God save the Queen, because nobody else will. Elizabeth Windsor of Windsor Castle, Windsor, passed her ninety-sixth birthday in April. She was born in 1926, when monarchy was an endangered species. Less than a decade earlier, Europe’s other great dynasties had expired in the fallout from the First World War. In July 1918, Bolsheviks executed Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children at Yekaterinburg; their remains were burned and then dumped down a mineshaft. In November 1918, the last Habsburg emperor, Charles I of Austria and Charles IV of Hungary, dissolved his K. und K. eminence and went into exile. In the same month, the German emperor, Wilhelm II, who had started all the trouble in the first place, retired to Holland. The Windsors were now the last of Europe’s great houses.
The Russian tsar and the German kaiser were first cousins to King George V of Great Britain and Ireland. On March 19, 1917, after the revolutionaries had taken St. Petersburg and the tsar had abdicated, George V sent a telegram to “dear Nicky,” the cousin to whom he bore so striking a resemblance: “Events of last week have deeply distressed me. My thoughts are constantly with you and I shall always remain your true and devoted friend, as you know I have been in the past.”
Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, had republican sympathies. Still, Lloyd George was prepared to rescue the Romanovs if it meant keeping Russia in the war. The liberals in Russia’s new provisional government also preferred to push the Romanovs into exile. On March 21, 1917, Lloyd George’s government sent a telegram to the British ambassador in what was now Petrograd: “In order to meet the request made by the Russian government, the King and H.M. Government readily offer asylum to the Emperor and Empress in England.”
On the same day, the tsar joined his family under a spectacular form of house arrest outside Petrograd, in Catherine the Great’s Alexander Palace. The Petrograd Soviet had no intention of letting them escape. Meanwhile, George V opposed his government’s offer of asylum “on general grounds of expediency.” The king, his private secretary Lord Stamfordham reminded the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, thought “from the first” that “the presence of the Imperial Family (especially the Empress) in this country would raise all sorts of difficulties.”
The king feared that socialism was coming in the train of democracy, whether by votes or revolt.
Lloyd George, Britain’s first working-class prime minister, seemed determined to cut the king down to constitutional size, and possibly further. The king feared that socialism was coming in the train of democracy, whether by votes or revolt. His ascent to the throne in 1910 had been preceded by the “People’s Budget” of 1909, in which a Liberal government raised taxes on income and land sales. Lloyd George, then the chancellor of the exchequer, had described it as a “war budget.” The war was ostensibly against poverty, but the casualties of this redistribution would obviously be the Windsors’ closest allies, the great landed families. After the House of Lords broke convention by rejecting the budget, the Liberals called two general elections in 1910, forced the House of Lords to accept the budget, and then formally asserted the Commons’ authority over the Lords in the Parliament Act of 1911.
When Lloyd George met the new king in 1910, he thought that George V was “a very jolly chap but thank God there’s not much in his head.” Herbert Asquith, the prime minister at the time, decided that, compared to the multilingual bon vivant Edward VII, the new king had “unsophisticated mind and tastes”—and promptly set about exploiting both, by requesting a secret commitment from George V that, if the Liberals won the second of the 1910 elections, he would stuff the House of Lords with Liberal peers. If George did not comply, Asquith told him, then he would resign and fight an election against both the peerage and the monarchy. Asquith did not tell the king that if he resigned, an election could be averted through the correct constitutional course: the Conservatives could have formed a coalition government under Arthur Balfour.
Asquith’s request was probably unconstitutional, his demand for secrecy unethical, his withholding of information from the monarch much worse. George was new to the job, and his private secretary Sir Francis Knollys was a Liberal. “I have been forced into this,” George protested to Asquith. Later, when he was more experienced and had seen documents confirming Balfour’s ability to form a government, George called Asquith’s gambit “the dirtiest thing ever done.” But the constitutional crisis of 1910, George’s biographer Jane Ridley argues in George V: Never a Dull Moment, was “a catalyst for George’s new style of monarchy.”1
The moral of the crisis was that the King should never again allow himself to become involved with party politics. His private sympathies were robustly Tory, but so long as he did not allow his private opinions to influence his public duty this was not an issue. His role as monarch must be above party—to act as an arbitrator and to broker agreements.
In 1909, the Romanovs had visited their British cousins to cement the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. The Russian royals, Ridley writes, were “prisoners of their security police” and barely put a foot on British soil. The British royals could move easily among their subjects. When Edward VII’s horse Minoru won the Epsom Derby in 1909, the king led Minoru into the paddock in front of the crowds. “What a thing this was to happen in this era of Democracy!” Queen Mary’s aunt Princess Augusta of Cambridge recorded in Germanic syntax. “In no other Country this could have been! How right and fine of the King leading his horse himself! That is also ‘unique’!”
Four years later, George V’s horse Anmer was galloping in the 1913 Derby at thirty-five miles per hour when a suffragette named Emily Davison ran onto the course and tried to grab his reins. She went under the horse’s hooves, never regained consciousness, and died four days later. George, who had been onto a winner, was not amused by this “most regrettable & scandalous proceeding” and seemed primarily concerned for the health of his horse and jockey. By early 1914, the suffragettes had the king “almost under siege.” In May, two hundred women marched on Buckingham Palace to present a petition to the king, and fifty-seven women were arrested. When King George and Queen Mary toured Scotland that summer, they were beset by crowds of suffragettes demanding their rights and protesting the imprisonment and prosecution of their sisters. In Dundee, Queen Mary was menaced by a woman with an umbrella. In Perth, the police had to wrestle one off the running board of the royal car.
The king had no constitutional power to alter the franchise. He and the queen were being attacked as symbols of an unfair order in an age when mass media gave global resonance to a well-placed protest. The political implications were growing, too. When George was wondering what to do about his Russian cousins in 1917, he was aware that Lloyd George was meditating a fourth expansion of the democratizing process that had begun with the Reform Act of 1832. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 completed the enfranchisement of British men over twenty-one and extended the vote to all women over thirty, with a property qualification. The royal family was being drawn into a popularity contest.
By 1917, the monarchy’s symbolic popularity seemed in doubt and the king and his advisors feared the worst. In April, The Times printed a letter from H. G. Wells calling for the formation of a Republican Society. A year earlier, Lord Derby thought, The Times would not have published such a suggestion, but the Russian Revolution had “given all monarchies a knock,” and Wells’s opinion now “undoubtedly” represented “the view held by a very considerable class.” A few days later, Wells gave the royals another knock in the Penny Pictorial, declaring that “the European dynastic system based upon intermarriage by a group of minority German Royal Families, is dead today.”
A “new style of monarchy” for the age of democracy would mean more than staying above politics. George may have been happiest shooting animals and sticking stamps in his albums, but he was no fool. He knew his intellectual and constitutional limits and, like many a primate caught behind bars, knew his public, distrusted his keepers, and mated successfully in captivity. “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us,” Tancredi Falconeri says in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958). “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
The royals were already acutely alert to the public mood, and especially to the media. George V did not read Wells’s novels; at the time, he found Kipling “coarse.” The king, who had served in the Royal Navy in his youth and took his duty seriously, enjoyed Captain Marryat’s navy yarns and the historical novelist Harrison Ainsworth, a friend of Dickens’s whose novels include Windsor Castle (1842), an exploration of Henry VIII’s constitutionally consequential pursuit of Anne Boleyn. But the king had retainers to do the hard reading for him. When he was told that Wells had called the monarchy “an uninspiring and alien Court” in Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916), he quipped, “I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien.”
George may have been of German extraction, but he was studiously English. Like all immigrants, he overplayed it slightly. He enjoyed walks in the rain, he liked talking about the weather, and he was one of the best shots in the country, a one-man avian-killing machine. Left to his own gastronomic devices, he chose soup, beef curry, and Bombay duck, or “nursery dishes such as Irish stew and cottage pie followed by apple Charlotte or pancakes.” He was no good at emotions, and he thought that a good thing. A martinet, he did not understand why his “chaffing,” his savage criticism and mockery of his sons as he toughened them for the family business, made them so unhappy. “Get it out!” he bellowed at his stuttering second son, the future George VI.
This protective coloration was no longer enough when Britain was struggling in the war against his cousin Wilhelm and with dear Nicky letting the side down. George and his German wife had already decided that their children should marry into British families. On July 17, 1917, they changed the royal family’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. They also announced that the ranks of prince and royal highness would henceforth be limited to the children of the sovereign and grandchildren born to a son of the sovereign, and that the only great-grandson of the living monarch allowed to be called a prince would be the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales.
The royal household let it be known that it now “conformed to the same rations as everyone else—four pounds of bread and two-and-a-half pounds of meat per head per week”—and that footmen in powdered wigs no longer waited upon the royal family. The papers reported that the Windsors were planting potatoes in their garden, and in April 1917, when a group of Labour MPs happened to be staying at Windsor Castle, the king and queen and their children Mary, Henry, and George “dug hard in the blazing sun for two hours.”
He was an Englishman with a job to do, and his greatest asset, as it would be for his second son, George VI, and his granddaughter Elizabeth II, was a ruthless and commonsensical grasp of what not to do.
The royals were learning to act normal and to impersonate a shifting ideal of Englishness. George was especially suited to the task. He had no interest in other men’s wives. He was aggressively devoid of imagination. And he disliked foreigners unless they were members of his extended family and foreign food unless it was Indian. He was an Englishman with a job to do, and his greatest asset, as it would be for his second son, George VI, and his granddaughter Elizabeth II, was a ruthless and commonsensical grasp of what not to do.
Dear Nicky had made a hash of his own job, and it was now every monarch for himself. As the Bolsheviks would never have released their greatest enemies, an offer of asylum in Britain would have been symbolic only—and the price would have been damage to the Windsors’ domestic popularity. So George decided not to press the government to offer asylum to his cousin, and the government agreed. One of his sons, the future Edward VIII, believed that the murder of the Romanovs had “shaken my father’s confidence in the innate decency of mankind.” In this, as in much else, the Windsors were something of an advance party as mankind descended into the murderous and media-saturated twentieth century.
They’re so perfectly ordinary,” Princess Margaret said when she read Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), which was made into a film in 1971; “I mean, it could be us.”
The ordinariness of the Windsors is their most exceptional trait. It comes naturally to their subjects, but the Windsors have to work at it. The people’s mores change over time, and it is not enough that the Windsors adapt to the changes. The Firm must incarnate the demotic mood in an acceptably upper-middle-class way, yet it must never appear to be a step ahead of its audience. The Windsors are performers in a soapy historical drama, as though Hegel worked for the Disney Corporation. As Hegel looked to Napoleon, we look to the royals for a reflection of our moment in time. Das ist der Geist, at least now.
Decades before the media turned our politicians into permanent campaigners, the Windsors were in permanent audition.
The Windsors are employees of the British state and people, like the staff of the National Theatre. Every ten years, the Treasury works out the Civil List, the running expenses of the Windsor troupe’s leading members, and the Commons votes on whether to renew their contract. The people’s budget is not infinite. Decades before the media turned our politicians into permanent campaigners, the Windsors were in permanent audition. Royalty runs in the blood, just like acting or crime.
Prince Harry, in a brief brush with the kind of self-knowledge that does a royal no good, has compared his previous gig in the Royal Family to “a mixture of The Truman Show and being in a zoo.” The Truman Show phase, which was scripted, coherent, and charming, first aired in 1969, after the modern-minded Duke of Edinburgh had convinced the Queen to permit documentary filmmakers to record the royals at rest and play. This was effectively the first reality-television show. The Truman Show phase of royal exposure ended in 1995, when a tearful Princess Diana went off-script and told the secrets of her marriage to the bbc. That launched the zoo phase, which is unscripted, incoherent, and increasingly charmless. This makes it uncannily suited to social media, as if the royals are intuitively adapting to their environment.
Again, it was stodgy old George V who set the template. In 1932, George gave the first Christmas Day speech on the radio. Today, it feels like the Christmas Day monologue has taken place every year since 1528. But this was a cutting-edge media move at the time. In the parlance of the twenty-first-century media handler, George was “taking control of his narrative,” “pushing the Windsor brand” to the furthest corners of the empire, and “speaking his truth” to a global audience. Kipling, the late-imperial mythologist and ironist, wrote the king’s speech. Perhaps George’s sense of literary taste had improved; perhaps his sense of his own status had declined.
The modern history of the monarchy can only be understood through the lens of media. As the Queen likes to say, “I have to be seen to be believed.” Jane Ridley writes that George V, like his grandmother Queen Victoria, was so ordinary and retiring that at times he was “in danger of becoming invisible.” The film The King’s Speech (2010) shows George VI’s stutter as an impediment to getting out the message. His overcoming of it, and his climactic showdown with the microphone, is a synecdoche for Britain, which stuttered through the Thirties, Lloyd George praising Hitler, then stepped up to the microphone in the summer of 1940. The soundtrack to the triumph of George’s will is the second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh. You can take the Windsors out of Germany, but you can’t take the German out of the Windsors.
The most successful royal performers are the improvisers who never expected the spotlight and must then dance for their lives. George V, like Henry VIII and George III before him, was a second son. In 1892, his older brother, Albert Victor, died of influenza at twenty-eight, and the “spare” became the heir. George V’s heir was also a second son. The free world dodged a bullet when his firstborn, Edward VIII, threw over his throne for Mrs. Simpson.
The slow drip of evidence against Edward and Wallis has pooled into a shimmering reflection of treason. Andrew Lownie’s Traitor King is the latest assemblage of the evidence, and there will be more.2 There can now be no doubt that if Edward had been on the throne in 1940, rather than being in Lisbon and speculating against the pound while dallying with Nazi agents, he would have pushed, unconstitutionally or not, for an accommodation with Hitler. It was an “open secret” in London society, the diarist Henry “Chips” Channon wrote that summer, that Edward was angling to be restored to the throne as “a sort of Gauleiter,” with Wallis his Königin. His plans for his older brother George VI and his fourteen-year-old niece, the future Elizabeth II, were not specified.
Edward backed the wrong horse, and George VI and his family romped home. The years from 1940 to 1995 were a golden age for the monarchy. Deference declined, but it did not take the royals down with it. The media grew in power, but the tabloids kept a respectful distance in return for access, savaging the extras but sparing the stars. The crisis came in 1995, when Charles and Diana played out the end of their marriage in public. After they separated, Diana no longer felt bound by the Windsors’ unwritten contract with the media. She appealed directly to the British public as their “Queen of Hearts.” She leveraged that threat to the Windsors by a strict regime of image control. Alternately projecting herself as doe-eyed humanitarian and sexed-up fashion plate, she became a global star.
Diana died in 1997 in a car crash in Paris with her then-boyfriend, an Arab playboy named Dodi Al-Fayed. The internet was just beginning to replace print media, and Diana’s mythic last years are perhaps the last coherent media narrative we have. She may have been manipulative and fraudulent, but the truth she spoke was pumped out by a small number of outlets. There was a certain balletic logic to their interactions with her, not least in the fatal dance of Mercedes and mopeds in that tunnel in Paris. Within a decade, the internet was beyond anyone’s control, the threads of narrative fraying into competing subjectivities. With the rise of social media, the battle, for now, belongs to the loudest liar. The war, however, will drag on. No one has ever stormed Windsor Castle.
Never again,” the Queen said as she rebuilt the Firm’s image after Diana’s martyrdom. This, at least, is what Tina Brown tells us in The Palace Papers, a rambling and shoddily written survey of the last three decades of royal gossip.3 More please, cried the digital citizenry. The Windsors are now under attack again from a second son, Prince Harry. Once again, his American divorcée wife is clearly the brains of the operation. Yet again, Meghan and Harry’s game, like those of Edward and Wallis and Diana, is to run the Buckingham Palace playbook against itself. The Windsors taught us all the language of global celebrity. The malcontents’ profit on it is the consolation of Caliban: “I know how to curse.”
In an earlier, simpler age, Harry would have avenged himself on his older brother by a more traditionally effective means than moaning to Oprah Winfrey. He would have fled to a castle in Burgundy, raised an army of French mercenaries, sailed to England, sunk to his knees in the surf as he swore to destroy his brother or die in the attempt, stormed Tewkesbury, and then been forced to parley on the road to London. There he would have fallen to his knees a second time, this time to beseech his brother’s forgiveness. Back to France he goes, to exile forever.
Once a binge-drinker and weed smoker, and always an impressionable sort, Harry now calms his princely angst with yoga and green juice.
Instead, the flash Prince of Montecito has sold out his family, but not cashed out on the way. Once a binge-drinker and weed smoker, and always an impressionable sort, Harry now calms his princely angst with yoga and green juice. He burbles about the joys of fatherhood, which is harmless, and the climate crisis, which for a regular user of private jets is presumptuous and offensive. He does the odd session as an online counselor for BetterUp, a Silicon Valley firm whose slightly creepy program updates New Age personal improvement with “behavioral science,” the better to keep your corporate edge. According to Tom Bower, whose Revenge is a splendidly detailed summary of the latest war of the Windsors, Harry is much given to “organic products and treatments based on holistic meditation, numbers, gongs, crystal bowls, inner calm, chakra balancing, and special massages of the body and the inner mouth.”4
Meghan comes across as an honest impostor in Revenge. An actress of minimal ability, she has worked hard and cleverly to conserve and maximize her assets. She has never stripped entirely for the cameras, and if, as Bower reports, she fished for rich men in the murky waters of the Playboy Mansion, she never netted one big enough to make her jump in after him. As Bower shows, she has misrepresented her past to the bbc, Oprah Winfrey, and, it appears, her husband.
“I didn’t know much about him [Harry] or the royal family,” Meghan told the bbc when she and Harry announced their engagement in 2017. Meghan, her childhood friends insist, sobbed over the footage of Diana’s funeral and studied Diana’s biography. She did her homework on Harry, too. “I’ve googled Harry, I’ve gone deeply into his life,” she told her publicist, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, before their first date. “I didn’t have a plan,” Meghan told Oprah Winfrey in 2021; “I hadn’t googled Harry online.”
This sort of airbrushing happens whenever a prince marries a showgirl. It is entertaining but not especially significant. What is significant, however, is that Meghan has, as she would say, “weaponized” the accusation of racism—the worst of contemporary sins and a hard one to deny—against Harry’s family, and that he is so dim or vengeful as to nod along.
In their interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan implied that Harry’s family deprived their son Archie of a prince’s title and a royal’s bodyguards because of “concerns and conversations” about his skin color. The truth is that, since George V modernized the Windsors for the age of democratic media, there are strict rules about princes: a prince is the Prince of Wales, his sons, and, following Elizabeth II’s variation on George V’s theme, the sons of the Prince of Wales’s eldest son—no matter the melanin. The truth also is that Meghan and Harry, quite understandably, are not content to play second fiddle to his brother and sister-in-law, William and Kate, and that the “Harkles” have leaped at the chance to exchange the demanding and, relatively speaking, poorly paid routines of British monarchy for a spot in the American star system.
The Queen, Prince Charles, and Prince William—the line of succession—have banded together to expel the traitors. This is just as George V intended. The “stripped-down” line of succession stays on for the next series. The rest have to work for a living—even that other errant second son, Prince Andrew, the Queen’s favorite and an ex-playmate of Jeffrey Epstein’s. If one’s grandfather reconciled himself to dear Nicky and family being shot and stabbed to death, then burned and tipped down a mineshaft, cutting Prince Harry out of the picture is not going to keep one awake at night. Easy is the head that wears the crown, relatively speaking. And monarchy is all about managing the relatives.
Meghan has played the social-media game as Diana played the tabloid game. She deserves her reward. Harry deserves his reward, too, harsh as it will be. He has a royal-sized ego but a considerably smaller brain. He is paranoid, angry, and petulant, demanding the spotlight and then complaining about media intrusion. He appears to be in constant psychological distress and, to be fair, is spoiled for sources to which he can attribute it. He grew up famous. He idealizes his mother, who was a raging egotist and manipulator. She was killed when he was twelve, but he could not grieve her loss.
The media has harried Harry all his life, and he now says that he fears that they will kill Meghan as they killed Diana. This is a fantasy of his making. Diana destroyed herself. She constantly schemed to sway the press and public opinion. She exchanged the stifling safety of the royal family for reliance upon the kindness of rich and less responsible outsiders like Dodi Al-Fayed. It was an Al-Fayed driver who crashed the car in Paris after mixing pills and pastis. It was Diana’s choice not to wear a seatbelt.
Harry, like Oedipus, is blindly marching toward the fate he wishes to escape. The child being father to the man, Harry has tied himself to a woman who chases after the cameras and then acts hurt, who rewrites her past so that she is always the victim, and who exploits everyone around her in order to prop up her fictional narratives. No wonder Diana is a heroine to Meghan’s generation. Diana was a harbinger of social-media falsity, asserting her human right to speak her truth, even if it was not true. No wonder Harry tells us how happy he is while also telling us how traumatized he feels.
Diana has become a kind of popular saint for the age of therapeutic passive-aggression. Meanwhile, Charles I, the last Habsburg emperor, has become a candidate for real sainthood. Anything is possible with royalty, for royalty is a metaphysical quality. Elizabeth II believes she is God’s anointed monarch. Who are we to differ, given that her anointing with holy oil in Davidic fashion was televised before the whole world in 1953?
This one will run and run, and the conflict between the old order of stoical duty (Elizabeth II) and the new order of digital celebrity (Meghan and Harry) obscures the deeper processes of the Hegelian script-in-progress. There has never been a greater appetite for images of power and celebrity. The royals remain the greatest show on Earth, and the Marks & Spencer monarchy of William and Kate will keep the Firm in business long after we are pushing up the daisies. Across the West, the democratic fever of the three centuries between King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland’s execution and George VI’s apotheosis by radio is visibly subsiding. For the first time since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a popular movement, Brexit, has affirmed rather than reduced the constitutional importance of the monarchy and secured the approval of Parliament. No wonder the Sphinx of Windsor smiles through it all.
- George V: Never a Dull Moment, by Jane Ridley; Harper, 560 pages, $35.
- Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, by Andrew Lownie; Pegasus, 432 pages, $32.
- The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, by Tina Brown; Crown, 592 pages, $35.
- Revenge: Meghan, Harry and the War between the Windsors, by Tom Bower; Blink Publishing, 464 pages, £22.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 1, on page 64
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