The Royal Family and the Power of Disclosure

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Last week, in a post about some of the criticism the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been receiving, I suggested that they “say something.” I said something similar after Kate’s EACH engagement yesterday. That’s pretty vague, so I thought I would expand upon that point.

What the monarchy signifies and how they function is constantly in motion, a statement that perhaps runs counter-intuitively to how they are usually described, which is symbolic of continuity, history and heritage. They are, but how the monarchy embodies that – and carries out its agenda – changes, sometimes almost imperceptibly, with every generation. This has been particularly true for the royal family of the 20th and 21st centuries, which has had to align with and press against the constant presence of the media. Since the dawn of time, monarchies – like any political institution – have been reacting and adapting to popular opinion, but there are few other factors that have had more of an impact on the perception and behavior of a monarchy than the evolution of the modern press and how it disseminates its information.

Of course, so, too, do social mores. What appeals to the peers of Queen Elizabeth is less effective to the peers of Prince Charles, and potentially lost altogether on the peers of Prince William.

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Today, the monarchy is at an interesting point. Queen Elizabeth is enormously popular, but she is also in the last decade of her reign. In due course, the throne will pass to her son, Prince Charles, who has not enjoyed the same consistent popularity, affected, in part, by fulfilling the unenviable – and vague – role of heir to the throne. Though approaching 70, he is still from a younger generation, a Baby Boomer, and the experiences and outlook he brings to the throne will be much altered from that of his  mother. He has gone through a divorce and remarriage, he was a single father for a period of time to two teenage boys, and he matured alongside a generation that places a greater emphasis on personal happiness and self-actualization, which has better-seen first hand the stunning effects of globalization and partaken more directly with technological advances. He is also a man that, unlike his mother, has not been burdened with the isolation of ruling since the age of 25. He has had, so to speak, to create a job and a purpose for himself.

Whatever your opinion of Prince Charles is – or to what extent you think he has been an active member of his own generation – those basic facts remain unchanged.

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When the throne eventually passes to William, it will change again. His reign, if effective, will have to shift to adapt to the times and popular demands.

What becomes interesting, though, is how the monarchy acts when there is both a sovereign and multiple generations of future sovereigns simultaneously. It’s a situation that Queen Elizabeth didn’t really have to deal with as an heir, at least not for very long. The last time a similar situation played out was the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1890s. And indeed, there was a sharp break between her and the future Edward VII, and between him and the future George V. God help us all when we start discussing the Duke of Windsor.

Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V and Edward VIII in 1894

So, what does this look like? Well, I believe it means that William and his generation of the royal family shouldn’t look to previous generations as a blue print for how to behave. Certainly, the Queen is an exceptional role model, as is her father, George VI. But the issues they faced will not be the issues that William and, to a lesser extent, Harry take on.

I remember reading an article before William and Kate were even engaged that posited Kate wanted to base her role and career in the Royal Family on the example of the Queen Mother. She wanted to be a well-liked public figure that did her bit, but wasn’t known for making waves or, arguably, what she said or did. In retrospect, this bothers me, though, to be clear, I have no idea if it’s true. I hope that it’s not.

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The Queen Mother was an excellent queen consort and well-deserving of her popularity, but what the world expects from its public figures has changed. Candor, accessibility, transparency – these are necessities for survival.

Now, this doesn’t mean returning to one of the WORST decades in the royal family’s history (aka the 1990s) when domestic dramas, emotional upheavals and personal neuroses were put on full display for the gaping public. But what it does mean is that humanity should be instilled throughout the institution.

One of the biggest mental hurdles to process when considering historical kings and queens is wrapping your head around how they thought about themselves as a person and how they thought about themselves as sovereign. When you see an image of Elizabeth II in her coronation robes, you see a familiar woman wearing what is essentially an ornate costume. We know she is wearing it because of its historical significance. We know, too, that it’s symbolic. Whether it’s a conscious thought or not, we also separate out the woman from her clothes and what they represent. We suspect that she does too – that she is fully cognizant of the fact that she assuming a mantle. That there is a separation between her, as herself, and her, as the monarch. Essentially, the  line between public and private.

Royal portrait unveiled

But that line is a relatively modern concept. When Henry V put on his coronation robes and was anointed king in 1413 he did not delineate between Harry the man and Harry the king. When the man was annointed, the man was the king. This is not to say that men and women didn’t have private thoughts or feelings, or that their behavior didn’t change when they were in public versus among their own, but the simple fact that there was no separation between personhood and kingship is key to understanding those figures’ existence.

Today, that line is in place, but its shape is shifting. Once upon a time, the public didn’t ask for a show of emotion, or insight into private thoughts. A glimpse into the personal life wasn’t comforting, it was scandalous. Everyone may have felt sorry for Queen Victoria in the early days of her widowhood in the 1860s, but had she spoken at length about how much she missed Prince Albert, or her sadness and loneliness in his passing – well, I can’t fully imagine how people would have reacted, because it would. Never. Have. Happened.

Compare this to Queen Elizabeth’s touching toast about Prince Philip when they celebrated 50 years of marriage in 1997 by saying:

“Prince Philip is simply my rock. He is my foundation stone. He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has quite simply been my strength and stay all these years, and I and his whole family . . . owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or wish to know.”

Compare, too, the 19th century’s Princess of Wales with the 20th century’s. Alexandra of Denmark married the future Edward VII in 1863 and would fulfill the position of Princess of Wales until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. That position entailed not only marrying “Bertie,” as he was known to his family, but delivering him six children, staying silent in the face of German sympathies because being an English princess trumped being a Danish woman, and, perhaps worst of all, never flinching in the face of her husband’s continuous infidelity. Whatever her private thoughts were, whatever opinions she may have shared with her husband or close confidantes, they’re lost to us now – we never had them to begin with.

Alexandra and Bertie

Diana, Princess of Wales was a game-changer. I was not her contemporary, but certainly even in hindsight there is something almost mythical about her trajectory. Her life is still admirable and fascinating; her death is still shocking. She was also magnificently human and she understood that her power came from connection. For all the things she was and possessed that should have separated her out from the public, should have made her seem untouchable, she instead leveraged that position to make the messy and ordinary acceptable. Depression, bulimia, an unhappy marriage – well, if they could happen to her, then how could anyone else be blamed if they happened to them?

Diana wasn’t a saint. She had flaws and made mistakes – she did them publicly and sometimes the way she did them damaged the institution of the monarchy. And that’s the rub, of course, because if you are within the institution than it comes first. It’s public service. And if you marry into it, well, in today’s world, then you chose it. Your happiness comes second. Historically, if existing within it drowned you, then you drowned. That was your duty to the crown.

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Diana didn’t drown – she fought back, and she had the ability to do damage when she did. At her worst, she showed what could happen when you stepped too far over the line. The reporter isn’t your therapist. What you say in anger shouldn’t be read in print. The monarchy and the monarch should still be respected – their existence does, in fact, stand for something greater than any one person. But at her best, she showed what the muscle of the crown had the power to do when used well.

I worry that the legacy she left the younger generation isn’t PR savvy, but PR defensiveness. The media didn’t kill Diana, a freak accident of the mundane did. Her sons, but Harry in particular, possess her gift of being able to shrug off their privilege and hand its power to the person with whom they are engaging. And that’s extraordinary – that’s the single best gift their generation of Royals could have. William and Harry are at their best, and their most effective, when they do this.

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A glimpse of it could be seen on Monday when Harry visited Help for Heroes and discussed the mental health issues that can face servicemen and women when they return home. Small snippets from conversations, but taken together with Harry’s recent public acknowledgement that it would have been better for him if he had opened up about his mother’s death when he was younger, and look what you have – a powerful example that illustrates the current agenda of his charitable endeavor with William and Kate, Heads Together. That, more than anything else, is what will de-stigmatize mental health issues.

When I urged them and Kate to “say something,” it’s not to suggest they open up a vein or fully step out from behind the curtain. But it is to acknowledge that monarchs and their spouses can no longer be blank canvases on which the public projects their hopes and desires.

Recently, William and Kate have made similar disclosures. In comments to Talk Vietnam, William said:

“Well, as the other parents in the room will testify, there’s wonderful highs and there’s wonderful lows. It’s been quite a change for me, personally. I’m very lucky in the support I have from Catherine. She is an amazing mother and a fantastic wife. But I’ve struggled at times, the alteration from being a single, independent man to going into marriage and then having children is life-changing. I adore my children very much and I’ve learned a lot about myself and about a family, just from having my own children and it’s amazing how much you pick up from just in those moments.”

That’s a powerful statement, particularly from a man that often comes across as reserved in front of cameras. But it’s a statement that many men in his position can probably relate to, and one that complements his efforts to address and reduce the suicide rate among men. Unfortunately, you can see why he would shy away from such personal disclosures – a quick Google search to find the exact wording pulled up headlines such as, “Prince William Unhappy With Fatherhood: Constantly Bemoaning Parental Duties With Prince George And Princess Charlotte?” and “Kate Middleton Panics as Prince William Admits to Struggling With Fatherhood.” Who wouldn’t be exasperated? But it’s worth noting those are from gossip sites, not credible news sources, most of which reported the statement straight.

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Kate has been less forthcoming, and that’s a shame. She has dropped anecdotes here and there about her children. Earlier this month, at the Anna Freud Centre she acknowledged that, “Parenting is tough.” And there have been flashes of a Kate with a bit more color – her famous facial expressions, for one. The way that she occasionally interacts with her husband. The steely way she handled herself during the “girlfriend of” years.

One of the single best analyses of Kate as duchess came from reporter Camilla Tominey back in 2014 after the Oz/NZ tour:

For in between the Catherine-esque “have you come fars” and “what are you doing for Easters”, there were flashes of the real Kate on the recent tour that suggest she is far from the plastic princess of Mantel’s essay. Asking whether alpaca wool could be turned into a wig for a balding husband (“You need it more than me,” she joked) and flashing him an L for loser sign after beating him in a yachting race ranked among her highlights.

The real reason we need to hear more from Kate though, is because it is she who is undoubtedly the power behind the future throne (not the Catherine once dubbed Waity Katy). Just as one gets the sense that it is Carol-with-an-e who wears the trousers in the Middleton marriage, when it comes to Kate, the apple does not fall far from the tree. What other kind of woman could possibly get a future king crawling back to her with his tail between his legs within three months? Moreover, as the Sunday Express reported last week, Kate has succeeded in making William a better man, mature, mellow and magisterial, the same effect fellow “commoner” Camilla has had on Charles.

Yes, more of that, please.

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Now, there are credible reasons for withholding information at this stage – interest in all three, but especially Kate, is so high as to feel daunting. Were she to open up about motherhood it would also shine a harsher spotlight on her children. If she called to attention some insecurity, so too would the press every time she went in public. But that is also, in part, because of the dearth of confirmed information that’s truly out there. It becomes a viscous cycle – the more tightly you hold on to control, the more painful it is to let it go. But as William, and eventually Kate, transition into full-time Royals, they should consider loosening the reins, even just a hair. Not only will it make their lives easier, it will also make them a more powerful force for the work they seek to do.

The monarch has been made human. And that’s a good thing.


6 thoughts on “The Royal Family and the Power of Disclosure

  1. Danielle Drury

    Wow, I had never thought about how people identifying with a monarch empowers that person to have greater impact, but it makes so much sense! From their perspective, do you think it is more cathartic to be honest about their experiences, or more pressure to make their personal experiences “useful”?

    1. Hi Danielle – Thank you for reading! I doubt the experience is “cathartic,” per se, but I do think what it speaks to is a certain ease with their fame and profile that allows them to use it to their advantage. And that advantage, of course, wouldn’t be personal, but professional – raising the profile of their charitable endeavors, helping to further the goals of their various issue initiatives, etc. Information released, like personal anecdotes, should be calculated moves, stemming from a desire to help and empathize, not share for sharing’s sake.

      1. Danielle Drury

        I thought that might be more of the case. From a human standpoint, that sounds like a very honorable challenge, expressing your own pain only when it is useful for a cause. It sounds painful, but very royal.

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