The British royal family is a unique survivor of the past. This survival has been explained in many ways. Norman Davies in The Isles refers to the familiar point that Britain has escaped recent revolution and foreign invasion. A.N. Wilson in The Victorians talks of Queen Victoria retreating from public life after the death of her husband, making the monarchy "not worth abolishing". Others such as William Bagehot describe the monarchy more positively as giving stability, interest and mystique to government. In fact the real reason for the monarchy's survival could be involved with the usual bottom line, money. The modern royal family has ruled during an unprecedented period of industrialisation. Aspiration was required to drive demand for goods being made in new factories. Royalty has always played a major role in setting fashion trends. Trends in clothing, motoring, garden design, food, hotels, jewelry, Christmas customs, have all been set by the modern royal family. In the end the royal family's role might be a contradictory one. They represent stability through a time of unprecedented social and industrial change, and yet they have contributed fundamentally to that change by being figureheads of aspiration which drove industrialisation in the first place.
Edward VII succeeded Victoria on 22nd of November 1901. The general image now of Edward is one of a dissolute playboy who did nothing except lounge around in the south of France, or enjoy country house weekends at Sandringham, his Norfolk retreat. In many ways this image is a distortion created by jealous politicians, particularly Arthur Balfour. A dismissive attitude amongst the parliamentary set is also illustrated by the wife of prime minister Herbert Asquith, who said of Edward: "He subscribes to his cripples, rewards his sailors, reviews his soldiers and opens bridges, bazaars, hospitals and railway tunnels with enviable sweetness" (quoted A.N Wilson After The Victorians P7). Historians often like the stories they tell to have a neat sense of development. In the twentieth century kings were no longer supposed to have a useful role to play. Life, however, is rarely neat. Edward was actually a major social leader, setting many important fashion trends. He was in huge demand by towns, cities and industrial concerns all over Britain, who realised Edward's presence could make a great deal of money for them. On occasion Edward also played a significant political role, even if Balfour tried to play this down.
Edward's successor, his son George V, is a significant monarch in the sense that he reigned through a time when most remaining European royal families disappeared. While historians tend to attack Edward VII for being a playboy, George V is often dismissed as being boring, only interested in stamp collecting, punctuality and uniforms. In fact George played a much more prominent role in government than is now usually acknowledged. There were many occasions when his symbolic and actual role as a stable constant helped politicians of his day. In the contradictory role that British monarchs now had to play, George V was much more of a stabilising influence than his fashion setting father. In the interests of national stability George changed the name of the royal family from SaxeCoburg - a reminder of the family's Hanoverian origins - to the English sounding Windsor.
George V died on 20th January 1936, and the story of his son Edward VIII is one of the most remarkable royal stories in recent history. It is often presented in a romantic light. A.N. Wilson for example talks of Edward as a young man, in his early forties, good looking, and intelligent, irritating a government of old men. Certainly Edward had an effect on people that can only be compared with that of Princess Diana in more recent times. Wilson also describes Edward romantically as a political radical who toured mining communities in south Wales, and annoyed prime minister Stanley Baldwin by saying "something must be done". But the romantic story is, in the opinion of other writers, overdone. Edward's biographer Philip Zeigler describes Baldwin as actually grateful to Edward for giving the impression that at least some members of the establishment were interested in the fate of ordinary people. Edward was not forced out by scheming politicians. There is in fact a much more interesting story to tell of a man terrified of being king who consciously or not, seemed to engineer a situation which would make it impossible for him to continue as monarch. Instead of simply resigning, he had done it all for love. Edward wrote his own love story, and others have told it since. In fact the story of Edward VIII is one in which the old sense of divine authority met the realities of a more modern age. This meeting took place in a young man who was being set up as a semi divine idol, and who did not want to play such a role. Edward fled to France to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson, while his brother took over the throne as George VI.
Following Edward's short reign, George his brother played up the role of proving a model of stability. Unfortunately this model was expected to extend itself to his family's relationships. Following Edward's abdication Archbishop Lang made a smug broadcast lamenting the fact that Edward could not live up to the morals of Christianity, or the "best instincts and traditions of his people". This broadcast made Lang widely unpopular and was to rebound back on the royal family. Having a royal family provide symbolic stability through continuity and tradition is one thing: setting up an individual family as a model of good behaviour is another. Although George VI led a suitably blameless life, his daughter Princess Margaret had to give up the man she loved because he was divorced, and Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth II, living as model a life as her father, had to endure seeing three of her four children ending their marriages in divorce.
Diana Memorial Fountain, Hyde Park
It was the marriage and divorce of her eldest son Charles that was to cause Elizabeth II the greatest crisis of her reign. In 1981 a vulnerable young woman called Diana Spencer, with a personality deeply bruised by a difficult childhood, walked into the strange royal world. She left her job as a nursery school teacher to become the first English woman in the present royal family to marry a British king or his heir apparent. While the story is obscured by claim and counter claim, it appears, to a greater or lesser extent, that Diana was chosen largely because she was considered suitable as a young, easily controlled show wife. Diana would claim that Charles never stopped his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Charles would claim that initially at least he did his very best to make the marriage work. Whatever the truth, the marriage was a disaster, playing itself out in the full glare of cruel media attention.
When Diana died in 1997, the year after her official divorce from Charles, there was a huge and spontaneous outpouring of grief, which was incredible to witness. Diana, the young English woman who once worked as a nursery school teacher, was easy to identify with. This, combined with natural empathy, and a seemingly constant need for media attention, even in claiming to hate it, produced a potent mixture which captured the British public's attention. Perhaps Diana's tragedy was the tragedy of an image of stability colliding with the reality of a changing world. Diana was expected to be a model of stability when she actually was very good at presenting that other vital image of modern royalty, that of fashion leader. Her haircuts were reproduced in countless salons, and her clothes influenced fashion generally. Fashions change, and while royalty are expected to help drive those changes, they are also expected to sit immutable in the midst of it all. The implicit stress in this dual role was played out in the drama of Diana's life.
Following Diana's death the royal family settled down somewhat, quietly playing up its comforting ceremonial aspects. Diana's sons, particularly Harry, got into the odd scrape as young men do. But they were both in the armed forces, and generally speaking were not candidates for the job of fashion leader in the mould of Edward VII or Diana. Charles made a few headlines with his comments on green politics and architecture. But in no way could he be seen as a fashion leader. In fact his green politics would probably make him actively hostile to such a conception of himself. The big new hope for the royal family must be Kate Middleton. Her marriage to Prince William in April 2011 generated huge revenues. The Centre for Retail Research reported a boost in trade of £515.5 million for retailers, with souvenirs accounting for £222 million (see You'd be a mug to sneer at royal wedding souvenirs, in BBC History Magazine April 2011). In the build up to the wedding, clothing and hair fashions were already being influenced by the royal bride. Her rain mac seemed particularly popular. Money has always been important in the royal family's value and survival, and the royal family need Kate Middleton.
If you visit London in June you can see living history, as the Queen attends the Trooping of the Colour on Horse Guards Parade just off the Mall. Start queuing from 6am to get a good view. I also suggest a walk past St James's Palace. This palace built by Henry VIII is the place where the Accession Council meets on the death of a monarch, and where a new monarch is announced. The modern royal family's role is simply to be there, in an almost Biblical manner, generation after generation. The Bible loved its genealogies. Genealogies take you back into the past in easy steps, back in the case of the Bible to the beginning of time. The families of the Bible were famously turbulent, and did not represent stability in their behaviour. Genealogies represent stability in the fact that they are a chain leading back to a land of distant origins. The royal family does the same for Britain, and links in the chain are held at St James Palace.
Perhaps the best place to explore the history of the present royal family is at Sandringham in north Norfolk. Sandringham was originally bought by Edward VII, and the history of this country retreat is coincident with the history of the Windsors.