in 1992 and media revelations pointed to mutual infidelity. In this respect, Anne was the first of the queen’s children to divorce and, along with the monarch’s sister Princess Margaret, helped elevate a more realistic, less idealistic, model of family life that was in keeping with the changing social norms and realities of late 20th-century Britain. Indeed, it is the royal family’s domestic discord that members of the public have tended to identify with in recent decades, as much as it is the romance of the weddings and births.

A happy ending?

That is not to say divorce signalled the end of Anne’s fairytale. In navy commander Timothy Lawrence, who she met in 1986 while he was serving as equerry [officer of the British household] to her mother, the princess found a second husband whose discretion and devotion to duty matched her own such qualities. Today, the couple live together at Gatcombe Park – an 18th-century country house on a 730-acre estate in Gloucestershire. According to a recent television documentary, this is Anne’s ‘haven’ away from public life where she likes to tend to her chickens and lambs on the farm and play with her granddaughters.

These personal pleasures are something the princess prefers to keep carefully hidden. Indeed, the aforementioned documentary instead emphatically highlighted her image as a royal workhorse who is ready to take on more duties. In the wake of ‘Megxit’, Anne has notably stood in for Harry as the ceremonial head of the Royal Marines.

Today, alongside her brother, the Prince of Wales, Anne is among the most active members of the royal family, undertaking more than 500 public engagements each year and regularly standing in for her mother at investitures and state events. Her example is regularly invoked by monarchists to fend off challenges that the Windsor family are poor value for money. And it is for this reason that, despite recently turning 70, Anne, like her mother before her, shows little sign of slowing down.

Featured image credit: Princess Anne meets NZ High Commissioner. Archives New Zealand. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The monarchy and the next Great Depression

As first published by History Matters in June 2020.

King George V began the tradition of royal Christmas broadcasts in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression

It has been an oft-quoted refrain since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Europe: along with much of the rest of the world, Britain and the continent face a looming recession on a scale that hasn’t been witnessed since the 1930s. The first half of this inauspicious decade saw a collapse in overseas investment and profits, a rapid rise in unemployment, and yawning financial uncertainty for ordinary people.

Across the globe, the Great Depression also threw up challenges to democracies and some didn’t survive. The spectre of far-right nationalism, feeding on the misery of the masses, rose once again to undermine the spirit of international cooperation and optimism that had come to define the 1920s.

Britain’s political system, though, while certainly tested by the economic downturn, remained remarkably resilient to the kinds of forces that swept away Taisho Japan, Weimar Germany, and the Second Spanish Republic. British democracy – if it can be labelled as such – had been longer in the making and its political institutions were more robust than those in the aforementioned countries. But one organization often ignored by historians and political scientists which played a key role in helping to maintain at least the appearance of order and stability in these difficult years was the House of Windsor.

What exactly did the crown do and what might the current monarchy learn from the lessons of the 1930s in adjusting to a period that may one day be referred to as the Second Great Depression?

Beginning in the years immediately before the first world war, King George V and his courtiers carefully enlarged the sphere of royal altruism so that it touched more working-class people’s lives than ever before. This formed part of a conscious effort to promote social cohesion in a period marked by a surge in class conflict.

Royal philanthropy grew in importance on the home and western fronts between 1914 and 1918 and, in the wake of the economic slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Windsors increased their efforts to help those subjects who they deemed most in need of attention. For example, the royals set up relief funds for unemployed men and their families who had, often overnight, lost breadwinner wage packets.

Historian Frank Prochaska sees the 1930s as key to the emergence of what he terms a ‘welfare monarchy’. Since 1917, courtiers had worried about the allure of communism among what they perceived as a politically restless and unreliable proletariat. Driven by renewed fears of revolution in the early 1930s, the Windsors used philanthropy to cultivate closer ties with working-class communities in the hope that it would reduce feelings of disaffection and thus help to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, it will take a more concerted effort from the UK’s central government to deal with the crisis that lies ahead that will likely leave little room for philanthropic endeavour. It is also imperative that the royals avoid entangling themselves with contentious policies that might otherwise undermine the monarchy’s claims to political impartiality.

One such area no longer deemed to be taboo or politically contentious (which the monarchy has thus leapt on) is Britain’s mental health. The 2008 economic crisis led to a programme of austerity which saw government reduce real-terms spending on mental health services, and into this gap popped Princes William and Harry.1

We can be sure that palace courtiers are already searching for similar gaps in the current government’s Covid-19 recovery programme that younger members of the royal family can look to fill through new kinds of public service, thus ensuring their own meaningful survival – as was the case in the 1930s.

It was the Great Depression that also led the king to deliver the first ever Christmas broadcast to his peoples in Britain and across the empire in 1932. Again, the aim was to offer words of reassurance and comfort at a time of great difficulty. And it seems that he largely succeeded: the concern George V communicated for his people in his radio messages strengthened the emotional bonds that connected many of them to him and this, in turn, ensured their loyalty to the throne upon which he sat, and to the royal democracy over which he presided.

Since the coronavirus arrived on these shores, we’ve already had two such messages from Elizabeth II, where she has sought to offer encouragement to her people and bring the British nation – however fleetingly – together as one.

As we move into what seems to be an increasingly uncertain future, we will hear much more from the Windsors as they attempt to invoke a spirit of national unity and togetherness. But at the same time the royals must ensure that such sentiments do not err on the banal through repetition and that messages imploring solidarity do not ignore the inequalities that separate the lives of the privileged from the lives of the ordinary people who will be the ones to suffer most because of joblessness, cuts in public spending, and tax increases.

Finally, the downturn of the 1930s saw George V and his kin take on more direct roles in trying to stabilize Britain’s economic and political systems. Younger royals carved out roles as trade emissaries promoting new economic relationships with South American countries while also acting as advocates for an older system of imperial preference.

There have recently been calls for the return of a royal yacht that could transport the Windsor family across the world so that they can help ‘Global Britain’ forge new trading relationships. Given the cost to the taxpayer, these suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears, but that is not to say that the royals cannot work to try to improve the nation’s economic prospects by greasing the wheels of international diplomacy. We can expect many more visits of foreign dignitaries to Buckingham Palace and trips by a royal contingent led by Prince Charles to regions of the world deemed strategically important to the UK’s trading future.

Perhaps the most significant step taken by George V during the Great Depression was when he controversially oversaw the creation of a National Government in 1931 in order to restore confidence in Britain’s shaky finances. He succeeded, but this event split the Labour Party and destroyed its electoral chances.

It seems unlikely in the twenty-first century that a monarch would risk involving themselves in an episode as politically explosive as this, or whether they would even be able to given the reduction in the royal prerogative powers. But the last couple of years have taught us that we should never say never when it comes to British politics.

The UK’s uncodified constitution enables flexibility when it comes to the precise role played by the crown in affairs of state. If the monarch and their advisors were to arrive at the view that the government in power was no longer representing the interests of the public it was elected to serve, then it is possible to imagine that the palace could apply pressure on the leader of such an administration to step aside so that someone else might do a better job.

For now, we wait apprehensively to see how painful the coming recession will be, along with how many people’s livelihoods are destroyed as businesses close and the inevitable job losses follow. The monarchy has always had to search out new roles in order to justify its position in British society. While the next Great Depression will bring with it many challenges, it will also create opportunities for the House of Windsor to reinvent itself again as we move into a post-pandemic world.


1Not only did the princes speak more openly about their mental wellbeing, they also set up new initiatives and promoted the work of existing charities to help people in need. The strategy was twofold: keep the monarchy relevant to people’s current concerns; and plug a hole left by government. Britain’s mental health will worsen as the nation finds itself beset by another financial crisis. It remains to be seen whether the current government takes a more urgent interest in this area thus potentially rendering royal patronage obsolete, or whether it continues in the tradition of the post-2010 administrations that left the UK’s mental health crisis to be dealt with by a patchwork of underfunded charities and royal-led organizations.

Featured image credit: King George V, 1934. PD via Wikimedia Commons

The monarchy, mythmaking and VE Day

As first published by On History in May 2020.

On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Ed Owens — author of The Family Firm. Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53 — reflects on the royal family’s careful cultivation of a media image in wartime, culminating with the events of 8 May 1945.

Given the circumstances, it seems a little mean-spirited to myth bust on what should have been a day of national commemoration and jubilation. The arrival of Covid-19 has seen the 75th anniversary of VE Day take on a much more subdued form. And, while sections of the British media have done their best to cajole the public into acts of tribute and celebration, one can’t help but feel that the current mood does not lend itself to outpourings of positive emotion in memory of the Second World War.

One of the centrepiece moments that’s still going ahead is the queen’s broadcast this evening. While Elizabeth II is certain to offer welcome words of comfort and reassurance, it is likely these will be interwoven with more mythical sentiments about the indomitable spirit of the British in times of crisis.

Every historian of the Second World War knows that the ‘Blitz spirit’ was a convenient invention of the time used to inspire unity and fortitude amid extremely difficult conditions. And yet, unhelpfully, myths like this one continue to be spun by those in positions of power. The problem is that fantasy has been substituted for historical reality, which has in turn led to distortion and, at times, delusion in our understanding of the nation’s recent past.

We should not be entirely surprised that myths dominate the historical agenda, particularly where the monarchy is involved. Buckingham Palace spent the whole of the Second World War trying to draw positive attention to George VI and the royal family at a time when most people had much more pressing concerns affecting their everyday lives.

Image credit: ‘Nation’s VE Outburst of Joy’ , Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1945. © The British Library Board

When invited by the British media to think about VE Day on 8 May 1945, our attention is invariably directed back to the London-based celebrations and a royal balcony appearance where the premier, Winston Churchill, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the king in front of massed crowds in a demonstration of national unity around the focal point of the head of state and his first minister.

This mythic interaction disguised a more complex reality. Throughout the war, the king had fretted about how Churchill outshone him as the nation’s leader – that he had ‘stolen all the thunder’, to use the term invoked at the time. This dispute came to a head in the lead up to the D-Day landings in June 1944, when the two men fell out because both wanted to watch the operation unfold from a battlecruiser anchored off the French coast.

In the event, common sense prevailed and premier and monarch agreed that neither of them should be in attendance given the risks involved. However, both men’s egos were sorely bruised by their angry exchange.

This interaction pointed to a deeper insecurity on the part of the king which stemmed from the fact that he was a poor public speaker and lacked the kind of charisma possessed by his father and brother when they had been on the throne. Far from the triumphant (if faltering) monologue delivered by actor Colin Firth in the mythic The King’s Speech, George VI’s first broadcast of the war evoked public feelings of sympathy for the king along with concerns that he was too weak to lead the nation in its time of crisis.

Indeed, anxieties about George VI’s lacklustre performance at the microphone meant that other members of his family were forced to adopt more conspicuous public roles in order to ensure that the monarchy remained as relevant as possible. This was why both his consort, Queen Elizabeth, and their eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, took to the airwaves to offer words of encouragement and to repeatedly stress that the nation was united in hardship.

As part of the palace’s PR message, the royals – often disingenuously – emphasized that they shared in the burdens of war. The message of ‘equality of sacrifice’ was designed to offset public criticism of royal privilege, which emerged in the first years of the war. For example, the media coverage of the bombing of Buckingham Palace in September 1940 was expertly staged to make the point that the royals and their people were ‘in the front line together’.

It was the royal response to the Blitz that probably did more to stem the flow of public criticism than any other episode during the war. The royal family struggled to carve out a new role for themselves in the first year of the conflict, and the tours of bombed-out urban areas at last provided them with an opportunity to actually do something. The interactions with the public that followed were carefully orchestrated for select groups of journalists and cameramen so that the royals could express concern and care for those people blitzed out of their homes for all the world to see.

The PR emphasis on intimacy, accessibility, and equality of sacrifice would continue to shape the royal media strategy through to the end of the war. It was in this vein that the present monarch was photographed in uniform after she joined the ATS in February 1945 to show the public that she was playing her part in the fight against fascism.

And, yet, there remained an undercurrent of popular criticism of royalty among sections of the British public who questioned the sincerity and reality of the ‘we’re all in it together’ line, with some opining that they’d like to see the nation’s constitutional monarchy replaced with a presidential system, deeming it more meritocratic.

While myths make for more comfortable reading than historical reality, they can cloud our understanding of the past meaning we take for granted the popularity of institutions like the monarchy. The royals worked hard to maintain a positive presence in British society during the war and, notably, the challenges they faced in maintaining their relevance actually led to a professionalization of the royal public relations’ strategy. 

It is with these facts in mind, that we are better placed to make sense of the queen’s broadcast this evening, which comes at a time when the crown must once again recalibrate its role in order to adapt to extremely difficult circumstances beyond its control.

Featured image credit: VE Day, London, 8 May 1945. PD via Wikimedia Commons

The family firm falters part 3

As first published by Talking Humanities in April 2020.

The coronavirus presents the British monarchy with a set of unique short-term and long-term challenges. In this third and final article, written in connection with the release of The Family Firm, Dr Ed Owens reflects on the royal response to the Covid-19 crisis and the consequences of the pandemic for the crown as we look to the future. 

Lesson 3: Keep calm and carry on?

First came the surreal Prince Andrew interview last November which acted as a timely reminder that wayward hangers on to the House of Windsor are more trouble than they’re worth. Foolishly flouting the age-old rule that royals should not deign to publicly address rumours regarding their private lives, the Duke of York found he was no match for BBC interviewer Emily Maitlis who, with forensic precision, exposed the prince’s shortcomings, including his extremely poor judgement of character.

Then came Megxit which was, and continues to be, a public relations disaster. One of the royal family’s greatest assets resigned from ‘the firm’, upping sticks and moving to America so that he and his wife could pursue their own aims unfettered by the constraints of court protocol. Feted only two years ago for the way they seemed to breathe new life into an ageing institution, Harry and Meghan’s outspoken response to subsequent negative press coverage has seen them become embroiled in a poisonous court battle with the tabloids which, with every new headline, threatens to cheapen ‘brand Windsor’. Again, perhaps there is a lesson here in knowing when and when not to open one’s mouth.

And now the remaining royals find themselves unable to carry out their day jobs properly because of a global pandemic which requires that they, along with the rest of Britain, cut off human contact and stay indoors in order to stop the spread of infection. Confinement and self-isolation pose a direct challenge to the way the monarchy goes about its daily business. Over 150 years, the crown has perfected a role for itself in British society which requires its royal representatives to be both active and accessible in the outside world. The problem the crown now faces is that the four principles that have guided its evolution as a public-facing institution are now threatened by Covid-19.

These four principles are as follows. First of all, the royals have undertaken a continuous programme of public appearances in order to articulate their sense of duty, patronage, and service. Secondly, the success of the Windsors’ survival strategy can be located in the way that Buckingham Palace has, in tandem with a compliant mass media, staged royal-centred moments of national celebration, commemoration, or reflection (weddings, coronations, jubilees, funerals, and special broadcast messages) in order to remind the public of the crown’s centrality to national life. Thirdly, the royals have shrewdly cultivated the emotions of the British people by presenting themselves as just another ‘ordinary’ family. And, by disengaging from the political decision-making process, the palace has ensured that the sovereign cannot be blamed for the failings of his or her politicians, thus to all intents and purposes making Britain’s constitutional monarch the impartial arbiter of the nation’s royal democracy.

The coronavirus has already undermined some of these principles and will continue to chip away at the foundations on which the monarchy’s modern role has been built. Why is this and what are the likely consequences of this international crisis for the crown?

At the moment, it is impossible for the royal family to follow the crown’s first guiding principle which, before the pandemic, saw them attending specially-organised public events on an almost daily basis to help promote the civic and philanthropic causes they support. Once restrictions on movement are lifted, we may see the younger members of the House of Windsor, or those who have built up some immunity as a result of exposure to the virus, like Prince Charles, return to work – that is, return to engagements in the outside world. These might be hospital visits, appearances at events to promote the work of a hard-hit charity sector, or carefully staged encounters with the bereaved. But these engagements are likely to be conducted at a safe distance and without the usual warm human contact in order to avoid potential transmission of the virus. Likewise, these engagements will not involve the most senior member of the royal family, Elizabeth II, who belongs to the most vulnerable age group in the British population.

Until a vaccine is developed and made widely available, we are unlikely to see a return to public life of that other royal stalwart of duty, Princess Anne, who has done much to justify the monarchy’s existence in terms of its service. It was during her great, great grandfather’s reign that royal public appearances took on their modern significance. George V realised that, given how so many of his subjects sacrificed so much during the first world war, it was imperative for the Windsors to be seen outwardly placing public service ahead of all else. This idea was lost on his heir and successor, Edward VIII, who chose love instead of duty, but it would necessarily underpin the subsequent reigns of George VI and the current queen.

For now, the royals have been reduced to ‘digital’ public engagements. Like many others, their work has gravitated online. For example, we can now see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recording video messages for social media and taking part in online interviews. These interactions have at times taken on an informal tone, with the duke honouring the recent fundraising achievement of 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore by describing the war veteran as an ‘absolute legend’. In a similar vein, since the lockdown began, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have posted online messages to voice their support for a wide range of causes and initiatives, from the Nightingale hospitals to Earth Day.

The question is: how long is this web-based interaction sustainable as the royals’ primary mode of engagement with the public? Social media posts only reach certain sections of the population and are significant mainly for their insignificant, ephemeral quality.

The continuation of the policy of social distancing beyond the initial confinement stage will also prevent the monarchy from enacting the second guiding principle which has, until now, underpinned its modern role. When we think of the royal family, our minds might turn to images of massed crowds cheering along the Mall and at the gates of Buckingham Palace. But we’re unlikely to see anything like this in 2020 and possibly for much longer. National royal ceremonies and public spectacles are impossible to stage in the age of Covid-19.

How, for example, if it came to it, would the coronation of a new king be conducted under present conditions? All of the pageantry, ritual, and show that courtiers have perfected over more than a century would have to be sidelined in favour of a much smaller, intimate affair which would in all likelihood fail to capture the majesty of monarchy.

The one type of royal-centred event that might continue to work to capture the attention of the population could be the well-timed royal broadcast. We saw on 5 April how the queen sought to sum up the national mood and offer a glimmer of hope in her message to the public which took as its theme how ‘we will meet again’.

I found the allusion to the famous Vera Lynn song cloying in the way it pandered to a national obsession with the second world war. However, I admit to feeling moved by the monarch’s message of reunion, particularly given how my wife and I are currently separated from family and friends back in the UK by the English Channel. Incidentally, my wife, who grew up in a republic, was less impressed, and suggested that the message smacked of PR artifice – which was in fact one of the main public criticisms recorded in response to the broadcast delivered by a 14-year-old Elizabeth in October 1940, just after the start of the Blitz. Naturally, this inconvenient detail of history was not discussed by the monarch when she alluded to her first ever radio message of almost 80 years ago.

Courtiers are busily preparing for next week’s VE Day anniversary – a bank holiday this year that was originally going to be staged to emphasise public unity around the symbolic focal point of the crown. However, gone are the large public gatherings, the jubilation, and what would have likely been a special balcony appearance. We have just learnt that the queen will address her people again on the evening of 8 May as her father did 75 years ago. The palace will know, however, that the experiment of a special broadcast message must not be repeated too many times for fear that the royal words of reassurance lose their meaning. Courtiers may yet have to bat off approaches from politicians or civil servants eager to see the monarch or members of her family vocally intervene once more in order to lend support to Britain’s response to the current crisis, as was indeed the case during the second world war.

In connection with the third guiding principle – the public image of the family monarchy – Kensington Palace’s Twitter account celebrated the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s youngest son’s second birthday by publishing his recent hand paintings, which used the same rainbow colours as other British children have been using to spread hope at this difficult time. In a similar vein, William, Kate and their children are among a number of royals to have stood outside their homes and, along with other families across the UK, clapped for the nation’s carers on a Thursday evening.

And yet these scenes of a Britain united from top to bottom in applause for the efforts of the NHS and care sector disguise another uncomfortable truth. While most UK families are restricted to small urban homes or flats, many of which are without gardens or outdoor space, the royals continue to live in commodious dwellings with every luxury still available to them. And herein lies a serious problem for the Windsors. As the new economic realities of the pandemic really start to bite, and we find ourselves much the poorer, if not without jobs altogether, royal privilege will likely go undiminished and the carefully constructed myth that the Windsors are just an ordinary family will rapidly start to fray at the edges.

Inequalities are likely to grow much wider before they are seriously addressed. We see these disparities already emerging with the schoolchildren who do and do not have access to the technological resources at home to stay engaged with their educations.

One of the reasons that explains the British public’s broad acceptance of monarchy under Elizabeth II is that her reign has been characterised by far-reaching social and economic advances for many. Barring the outbursts of discontent during the 1970s and 1980s, there hasn’t been any serious growth in political opposition to the status quo precisely because a majority of people’s lives seemed to be on an upward curve of improvement, that was until 2007–08 when this narrative first became unstuck.

Now the economic train of ‘progress’ has been derailed for a second time in 13 years and I anticipate a growth in public scrutiny and criticism of royal privilege, just as I anticipate a growth in scrutiny and criticism of other pockets of extreme wealth in society.

The Second World War was the last time the British experienced widespread hardship and then there was a recorded rise in public disapproval of the royals’ wealth and special status. Since 1945, sociologists and historians have suggested that the public have rationalised the inequalities that have continued to separate their existence from that of the Windsors along the lines that to be royal is to have a ‘rotten job’ because of its highly exposed nature and the ostensible life of ceaseless public activity. According to this logic, despite the many material advantages afforded royalty, everyday anonymity is preferable to what they have to put up with.

Since the 1930s, Buckingham Palace has doggedly promoted the idea that to be royal is to be inescapably burdened; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the notion that royal life is difficult has worn off on the public. However, given that some of the royal family will be temporarily ‘laid off’ and prevented from doing their day jobs because of the risks of leaving their castles and palaces, I’m not sure whether the old line of it’s a ‘rotten job’ will have much purchase on hearts and minds beyond 2020. And this is because the so-called burdens of being a 21st-century Windsor simply cannot compare to the financial suffering that lies ahead of millions (and perhaps even a majority) of Britons.

Finally, over the last two decades the royals have, with one or two exceptions, done quite a good job of keeping their distance from the political decision-making process. This is the essence of constitutional monarchy and it has witnessed the Windsors instead associate themselves with issues that have been deemed sufficiently apolitical (ie non-controversial like the rehabilitation or injured veterans, or the conservation of the environment), or that past governments have consistently failed to address, thus creating the opportunity for royalty to draw the issues into their philanthropic orbit. This has been the case with mental health and, more recently, with domestic violence.

The problem that courtiers now have to grapple with is that the UK’s response to Covid-19 has necessarily stretched the state’s economic reach and tested its use of resources in new ways. After the pandemic abates, it may be that problems like mental health and domestic violence (both of which have reportedly worsened under lockdown) become more sensitive as political topics and that the government is required to address them more directly in order to respond to public pressure. At this point it might become unconstitutional for the royals to continue to promote these issues, given that this could be construed as political advocacy. My guess is that the public will also be more accepting of state-led intervention in these areas and that this could, in turn, lead to a further diminishing of the patchwork of charities that currently seek to right these wrongs, along with a diminishing of the royal patronage that sponsors their activities.

To take another example: in trying to restore Britain’s economic wellbeing, should growth be pursued at any cost even if it means undoing some of the positive environmental work the UK has been moving towards? Royal advocacy of environmentalism could ultimately bring the monarchy into direct conflict with policies pursued by a government which failed to put a premium on a sustainable recovery.

These then are some of the short-term and long-term challenges that the monarchy and its allies face because of the current crisis. At the moment, the royals, like the public, are playing a waiting game to see what shape ‘de-confinement’ takes. There are, however, two things that are certain and which will likely shape how the House of Windsor adjusts to the future. First of all, it is increasingly evident that there will be no quick return to the ‘old’ normal. Rather, we must prepare for a ‘new’ normal, and the process of getting there will be slow and protracted. Thus, the royal family must not expect a return to the way things were. And secondly, the palace cannot rest on its laurels if it is to ride out the current storm.

As this article hopes to have demonstrated, the guiding principles that have determined the monarchy’s successful evolution up until 2020 are either currently lying redundant or under unprecedented strain brought about by Covid-19. History teaches us that the monarchy’s resilience at moments of crisis has been determined by how effectively it has adapted to change. Now is such a time, yet it remains to be seen whether the royal family are prepared to move into the post-pandemic world, or whether they simply try to carry on as before.

Featured image credit: Elizabeth II, 2012. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons