Tracy Borman, author of Crown & Sceptre, writes about how English, and later British, monarchs have, on the whole, held onto the crown with a great deal of success. What’s the secret of royal continuity?
In February 2022, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her Platinum Jubilee – by far the longest reign of any British monarch. The institution that she represents is one the most iconic and enduring in the world.
The Queen can trace her descent to Egbert, the ninth-century King of Wessex, which means that, excepting the Interregnum from 1649 to 1660, the monarchy in England (and, from 1603, Britain) boasts a dynastic continuity that spans around 1,150 years. The ceremony followed at Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was largely the same as that used for the Anglo-Saxon kings 1,080 years earlier.
Despite the almost unimaginable change that has taken place during the 12 centuries of its existence, the British monarchy has survived, weathering the storms of rebellion, revolution and war that brought many of Europe’s royal families to an abrupt and bloody end. So, what are the secrets of its success – and are there any lessons that can be learned for the future?
Of course, it’s not as straightforward as taking a leaf out of the books of Britain’s most celebrated monarchs because each was very much of their time. The decisive leadership of William I, Edward III and Henry V was perfectly suited to an era when Britain’s kings ruled by conquest.
Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria embodied the self-confident, imperialistic values of their age and won widespread adulation as ‘weak and feeble’ women in a male-dominated world. In more recent times, George V and George VI made up for their diminishing political role by providing a national figurehead for the war effort.
But there are certain lessons which stand the test of time. As has been shown again and again in the crown’s history, the most successful sovereigns are those who are skilled at managing their public image. As the first Stuart king of England, James I, observed: “A King is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gazingly do behold.”
It is a delicate balancing act: too reclusive a monarch will appear aloof and uncaring; too accessible and they risk “letting daylight in upon magic”, as one Victorian commentator put it. Although Elizabeth II has generally struck the right balance, a notable exception was when she agreed to a behind-the-scenes documentary by the BBC entitled Royal Family. It aired in 1969 and was such a PR disaster that she ordered it to be immediately withdrawn from view.
So, when it comes to royalty, mystique is important. But then, so is accessibility. As Princess Diana once observed: “It’s vital that the monarchy keeps in touch with the people.”
Some of the most popular monarchs in British history are those who have led a riotous, even notorious private life, or whose lack of formality has endeared them to their people.
Those ultimate royal rakes, Charles II and Edward VII, kept a bevy of mistresses, sired numerous illegitimate children between them and were the life and soul of every party. Yet they never forgot their royal dignity.
Thus, in 1681, at the height of a crisis in his government, the same Charles II who had excited disapproval for his “profaneness and dissolution” asserted his majesty by appearing in full royal regalia. Likewise, when Edward VII’s beloved mistress Lillie Langtry poured a handful of ice down his back as a joke during a costume ball, the king was so furious that he spurned her for a long time afterwards.
Charles II and Edward VII were forgiven their playboy lifestyles because they upheld and asserted their royal dignity when it mattered. They also fulfilled their royal duties, by and large. This is something that even the most charismatic and popular monarch must never neglect.
Edward VIII’s glittering social life was irresistible to admirers all over the world. But that changed abruptly when he chose to give up the crown for the woman he loved: the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Thereafter, he was presented as a shameful wastrel, selfish and vain, his life lacking all meaning. A similar shift in public attitudes towards Prince Charles’s younger son, Prince Harry, took place in some quarters after he gave up his royal duties and started a new life in America with his wife Meghan Markle.
Perhaps the most vital ingredient for success is one that is difficult to imitate: character. The crown has survived numerous incumbents ill-suited to the position over the past thousand years, but now that the role is almost entirely symbolic, personality is of paramount importance.
The last six decades have proved that the decidedly unglamorous qualities of duty and dignity are highly prized, just as they were during the reign of the first Elizabeth, who sacrificed personal desire for her country.
Any future monarchs not blessed with such a character would be well advised to take refuge in the trappings of monarchy that have long been beloved of people not just in Britain but across the globe. The sumptuous palaces and glorious pageantry, the glittering regalia and centuries-old ceremonies.
These ‘toys and trifles’ of monarchy, so disdained by Oliver Cromwell’s supporters during the English Civil War, may be the key to its continuity, its longevity and, ultimately, its survival. They still captivate people across the world. When Prince William married Catherine Middleton in April 2011, two billion people in 180 countries watched the television broadcasts and there were 72 million live streams on YouTube.
‘Always changing, always the same.’ This description of an ideal monarchy neatly encapsulates Elizabeth II’s achievement. She has quietly modernised the monarchy by reducing its cost to the public purse and giving women equal precedence with men in the royal succession, among other innovations.
Yet she has also retained those traditions which have defined the crown for centuries: Trooping the Colour, the State Opening of Parliament, and so on. The thread of continuity that she symbolises offers a much-needed sense of certainty in a rapidly-changing world – and therein lies the greatest lesson for her successors.
Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy, William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II by Tracy Borman is published on 18 November, 2021.
Other features you may enjoy:
The power of alliance in the Viking Age by Matthew Harffy, about why Egbert (Ecgberht) could claim to be called ‘the Great’
(Re)writing the Spanish Armada: JD Davies examines the legends surrounding the attempted invasion of 1588, including Queen Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech
Queen Victoria: a dark, if splendid, monster? in which Miranda Carter looks at the consequences of Victoria’s belief that she was always right, even when she wasn’t
The Crown: Netflix’s Royal Affair: Elizabeth Fremantle introduces the much-loved TV series
In Charles II’s last mistress Linda Porter writes about a less well-known, but still remarkable, royal mistress: Hortense Mancini
The monarch with the magic touch is Andrew Taylor’s examination of one of the more unusual royal rituals carried out by Charles II
Was America, not Wallis, the real reason Edward VIII abdicated? asks Ted Powell
In Thomas Blood and the Theft of the Crown Jewels Angus Donald looks at an audacious robbery 350 years ago
- St Edward’s Crown and the sovereign’s orb, sceptres and ring (first colour photograph published of the regalia), 1952: Wikimedia
- Armada Portrait, c1588, Queen’s House, Greenwich: Wikimedia
- Royal Family edition of Radio Times, 21 June, 1969: Bradford Timeline on Flickr
- Charles II by Godfrey Kneller, c1684–5: Wikimedia
- Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton: Jens Rost on Flickr