Amid the flag-waving and the street parties to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton today, bigger questions about the relevance of the monarchy to modern Britain lurk like uninvited guests. Extravagant living in a time of austerity abrades public sensibilities; unearned privilege is resented, while snobbery and elitism are seen as dangerously outmoded. The usual arguments in support of the monarchy — continuity, tradition and dignity — are no longer enough. The royals need to earn their keep.
While only a small minority here favor a republican government, many Britons hope the wedding might signal the dawning of a more populist monarchy. This is the marriage of a senior royal prince and a commoner — the first in 350 years — that spans the class divide and is, it seems, a marriage for love. These two met in college, have lived in a shared house with friends, and plan to spend at least the first few years of their married life in northern Wales, with William continuing his service as a search-and-rescue pilot for the Royal Air Force. They have caught the public’s imagination not because of outdated deference to royalty but because of their appearance of normality and togetherness even amid the strictures of royal protocol and the frenzy of press coverage.
Comparisons have of course been drawn to the wedding of William’s parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Diana was young, aristocratic, naïve and intimidated, whereas Kate is older, middle-class, educated, respected by her groom and undoubtedly wiser to the pressures that will surround her. But the circumstances are similar: in 1981, as now, Britain was mired in economic difficulty and the public was expected to welcome the opulence of the ceremony as a respite from hardship.
To understand how a wedding could accomplish that, it is instructive to look much further back than 1981 — to a time before royal weddings meant much at all to ordinary Britons.
Consider Mary Tudor’s 1554 marriage to Philip of Spain. Officials feared that the public might object to the queen, herself half-Spanish, marrying a Spanish prince. And so the nuptials were performed some 50 miles from London, at Winchester Cathedral. It was an alliance born of the mutual strategic interest forged by the marriage of Mary’s parents, Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.
Royal marriages had long been arranged for diplomatic and political reasons. In 1420, Henry V married Catherine of Valois in an attempt at peace with France during the Hundred Years’ War; in 1589, James I married Anne of Denmark to establish a strong Protestant alliance in Europe; in 1625, Charles I married Henrietta Maria of France during a brief period when England’s pro-Spanish policy was replaced by a pro-French one.
Under the Stuarts, royal brides were mainly Catholic, which jarred a Protestant nation. The monarchs of the German House of Hanover, which acceded in 1714, invariably wed Germans of similar rank.
What finally changed all this was a remaking — indeed a rebranding — of the monarchy in 1917. England and Germany were at war, so another marriage to a German was out of the question. Instead, what was then the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was renamed the House of Windsor, and George V decreed that his children could now “marry English men and English women.” In that moment the all-British monarchy was born. And royal weddings became big events to be celebrated publicly and patriotically.
When the future George VI married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923, wedding fever engulfed the country. Newspapers and magazines scrutinized every detail: the dress, the guests, the venue. A million people lined the route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. There were fireworks and parties in the streets.
The wedding of Charles and Diana followed this tradition. The ceremony was moved from the abbey to the larger St. Paul’s Cathedral, and much of the country watched on television. Celebratory merchandise, from mugs and plates to plastic trays and tea towels, were sold worldwide. The royal family had become the ultimate British brand.
As the wedding unfolds today, many people here will be keenly aware that this is a spectacle to which they, the taxpayers, have contributed. Britons want to see their royals demonstrating “value for money,” to be seen to be in touch, to have a greater ethos of service and to be more than vacuous figureheads propped up by pomp and pageantry. In a democratic age of mass media, maintaining public favor has never been more critical.
Queen Elizabeth II’s longevity — next year will be her 60th on the throne — has in many ways suspended public discussion of the reform and modernization of the monarchy.
This might prove to be the biggest threat to the royal future: more than half of Britons now believe William should succeed the queen. With Charles first in line, there is a real prospect that William and Kate will not become king and queen until they are middle-aged. By then, the honeymoon will be over, their public appeal will surely have waned and the new “classless” monarchy that their marriage symbolized may well have arrived too late.
By Anna Whitelock, a lecturer in early modern British history at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen.