Is the British monarchy nearing the end of its 1,200-year history? That seemed to be the message this week, following Tuesday's release of Prince Harry’s incendiary memoir "Spare." Harry offers a damning portrait of royal life, with revelations not just about the bad behavior of his brother and father but also about the larger racist, sexist and elitist forces that shape the institution’s day-to-day operations and decision-making.
Harry might see a way forward. As he suggests, both in the book and in press interviews timed with the memoir’s release, there could still be room for him on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. But pundits are skeptical — and not just about the likelihood of Harry returning to the fold, but also about there being a fold to return to. As the royal biographer Catherine Mayer told "The Guardian" last weekend, “Members of the royal family have become our proxies for anger about racism, misogyny and wealth.” Republicans (with a small “r”) are on standby.
As a historian, I want to caution against such dire predictions. The long sweep of royal history shows us that the recent catastrophic conjectures about the monarchy are myopic. I would suggest that the royal family hasn’t become our proxy for venting frustrations. Rather, the royal family has always been our proxy — or, at least, since the late 18th century, when George III and his advisors decided the royal family should serve as moral exemplars. (George III, married to Charlotte, was the first king in more than a century who didn't take a mistress.) Within this framework, the royals were intended not just to act in ways that accorded with social norms and values, but also to set the tone for their subjects. They were supposed to model the nation’s virtues.
Understanding this historical dynamic is crucial for making sense of the contemporary morass. It also offers some reassurances. Why? Because from the very start, there were strains in the system. The royal family has never been able to live up to the ideal — admittedly, an impossible one — as an incubator of virtue. George III’s own sons were notorious for their fecklessness and ill-treatment of women. The philandering George IV provoked an outcry in 1820 when he tried to divorce his wife Caroline, with angry subjects taking to the streets in protest during what came to be known as the Queen Caroline Affair.
Decades later, Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor (“Eddy”) became embroiled in the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, when police raided a brothel catering to London’s gay population. Eddy was reputed to be a client. The 20th century offered no reprieve from royal crises. One need only recall the year 1936, when the newly crowned Edward VIII determined that he would abdicate in order to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson (derided by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, as “that woman”).
These select scandals — just a few of the many in which the royal family has been involved since the 18th century — prompted heated speculation about the viability of the British monarchy. A reporter for The New York Times announced in 1889, in light of the Cleveland Street Scandal, that there was “more indignation and ruffling of the equanimity of the English mind just now than I have ever seen before.”
Yet each time, the hand-wringing proved short-lived. Scandal after scandal, the monarchy endured. And it will survive "Spare," too.
But it’s not just a question of survival or endurance. These scandals, as much as they may seem to be damaging or distractive, are actually instructional. By aspiring to model ideal behavior, even as it frequently falls short of its goals, the royal family helps the rest of us to clarify, and advertise, our own priorities and preferences, and to reflect on what the “ideal” is. In 1820, for example, Queen Caroline’s mistreatment at the hands of her husband prompted a broader conversation about the sexual double standard. And in 1889, Prince Eddy’s alleged frequenting of a male brothel forced frank conversations about homosexuality, even as prejudice persisted. King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, meanwhile, encouraged a healthy dialogue about divorce, a subject that had long been treated as taboo.
To put it differently, it is often in response to royals’ perceived missteps that moral systems come into focus. Let’s hope that Harry’s airing of the family’s dirty laundry — and of the racist and sexist institutions underwriting it — serves a similar purpose.