But the British monarchy is distinctly unusual in having thrived during the 20th and 21st centuries – when so many others have fallen by the wayside – to become one of the most respected and celebrated families in the world. The British Royals quite literally and deliberately reinvented themselves to remain relevant.
We got in touch with writer and speaker Jessica Fellowes – author of new novel The Mitford Murders and five official companion books to Downton Abbey – for her expert insight into dynasties and how the British Royals have saved themselves from becoming an anachronism.
“It really begins with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert,” says Jessica. “They arrived after a series of very louche kings – like George III and William IV – who misbehaved and weren’t interested in setting any kind of example for their subjects.”
Kings no longer led governments or their armies into battle, and the Royal Family was in danger of becoming directionless – a rich yet pointless institution at risk of incurring the wrath of its subjects, as had been the case for many other monarchies. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert pinpointed the need for a renewed sense of duty.
“The’ve successfully blended tradition with pomp and ceremony and modern communications”
“They recognised that the Royals needed to serve as a blueprint – a model family for the nation,” says Jessica. “In a way, they almost downgraded themselves. They retained their aura of mystique, and all the pomp and ceremony that comes with being Royal, but were essentially quite a suburban family in the way they behaved – for example, Prince Albert growing vegetables in the garden for his children.”
During the First World War, the Royal Family distanced itself from the German enemy by rebranding from the House of Saxe-Coburg to the House of Windsor that we know and love today, and declining to get involved in rescuing their Russian cousins. The monarchy was leaving some of its past behind, and, in doing so, becoming a more expressly British example to the nation.
“During the Second World War,” says Jessica, “you have George VI and his wife staying in London just like everyone else did, and carrying out their royal duties during the Blitz. And that instilled a really strong work ethic – and Victorian sense of duty – into their daughter, the Princess Elizabeth.”
Their daughter Lilibet would grow up into a paragon of Royal duty: Queen Elizabeth II, the quintessential monarch.
“I have a fascination with the way the British Royal Family has managed to adapt itself successfully to modern life,” says Jessica. “The’ve successfully blended tradition with pomp and ceremony and modern communications, and I find that combination utterly intriguing.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the British Royals constitute one of the most heavily-scrutinised families on the planet, and the sensational news coverage that gained currency in the 20th century – along with the rise of new and social media in the 21st – has made the Royals the subject of more intense interest and conversation than ever before.
“But they’ve used it to their advantage, too,” says Jessica. “They use technology and media to communicate outwardly and further their charitable causes, converting their position and personality into meaningful change. The old school will always say the Royal Family should be mysterious and untouchable in some way, but I don’t know if that is right. I think the Harry, Meghan, Kate and William way of being approachable achieves an awful lot.”
“Victoria arrived after a series of very louche kings who weren’t interested in setting any kind of example for their subjects.”
The young Royals, by their very nature, represent the new face of the British monarchy, and none more so than in the recent marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – which captivated the world with that transatlantic, interracial union of one of the world’s oldest institutions (our Royals) to one of its newest (Hollywood). But is it a significant step forward for the monarchy?
“I don’t know if she’s changed anything yet,” says Jessica. “It’s more that she’s kind of added to it. But it will be interesting to see if she does change things – the big question at the moment is in terms of expressing herself and her opinions, political or otherwise. Will the Royal Family give her that freedom to be a bit more open?
And that, in itself, is a clear step away from the carefully-orchestrated blueblood couplings of yesteryear; even more so than the marriage of William and Kate. What we’re seeing is the Royal Family evolving into a modern family.
The Royal Family are undeniably celebrities, and the new generations of Royals fit this description more neatly than any of their predecessors. Yet there remains a quality that sets them apart from more everyday celebrities. George Clooney and Angelina Jolie may devote time to their roles as UN Ambassadors, but for them duty is a choice.
“We are all going through the same thing – but they do it in larger houses.”
“There is a funny feeling with the Royals,” says Jessica. “We sense it must be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand you are born into this privilege – a life of comfort and no worries about money – but on the other hand, there’s no escaping it. You have responsibility, and your job is lined up for you from the outset.”
The Royals today remain committed to the Victorian ideals of being a source of comfort and strength to the nation, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before. As much as they have adapted to the demands of the media, technology and the concept of celebrity, the Royals’ sense of duty remains resolutely unaltered.
“William and the Queen, for example, going down to Grenfell Tower so quickly after the fire and just talking to people and shaking hands… not only was that a very good thing to do, it was the right thing to do,” says Jessica.
“The modern way is about everybody shaking hands, meeting and talking on an equal level. The Royals understand that, and you’ve got William and Kate and Harry and Meghan, all with their own charities and engagement. Yet they are, of course, also living a very royal life. The way they portray that balance is compelling.”
It’s these frictions that make them unique: the unsolicited fame and inescapable responsibilities; the life of extreme privilege contrasted with the underprivileged they seek to help.
Yet none of the above explains why we remain so enduringly fascinated by the monarchy – it merely outlines how they have adapted to remain relevant and beneficial over the last century or so.
So what is it that keeps us glued to our sets as we await the arrival of a royal baby? Why was the Queen’s the third most-viewed Wikipedia page in 2017? What is it that makes The Crown one of Netflix’s biggest success stories? The answer is deceptively simple.
“Essentially, it always comes down to family,” says Jessica. “It’s the same reason we love a soap opera. We like watching this group of people whose dynamics are more or less the same as our own, and seeing how they handle it.”
They are both a vessel and a mirror for our emotions and our experiences; we see the best – and the worst – of ourselves in them, while they seek to exemplify not only the essence of Britishness, but the very qualities that makes us human.
“We’ve seen the Royal Family go through all kinds of things,” says Jessica. “Bereavement, divorce, arguments and romances. At some level, we are all going through the same thing – but they do it in larger houses, with style, grace and good humour.
“And that’s why we love watching them.”
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