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3 April 2024

The fragile crown

In an age of social media and conspiracy, the royal family is trapped between what it wants and what the public demands.

By Tanya Gold

It’s impossible to look at a royal child without dread these days: what will become of them? I watched the Wales children at the coronation last May, named for a country, yet so fragile, gilded and small. The contortions required of the royal family in an era of social media and conspiracism no longer convince us or make us happy or good: that is obvious from the response to Catherine, the Princess of Wales’s illness. Hilary Mantel once described the royals as endangered bears: “Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment… Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”

The cage remains, but the habitat, and the audience, has changed. It is not deferential, but sentimental. News is not disseminated by once-respectful newspapers but by gossip-mongers, and online. In the social media era, our favour is tidal and whimsical: it can’t be trusted any more. What can? Britain is not a great power, and disillusion – fragmentation – fills the land. The kingdom is sick and unhappy. So are the royals, and I will begin with them, because we pretend they matter more than we do, and then we beat them up. That’s the order of precedence. First them, then us.

This winter both Charles III and Catherine became ill. It was announced in February that the King has an unnamed cancer, discovered during treatment for an enlarged prostate. The Princess of Wales had “planned abdominal surgery” in January and was to be absent from public life until Easter. But when Prince William, at short notice, missed King Constantine of Greece’s memorial service in February and Catherine’s appearance at Trooping the Colour in June was announced and then retracted in March, poisonous conspiracy theories washed around the world. Catherine was anorexic, had been betrayed by her husband, had altered her appearance or was dead. A photograph of the family, taken by Prince William and released on Mother’s Day, was withdrawn by photographic agencies, who said it had been manipulated. Soon afterwards, Catherine confirmed she had edited it and apologised for any confusion. Yet the conspiracies deepened until, on 22 March, Catherine, filmed sitting on a garden bench in Windsor and speaking directly to camera, announced that she has cancer and was receiving “preventative chemotherapy”. She had waited until the start of the Easter school holidays to reveal her illness because she did not wish to alarm her children. In an awful tone, she asked the public for their support.

I’ve long thought that monarchy allows us to imagine our kingdom – our national story – as more interesting and singular than it is. Monarchy is attractive but necrotic: it looks backwards by nature. If there was an opportunity for dynamic monarchy – the Norman lawmakers, perhaps, or the Tudor propagandists – we haven’t taken it. The instruments of monarchy are imperial, and in daylight they look increasingly odd and piteous. It’s a truism of addiction – and many are addicted to monarchy – that the larger your fantasy life, the smaller your real one. Bunting is everywhere, as our national decline becomes explicit, from The Great British Bake Off to the coronation. Bunting is a thread, but a flimsy one.

Constitutional monarchy is the perfect system, a friend told me recently. The monarchs occupy a space to prevent something worse from filling it, he said – a balanced waltz protecting us from predators. He missed the essential part: the frailty of human nature. Particularly when it is denied, and how we deny it: who will protect them from us?

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Monarchy is an impossible contortion, particularly now, when we have no privacy and no patience. We used to want the royals’ silence, on which we could project anything we desired. Elizabeth II excelled at permitting this, with a show of reluctance. Now too many of us want gossip and malice, and I see this as a repudiation of monarchy, both subconscious and self-hating.

Monarchs are supposed to be mortal gods – though increasingly we treat them as toys. I watched the footage of Elizabeth II’s June 1953 coronation at the cinema once. It had to be shown there because she wouldn’t allow it to be repeated on television: she understood that the ceremony was sacred. But, increasingly, Britain’s royals insist on being human – and more importantly, on seeming human – and you cannot be human and divine. We want sorcery and victimhood. You can’t have both. All games have an ending.

Future historians will wonder when it all began to crack. Mantel named an explicit day: 17 September 1980. The sun was in Virgo – the maiden sacrifice – and Diana Spencer, then a nursery-school assistant, was captured by the Sun photographer Arthur Edwards holding two infants and showing her legs, the sun rendering her skirt transparent. The duality was irresistible, and the possibility of the archetype grew in Diana, to her future husband’s evident distress.

Mantel quoted the psychotherapist Warren Colman: “Diana broadcast on an archetypal frequency.” She argued that on this day, vague admiration became insatiable hunger. Perhaps it was the decline of other ancient institutions – the Church, the village, parliament, the empire – but we invested more in monarchy as so much slipped away. Diana needed to be human more than anyone I have thought about: her childhood was an agony of abandonment, and when she married, at 20, she confused status with love. But, inside the House of Windsor, she couldn’t be human any more, and the contradiction ultimately killed her.

Diana was not the first explicitly dehumanised princess (take your pick), but because this is a modern media age, we saw it, and colluded more than before. That trajectory ended with press photographers taking pictures of her dying in a car after an accident in a Paris tunnel, journalists wondering what, if anything, might be inside her womb.

The recent treatment of the current Princess of Wales – glib, raging speculation about her abdominal surgery and absence from public life, demented conspiracies flourishing on social media – was more of this, but supercharged. Even Diana the hunted didn’t have to deal with Twitter/X: a game show in real time, more poisonous than any tabloid hack.

Stalkers were perhaps in the hundreds then: now they are in the millions, and they spur each other on to greater cruelty. No myth, even an effective one, can survive this. The public demanded to know: what is inside you? Catherine eventually told us: cancer. We were briefly ashamed, as we were briefly ashamed when Diana died. It will not last. We see our princesses as Sindy dolls, with infinite uses, futures and woes.

Perceval told Arthur in the 1981 film Excalibur, “You and the land are one.” The news of royal sickness is part of a deeper crisis that began before Elizabeth II, that archetype of stability, died. Prince Harry ran away, told the truth in his memoir Spare and elsewhere – “My father and my brother, they are trapped,” he said, simply – and was denounced as a narcissist, a traitor and a hypocrite. (The system never fails. Only the people.) The Duke of York lost his HRH to a grotesque sex scandal. Now he marshals teddy bears and can’t open his own curtains.

Of the rest, it is easier to list the royal bodies who appear happy than the ones who aren’t. Prince Louis, five, tops the list – but that was before his mother had to testify about her cancer to maniacs. Now the schoolyard knows. The ones who seem happiest are the ones without titles. Princess Margaret denied her children honorifics, and they seem plausibly normal. So did Anne, the Princess Royal, whose children are the same. Do they know something we can’t admit?

The body count mounts, decade to decade. Edward VIII, gone, because he had the wrong wife. To save the family, he was brushed off as a Nazi. (The system never fails. Only the people.) George VI, the stammerer king, wasn’t happy either – though this was finessed in Hollywood style in The King’s Speech. He won the victory over himself, but he didn’t live long to enjoy it. There was his daughter, Princess Margaret of snobbery and heartbreak: gods didn’t marry the divorced then. Charles III – more heartbreak, and later a dead ex-wife. I think Edward VIII chose the wrong wife to get out: no one is exempt from a subconscious. Prince Harry, too: Meghan was his lifeboat. I saw them at the Natural History Museum in February 2019, before they left for America – at a play about evolutionary biology, of all things. Was it an explicit joke, or just funny? I thought two things: people act barking mad around the royals, and I have never seen such palpably unhappy people in such good clothes.

Queen Elizabeth II is admired for many things, but longevity is the chief one: she was the unbreakable doll. There was her ability to hide her humanity, too: the only time she cried in public was when she lost a ship (the royal yacht Britannia). Elizabeth II was exceptional, and lucky: temperamentally suited to being a god. I suspect it has something to do with her mother – a boilerplated narcissist, no room for more at her table – and Adolf Hitler. Elizabeth spent the war at Windsor; she would have seen bombs dropping on Slough. Her survival was Britain’s, and she was a beauty too: that’s an immaculate myth.

But no one is exempt from vanity. Tina Brown, in a recent New York Times essay, wrote that Elizabeth II made a fatal error in not passing the crown to Charles in 2012, in time for him to rule as a younger man, because she loved being Queen. The royal family have briefed against one another since the 1980s and the War of the Waleses. They battle for our favour in newsprint using courtier journalists. In Spare, Harry says Charles frets: “Granny [Elizabeth II] has her person [for planting stories with the press], why can’t I have mine?”

They compete because they think they must: the belief in the benevolence of monarchy has dropped nine points in five years, to 51 per cent (among under-24s, it’s 29 per cent). In holding out, did Elizabeth II brief against Charles III from the afterlife? What they should do if they want to survive as kings is nothing much. They have more in common with municipal parks and mountain ranges than with you and me.

Charles III has none of Elizabeth’s fitness, or luck. He is sensitive, and does not hide it at all. I think his life has not been a preparation for this role but a denial of it: a constant affirmation of his humanity, his imagination, his desires. He needed to change himself (he loved acting), his wife (he left Diana), his country (his new town of Poundbury in Dorset). By any normal emotional criteria, the King has led a life of pain. Robert Hardman’s recent book, Charles III: The Inside Story, shows the monarch revelling in kingship’s toys: the crowns (named Rolex and Patek for the coronation ceremony); the stitching on the coronation robes; “Zadok the Priest”. He took the prize and sickened. That’s a myth, and a mirror to the nation, but an ill one.

William, the Prince of Wales, is no better at being. The Earthshot Prize for environmental innovation is a good endeavour, as is his plea for peace in the Middle East, but not for him because his job is to be, not do. Saving the world is a noble task, but what if you fail? What if he is more Lancelot than Galahad? Harry fled because he wanted to be human, like his mother. I read Spare as whistleblowing, not sour grapes, and it is awful to read. There is frigidity – leaking and solitude – and cruelty. William and the Van Cutsem brothers chase Harry with shotguns through the countryside; a Balmoral gamekeeper stuffs his head into a red deer carcass. At the end Harry frees a hummingbird, and frees himself. He is hated for it. His popularity rating is 27 per cent: he should read that as victory.

First them, then us. That’s the way of precedence. We are not as bewitching as them, which is surely the point – our jewels are smaller, we are uglier – but we suffer. The ways we decline are well documented, but we seem less interested in that than in this: who wouldn’t be? It’s always the prince over the pauper. Britain was ebbing – corrupt, class-ridden, preening, self-deceiving – before Elizabeth II died, but we chose not to see it, exulting in our blindness. That’s excellent sorcery. She gave us the appearance of being everything we wanted, and when she died she took the appearance with her, with a final flourish of her cape.

[See also: The making of Prince William]

Illustration by André Carrilho

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown