Royal Baby! (Why Is America So Obsessed with
the British Monarchy?)
From Shakespeare to Austen, the Hagiographic to the Contemptuous
Nowhere is the appeal of the British monarchy more fully on display than in the excitement that surrounds the birth of a royal baby. It is the ancient institution renewing itself. In America, the long-anticipated arrival of Baby Sussex, (as it happens, a boy, now seventh in line to the throne) has been greeted with a great burst of excitement. Why is a country that successfully fought a Revolutionary War to gain political independence from the British crown so insatiably interested in it?
The most obvious reason is Meghan Markle, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, and who rose to fame in 2011 as a regular on the American legal drama Suits. But, tellingly, her marriage last year to Prince Harry—and their current status as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—has almost wholly eclipsed her TV stardom. The Duchess’s pregnancy has generated worldwide media coverage, and led to endless comparisons between the different traditions for mothers and babies in the UK and the US.
Yet more stands behind the American interest in the British monarchy than the Sussexs and their new baby. The royal family also hold our interest because, though they are little more than figureheads, they still possess enormous power. When I first travelled to Britain in the early 1980s, a Londoner explained it to me this way. “If the Prime Minister called for 10,000 volunteers to fight a foreign enemy or a natural disaster, 8,000 people would probably turn up. If the Queen called for that same number, 100,000 people would turn up.” Politicians come and go. Not the monarchy. It stands above the battles of party politics and, for many in Britain and far beyond, it is the most potent symbol of the country itself— its character, its achievements, and its ability to transform itself, albeit in many instances with great reluctance.
The longevity of the monarchy is another, equally enthralling aspect of its appeal, perhaps especially in North America, where our political systems are so much younger. Though debates continue about who should be regarded as the first ruler of England, an unbroken line of queens and kings can be traced back to Egbert, the first Saxon king, who reigned from 827 to 839. That’s almost twelve hundred years ago. More than two centuries later, William the Conqueror became the first Norman king. By the time of the American Revolutionary War, the British monarchy was already almost 950 years old. Any institution that has wielded power for that long is bound to “tease us out of thought,” to adapt the words of the poet John Keats.
Coupled with this durability is the fact that British writers of all kinds have taken the queens and kings, and princesses and princes of Britain, as subject matter, producing in the process a varied and highly influential body of work that has permeated western culture for centuries, and for purposes that extend all the way from the tragic to the comedic, the historical to the fantastical, the hagiographic to the contemptuous.
Most notably, of course, Shakespeare dramatized, in his history plays, the machinations, triumphs, and defeats of several English monarchs, including Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413), Henry V (reigned 1413-1422), and Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461). These various literary representations have created a larger-than-life image of the British monarchy, and had a far more profound impact on the popular imagination than the known facts of a particular sovereign’s reign. As perhaps need hardly be said, the historical Richard III (reigned 1483-1485) appears to have been a strikingly different figure from Shakespeare’s portrait of him in Richard III (1597), but it is Shakespeare’s Richard who still mesmerizes audiences and thoroughly shapes popular (mis)conceptions of Richard’s brief kingship.
The modern version of the British monarchy first came into view under George IV, whose infamously dissolute character is at least partially redeemed by his superb aesthetic judgments and his avid promotion of literature and the arts. When his father, George III, finally succumbed to some form of madness in late 1810, George became the ruler of Britain, first as Prince Regent (1811-1820) and then, following the death of his father, as King (1820-1830). During these years, vast improvements in print and travel technologies created the first mass audiences, and their clamorous interest in the monarchy subjected it to intense scrutiny and turned the lives of its members into something of a soap opera.
What the royals said, where they went, who they knew, and what they wore all became fodder for the newspapers and magazines. The breakdown of the Regent’s marriage—already clearly evident when he was Prince of Wales and his estranged wife Caroline was Princess of Wales—generated endless analysis and finger pointing. The death of the couple’s twenty-one-year-old daughter Charlotte provoked an intense outpouring of public grief unlike anything the country had seen to that point. The birth of the Regent’s niece, Princess Victoria—the future Queen—secured the future of the monarchy and produced intense excitement.
At the same time, Regency writers and artists variously lauded or lampooned the monarchy, and the range and vigor of their commentary wove it deeper and deeper into the fabric of British daily life. Jane Austen hated the Regent for the way he had treated his wife, but she yielded to pressure and dedicated her novel Emma to him. The portrait painter Thomas Lawrence produced immaculate images of the Regent as a windswept hero, while the caricaturist George Cruikshank lambasted him with relentless satiric ingenuity as a callous buffoon and inveterate sot. Lord Byron lamented the death of Princess Charlotte in his immensely popular verse travelogue, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, while his friend, the radical poet Percy Shelley, took a very different view, and in his Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte he mourned, not the death of a member of the royal family, but the fate of thousands of mistreated and abandoned women who shared her fate.
Today, millions of people around the world remain fascinated with the comings and goings of the British monarchy. Its enduring impact, however, is perhaps most accurately assessed by the many ways in which literary and dramatic representations of it continue to resonate in popular culture, as seen most recently in Peter Morgan’s Netflix series on The Crown (2016-continuing). In America, the British monarchy fascinates not only because of its stability, pomp, and enduring power, but also because there is no comparable institution in American political or cultural life. The royal family highlights the special relationship between the two countries, yet at the same time the royals stand decisively apart from American traditions and aspirations, and reveal the deep historical differences between the two nations. Both Britain and America are democracies, but only in Britain is it still possible for someone to be born to be king or queen.