As the royal commentariat pore over the minutiae of the statement released by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex concerning their transatlantic future, the bigger question now is how does the House of Windsor move on from the Harry-Meghan episode and set a new course of travel in anticipation of the succession of King Charles III? In this, the second of three articles by Dr Ed Owens, author of The Family Firm, we explore what the monarchy might learn from the last century in order to best prepare for the future.
Lesson two: make way for the Windsor women
I ended my last piece contemplating whether the Sussexes’ new roles will complement the vision of monarchy that is currently taking shape around Prince Charles and Prince William in anticipation of the death of Elizabeth II. We got a taste of this vision at the start of the year when Buckingham Palace released a photo of the queen stood alongside the Prince of Wales, his eldest son, and his eldest son as part of a ‘four generations’ family portrait (for which there are precedents dating back to the 1890s). This came on the back of more playful scenes where Elizabeth II watched on as all three heirs mixed Christmas puddings in support of a new British Legion initiative.
These photographic events were significant. They pointed firmly to the kingly future of the House of Windsor and provided the six-year-old Prince George with a taste of the life of public service that lies ahead of him. The emphasis on the male-centred line of succession was also communicated to viewers of the queen’s annual Christmas broadcast. All three future kings could be seen in the photos that perched next to the monarch as she read out her message; ‘secondary’ members of her family (including her other children and the Sussexes) did not feature.
The slimming down of the monarchy to the principle cast of royals who will be responsible for overseeing the crown’s continuation is part of an ongoing process to mitigate criticism over how much royal ‘hangers-on’ cost the taxpayer. Put simply, the British have baulked at the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by many members of the extended royal family. And, given the ability of minor royals to attract public scandal through shady friendships or pricey holidays, it makes sense for the core group to be seen outwardly cutting ties.
However, it seems the royals in charge of the ‘trimming’ neither wished for nor anticipated Harry and Meghan’s sudden exit. The Prince of Wales, in particular, will be at a loss now that his second son has moved to North America. Downsizing, whether deliberately or not, clearly has its disadvantages too. Until now, the heir to the throne had been able to rely on the Duke of Sussex as a trusted ‘lieutenant’ and a steadfast ambassador of the family firm.
Every royal generation has its deputies, be they dutiful Annes or mischievous Margarets. These individuals are meant to loyally support the dynasty by doing good public work and by upholding the family-centred narrative that became key to the crown’s image during the reign of George V. However, they have often struggled to settle into roles that necessarily require them to play second fiddle to older siblings who will one day become king or queen. Although motivated by various personal reasons, Harry’s withdrawal from frontline service also follows in this tradition.
Since the early 2000s, Charles has carefully remoulded his public persona to emphasise his personal qualities as a loving father to two dutiful sons and, more recently, as a grandfather to a growing brood of child princes and princesses. His reputation has been enhanced by William and Harry’s popularity and they have, in turn, helped to rescue their father’s image after it was tarnished by the public breakdown of his marriage to Princess Diana in the early 1990s and her death in 1997. The admiration the princes displayed for their father at the time of his 70th birthday, along with the emphasis that both placed on his industrious nature, suggested that the three men were ready to face the future together.
Harry’s departure, along with the rift that now separates him from his brother, signalled the end of this phase of royal public relations. The immediate difficulty the Prince of Wales faces is that the House of Windsor might not have very long to adapt to the changed circumstances.
Elizabeth II will celebrate her 94th birthday on 21 April. Over the last decade, she and her team of advisors have put in place various constitutional and symbolic measures in order to help ensure a certain degree of continuity at the moment her reign comes to an end and that of her son, presumably as Charles III, begins. For example, the queen has made a point of appearing alongside her heir at official occasions.
And yet, the succession will inevitably bring with it challenges.
For an institution that places its own survival ahead of all else, the success of this moment will be absolutely crucial. The most striking difference will be the shift from a female-centred, family monarchy to one that rests on the shoulders of a man who, in his late middle age, will likely want to build a legacy that focuses on his life-long crusade as an environmentalist. However, any form of political activism, even on the now uncontentious issue of the climate emergency, still has the potential to upset the fragile balance of power that separates the constitutional monarchy from government decision-making.
The success of the monarchy in riding out the storms of the 20th century can partly be attributed to the way it successfully detached itself from the macho world of high politics. In becoming the non-partisan symbol of Britain’s royal democracy, the crown underwent what historians have termed a ‘feminisation’. Not only were many of the major figures at the centre of the Windsor family from the 1920s onwards influential women (eg Queen Mary, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and of course the current monarch), but the values that came to redefine royalty were those traditionally regarded as feminine in character.
Care for the poor and the suffering became a fundamental tenet of the royal family’s remit with the First World War and then with the enfranchisement of working-class people in 1918. Likewise, as a new celebrity culture emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, so the royal family put their personal lives on public view – for example, through elaborately staged weddings – in order to engender the emotional attachment of new media audiences. The emphasis on the House of Windsor’s idyllic domesticity was also intended to set a good example to the rest of the population, which was one of the reasons why Edward VIII’s choice of a divorcée as his future queen was so problematic.
After the strong-willed Edward abdicated in 1936, he was replaced by his brother, George VI. To quote historian David Cannadine, he was ‘the ideal man to take on the emasculated job of being a constitutional monarch’, precisely because he lacked the dynamism and political voice of his predecessor. Supported by an unwavering wife, a formidable mother, and two daughters – both of whom he adored – George would become the ‘ultimate castrated male’, obediently leading a royal family in which ‘kings reigned, but matriarchy ruled’.
On acceding to the throne in 1952, Elizabeth II became the inheritor and main proponent of the values that had defined her father’s reign. And, to this day, domesticity and duty remain her watchwords. A strong female presence has thus guided the British monarchy’s evolution for more than one hundred years and is at least partly responsible for its remarkable success as a self-perpetuating elite institution.
In order to continue in the vein of his mother when he eventually succeeds her, the Prince of Wales might look to elevate the roles played by the royal women closest to him – notably his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and daughter-in-law, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. Indeed, we may have already caught a glimpse of what the enhanced roles of both women might look like.
In recent weeks, Camilla has very publicly reaffirmed her support for victims of domestic abuse, addressing a social problem that had until recently been largely ignored by the British government. Meanwhile, Kate has been promoting the ‘5 Big Questions’ initiative – a UK-wide survey which aims to collate information on how best to care for children under the age of five in order to improve their life chances. This is a smart, democratic exercise, which continues a royal tradition of speaking out on the importance of good parenting while carefully avoiding preaching about the rights and wrongs of family life. Instead, it provides members of the public with the opportunity to put their views across.
With the Sussexes gone, the future queen consorts who will one day be crowned alongside their husbands seem well positioned to take on even greater roles as part of the family firm. It remains to be seen how their public images will develop, but courtiers would do well to heed the examples of the past to ensure that, for every bit of positive coverage showered on the next three kings in the line of succession, an equal amount of attention is devoted to the women. This is especially important given how the crown has historically prospered under the influence of strong Windsor women.
Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. His recent publication, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53’, is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. For queries please contact email@example.com or tweet to @DrEdOwens.