A Royal Spectacle

To address the main question, yes, it rained on the parade.

That’s the somehow inevitable verdict on the weather that accompanied the coronation of King Charles III in London on May 6. It was just the sort of solid curtain of grey drizzle that seems de rigueur in an English spring and that also attended the crowning of the king’s mother in the same location 70 years earlier. As a result, a flypast over Buckingham Palace was slimmed down to a hover of helicopters and a small detachment of the RAF’s Red Arrows display team.

Other than that, everything went off much as expected: tens of thousands of people thronged the streets, many of them wearing the cellophane-like ponchos obligatory on these occasions; the new king and his consort both looked radiant; five-year-old Prince Louis, the youngest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales, stole the day by being pictured yawning as he slunk into Westminster Abbey, much like any normal child faced with the prospect of a two-hour church service; a police horse bolted outside on the street injuring no one; the crowds repeatedly sang patriotic songs; and The Guardian was left fuming about the expense of it all, editorializing that the “public is expected to offer adulation, lest we disrupt the display with disturbing questions about the monarchy’s value and relevance.” Somehow one has much the same reaction on reading that as did young Prince Louis on entering the Abbey.

I was in London, in a more modest capacity, just before the events described, and thus had the pleasure of witnessing a brisk trade in $50 commemorative coffee mugs and similarly-priced tea towels. Equally pleasurable was the unending debate about the attendance or nonattendance at the Abbey of two wealthy California residents dedicated to the daily habit of self-regard, namely the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—or Harry ’n Meghan as they’re invariably called in these demotic times.

Nothing speaks to the essential mystique of the world’s oldest surviving monarchy outside of Scandinavia than our continuing obsession with the antics of the residents of a nine-bedroom, $15 million home in Montecito. Surely the single most profound thing about the House of Windsor at this particular moment in Britain’s history—with the nation seemingly poised on the brink of financial Armageddon, the Brexit division unhealed, and Northern Ireland still in a state of transition following the Good Friday Agreement of quarter a century ago— shouldn’t be the new king’s fractured relationship with his younger son and his termagant daughter-in-law. Yet recent events seem to suggest that it is. 

In another soap opera-like twist that constitutes the basic fabric of a modern state occasion, the king’s errant younger brother, the 63-year-old Duke of York, was also present and correct to celebrate the coronation. Almost incredibly, he remains eighth in the line of succession to the throne. But just to remind viewers of the less savory aspects of the royal sibling’s affairs, Britain’s Channel 4 network chose to air a documentary entitled Andrew: The Problem Prince just as King Charles himself was preparing to be anointed with holy oil in the most solemn part of the time-honored ceremony. The “problem” in question would seem to involve Andrew’s recent agreement to pay a reported $16.3 million to a woman who had accused him of sexual abuse when she was 17 after she was trafficked by his good friend Jeffrey Epstein. 

With the best will in the world, it has to be said that the settlement, which included no admission of guilt on the prince’s part, struck many observers as a not entirely illogical development in the life of a man whose reputation for sexual intemperance was already well established before the release of the notorious photograph apparently showing Prince Andrew with his arm coiled around his teenaged victim’s waist, while Ghislaine Maxwell grinned wolfishly in the background. Both Maxwell herself, as well as the Prince’s former girlfriend, Lady Victoria Hervey, have claimed that the image was photoshopped.

Alas, Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah Ferguson was not among the 2,200 guests to make the cut and be invited to a seat in the Abbey. The irrepressible “Fergie” still lives with her former husband and, among many other commercial ventures, has recently tried her hand as a romantic novelist under the Mills & Boon imprint, with an opus titled Her Heart for a Compass (2021). Like its author, the book divided the critics. The Guardian acknowledged one or two structural shortcomings but at least praised it as a “well-researched” glimpse into the “strictures of life as a pampered, rich, upper-class woman.” Less generously, the reviewer for The Independent said that he would “rather read 400 IKEA wardrobe instruction manuals than 400 pages of Fergie’s ‘romantic’ musings.” 

Much like the late Princess Diana before her and the Duchess of Sussex after her, Ferguson continues to polarize British public opinion. Some see her as a national treasure who has courageously overcome a whole raft of financial and personal problems, while for others, she remains an error-prone embarrassment. Recent evidence shows that the new king and his consort incline to the latter view. 

I offer two final reflections on the various sideshows that attended, or eclipsed, the higher meaning of the proceedings on May 6.

By tradition, these occasions demand a signature dish, and in that spirit, “Coronation Quiche”—an alliterative confection including spinach, broad beans, cheese and tarragon—has been promoted by the new king and his wife as suitable fare for the scores of street parties and other ad-hoc celebrations that continued unabated in the days following the proceedings at the Abbey. One mentions this anecdote merely as a matter of culinary lore, along with the affecting news, also heavily plugged on the royal Facebook page, that His Majesty himself refrains from eating meat and fish for two days each week. Good to know.

The other unavoidable subplot of the coronation was, of course, the pomp and circumstance of the whole occasion. As has often been noted, no one does this sort of ostentation quite like the Brits. Ceremonial tradition was as much a part of the event as the lampposts festooned with Union flags and bunting and the streets around the Abbey heaving with television crews, souvenir sellers, tourists, and police coming together in a sort of roving bacchanal distinguished by scenes of public insobriety impressive even by our debased modern standards.

Paradoxically, one might note that this is also the nation whose train drivers, teachers, postal workers, nurses, and even its high-priced barristers are all either set to strike or threatening to do so; whose collective hospital waiting list is currently 8 million people; and whose provincial town councils continued to maintain their museums and art galleries as communal “warm places” for those unable to afford their household utility bills, even as the gold royal coaches rattled up and down the streets of London. 

Yes, there was a striking display of pomp and regalia to be seen in and around the Abbey on May 6, even if all the Edwardian braid and sashes on display looked just a touch Ruritanian when one remembers how few British soldiers, sailors, and airmen actually remain in the field. 

That being so, the question that continues to consume the newspaper opinion writers of what used to be called Fleet Street is this: are we Britons as a race really stuck with a system of hereditary monarchy that effectively dates from the time Alfred the Great styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons in A.D. 886, particularly when those born to latter-day eminence should happen to include the likes of Prince Andrew? We can do better. 

Like most of his family, the newly crowned king himself, for all his admirable traits—an almost painful conscientiousness among them—has never been much of a thinker. When he speaks, there is a note of tension in his voice, as if he is straining to say something of consequence. He rarely succeeds. He merely sounds as if he is suffering from laryngitis. The new monarch’s essential priorities may be easily summarized. He wants to make us all gentler, eco-friendlier and more inclusive, like himself, but he has no idea how or why.

In that context, it’s worth noting the results of a poll conducted by the UK’s internet-based market research and data analytics firm YouGov, which recently asked a representative sample of 4,030 British adults for their views on the monarchy. The survey found that 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds wanted to replace the Crown with an elected head of state. About a third of the same age range favored the status quo, while another 24 percent said they didn’t greatly care one way or another. Unsurprisingly, the results were significantly different among the oldest group of those 65 and over: 79 percent back the monarchy, although less than a third of the same respondents were prepared to call the existing system “very good value for money.” 

Perhaps of greatest concern for the monarchist camp was the survey’s finding that nearly 80 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds are “not interested” in the royal family, a figure that may seem hard to grasp for the apparently limitless number of Americans of every age and socioeconomic stripe who continue to look on the House of Windsor and its denizens as the leading players in an endlessly fascinating soap opera, whose constant presence in the media itself becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop. Because so many people are so interested in such royal personages, media outlets keep covering them. And because the royals are constantly in the media, people take notice of them. The cycle repeats over and over again.

All I can add in that same context is the evidence of my own eyes on two visits back to the land of my birth, the first of which happened to coincide with the death of Queen Elizabeth II last September, the second just a week or so prior to the coronation. Neither anecdote is bolstered by any cold numerical data. But then again, in one of those ironic or circular twists familiar to the polling industry, the think tank British Future has itself released figures to suggest that people often respond most warmly to personal testimony, whereas they assume that statistics are manipulated to prove whatever contention the commissioning body might wish to promote.

On the first of the two occasions, my family and I had just sat down for dinner at an outdoor table at a central London restaurant on what proved to be one of those familiar British autumn evenings punctuated by intermittent rain showers and pale sunshine. All we knew was that the 96-year-old Queen herself was at Balmoral, her Scottish residence some 500 miles to the north, and that a press bulletin earlier in the day had perhaps euphemistically disclosed that there were “some concerns” for her health. But that was all we or anyone else had heard on the subject until the moment our middle-aged waiter came out with the soup course, unsmiling, put the bowls down on the table, and stood there for a moment behind us.

“She’s gone,” he muttered.

I looked back, and a tear was rolling down his face. It was a scene to be repeated and greatly amplified almost everywhere you looked in the course of the week between the Queen’s death and her funeral, played out by the scenes of the thousands of weeping people of every apparent race, religion, and national background. Huge illuminated pictures of the late monarch seemed to appear instantly at railway stations, in store windows, and in shimmering neon on the billboard overlooking Piccadilly Circus. Little cellophane-wrapped bundles of flowers piled up everywhere on the streets, and, not least, roughly half a million people shuffled forward for up to 24 hours to be allowed to glance briefly at the sovereign’s coffin. 

Neither these nor the scenes that greeted the new king as he arrived at Buckingham Palace on the evening of Sept. 9, solemnity etched on his face, to walk among the crowds, suggested that there might be any significant groundswell of support for a reappraisal of Britain’s system of constitutional monarchy any time soon. It’s merely a snapshot, I appreciate, but I shall long remember the sight of the elderly lady who seized the king’s hand as he passed her and reverently kissed it and that of the younger woman with pink hair who, when the moment came, went into paroxysms—“Oh my God, he’s there, he’s right there!”—before literally screaming “Charles!” as if the sovereign were treading on her corns.

There were many similar scenes to be glimpsed the length and breadth of England that unforgettable week in September, some of which, like the many often heavily bearded men who suddenly appeared on the streets dressed in faux-regal ball gowns or other Elizabethan regalia, reminded one of the somehow quintessentially British gift for marrying solemnity and buffoonery. Again, one has no hard statistical evidence, but taken as a whole, the reaction of the late Queen’s subjects both to her death and to the accession of her 73-year-old son suggests that King Charles retains the priceless capacity, which surely lies at the heart of the unwritten contract between a divine ruler and the public, to connect directly with the people.

The second such occasion was a public forum held in London seven months later, just before the recent coronation, with the leading question “The Royals—Off with Their Heads?” splashed across the marquee. I went along.

A gathering in central London in 2023 where people, many of them in their twenties or younger, have come to discuss whether the royal family offers value for money is not necessarily a right-wing occasion. Not that the audience amounted to a mob or even a clear-cut community, but let us just say it had a flavor. There was plenty of entirely reasonable debate about whether, for instance, King Charles should continue to receive some £86 million by way of an annual grant from the British taxpayer, and the consensus about certain other members of his immediate family could be summarized thus: that Prince William and his bride seemed like decent enough coves in a detached, Wodehousian sort of way; that Harry and Meghan were not martyrs to false modesty; and that Prince Andrew was perhaps more naturally suited to a cell in the sexual-offenders wing of Wandsworth Prison than the 30-room, 98-acre estate he currently inhabits at Windsor, 25 miles from London. 

One speaker remarked that while the monarchy was undeniably anachronistic and undemocratic, it was precisely these qualities that made it worth keeping. It was no good expecting Charles and Camilla to give up their palace or to travel around London by bus because a king or queen, by definition, had to be regal or else the whole institution truly was just a Disneyfied farce. There seemed to be widespread approval for his remarks.

What was most interesting was how even the more strident speakers appeared to retain a certain respect for the institution of monarchy regardless of any misgivings they held about individual royals. This was not a mob, as it were, clamoring for the tumbrel. On the contrary, everyone rousingly cheered at the mere mention of the late Queen. Charles himself frequently earned a ripple of applause. After the proceedings most of those present stood, in an almost surreal fashion, to join in a full-throated rendition of the national anthem. The day may be coming when a future generation of royals self-destruct by virtue of their egoistic behavior, but based on what I saw of recent events in London, the progressive part of British opinion is no more eager for this than their parents would have been.

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