Retaining the royals: why has the British monarchy survived – and thrived?
As the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announce their desire to step back as senior members of the royal family, we look back at an article by Sarah Gristwood asking why, as the world sees a decline in the number of monarchs, fascination with the British royals continues to flourish...
There is, of course, much truth in both these theories. We love tradition, especially when it is softened by a little flexibility. But maybe the real secret to the long success of the British monarchy is its connection, not to the stodgy old ways of the stately home, but to the aggressive, thrusting, young nation that we used to be.
Looking back, of course, one sees a long chain of events that have shaped – curbed, coloured – the British monarchy. We’ve celebrated one in recent years – King John’s sealing of Magna Carta in 1215, requiring the king to rule only under law. (Scotland in 1320 saw the Declaration of Arbroath, which while primarily a declaration of the nation’s independence seemed also to suggest that a monarch might be made by popular choice.)
And although in many ways the kings of England actually assumed more authority during the few centuries that followed, this is an idea that has never gone away. Even in the days of that earlier, authoritarian, Queen Elizabeth I, the bishop John Aylmer could write that England was governed by a ‘rule mixte’ of prince, peers and people – assuaging fears of a female monarch with the assurance that she did not in any case rule autonomously.
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The model family
William IV and Victoria after him were horrified to learn they could not even choose their own prime minister. It was the great Victorian Walter Bagehot who wrote provocatively that Britain was “a secret republic”. But that was the secret of the royal family’s survival, perhaps. And it was Victoria’s husband, Albert, who carved out for the crown another, a moral, kind of authority as the nation’s first and model family – one which, in spite of any evidence to the contrary, they have retained almost until the present day.
The popularity game
Not that the royals won’t change the tradition and trim the privilege, when necessary. The Queen’s decision to pay taxes and to cut down the Civil List is only part of that readiness seen in 1917 to play the popularity game. To try to be whatever we want them to be. The change in tone that followed Diana’s death may be the ultimate example – and, indeed, she may have played a role she never intended in reshaping the monarchy. While the furore around Diana’s death finally proved to the royal establishment the need to adapt, she also gave us, in her sons and now her grandson and granddaughter, royals better equipped to give the institution a successful 21st century.