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

The family firm falters part 2

As first published by Talking Humanities in February 2020.

As the royal commentariat pore over the minutiae of the statement released by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex concerning their transatlantic future, the bigger question now is how does the House of Windsor move on from the Harry-Meghan episode and set a new course of travel in anticipation of the succession of King Charles III? In this, the second of three articles by Dr Ed Owens, author of The Family Firm, we explore what the monarchy might learn from the last century in order to best prepare for the future.

Lesson two: make way for the Windsor women

I ended my last piece contemplating whether the Sussexes’ new roles will complement the vision of monarchy that is currently taking shape around Prince Charles and Prince William in anticipation of the death of Elizabeth II. We got a taste of this vision at the start of the year when Buckingham Palace released a photo of the queen stood alongside the Prince of Wales, his eldest son, and his eldest son as part of a ‘four generations’ family portrait (for which there are precedents dating back to the 1890s). This came on the back of more playful scenes where Elizabeth II watched on as all three heirs mixed Christmas puddings in support of a new British Legion initiative.

These photographic events were significant. They pointed firmly to the kingly future of the House of Windsor and provided the six-year-old Prince George with a taste of the life of public service that lies ahead of him. The emphasis on the male-centred line of succession was also communicated to viewers of the queen’s annual Christmas broadcast. All three future kings could be seen in the photos that perched next to the monarch as she read out her message; ‘secondary’ members of her family (including her other children and the Sussexes) did not feature.

The slimming down of the monarchy to the principle cast of royals who will be responsible for overseeing the crown’s continuation is part of an ongoing process to mitigate criticism over how much royal ‘hangers-on’ cost the taxpayer. Put simply, the British have baulked at the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by many members of the extended royal family. And, given the ability of minor royals to attract public scandal through shady friendships or pricey holidays, it makes sense for the core group to be seen outwardly cutting ties.

However, it seems the royals in charge of the ‘trimming’ neither wished for nor anticipated Harry and Meghan’s sudden exit. The Prince of Wales, in particular, will be at a loss now that his second son has moved to North America. Downsizing, whether deliberately or not, clearly has its disadvantages too. Until now, the heir to the throne had been able to rely on the Duke of Sussex as a trusted ‘lieutenant’ and a steadfast ambassador of the family firm.

Every royal generation has its deputies, be they dutiful Annes or mischievous Margarets. These individuals are meant to loyally support the dynasty by doing good public work and by upholding the family-centred narrative that became key to the crown’s image during the reign of George V. However, they have often struggled to settle into roles that necessarily require them to play second fiddle to older siblings who will one day become king or queen. Although motivated by various personal reasons, Harry’s withdrawal from frontline service also follows in this tradition.

Since the early 2000s, Charles has carefully remoulded his public persona to emphasise his personal qualities as a loving father to two dutiful sons and, more recently, as a grandfather to a growing brood of child princes and princesses. His reputation has been enhanced by William and Harry’s popularity and they have, in turn, helped to rescue their father’s image after it was tarnished by the public breakdown of his marriage to Princess Diana in the early 1990s and her death in 1997. The admiration the princes displayed for their father at the time of his 70th birthday, along with the emphasis that both placed on his industrious nature, suggested that the three men were ready to face the future together.

Harry’s departure, along with the rift that now separates him from his brother, signalled the end of this phase of royal public relations. The immediate difficulty the Prince of Wales faces is that the House of Windsor might not have very long to adapt to the changed circumstances.

Elizabeth II will celebrate her 94th birthday on 21 April. Over the last decade, she and her team of advisors have put in place various constitutional and symbolic measures in order to help ensure a certain degree of continuity at the moment her reign comes to an end and that of her son, presumably as Charles III, begins. For example, the queen has made a point of appearing alongside her heir at official occasions.

And yet, the succession will inevitably bring with it challenges.

For an institution that places its own survival ahead of all else, the success of this moment will be absolutely crucial. The most striking difference will be the shift from a female-centred, family monarchy to one that rests on the shoulders of a man who, in his late middle age, will likely want to build a legacy that focuses on his life-long crusade as an environmentalist. However, any form of political activism, even on the now uncontentious issue of the climate emergency, still has the potential to upset the fragile balance of power that separates the constitutional monarchy from government decision-making.

The success of the monarchy in riding out the storms of the 20th century can partly be attributed to the way it successfully detached itself from the macho world of high politics. In becoming the non-partisan symbol of Britain’s royal democracy, the crown underwent what historians have termed a ‘feminisation’. Not only were many of the major figures at the centre of the Windsor family from the 1920s onwards influential women (eg Queen Mary,  Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and of course the current monarch), but the values that came to redefine royalty were those traditionally regarded as feminine in character.

Care for the poor and the suffering became a fundamental tenet of the royal family’s remit with the First World War and then with the enfranchisement of working-class people in 1918. Likewise, as a new celebrity culture emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, so the royal family put their personal lives on public view – for example, through elaborately staged weddings – in order to engender the emotional attachment of new media audiences. The emphasis on the House of Windsor’s idyllic domesticity was also intended to set a good example to the rest of the population, which was one of the reasons why Edward VIII’s choice of a divorcée as his future queen was so problematic.

After the strong-willed Edward abdicated in 1936, he was replaced by his brother, George VI. To quote historian David Cannadine, he was ‘the ideal man to take on the emasculated job of being a constitutional monarch’, precisely because he lacked the dynamism and political voice of his predecessor. Supported by an unwavering wife, a formidable mother, and two daughters – both of whom he adored – George would become the ‘ultimate castrated male’, obediently leading a royal family in which ‘kings reigned, but matriarchy ruled’.

On acceding to the throne in 1952, Elizabeth II became the inheritor and main proponent of the values that had defined her father’s reign. And, to this day, domesticity and duty remain her watchwords. A strong female presence has thus guided the British monarchy’s evolution for more than one hundred years and is at least partly responsible for its remarkable success as a self-perpetuating elite institution.

In order to continue in the vein of his mother when he eventually succeeds her, the Prince of Wales might look to elevate the roles played by the royal women closest to him – notably his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and daughter-in-law, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. Indeed, we may have already caught a glimpse of what the enhanced roles of both women might look like.

In recent weeks, Camilla has very publicly reaffirmed her support for victims of domestic abuse, addressing a social problem that had until recently been largely ignored by the British government. Meanwhile, Kate has been promoting the ‘5 Big Questions’ initiative – a UK-wide survey which aims to collate information on how best to care for children under the age of five in order to improve their life chances. This is a smart, democratic exercise, which continues a royal tradition of speaking out on the importance of good parenting while carefully avoiding preaching about the rights and wrongs of family life. Instead, it provides members of the public with the opportunity to put their views across.

With the Sussexes gone, the future queen consorts who will one day be crowned alongside their husbands seem well positioned to take on even greater roles as part of the family firm. It remains to be seen how their public images will develop, but courtiers would do well to heed the examples of the past to ensure that, for every bit of positive coverage showered on the next three kings in the line of succession, an equal amount of attention is devoted to the women. This is especially important given how the crown has historically prospered under the influence of strong Windsor women.

Featured image credit: Prince Charles and Camilla at Waitangi. Office of the Governor General. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The family firm falters part 1

As first published by Talking Humanities in February 2020.

History is not repeating itself. Harry and Meghan are not Edward and Wallis. Prince Andrew’s transgressions are unlike those committed by other members of the royal family in the recent past. The slimmed down monarchy of 2020 looks different to the monarchy of 2010, let alone 1920. And yet the 20th century does contain three lessons that the House of Windsor would do well to heed if the crown is to regain its composure after the turbulence caused by recent events. 

In this, the first of three articles by Dr Ed Owens, author of The Family Firm, we explore what the monarchy might learn from the last century in order to best prepare for the future.

Lesson one: be careful what you wish for

The last time I wrote about Prince Harry back in October 2019 he had just released an extraordinary public statement criticising the UK’s tabloids for what he described as the ‘bullying’ of his wife, Meghan. It was clear that he and the Duchess of Sussex were unhappy with their treatment by British journalists and that they were prepared to go to the courts in order to seek redress for past injustices. The statement came on the back of an emotional interview, filmed at the end of the couple’s tour of South Africa, in which they lamented the difficult nature of royal life in the public eye.

Unfortunately for Harry and Meghan, this intimate intervention was greeted with more bile from sections of the press. Commentators argued they had lost touch with reality: how could the hardships faced by the young royals possibly compare with the everyday suffering of the poverty-stricken South African people they had just visited? This criticism also merged with previous accusations of hypocrisy: how dare a couple who posed as environmental activists then charter private jets in order to carry out their public and private activities?

Whatever PR strategy they adopted, it seemed that Harry and Meghan could not win. Their confrontational approach poured fuel on an already raging fire. And the barrage of negative coverage subsequently aimed at the pair (and Meghan in particular) was certainly to blame for the decision they took at the start of January to give up their royal responsibilities in order to pursue new public roles – as yet undefined – and quieter private lives in North America.

The speed with which Elizabeth II and her advisers resolved the short-lived crisis over Harry and Meghan’s future was impressive. And, despite the positive vision set out by the queen in her statement on the ‘new arrangement’ that had been agreed with the couple, the message that we, the reading public, were left with could not have been clearer: you are either part of the family firm, or you are not. A battle-hardened expert in damage limitation, the monarch oversaw the creation of a blueprint for the future of the Sussexes which will see them lose their HRH titles, their civil list payments, and their connections with many of the charities and philanthropic programmes that they have, up until now, patronised.

It initially seemed that Harry and Meghan wanted to maintain a foothold in the royal camp, enabling them to retain some of the regal perks while plotting a new course that would see them become financially independent in the longer term. However, ever sensitive to public opinion as relayed by broadcasters and the press, Buckingham Palace rejected outright this idea knowing full well it would lead to increased complaints about royal self-indulgence. The Sussexes were breaking the pact that has evolved over the last one hundred years: to enjoy the privileges of royalty, one must commit oneself wholly to one’s duty and public service. You cannot have one without the other.

It was also necessary that Harry and Meghan be deprived of their royal status so that they could not bring the crown into further disrepute by carelessly trading on their titles for financial gain. Historically, the monarchy has been exacting in selecting which causes to endorse and businesses to support with the royal warrant. The Sussexes wanted to begin their own commercial ventures free from the supervision of courtiers back in the UK, but this represented too great a threat to the royal status quo.

The palace’s response might seem harsh, but the events of the 1930s and 1940s (which left a life-long impression on the current monarch) taught us that ‘ex-royals’ are a liability. Put simply, once separated from the family, they have struggled to re-invent themselves in ways that seem respectable.

There have been a lot of comparisons of Harry to King Edward VIII. Both men renounced their ‘duty’ in order to pursue personal happiness; both married strong-minded American women who also happened to be divorcées. However, this particular comparison ends there. The fallout of the abdication crisis of 1936 was much more serious than the impact of ‘Megxit’. It almost brought down the government of the day, and its effects were widely felt by a nation left divided by the impromptu departure of a man who was the most popular figure in the English-speaking world at the time. Indeed, many members of the British public sensed that the country had been irreparably damaged by the experience – a feeling which, for some, was only finally dispelled when the current monarch came to the throne aged 25 on a wave of optimism that heralded the beginning of a ‘new Elizabethan age’.

Other things the two men have in common is the promotion of philanthropic causes that have addressed some of the most pressing issues of the day. For instance, Harry, like his great, great uncle before him, has shown real compassion for war veterans. Edward spent most of the First World War on the Western Front and, deeply affected by what he saw, became the first young royal to take the plight of ex-servicemen seriously, setting up and leading numerous charitable ventures on their behalf.

But the crucial thing connecting Harry to the Duke of Windsor (as the former king was titled) is his ambition to maintain a high profile, despite having agreed to give up his old public position. In a speech delivered at a charity event the day after his and Meghan’s future plans were announced, Harry made it clear that they are ‘not walking away’, but instead intend to carve out dynamic new roles for themselves.

Edward never came to terms with his exclusion from the royal family. His relatives never forgave him for what they saw as his great betrayal and his wife, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, was purposely denied the HRH style usually accorded to spouses of British princes because of her role in the abdication. Indeed, the deliberate side-lining of the duke after 1936 left him incensed and, most disconcertingly for a man of his intelligence and vim, extremely bored.

Having been replaced by his shy and uninspiring younger brother, George VI, it was not long before Edward requested that he be given some official job that would enable him to make a dignified return to public life. And, despite his controversial private visit to Nazi Germany in 1937, he was thrown a lifeline by the new king at the beginning of the Second World War when instructed to undertake inspections of France’s military preparations on behalf of the British government.

However, as was so often the case with the duke, he failed to fulfil his brief. After the Nazis invaded France in May 1940, newspapers soon began publishing stories that claimed he had abandoned his post in favour of a hasty personal retreat to the Iberian Peninsula accompanied by his wife. These reports had a damaging effect on the way the monarchy was viewed by the public in the first year of the conflict. And it was left to George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to pick up the pieces: they arranged for Edward to be removed from public view by dispatching him to the Bahamas where he served as Governor of the islands until 1945.

Having clearly failed to get the message, the ex-king continued to behave in ways that undermined the authority of his brother and further tarnished the crown. As the war neared its end, the king’s private secretary, Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, wrote with exasperation that the Duke was again lobbying for a new role, possibly as some kind of envoy representing Britain in the US. The courtier did everything in his power to prevent the realisation of this idea because of his rigid belief that Edward could not be trusted with any kind of public office.

Lascelles remained a life-long critic of the Duke and had good reason to doubt his character. Having once served in his employ, he knew that Edward was a man of loose morals and looser purse strings. The duke had expensive tastes and, in his exile, struggled to achieve financial stability. After squeezing what he could out of his younger brother, Edward began writing his memoirs in the hope that he could sell them to the highest bidder.

The Duke’s ‘inside story’ on the abdication was serialized by the Sunday Express in 1950. For the first time, readers were provided with intimate details about the fateful events of December 1936. Buckingham Place was terrified by what Edward might reveal and tried – unsuccessfully – to stop the newspaper publishing the memoirs.

Courtiers were right to be worried. The Duke’s exposé revived his extraordinary popularity among the British public and drew attention away from George VI who, in spite of his best efforts and dutiful nature, was remarkable only for his ‘ordinariness’. As the editor of the Express described to the owner of the newspaper, Lord Beaverbrook: ‘if we are not careful we shall be putting the Duke back on the throne.’

The king and Lascelles viewed Edward’s resurgence with suspicion and fear. In response to this challenge, they doubled down in their efforts to publicise an image of dynastic stability through the new royal family line. It was notably in this moment that the royal household commissioned semi-official souvenir magazinesand photographs, which focused the public’s attention on the now queen and her infant child and heir, Prince Charles.

The Duke of Windsor’s conduct in the years before George VI’s premature death in 1952 helps to explain why he was not invited to the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Rejected by the new generation of royals, he lived out the rest of his life mainly in France and continued to use newspaper columns and interviews with the media when it was financially expedient to do so, or when he felt it necessary to vent his anger against his family back in Britain.

So, what can we learn from this episode? The future currently looks uncertain, but history teaches us that the monarchy needs to deal carefully with ex-royals who have gone rogue. Following his exile, the Duke of Windsor was treated unsympathetically, which increased his distress and frustration. Hostility steadily built up on both sides and, when coupled with his shaky financial situation, the logical next step was to go to the tabloids in order to put across his side of the abdication story, knowing that it would earn him a pretty penny in the process.

Harry and Meghan’s wish for private lives free from the constant surveillance of paparazzi or, for the that matter, palace courtiers, will come with difficulties. Already questions are being asked about how they plan to fund themselves in the long term and who will pay for their security costs now that they live in Canada. Sections of the public there have voiced criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he reportedly suggested the Canadian taxpayer might help to pick up the tab for the royal couple’s 24-hour police protection.

Another problem faced by the Sussexes will be pursuing financial independence in a way that does not damage the crown. We can expect the world’s media to pick over their every move as they try to establish their new ‘royal routine’. Any dubious deal or untoward public remark is likely to result in criticism that will not only damage their reputations, but also the royal family’s profile back in the UK. The House of Windsor needs to steer a perilous course where Harry and Meghan are given sufficient freedom to carve out the new dynamic roles they desire, while also making sure that the couple do not engage in any activity that could lead to more serious questions arising about the purpose of royalty in the modern world.

Buckingham Palace and the royal households of Prince Charles and Prince William will thus be anxiously watching on to see if the Sussexes continue their unique freewheeling style – doing and saying what they want, when they want – or whether they opt for more discreet, tactful public roles, presumably as do-gooders. Elizabeth II will hope that Harry and Meghan pursue the latter course given how these roles could run alongside the charitable activities of the royal family. However, even philanthropy could spill into activism on controversial political topics – something which the monarchy has, up until now, generally managed to avoid.

Since their marriage in 2018, the Sussexes have redefined the role of young British royals in the way they have spoken out to address what they perceive as society’s wrongs. It remains to be seen whether their new transatlantic vision for royalty – whatever form it eventually takes – will compete with or complement the one that is currently taking shape around Harry’s father and older brother in anticipation of the succession.

Featured image credit: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visit Titanic Belfast. Northern Ireland Office. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The family firm fights back

As first published by Talking Humanities in October 2019.

Dr Edward Owens, author of ‘The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and British Public, 1932-53’, reflects on the current relationship between the British royal family and the press.

Prince Harry has done something extraordinary. He has loudly and emotionally condemned some of Britain’s leading newspapers for the way the intrusive coverage of their journalists has impacted on his family. But his public statement on the media was only Act One. Now he has begun legal proceedings that will see him take on News Group Newspapers (publisher of The Sun and the defunct News of the World) and Reach (publisher of the Mirror newspapers) in the courts in order to sue them for damages pertaining to historic cases of alleged phone-hacking.

The prince has set himself on a collision course with the press and his no-nonsense approach has surprised royal experts and members of his own family. Historically speaking, the House of Windsor have preferred to play ostrich when their private lives have become the focus of tabloid gossip. The prevailing view has been that it is better to bury one’s head in the sand and say nothing than pass comment on scurrilous news stories, which might in turn lend them a legitimacy and run the risk of further unwanted scrutiny.

However, the Duke of Sussex is cut from a different ermine-lined cloth to that of his relatives. Since his marriage to the actress Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, the prince has proven determined to be the royal who resets the relationship between the Windsors and the press – in favour of greater privacy.

The problem Harry faces is that royal commentators tend to view his attitude to the media as hypocritical. He and the duchess have readily stepped into the limelight in order to boost their profiles as environmentalists and as advocates of gender equality and mental health awareness (to name just a few of their causes). But the couple’s shunning of photographers and reporters when it comes to their family lives has led to claims that their public relations strategy rests on a double standard.

The last one hundred years have taught us that the oxygen of good publicity, whether focused on the public or private activities of the royals, has been essential to the monarchy’s survival as an elite institution in an increasingly democratic age. And, in the past, the Windsors have recognized the value of the trade-off that requires they provide the media with glimpses of what goes on at home in order to sustain the link – based on knowability, relatability and likeability – that connects them as royal personalities to the British people.

It therefore remains to be seen how Harry’s reformulation of this age-old compromise will play out with the public. The prince’s advisors may well argue that royal social media accounts like Instagram and Twitter provide a more direct, human form of engagement with the public. But the reach of these platforms is limited to specific demographics; and, as is often the case with social media, the photos and stories that are uploaded to royal timelines tend to smack of PR artifice as much as they do authenticity.

To some extent, the cry for help that lies at the heart of Harry’s recent public statement follows a tradition of royal pronouncements on how difficult life is as a young royal that dates back to the 1940s. And the way the prince expressed his gratitude to the public for their support echoes the sentiment contained in the speech made by his grandmother, Elizabeth II, when as a 21-year-old princess she dedicated her life to the service of Britain and its empire. However, the difference is that back then the ‘burden’ that came with being a Windsor centred more on the constant programme of duty expected of young royals rather than the intense glare of media speculation.

“We thank you, the public, for your continued support. It is hugely appreciated. Although it may not seem like it, we really need it.”

Duke of Sussex, 1 October 2019.

It may be that the prince’s letter has its intended effect, not only batting off unwanted advances from tabloid journalists but also, and more importantly, engendering public sympathy for him and his wife. Or it may be that the ploy backfires: the newspapers in question could choose to meet Harry’s challenge by publishing another spate of inflammatory reports and readers might reject his attempt to cultivate their affections.

What is clear is that the prince’s unconventional course of action has the potential to further disrupt the relationship between the royal family, the media and the public right at the time when the monarchy is trying to shore up its popularity in anticipation of the succession of King Charles III. As we near the end of Elizabeth II’s long reign, courtiers are working hard behind the scenes to generate positive news coverage around the individual royals who they serve. However, events of the last six months have not made this very easy.

To begin with there were the rumours that a rift had opened up between the Sussexes and Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The conjecture was fuelled by the fact that the brothers and their wives agreed to separate their households. But this gave rise to wild speculation on Twitter and in the tabloid press that there had been a falling out between William and Harry or the sisters-in-law – stories that were subsequently compounded by gossipy reports on the stability of the Cambridges’ marriage.

Since April there has been a concerted effort by royal officials and the royalist media to present William and Catherine as an ordinary, loving couple and as the perfect father and mother – be it at the Chelsea flower show or at the football. Similarly, the arrival of Harry and Meghan’s first child in May witnessed an outpouring of affectionate coverage for the duke and duchess as they embarked on parenthood; and their son, Archie, was the recipient of the media’s adoration during the recent tour of South Africa.

The public images of William and Harry matter – not just because the former will one day likely be king – but because the brothers have played a crucial role in the rehabilitation of their father’s image since Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Despite his personal eccentricities and the controversial second marriage to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales has been able to play the popular role of devoted father and, more recently, grandfather to a growing brood of royal grandchildren. Along with the renewed emphasis on his dutiful nature and desire to help solve the problems of the modern world, the image of the heir to the throne as a loving family man will be key to ensuring his successful transmogrification as monarch.

The family firm came under further strain with the revelations that Charles’s younger brother, Andrew, had close ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Serious questions remain to be answered about the precise nature of their friendship but, at best, it would appear that the queen’s second son is an extremely poor judge of character. And Elizabeth II’s deliberate show of solidarity with Andrew may in time lead to concerns being raised about her own powers of judgement should recent accusations ever be proved true.

The Andrew-Epstein story has exploded at an uncomfortable moment for the queen. Not only has an indiscreet former prime minister suggested that she sought to influence the course of national affairs, thus bringing into question her impartiality; but the current premier, in his bid to secure a deal to ease the UK’s exit from the European Union, has played fast and loose with political convention, most notably with the unlawful prorogation of parliament, which in turn pointed to serious weaknesses in Britain’s unwritten constitution and the ability of an unruly prime minister to mislead his monarch.

There will be calls for greater constitutional transparency after the commotion caused by Brexit has died down. A process of national healing will also need to begin. The 2016 EU referendum brought to light long-standing divisions in Britain’s postwar social fabric which, periodically, television images and photographs of massed crowds at royal weddings and jubilees had helped to conceal. It remains to be seen whether or not the House of Windsor will take a leading role in trying to bring the country back together. For now, the royal family is busy fighting its own battles as they continue to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances of the 21st century.

Modernising royal weddings: a historical perspective

As first published by OUPblog in May 2018.

Harry and Meghan greeting well-wishers in Northern Ireland in the lead up to their 2018 wedding

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding demonstrated on a spectacular scale that there is an enduring interest among sections of the press and public in royal love stories. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, and alongside all the usual reports on street parties, flowers, presents, and the bridal dress, the media coverage focused on the couple’s desire to “democratise” the celebrations by enabling a greater number of ordinary people to share in their wedding day than ever before. But this is not the first time that the younger brother of a future king has chosen to marry a woman whose modernising agenda has worked to transform the monarchy’s public relations strategy. Nor is it the first time that the media have celebrated a royal wedding for momentarily bringing together a British people who are otherwise deeply divided by recent events. We need to instead look back to 1934 and the little-known royal wedding of Prince George (youngest surviving son of King George V) and the famously stylish Princess Marina of Greece as a key moment when royal romance was “reinvented” for mass consumption with the explicit aim of generating British national unity at a time marked by social and political turbulence.

Image credit: The wedding portrait of Princess Marina and Prince George, 1934. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPGx158915

Royal weddings were first staged as mass public events in the years immediately after the First World War. In a period marked by industrial unrest, economic instability, and elite concerns about the appeal of radical socialism to newly-enfranchised working-class voters, the royal household worked in tandem with the British media to stage royal weddings as exercises in nation-building. The media presented these royal weddings as having an all-encompassing effect on the British public leading to the temporary suspension of political divisions and social animosities in favour of a national unity centred on the happy couple.

But modern royal weddings were not simply official public relations exercises designed by courtiers and news editors to bind British subjects of the crown more closely together around the symbolic focal point of a family monarchy. Rather, these marriages carried a broad cultural appeal for media audiences too. There was a public appetite for news about the love stories and glamorous personalities at the heart of these occasions. In the years between the wars, a new culture of romance emerged in Britain, which placed special emphasis on “true love” rooted in emotional fulfilment, like-mindedness, and intimacy. The royal marriages of the interwar period were celebrated as “true love” matches and, in 1934, Prince George and Princess Marina became the first British royal couple to speak candidly to news reporters about their emotions and excitement following their engagement. A few weeks later, they would also become the first royal couple to be pictured kissing by the tabloids and newsreels.

Image credit: Princess Marina pictured in the special royal wedding edition of fashion magazine Vogue, 28 November 1934.  © The British Library Board 

While the prince and princess certainly played up the romance of their relationship for the sake of photographers and interviewers, the media took on a key role in making royal love stories more accessible to the public. Journalists relentlessly pursued members of the House of Windsor, hunting for “human-interest” stories that might cast some light on the “real” people behind the royal public images. In many ways, royalty became Britain’s answer to Hollywood celebrity after 1918 and, in Marina, the press finally met their match. As a royal exile who had had to flee her Greek homeland following the political revolutions of the early 1920s, she became an extremely adept self-publicist who was able to attract positive media attention despite her inauspicious status. With her assured Parisian fashion sense and good looks, she cast herself as a new kind of royal woman—a change welcomed by Prince George who viewed his fiancée as a breath of fresh air and wrote to Marina’s brother-in-law, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, telling him so:

Everyone is so delighted with her—the crowd especially—’cos when she arrived at Victoria Station they expected a dowdy princess—such as unfortunately my family are—but when they saw this lovely chic creature—they could hardly believe it and even the men were interested and shouted ‘Don’t change—don’t let them change you!

Marina’s modernising agenda didn’t stop there. She became the first member of the British royal family to engage with crowds by waving to them. Right at the time that the European dictators were using new gestural salutes to foster the loyalty of their respective peoples, so Marina’s wave worked to endear her to members of the public who felt that they shared a close emotional bond with her. George and Marina also sat for England’s leading society photographer, Dorothy Wilding, who pictured them looking just like the modern film stars of the day. George gave permission for the photos to be sold as souvenir postcards—again signalling a break with royal tradition, which, until 1934, had ensured that intimate romantic images like these were kept hidden from public view.

Image credit: Princess Marina and her famous wave on the front-page of the Daily Sketch, 17 September 1934. © The British Library Board

But perhaps the most significant innovation of all was the way the prince allowed the BBC to broadcast his wedding ceremony live to the nation and empire from Westminster Abbey. In our multimedia age, it is difficult to appreciate the imaginative power of radio, but those people who listened in to the 1934 royal wedding ceremony described in letters written to organisers of the event how they felt as though they had been transported to the Abbey. The transmission of the words spoken by the couple as part of the service, and the music and sounds of the crowds that gathered in central London along the procession route, created an intensely immersive experience. And yet, at the same time, the letter writers described how they had felt connected to the millions of other listeners who had tuned in for the event—the BBC’s royal wedding broadcast inspiring in them a sense of a shared national community centred on George and Marina’s love story.

Image credit: The first royal wedding ceremony broadcast live to Britain and the world. Daily Mirror, 30 November 1934. © The British Library Board

The royal marriages of the interwar period projected the British royal family as the symbolic focal point of mass society. The religious principles that underpinned royal domesticity were publicly championed through the marriages of George V’s children, although this virtuous model created problems for his eldest son and successor, Edward VIII, who, in searching for his own true love match chose to pursue romance with a divorcée outside the confines of Christian marriage, resulting in his abdication. Nevertheless, the stage was set for a century of royal weddings that would continue to bring members of the public into closer emotional communion with their royal rulers, providing temporary respite from the social, cultural, and political divisions that have periodically divided the British public through celebrations of that peculiarly modern emotion—romantic love.

Featured image credit: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visit Belfast by Northern Ireland Office. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Buckingham Palace’s balcony: a focal point for national celebration

As first published by History Extra in June 2016.

From George V’s appearance on the eve of the First World War to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s post-wedding kiss in 2011, the Buckingham Palace balcony has been the setting of many iconic moments in history. Here, ahead of Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday celebrations, Ed Owens explores the history of the famous balcony

On the weekend of 10–12 June, members of the British public, the media and the royal family will partake in a series of spectacular events to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. The grandest celebrations will be enacted in the ceremonial spaces in the heart of central London. For more than 150 years these places have functioned as the sites where crown and people have come together to dramatise a vision of British national life resplendent and historic in character. The official programme for this year’s celebrations includes a special service of thanksgiving in honour of the queen at St Paul’s Cathedral, the annual trooping the colour on Horse Guards Parade, and a street party for 10,000 guests on the Mall – the ceremonial road linking Buckingham Palace to that other arena of Britishness, Trafalgar Square.

Those unable to line London’s streets will be able to join in the fanfare and festivities from their living rooms as the weekend’s events play out on television. One of the climactic scenes orchestrated as part of the schedule will be the queen’s balcony appearance – that theatrical set-piece where the monarch and the masses appear to greet one another – that has been inscribed on the nation’s imagination through the power of live broadcasting. But even before radio and television, Buckingham Palace’s East Front balcony functioned as a focal point for public displays of unity centred on the sovereign and the royal family. What has changed over time are the meanings associated with this platform, and the symbolic salutation between crown and people enacted from it.

Historians have identified how the balcony was redesigned as part of a wider palace-backed campaign to remodel London’s ceremonial centre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an age dominated by imperial ambition and international competition, European nations vied to construct grandiose capital cities that symbolised their wealth and overseas power.

David Cannadine was one of the first historians to argue that the European building projects of this period were also intended to convey to new urban publics the enduring power of the social elite. In London, these imperial and hierarchical messages were communicated through new commemorative statues, and through an architectural plan that encompassed the widening of the Mall, the building of Admiralty Arch, the construction of the Victoria Memorial, and the re-fronting of Buckingham Palace.

The building work was completed by 1913 to create London’s first triumphal, ceremonial route, the culminating point of which was Buckingham Palace’s East Front. Although royalty had appeared on the palace veranda since 1851 with the opening of the Great Exhibition [the first international exhibition of manufactured products], the new ‘public face’ of Buckingham Palace was much grander and enabled a greater number of people to assemble in front of the gates. So it was on the evening of 4 August 1914 when, having convened a special council to declare war on Germany, George V was called out onto the balcony three times by a crowd who wanted their sovereign to signal his approval of the impending conflict. The king, in turn, interpreted the cheers of the thousands who had gathered around the Victoria Memorial as vindication of his government’s decision to join the fray, recording in his diary that “now everyone is for war and for helping our friends”. Queen Mary, who had joined him on the balcony, similarly noted how “we have the feeling of being supported by the people which is the great & glorious thing”.

The popularisation of the palace balcony as the altar where crown and people communed at times of national importance was secured with the Allied defeat of Germany and the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Night after night, crowds called the king and queen to the balcony to cheer and wave to them, elevating the monarchs as symbols of the nation’s victory. But now this was a ritual that members of the public outside of London could join in as well. Advances in film technologies meant that newsreel cameras captured the scenes of jubilation along the Mall and outside Buckingham Palace. And so, for the first time, Britain’s cinema audiences could partake in the moments when George V and his consort stepped out onto the balcony to acknowledge the crowds’ cheers.

This pattern continued through the interwar years with four of George V’s children marrying in a succession of spectacular royal weddings. In a period beset by social and political unrest, the royal marriages of 1922, 1923, 1934 and 1935 were staged by the monarchy and media as national events in order to generate unity and cohesion among the British public. With their emphasis on love and family, the interwar weddings also intensified the personal character of monarchy.

Princess Mary and her husband became the first royal newlyweds to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers from Buckingham Palace’s balcony in 1922, and in 1934, Prince George, Duke of Kent, and his bride, Princess Marina of Greece, added a further personal touch when they became the first members of the royal family to wave from the balcony to those massed below. This new intimate form of communication contrasted with the bowing that royalty had traditionally used to signal appreciation of a crowd’s ovation, and it immediately took off: at George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, the nine-year-old Elizabeth II could be seen waving to the people gathered outside the palace gates, and she did so again alongside her younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose, at their father’s coronation in 1937.

In the newsreel coverage of these events, special attention was devoted to the huge crowds that gathered to acclaim the royal family. The arrival of sound newsreels and BBC radio in the mid-1920s also enabled the media to convey the audial atmosphere that characterised these symbolic manifestations of national unity.

Britain’s victory in the Second World War further enhanced the function of the palace balcony as a focal point for national celebration with the prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously joining the royal family there during the VE Day celebrations. The monarchy’s close association with the armed forces was similarly strengthened with the introduction of the RAF fly-past in these years. Initially popularised during the reigns of George V and George VI, it was as part of the televised balcony appearance following Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that the fly-past was immortalised as a new ritual in the royal repertoire.

Now, more than 60 years on, the royal balcony appearance remains an important moment that encapsulates the abiding connection between British people and the crown. The royal protagonists who have stood and greeted their well-wishers from this platform have aged and changed over time, but the continuation of the British dynasty through the Windsor line and the focus on the family group as they smile and wave from the palace balcony helps to remind us of the enduring centrality of monarchy to public life and to the nation’s recent history.

Image courtesy of Brian Harrington Spier – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.