The Persistence of Monarchy

“It is a mistake to think that the British monarchy persists only as an anachronistic institution, grafted awkwardly if beguilingly onto our modern celebrity-obsessed culture.”

Much has changed in Britain since Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953—decolonization, entry into the European Union, the expansion and contraction of the welfare state, the decentralization of government. However, few of these shifts were discernible in the toady treatment that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee received in June. Then, as 60 years earlier, news commentators fawned over the Queen’s steadfastness and grace under pressure, and the tabloids dissected her sartorial choices (with particularly glowing reviews of the Angela Kelly crystal-studded ensemble sported for the river pageant). Books, too, contributed to the ingratiating atmosphere. Airport stalls overflowed with glossy “bookazines” boasting features about the Queen’s loving relationship with her consort, Prince Philip, and the shelves of Waterstones in Bloomsbury were crammed with biographies (over 25 published in the last year alone) that celebrated the Queen’s resolute middle-classness. She has never shirked her royal duties! She watches soap operas! She puts her breakfast cereal in plastic boxes! Even the academics holed up in Kensington Palace for a conference on “The Making of a Monarchy for the Modern World” treated the Windsors in a largely decorous manner, with panels devoted to the royals in film and fashion. All contributed, either wittingly or unwittingly, to forwarding the idea of the modern monarchy as an entertaining diversion that persists primarily because it serves an escapist function.

This superficial approach to the Windsors, which tends to dwell on the minutiae of material culture and treats each new royal birth, marriage, investiture, coronation, jubilee, or death in reverential, gossipy tones, has been long in the making. It is not an invention of the contemporary HELLO!– and OK!-reading audiences or, for that matter, of the consumers of Us Weekly and People on this side of the pond. One only has to return to the responses to Queen Victoria’s coronation and jubilee ceremonies to see that these are incredibly hardy conventions—one New York editor “actually fretted himself into an apopleptick fit” upon lack of news as to whether Victoria’s slippers were velvet or satin during the summer 1838 ceremony.1 But this lightness of touch simultaneously does the Crown a disservice. Insulating the monarchy from criticism, it also paints the royal family as divorced from politics and outside of history (or at least outside of a history that proceeds much past 1940, Britain’s “finest hour,” a moment of which we were constantly reminded during the Jubilee festivities). In other words, it denies the monarchy a very place in the modern world that it has helped to shape, as an institution whose fortunes are tied up in particular post-imperial, urban, and sometimes even feminist fantasies, with a history deeply intertwined with the development of some of those features most characteristic of Britain’s contemporary scene—the 24/7 news cycle, for instance, or the embrace of volunteerism as a counterbalance to a more limited welfare state or the country’s very persistence as a supranational “British” entity.

Scholars have been overwhelmingly averse to taking the modern monarchy seriously.

Why have so few scholars been willing to pursue these connections? Journalists like Andrew Marr can be excused for penning The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (2012), an inward-looking blow-by-blow account of Elizabeth’s triumphs.2 But scholars have been overwhelmingly averse to taking the modern monarchy seriously. As the preeminent historian of monarchy David Cannadine complained in 1989 about the quality of royal scholarship, there has been “too much chronicle and too little history, a surfeit of myth-making and a dearth of scholarly skepticism.”3 Little has changed in the intervening years. In fact, serious writers and researchers have avoided few subjects as fully as the modern monarchy. (“Be careful!” is often the first bit of advice I receive when I share the news with colleagues that I’m pursuing research on the relationship between “the right to reign” and “the rights of women” in nineteenth-century Britain.)

In part, the distaste for thinking critically about the monarchy stems from an unlikely source. In the 1960s and 70s, social history and women’s history pioneered a “history from below,” ushering in not only a disciplinary but also an ethical imperative, one that quickly spread to neighboring fields both inside and outside the academy. A balancing swing has begun in recent years—Clarissa Campbell Orr, a historian of queenship, proclaimed in 2002 that “much is to be gained for women’s history and feminist history by looking at women at the social apex, including their roles, representations and symbolic importance for other men and women”—though studies of the elite, and especially of the monarchy (the ultra-elite), can still be regarded with considerable suspicion.4 Taking on the monarchy is too often mistakenly viewed as a willingness to embrace rather than to interrogate. This is particularly true for those conducting research in modern history, where records are available for subjects from a range of social classes and backgrounds. (Few, for example, would object to using Queen Elizabeth I as a focal point for a study of gender in Tudor England, given the paucity of other sources about women’s lives from that period.) In this context, to write about Queen Elizabeth II, or about the Windsors more generally, smacks not just of elitism but also of commercialism—a crass bid to boost sales and gain a broader readership.

More practical concerns also contribute to scholarly silence. As is standard royal policy, Queen Elizabeth’s papers will not be made available to the public until after her death. Nor does the Queen give interviews or speak to the press. Analyses of Elizabeth, and of modern monarchy more generally, must therefore rely on other kinds of materials: newspapers and popular media, interviews with friends and acquaintances, the diaries of leading cultural and political figures, records from charitable institutions, and, perhaps most significantly, the data collected by Mass Observation, an institution established by the poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison, and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings in 1937 with the express purpose of creating an “anthropology of ourselves.” These are potentially rich sources, but even they cannot fully compensate for the enigma at the center. One longs to know, for example, what thoughts the Queen has recorded in her diary or what kind of pressure (if any) she has placed on successive prime ministers. Then there is the problem of writing about living subjects. While much of the obeisance paid to the Queen is no doubt fueled by unspoken codes of conduct, it is difficult to assess the significance of a public figure without the benefits of hindsight. Finally, and perhaps ironically, the very proliferation of images and narratives about the Queen can make it difficult to determine a way to approach researching her. Margaret Homans and Adrienne Munich made this point fifteen years ago in explaining why, at the time, there was such a compromised literature on Queen Victoria. “[Victoria’s] importance—like her monarchy itself,” the authors conceded, “has been difficult to categorize.”5 In Elizabeth’s case, too, the Queen’s very ubiquity can conceal how little we actually know about her, both as a woman and as a monarch, and about the impact of the royal family on Britain (and the globe) more generally.

The monarchy, that bastion of arcane traditions, has actually played an active and engaged role in spawning the modern British nation in all of its particularities, complexities, and contradictions.

These concerns have produced a lamentable hush from scholars’ quarters. This is particularly troubling because the monarchy, that bastion of arcane traditions, has actually played an active and engaged role in spawning the modern British nation in all of its particularities, complexities, and contradictions. Over the past several decades, just a handful of scholars—David Cannadine, Frank Prochaska, Wendy Webster, and Frank Mort, amongst a few others—have approached the microphones to tell how the monarchy provides a vital, even necessary way to track broad social and cultural changes over the second half of the twentieth century. By mapping these connections in the realms of race and empire, media, governance, and gender and sexuality, they show just how implicated the royals are in shaping the lived experiences of their subjects (and former subjects, America being the prime example). The pomp and circumstance, it turns out, fronts a much more ambitious social and political agenda.

The seeds of an argument about the monarchy’s key involvement in reconfiguring imperial Britain appear in David Cannadine’s “The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition,’ c. 1820-1977” (1983). In this essay, which helped introduce the modern monarchy as a subject of serious scholarship, Cannadine argues that Elizabeth played an important role in refocusing the national agenda in the wake of World War II and the rapid decolonization that followed. The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was central to this mission. The coronation, marked by its familiar (even if invented) routines and precise choreography, provided the ideal vehicle for selling the British people on a new place for themselves in the world, diminished in power but still united in purpose. In this sense, Elizabeth shepherded Britons through the liquidation of their empire and subsequent political realignments vis-à-vis the Commonwealth, the United States, and Europe.6

In her more recent Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965 (2005), Wendy Webster assigns an even more proactive role to the monarchy in defining the post-imperial nation. Concentrating on the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign, she identifies the monarchy as fundamental to the construction of what she dubs a “people’s empire,” that is, the idea of an international community of equals loosely but loyally bound to a shared set of British values and traditions—a concept that for a brief time held sway before falling firmly out of favor. On the one hand, the monarchy’s close engagement with this initiative involved Elizabeth’s own personal identification with and sympathy for the Commonwealth vision. The Queen made the important decision, for example, to broadcast her 1953 radio Christmas message not from London, as was expected, but rather from Auckland, New Zealand. But it also depended on the enthusiastic reception that the Queen received, both at home and in her colonies (and former colonies), thanks in no small part to the rapid dissemination of media images, which enabled disparate entities to see themselves as still committed to a shared future, however attenuated the links. In one of her most telling anecdotes, Webster reports that “in Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe], queues to see a film of the Coronation—A Queen is Crowned—began at dawn, and people were still queuing at five in the evening.”

By focusing as much on the adoration of the Queen at the peripheries as at the center, Webster is able to show that the Commonwealth was a collaborative effort, at least in its initial stages, and that the Queen, both as an institution and as an individual, was essential to this project. Elizabeth was the glue that kept an otherwise fractious supranational entity together, just as many would argue that she continues to do today in “post-devolution” Britain. On this point, see especially Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy published in 1988. Here, Nairn argues that a “personalized and totemic symbolism was needed to maintain the a-national nationalism of a multi-national (and for long imperial) entity,” bracing words from a Scottish historian with a noted distaste for monarchy. Yet recent surveys seem to bear out Nairn’s findings. A poll conducted last spring by the market research company Ipsos MORI, for example, determined that over 80% of adult Britons wish to preserve the monarchy, an all-time high in terms of level of support for the royal family. Roughly 1.2 million Britons did brave the rain on June 3 to catch a glimpse of the Queen aboard “The Spirit of Chartwell,” if not out of deference to the Queen herself, then at the very least to be associated with the spectacle. In and of itself, this testifies to the power of monarchy in uniting a population often so ambivalent about their national identity—consider, for instance, the obstacles that Gordon Brown encountered as prime minister when he tried, and failed, to establish national “Britishness” days.

Television, and the media more generally, have bolstered her reign ever since. But this is not just a one-way street. The monarchy has in turn helped to legitimate and propagate new media forms.

Elizabeth may have facilitated her nation’s imperial exit strategy and subsequent reconfiguration as a multicultural supranational entity, but her impact can also be felt in key transformations in the media—transformations linked to the queen’s global following from the very start of her reign. As Cannadine and Webster both note, Elizabeth was the first Queen to have her Coronation televised (against the wishes of her prime minister, Winston Churchill). Television, and the media more generally, have bolstered (even if at times encroached on) her reign ever since. But this is not just a one-way street. The monarchy, even if unintentionally, has in turn helped to legitimate and propagate new media forms. Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly displayed than in the coverage of the Coronation itself. The Queen may have been anxious about the BBC’s presence at her coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, but her very willingness to be filmed lent an air of authenticity to the still fledgling television arm of the BBC. As Cannadine explains, the BBC provided—and continues to provide—unusually “reverential” treatment of the Queen, especially in comparison to its treatments of other politicians (thus making the BBC central to the perpetuation of royal hagiography).7 Yet this veneration stems from the recognition that the monarchy confers legitimacy on the television medium. Recording the Queen’s coronation, Webster elaborates, enabled BBC executives to “claim television as a historic institution.” In this sense, the Queen, and the royal family more generally, must be seen not just as appealing subjects for the BBC and other television networks (in that they boost viewership) but also as catalysts for the very legitimation and expansion of these media forms in the first place. To some extent, this legitimating process has even extended into new media. Despite her tradition-bound image, the Queen has been more than willing in recent years to promote the monarchy on the royal website and a YouTube “Royal Channel.” Evidence of this more modern sensibility was equally on display during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, when Elizabeth agreed to be filmed with Daniel Craig in a much celebrated James Bond spoof.

If Elizabeth has had a decisive influence on post-imperial realignments and media developments over the past 60 years, then what about in the realm of governance? The Queen, after all, is supposed to be above politics, save the few remnants of power that she maintains. (In theory, the Queen can veto legislation, though in all likelihood she never will use this royal prerogative.) Yet here too, as historians Frank Prochaska and Frank Mort have both indicated, the Queen and her extended brood have also made a sizable impact. In Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (1995), in fact, Frank Prochaska insists that the Windsors have helped to guide the British public towards acceptance of a more limited welfare state. Prochaska points particularly to the Queen’s engagement in philanthropy. (Elizabeth alone is currently involved with over 600 different charities.) This engagement is not incidental. The Windsors, and especially Prince Philip, capitalized on the “waning of collectivism” during the 1980s and the “opportunity presented by the Thatcher phenomenon” in order to carve out a space for themselves as the leading promoters of and agents in a voluntary civil society. Within this framework, Princess Anne’s involvement with Save the Children or Princess Diana’s with the British Red Cross must be treated not just as individual examples of altruism but also as canny efforts on the royals’ part to link the monarchy to an anti-statist notion of social provisioning.

The politics of royalty, however, have not always been in the Windsors’ control. Sometimes the very persistence of monarchy—with all of the attendant obligations and ceremonies—has led the state to examine and revise policies, especially in the capital city of London, where the monarchy is centered. It is this aspect of the monarchy’s political impact that Frank Mort cleverly dissects in Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society (2010), a book broadly committed to tracing the social, sexual, and economic realignments that transformed 1950s London. Focusing on the political and cultural implications of Elizabeth’s coronation, Mort conveys the degree to which political officials, amongst others, eagerly embraced the ceremony as a means of raising London’s geopolitical profile, deeply tested after two world wars. The challenge for officials, of course, was determining which profile of the city that they wanted to project, a problem not dissimilar from the one confronting planners of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations last June. For some, this was an opportunity to burnish an image of London as an imperial entrepôt, reflecting Britain’s longstanding fidelity to hierarchical, traditional, and “regal” values. For others, postwar London was to be a place for “social openness and metropolitan urbanity,” promising “exotic encounters for international visitors.” The clash between these two distinct profiles became increasingly rancorous during the lead-up to the coronation, coming to a head during what would come to be known as the “Scandal of Piccadilly Circus” in the fall of 1952. The scandal involved the revelations of an American businessman, Malcolm La Prade, that he had witnessed a number of prostitutes and “obvious” homosexuals while touring London. Officials at the Home Office and Metropolitan Police were outraged and launched a repressive campaign to eliminate vice from the capital. “Royal events,” Mort writes, “focusing intense public scrutiny on landmark or official London … exaggerated the perceived impact of disturbances to moral values. Compromising societal norms and established ethical systems, metropolitan vice was seen as a threat to the ritualistic display of social cohesion personified by monarchy in the capital city.” For those who experienced the eerily sanitized version of London on display last spring, Mort’s argument will resonate.

It is a mistake, then, to think that the British monarchy persists only as an anachronistic institution, grafted awkwardly if beguilingly onto our modern celebrity-obsessed culture.

The “Scandal of Piccadilly Circus,” though, was about more than just government intervention and urban policing. It was also, centrally, about sexuality, morality, and gender. And here too, the Queen has shaped the experiences of many of her subjects, even if almost entirely unintentionally. While the coronation and subsequent royal ceremonies may have contributed to escalating anxieties about prostitution and homosexuality, the fact of the Queen herself, in her very womanliness (and even, as Mort would have it, with her “discreet sex appeal”), has elicited some surprisingly feminine—and even feminist—fantasies from her admirers, on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a compelling point that Prochaska begins to pursue in another work, The Eagle and the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy (2008). While the Queen may have inherited her position thanks to the absence of younger brothers to jump ahead of her in the queue, the very unconventionality of her status as a female head of state has proven inspiring and even, in some cases, radicalizing to women. As Prochaska explains, the role reversals on display in the royal household have furnished women with the raw material needed to construct their own fantasies about female power, irrespective of the Queen’s own particular positions on equity and gender. We see some tantalizing evidence of this phenomenon in the testimonials that Prochaska uncovers, especially from the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1950s America, for example, one female analyst accounted for women’s interest in the Queen by noting that “Philip takes orders from Elizabeth…What wife doesn’t secretly wish she had the same authority?” As another American analyst put it, this was the first time “that the women of America have found a heroine who makes them feel superior to men.” Little wonder that women have become the key drivers of royal enthusiasm, a process that only accelerated during the Diana years and that one day may reach fever pitch under Queen Kate.

It is a mistake, then, to think that the British monarchy persists only as an anachronistic institution, grafted awkwardly if beguilingly onto our modern celebrity-obsessed culture. It endures because it also shapes contemporary politics and sensibilities, giving air to social anxieties and lending legitimacy to preferences and practices from households to industry—in Britain and beyond. In this sense, the “historic celebrations” that HELLO! crowed about last June were “historic” for reasons different from those that the magazine had in mind. More than simply evoking and laying claim to continuities with a national past, this Jubilee, like Jubilees before, has been implicated in spawning, legitimating, and reinforcing some of the major political and social trajectories of our time. icon

  1. The New York Mirror, August 11, 1838.
  2. Andrew Marr, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (New York: Henry Holt, 2012).
  3. David Cannadine, “The Last Hanoverian Sovereign?: The Victorian Monarchy in Historical Perspective, 1688–1988,” in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A.L. Beier, David Cannadine, and James M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 129.
  4. Clarissa Campbell Orr, introduction to Queenship in Britain, 1660–1837: Royal Patronage, Court Culture, and Dynastic Politics, ed. Clarissa Campbell Orr (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 7.
  5. Margaret Homans and Adrienne Munich, eds., Remaking Queen Victoria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.
  6. David Cannadine, “The Context, Performance, and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition,’ c. 1820–1977,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 157ff.
  7. Cannadine, “Context,” 159.
Featured image: John Swannell/Royal Household/Camera Press (detail)