Back in 2009, historian David Starkey gave an interview in which he said:
“One of the great problems has been that Henry, in a sense, has been absorbed by his wives. Which is bizarre. But it’s what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience. Unhappy marriages are big box office.”
At first blush that statement may seem a bit offensive – a trivialization of female historians, efforts to shine a light on the role of women throughout history (including within the monarchy) and how women consume scholarship and literature. It was said in the midst of a still-ongoing debate about how seriously women writers are taken and a centuries-old side-eye with the “types” of books some women read.
The first time I came across that quote I saw it out of context, which is unfortunate. Starkey’s full point is actually much fairer and has more to do with historiography. But the issue with the specific “feminization” of the study of the British monarchy is not only the lens through which we view it in any given era, but also with how they choose to present themselves. The two are intertwined, but they also bear separating out to fully understand how we find ourselves, for example, in the recent saturation of history focused on women, particularly historical fiction.
Today we are used to the concept of the “Royal Family” thanks to visuals like the entire Windsor clan on the Buckingham Palace balcony, excitement over pregnancy announcements, weddings and domestic drama. It’s a voyeuristic interest that drives outlets to cover articles about fabricated feuds between the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall, or the Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan Markle. It would be easy to blame this on a tabloid culture in and of itself, pointing one’s finger a generation earlier to the greatest media darling of them all: the late Princess of Wales.
But for all that Diana did impact our concept of monarchy, we can’t give her credit for this one. The domestication of the monarchy began centuries ago, though the “how” and “why” have evolved over time, reflecting and absorbing the landscape in which it exists.
So, first, if not a “Royal Family” then what? Well, a monarch. That was it. Focusing only on Britain – and England, really, at that – the role of king centralized authority in what became a feudal state. It eased the implementation of law and order. It ensured proper governance, organization and gave a national face to impose foreign policy. Who the monarch might marry was never unimportant, but it was certainly less important – the role of consort was ceremonial. A queen was a brood mare, a link to the political power of her male relations and, ideally, she signified a hefty dowry in the royal coffers.
Queens had a role to play and it is certainly important to understand that, if for no other reason than to recognize the sometimes horrible situations these young women (girls, by our standards) were put in. But to what extent these women affected politics was through influence or happenstance, not actual authority. Marguerite of Anjou was powerful because she had to be – her husband was mentally ill, incompetent and/or uninterested in the job. Anne Boleyn brought about change by having an uncanny ability to bring Henry VIII to her side. This is very different from actually being the monarch.
The rub, then – and the question posed by Starkey – is are we focusing on the consort to the exclusion of the regnant? We are more interested in the love story and tragedy of Anne Boleyn’s marriage, but less so in the reality of the concurrent dissolution of the monasteries. We find the incestuousness and personalities of the Wars of the Roses fascinating, but less so the economic and military circumstances that made it all possible.
Part of that is a universal appreciation for human stories – the collective “we” are more compelled when names and faces are put on intangible concepts. Arguably, that opens up the divide between “popular” history and what can be referred to as true scholarship. The average reader off the streets is not going to be able to digest history that isn’t put into layman’s terms, so you are left, theoretically, with two modes of communicating history – that which is accessible and that which is truly driving new thought. Those that can do both are the ideal, and tend to be the names that you recognize.
But that’s not all that’s going on here, for there has absolutely been a distinct rise in focus on the role of women. Nor did that rise go hand-in-hand with what we might consider the launch of modern feminist theory in the 20th century. Instead, I would say it has more to do with the evolution of the novel itself. Today there is considerable – and somewhat justified – ire over what is considered “serious” literature. Too often it is that which is written by men, while women writers run a far higher risk of being relegated to niche genres. A man writing about women is impressive; a woman writing about women has delivered something soft.
That forgets of course that the novel was once for women – women of leisure who could afford expensive books and had the time to read them. So, you take your Jane Austens and your Edith Whartons and you consider whether they were offering up social commentary or trivial fare. Measure Wharton against her peer, Henry James, and see which one is considered more substantial. Layer in the oft-ignored reality of which books make it on to school lists – which consist so very often of which stories might compel a disinterested male student to read over their more receptive female classmates – and you are left with a meandering and perhaps insincere justification for what is a classic.
Historical fiction is a strange genre, one which has done much to separate itself from that of Romance, but is still saturated with what can only be called bad writing. History, often, is but a vehicle for delivering a mostly fictional tale. Historical figures are put forth as human, but end up looking like Frankenstein products for all that they resemble the actual record. In the last 15 years we’ve seen wave upon wave of new interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses, but Marguerite of Anjou is a she-wolf or she is a victim, Elizabeth Woodville is a witch or a manipulative shrew and Anne Boleyn might have the makings of a Real Housewife. The husbands to whom they are beholden are ancillary characters – hurdles in an obstacle race for their wives or worse, some placeholder for the modern concept of “the patriarchy.”
We are interested in these women and we seek to know them the way that we know Henry V or Henry VIII or Richard III, but that is of course impossible. Even when we are gifted household records or letters or the reports of chroniclers, those are but snapshots compared with how a monarch ruled, and all too often filtered through the lens of others’ bias. If there is one constant it is that England has always had a touchy relationship with their consorts, but that has less to do with how they viewed women, so much as foreigners. A king was expected to forge an alliance abroad with a woman of the proper lineage, which necessitated a princess from France or Castile or the Holy Roman Empire, among others. And this young woman would arrive with limited knowledge of England or English and be scrutinized from head-to-toe – God help her if she brought with her companions from her home country, God help her if she didn’t produce a son and God help her if she spent the wrong number of coins at the wrong time.
Some of these women were no doubt intelligent, falsely maligned or more interesting than the evidence left of them shows. Some, too, may very well have had the potential to do more with their position than they were able to as both a woman and a foreigner – and it is here in which we like to get our hooks. But we can’t assume every woman was trapped or that every woman in fact possessed that potential, for it would be wildly incorrect to view them only through a modern lens and attribute them the thoughts we would have in the same position. There is a limit, then, with how much we can empathize looking back from today because the Medieval mind was not the same but in different clothes.
Who has sprung forth in the popular imagination as “hero” and “villain” – or more appropriately as “saint” or “whore” – changes with the mores of the time. If you were raised Catholic than you may well have heard better things about Katherine of Aragon and Mary I than your Protestant peers. Agnes Strickland, the famous 19th century writer of the consorts’ history was glowing in her praise of the reformist hero, Anne Boleyn, and scathing in the woman who had the audacity to steal her husband, Jane Seymour. The moralizing of the 19th century had no appetite for the women who strayed too far from the domestic ideal, and today we have trouble wrapping our heads around the women who preferred to stay put. The women who are but shadows in the historical record – Katherine of Valois or Anne Neville, to name but a few – are shown in our fiction as whole, actualized characters who are greedy, passionate, ambitious and frightened. Those representations are just that, fiction.
But there is room – and indeed a need – for revisionist history. It was easy to castigate women once upon a time and all too often those on the losing side of history were unfairly demonized. Those whose husbands were unpopular or whose home country made the wrong move could slip between the cracks or be burned by the flames. We are more cognizant of sexism and xenophobia today and, in that, we have the ability to bring forth these women and assess only what is left of the record, recognizing when that record is informed by bias or conjecture. Properly done we should be left with more questions, not answers.
The Royal Family itself is not a bystander in this, nor are they the victims of a public who evolved unto itself with their noses pressed against palace gates. The institution of the monarchy has always been beholden to some degree to its own popularity, in the same way any figure who holds political power is. The function of a monarch is now different, and so in that way there is something to be said for whether historical royal women are better comparisons to their descendants. Edward III would not recognize the limitations of Edward VII, but Philippa of Hainaut might have some familiarity with what Alexandra of Denmark faced.
There are hundreds of answers to the question, “How did the monarchy end up how it is today,” and some of those answers would be more correct or more significant than others. But within those answers should be one that captures the rise of the concept of the “Royal Family.” The “family” aspect of the monarchy has always been important because it is a dynastic institution, and it is the ability of a monarch to produce another monarch to replace him from which staying power was formed. That in and of itself explains how it is that monarch and heir have often had an uneasy relationship, but it doesn’t necessarily capture how it is that we have seen a growing fascination with the personal dynamics of the extended family.
A monarch had an obvious public role, and the consort, too, played a part. The monarch’s heir, usually their eldest son, would become increasingly important as they grew older, and a few younger sons were always helpful to have around in case the first one died from war or disease. Should all live, then those younger sons could play roles in their brother’s government, or be married abroad in an alliance meant to either give them a role or support England (ideally both). Daughters, on the other hand, might make a few appearances at court, but were largely unknown entities to the English people. Indeed, given that it was normal for these girls to be betrothed or married in childhood and sent abroad as teenagers, it was only sometimes that these women became public figures in their fathers’ and brothers’ courts.
But at the very highest level, a monarch’s power has been clipped, not all at once, but over time. In that vacuum a different sort of authority grew, one that spoke to morality, consistency and tradition. And it is in this space that the monarch became the head of a family, and that family became not the building blocks of a dynasty but public figures in their own right.
The Plantagenets were perhaps the most dynastically successful of all English royal houses for the simple fact that they were able to sustain themselves for over 200 years uninterrupted. Fathers were succeeded by sons, and occasionally by a brother or grandson when things went askew, but the line was relatively linear considering the violence of the times. The rise of Lancaster and York – and then the Wars of the Roses – is often reflected as two warring houses, and while this is true, they both sprung from the same family. The Plantagenet Edward III was their forebear, hence the other moniker by which the civil war was known: the Cousins’ War.
Nevertheless, these fights had almost nothing to do with family. The same could be said for the Tudors, though I would argue Henry VII might be true grandfather of domestic power. While he pointedly refused to claim the throne through his wife, Elizabeth of York, it was in fact that marriage which underpinned his success. After nearly a century of conflict, there was true political power in being able to show not a harmonious marriage, but a successful marriage – one that produced two sons and two daughters who lived into at least adolescence. It was power through virility, which signaled peace, prosperity and above all else, continuity.
Henry VIII didn’t expand upon that idea, though his quest for a son could arguably be read as fury at an inability to do so. His parade of wives and questionably legitimate children were a horror show, but by the end of his reign he solidified the succession by naming his son and then his daughters as secure means to continue the Tudor line. That none of them produced children of their own was certainly not through any lack of trying on their father’s part to set them up as cogs in a dynastic machine. Elizabeth I’s refusal to marry and her gamble that remaining single reinforced her power as a monarch is a perfect illustration of the impossibility of a woman ruler. A monarch as father was powerful; a monarch as mother would usher herself into a domestic sphere, leaving space for another.
The Stuarts did nothing to play upon the precedent set by Henry VII. Arguably some of what made James I palatable, besides his Protestantism, was the fact that he was married with children when he moved from Scotland to England – a sharp relief after 44 years of Elizabeth. But as a whole the House insisted on marrying Catholics, its members often childless and ultimately unsuccessful – for all that the Stuarts were comprised of seven monarchs, they only lasted four generations.
The true rise in domesticity came in the Georgian era and was deeply intertwined with Britain’s religious views. Catholicism, historically, had gone hand-in-hand with revolution, violence and foreign influence. Protestantism, in contrast, was really Anglicanism and so we have the rise of the Germans. George I was foreign, but Protestant, and he brought with him not only an adult son, but an adult son who was married with children of his own. The first two Georges may have been a dysfunctional mess, but they and their wives were fertile. Neither, however, attempted to set themselves or their families up as a model for British virtue. They couldn’t. George I was divorced and George II was a widower 10 years into his 23-year reign. Both were German and only tolerated.
Thus it became that George III became Henry VII’s true successor, and he played a similar hand of cards. Just as Henry put forth a wholly British family to unify a country, George III played up the fact that he had been born and raised in Protestant England. He was also well-aware that his great-grandfather’s mistresses had been a source of ridicule and that the feuding of his grandfather and father had only weakened their effectiveness. George III, on the other hand, married as quickly as possible. His wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was neither a beauty, a fashion plate nor a particularly gifted thinker. She was, however, fertile and produced 15 children in some 20 years.
George’s Protestantism manifested itself in a near obsession with moderation. He was, publicly at least, faithful to his wife. A diligent worker. A doting father. A careful spender. He and Charlotte are the closest ancestors of the modern Royal Family. They built homes that afforded them privacy. They held up middle-class ideals. Their children were not raised to be married off, but rather to be religious, practical and appropriate. The need for this wasn’t a personal flight of fancy. While the western world was swept up in revolution, driven by those needling ideals of liberty and equality, George and Charlotte thrived while Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads. Versailles was the height of wealth and luxury, while Buckingham House was tweaked only for a bigger nursery.
Given the length of George’s reign and the extent of his fecundity, the mold was set and hasn’t dramatically changed since. It was a trap of the Royal Family’s own making, for in presenting themselves as a domestic ideal – and more dangerously, as those domestic ideals being inherently British – they left little room for mistake. In what became the norm for the RF, each generation reacted to the former. George III’s children begot illegitimate children, kept lovers and married inappropriately. His granddaughter, Queen Victoria, married wisely and then worked to restore the family’s reputation by producing nine children, insisting on standards and reveling in what can only be described as a dull and repetitive existence. Like her grandfather, her side won out thanks to 63 years on the throne and if George III outlined the idea, it was Victoria who shaded it in.
Her children did marry and they married well – so well that she became the “grandmother of Europe” and nearly every European monarchy can trace its descent to her – and as a result, to Britain. Photography, too, loomed large in Victoria’s reign. Later images of her are not oil paintings with one foot majestically poised over a map, but rather her as a matriarch, surrounded by her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. That was her version of propaganda, even if deeply felt.
But consider the relative fame of the British Royal Family in comparison to its European peers. That is thanks to no one but Queen Victoria, who insisted on a new sort of British dominance – one that was and is deeply problematic, but so potent that we still feel it today.
What she gave up was real power, but what she gained was purview of influence. It complemented the public’s anxiety over industrialization and offered up a moral rationalization for colonization. While her successor, Edward VII, was a philanderer and a gambler, he was constrained by a necessity to pursue those pleasures privately far more than, say, George IV. His wife was Protestant, his six children born and it was a respectful press that kept the full extent of his private life private.
George V followed in this mode and expanded it. His court was more informal, if ever correct. His sons, like he and his brother, and his uncles before him, were given military careers. Instead of being forced to marry “of the blood,” for the first time they were given the option of marrying upper-class British women with respectable backgrounds. Here you saw not only Protestant values permeating the RF, but those of the middle-class. The Queen Mother was not only popular, but the face for a new standard of consort – homegrown, proper and accessible in a way that felt “normal.”
The Queen Mother, or Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as she was born, is the model by which later consorts have complied. As much as they are royalty, their brand is that of a spouse and a parent at all times. The mystique of “queen” is grounded in that of family. She followed the path laid down by Alexandra of Denmark, which was trodden by Mary of Teck, but her very lineage made her more modern. In that sense, today’s Duke of Edinburgh is an outlier. His place within the Greek Royal Family and his lineage through Queen Victoria and Christian IX of Denmark made him an almost old-fashioned choice, though he had to give up those foreign claims to titles before marrying the future Elizabeth II. In that you can see the power of how the Windsors branded themselves and the absolutism of their nationalism.
George V’s decision to re-name the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha that of Windsor was not only brilliant and necessary in the face of anti-German sentiment, but in many ways the organic next step for a dynasty that had become increasingly inward looking. That transition was not necessarily inherently royal – in fact, you could argue it’s the opposite of historic royalty – but it was a concession to the reality of public opinion.
The problem with the domestication of royalty is that it blurs the line between public and private in a way that may have been manageable, if annoying, for 20th century royals, but is quite the albatross today. Today’s Prince of Wales will never be able to fully escape the shadow of his first marriage – and the full extent of the destruction it wrought was because of, not in spite of, the precedents set in the Georgian era. What was once a mirage is now expected to be a reality, and for all that the public might like soap operas, there is little real appetite for royal drama. The demand of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, at its most base, is to make up for the Waleses. Critics might call them boring and overly private, but they are quite literally a PR balm for the ’90s. If history repeats itself, their children may offer more excitement.
And so, the public’s perception of the Royal Family has evolved with them. Aspects of their lives seemingly belong to the British public. Their private events – their “family” events – have a professional aspect. They do not walk to church on Christmas Day alone, but rather take time to greet those who have lined up to say hello. The birthdays of their children are marked with the release of a public photo because the power of the monarchy is now based in the British people feeling as though those children belong, in some ways, to them as well. It is “their” royal family and it is “their” queen.
There has always been a public aspect to the lives of the monarch and their family. Certainly the Duchess of Cambridge today is afforded more privacy as she produces children then, say, Anne Boleyn or even Queen Anne. But in the presentation of a family that might be a bit like yours, based on relationships that might work a bit like yours, a different sort of publicity has become the norm and its one that is premised on something unreliable – feeling.
Buckingham Palace’s balcony for the majority of Elizabeth II’s reign is perhaps the result of this evolution at its zenith. How it looked for the 2012 jubilee, slimmed down per the wishes of Prince Charles, is a nod towards a nimbler, trimmer future and if he ends up getting his way – and there is little indication that he won’t or shouldn’t – the future of the RF will look remarkably different. Indeed, the words expressed by Princes William and Harry in interviews given this year – particularly Harry – hold up the possibility for a very different kind of monarchy. In theory, it will marry the domestic stability of normalcy with an increased focus on the results of work. And if you carry that thought through, in setting higher expectations for official work, you could arguably begin making a case for the retreat of private lives. An argument, mind you, that William and Harry have a vested interest in.
So, where does that leave how we think about history? I would argue that we may very well be poised for a new modern lens – one which focuses more on what the Royal Family offers up. We will always find the six wives of Henry VIII fascinating, but imagine if the flawed hindsight we apply to them was that of effectiveness, not searching for paragons of a feminism that didn’t then exist. The Royal Family will always be a dynasty, one which is tied to its marriages, births and deaths, but in an atmosphere in which trust in institutions is dwindling and transparency is king, there is space to move away from family and towards return on investment.