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How the British Royal Family Went From Imperial Rulers to National Mascots

Once upon a time, kings, queens, and princes were revered instead of hounded by paparazzi.

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God save the Queen/The fascist regime“—opening lyrics of “God Save the Queen” by The Sex Pistols, released in 1977

On December 3, 1993, Princess Diana made a public plea to be left alone: “I hope you can find it in your hearts to understand and to give me the time and space that has been lacking in recent years.” Though she was separated from Prince Charles at the time, her divorce would not be completed until August 28, 1996. Diana died a year later in a Paris car crash on August 31, 1997. She was only 36. The driver of her car was both speeding and drunk, but in 2008 a British inquest jury found that he wasn’t the only one to blame. They put a share of the responsibility on the paparazzi that had been pursuing her that night, much as they’d chased her for years.

Diana left behind two boys. Decades later, they opened up about the misery they experienced under the harsh scrutiny of the tabloid press. Prince Harry was particularly traumatized. “The damage for me was being a little boy aged eight, nine, 10, whatever it was, wanting to protect your mother and finding it very difficult seeing her very upset,” Harry reflected in 2017. “About every single time she went out there’d be a pack of people waiting for her. And I mean a pack, like a pack of dogs, followed her, chased her, harassed her, called her names, spat at her, tried to get a reaction to get that photograph of her lashing out, get her upset.”

Harry also revealed that soon after her death he had a uniquely scarring experience: “My mother had just died, and I had to walk a long way behind her coffin, surrounded by thousands of people watching me while millions more did on television. I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances…” In the video below, he is still roughly a week away from his 13th birthday.

 

Contrast this with Henry VIII, King of England from 1509 to 1547. He executed his critics (such as Sir Thomas More), his close advisers (like Sir Thomas Cromwell), and even his queens (two out of six). When denied the annulment of a marriage by the Catholic Church, he created his own, the Church of England.

Today, the members of the royal family appear genuinely fond of each other and, with the notable exception of Prince Charles, they’re liked by the public. Yet the royals often seem besieged, struggling to handle overwhelming attention and obligations. They have prestige but no apparent power. Whereas they once ruled an empire that stretched around the globe, now they often publicly long for a humbler existence. Indeed, Prince William—likely the future King of England—has made a point of declaring he doesn’t want his children “growing up behind palace walls” and has said he “will fight for them to have a normal life.” 

This is the story of how Britain’s royal family took on this strange new role, as much mascots as monarchs.

The Plummet in Power. Foreign leaders visiting the U.K. today still frequently meet with the Queen, who remains the official head of state. But often the photo ops turn out to be more inept than inspiring.

 

For actual government business, they head to Parliament to meet with the Prime Minister. This separation between head of state and head of government evolved over hundreds of years, but there were a handful of key steps in the Prime Minister seizing primacy:     

1215: The Magna Carta. King John agreed to restrictions on his power in an (unsuccessful) attempt to avoid civil war. The Great Charter‘s significance lasts to this day, codifying individual rights of free men and placing legal limits on the monarch. It also served as one of the inspirations for our own Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

1688: The Glorious Revolution. Also known as the Bloodless Revolution, this seminal moment saw Catholic King James II replaced by Protestants William and Mary. It was hardly the first time a ruler saw their reign unexpectedly end and Mary was the daughter of James, so the throne was kept in the family. Yet it provided a lasting boost to the power of Parliament, particularly when it came to the nation’s finances. Put simply, the royal family was losing control of tax revenue and a monarchy isn’t much without money.

1721: The New Position of Power. While the term “Prime Minister” wouldn’t catch on in his lifetime, Sir Robert Walpole is often named by historians as the first de facto British prime minister. (Notably, A.J.P. Taylor asserted Walpole was “as much the first modern Prime Minister we should recognize as Adam was the first man.”) However, “prime minister” was originally a mocking term—it suggested someone around the king had forgotten their place. Walpole made a point of rejecting the moniker, announcing in 1741: “I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister.” 

1782–1784: Modifying the Monarchy. The historian Lord Robert Blake pinpointed this period as when Britain shifted “from a monarch who was the real head of the executive, an active political force concerned with the day-to-day issues of government” to becoming essentially a “veto” by possessing “the right to dismiss the Prime Minister and so the right to prevent the implementation of policies he disliked.” Did the king or queen still have a great deal of power? Absolutely—the Prime Minister served at the king or queen’s pleasure. But increasingly, the monarchy was removed from the action, like a board of directors that only meets a few times a year to advise the CEO.

1834–1835: Slipping Away. Once removed from the day-to-day matters, it’s easy to keep drifting into irrelevancy. Blake cited this stretch as the period when the shift occurred “from the King’s government to party government.” 

1878: Acknowledging the Obvious. A century and a  half after the office of Prime Minister began, Benjamin Disraeli took a bold step: He admitted he was one and described himself as such in the the Treaty of Berlin.

It should be noted that the modern royal family, in theory at least, is hardly helpless. The British Monarchist Foundation insists Queen Elizabeth II technically retains incredible power. They quote the constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot as asserting the queen “could disband the army; she could dismiss all the officers . . .she could sell off all our ships-of-war and all our naval stores; she could make a peace by the sacrifice of Cornwall and begin a war for the conquest of Brittany. She could make every citizen in the United Kingdom, male or female, a peer; she could make every parish in the United Kingdom a ‘University’; she could dismiss most of the civil servants, and she could pardon all offenders.”

Of course, she or any of her successors almost certainly will never even attempt these things. Why? Because the British royal family has a combined net worth estimated at as high as $88 billion. And taking actions of that sort would likely anger the British government and public, which in turn could jeopardize that fortune. As a result, the royals have embraced a much more symbolic role where they’re less leaders than goodwill ambassadors.

In theory, this has the makings of an ideal arrangement. As Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.” The royal family has been relieved of the stress and hard work that goes into actual governance, yet still has access to the trappings of a regal life. Shouldn’t this be the perfect existence?

Hardly. Instead, the royals have gradually seen a reversal that Henry VIII never imagined: They’re now often at the mercy of the general public, not the other way around.

From Protected to Pursued. In general, there’s been a steep erosion of royal privacy in recent years. Whereas the juiciest royal scandals previously could be quickly covered up, now the royals can find themselves exposed even when they’re literally doing nothing.

1936: Protecting the Prince. The Prince of Wales (and soon-to-be king) is in love with an American socialite who’s on the verge of her second divorce. But this was a very different era, in the sense that the British press initially cooperated to keep this information from the public. Of course, word eventually got out and Edward VIII abdicated the throne less than a year after he assumed it in order to marry Wallis Simpson. He told the nation, “…But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” Incredibly, he may have possessed an even bigger scandal—Edward has long been rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer. (As highlighted in the Netflix series The Crown.)

1971: Take a Picture, It Lasts Longer. Princess Margaret, the only sibling of reigning Queen Elizabeth II, famously loved the Caribbean island of Mustique. She owned a holiday home there. It was also the site of some famous photos. There was one taken with Roddy Llewellyn, a landscape gardener that the married Margaret had an affair with for years. There was another taken with John “Biffo” Bindon. They may or may not have had an affair too. Regardless, the Queen probably would have frowned on Biffo as a royal companion, as he often exposed himself in pubs to display a penis of reportedly above average size. He later killed a man. (Even in the infamous Margaret photo, where he’s not engaging in any outlandish or violent acts, Biffo wears a T-shirt reading “Enjoy Cocaine.”) Then there were allegedly some explicit shots of Margaret snapped on Mustique. The public didn’t see these photos, however, because the British domestic security agency MI5 allegedly helped conduct a 1971 bank robbery to snatch them from a safe deposit box. (At least, that’s the rumor, all played out on film in Jason Statham’s 2008 effort The Bank Job.)

This is to say that the royal family was engaging in (and generally getting away with) behavior the current generation wouldn’t even dare to imagine.

1977: Played by the Pistols. With lyrics like “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being”, the Sex Pistols mercilessly baited Her Majesty with their single “God Save the Queen.” The Pistols even crashed the Queen’s Silver Jubilee anniversary celebration, giving a concert on a boat cruising the Thames. The result was a smash hit, albeit one that inexplicably stalled at #2. (Rumors spread that the numbers were rigged to spare the Queen the humiliation of it topping the charts.) There was also a very real, very physical backlash. Police raided the riverboat and allegedly beat up the Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren. In a separate incident, Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten was stabbed in the hand by a man shouting, “We love the Queen!

 

1981: A Royal Wedding (Take 1). 17 million Americans dragged themselves out of bed before dawn to overcome the time zone difference and witness the fairytale nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, making our small contribution to the 750 million total who tuned in around the world.

 

1992: Foot in Your Mouth. Looking back, this seems to be the turning point. After six years of marriage, the Duke and Duchess of York announced their separation. Months later, The Daily Mirror distributed photos of Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson in St. Tropez with her “financial advisor.” He was not advising her in this shot, however—he was sucking on her toes. Whereas in the past such antics were often discreetly kept from public view, no one was fighting for Fergie this time and it remains a punchline to this day. (In fairness, she helped keep the memory alive by seeking guidance from Dr. Phil.)

 

Soon another rocky royal relationship would make even bigger headlines.

1993: Chatting with Camilla. Recorded in 1989 but not widely distributed until four years later, Charles had a conversation with his eventual second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. It was even more cringe-inducing than expected, as he expressed a desire to “live inside your trousers.” When she replied, “What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers?” Charles mused, “Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck.” This proved a tough year all around for royalty—it was also when the Queen agreed to start paying income tax.

1997: The Death of Diana. In 2018, former Prime Minister Tony Blair revealed the Queen’s reaction to the tragedy: “She was most worried about the impact on the boys, obviously sad about Diana, and concerned about the monarchy itself because the Queen has a very strong instinct about public opinion and how it plays out…” The aftermath of Diana’s passing is well explored in the 2006 film The Queen. In short: It was a desperate struggle to balance respect for royal tradition—which holds that the monarchy itself survives even when an individual passes away: “The king is dead, long live the king!”—with the public’s desire to grieve. (As noted, it appears William and Harry often got the short straw in this exchange.) Diana’s brother did little to hide his rage during this time, taking a dig at the other royals during his eulogy when he called Princess Di: “Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.” 

2005: A Wedding (Take 2): Prince Charles married for the second time, finally to the woman he had loved all along, Camilla. Just 3.6 million Americans watched.

2007: Recalled from Duty. While in the British Army, Prince Harry secretly went to Afghanistan to work as a forward air traffic controller, guiding fighter jets to potential Taliban targets. After a mere ten weeks, the press reported it. For security reasons, his tour ended. He was still incensed about the decision a decade later: “I felt very resentful. Being in the army was the best escape I’ve ever had. I felt as though I was really achieving something.” (He was allowed to return in 2012 as commander of an attack helicopter.)

2011: The Wedding (Take 3). William wed Kate and their nuptials proved far more popular stateside than either of his father’s efforts, as 23 million Americans tuned in. (In fairness, by this point there were 80 million more of us than in 1981.)

2012: No Privacy… A French magazine published photos taken with a telephoto lens of Kate Middleton sunbathing topless on a terrace at a private estate. It was a particularly jarring intrusion because there was no “moral” component to it. (Though Fergie was separated at the time of the toe sucking, she was technically engaging in extramarital activity, much as Charles was when he had his notorious conversation with Camilla.) But this was a recently married woman, vacationing with her husband in what she believed to be a spot far from prying eyes, only to cruelly discover that wasn’t the case. Unsurprisingly, she and William went to court. And somehow it got more humiliating. 

2017: …No Justice. Five years later, a French court fined two executives from the publication €45,000 each and awarded both Kate and William a payment of €50,000. Meaning the publication was able to get massive global attention for a total expenditure of about $220,000. 

Which brings us to today.

The Modern Monarchy. Late in “God Save the Queen,” Johnny Rotten shrieks, “God save the Queen/’Cuz tourists are money!”

That continues to be case. The Nielsen ratings found that 29.2 million Americans tuned in to watch the most recent royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Indeed, the accountancy firm Brand Finance reported that the royal marriage generated more than £1 billion ($1.28 billion) in tourism, retail, fashion, merchandising, and PR value for brands. Which makes the nuptials’ estimated price tag of $42.8 million seem quite reasonable. Over $40 million of that went to security—this chunk was primarily left to taxpayers. Not that the royals are struggling for money. In 2017, the Queen’s income was increased from 15 to 25 percent of the profits of the Crown Estate. (That worked out to 82 million pounds—just over $100 million.)

In general, the public seems to have a high opinion of the royals. A 2017 YouGov poll found the favorability ratings of the Queen, William, Kate, and Harry all topped 70 percent. (Charles apparently remains unforgiven for his betrayal of Diana—he came in at 36 percent.)

Harry has stated that he and the family have come to see their roles as more of a duty than a privilege, telling Newsweek in 2017 that it was all for the “greater good of the people.” He has expressed an interest in “modernizing the British monarchy,” but admits if modernized too much, it might lose its public appeal: “It’s a tricky balancing act. We don’t want to dilute the magic. The British public and the whole world need institutions like it.”

“Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen?” Harry  wondered.

He answered his own question, “I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.”

Maybe it’s not so good to be the king, after all.