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The Prince of Now and Then

Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.

In March of 1998, a year after the sudden, unexpected death of Princess Diana, her former husband Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and heir apparent to Queen Elizabeth II traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a quick one-day tour during which the Prince planned on visiting the Pacific Space Centre and commending Canada’s environmental efforts, a cause dear to his heart. Security at the event was typical for a royal venue – brisk, professional, low-key. The Prince’s detail encountered only one item they hadn’t foreseen: the presence of some six thousand screaming, crying high school girls. Since they were hardly the Space Centre’s usual clientèle – and since unkind pragmatism ruled out the Prince himself as the object of their hysterical attention (as he put it somewhat bemusedly, “They’re certainly not here to see me”) – all eyes turned toward Charles’ two sons, Prince William, 16, and Prince Harry, 14. Flowers and teddy bears were tossed onto the stage where the royal boys sat beaming and mystified, but Charles’ nature-talk, though upstaged, concluded without incident. The incident happened a short while later, when the royal father and sons stopped by a Vancouver high school for a quick official handshake – and there were twelve thousand more screaming, crying girls waiting, clutching flowers and keepsake notebooks and yet more teddy bears and out-numbering the Prince’s security detail some 200 to one. Even the glacial Windsor Palace mind-set was forced to acknowledge that something odd was afoot.

Odd, but not unprecedented. More than any other house in British royal history, the Windsors are a curious historical echo chamber, with patterns repeating virtually intact – and Prince William’s story takes us back to the very beginning of our “Year with the Windsors.” In our first few chapters, as in our last few, we have a beloved but forbidding Queen occupying the throne with virtually supernatural vitality, a Prince of Wales who’s therefore compelled to hang around an unprecedented amount of time waiting for an opening in the only job for which he’s qualified, and an heir presumptive who grows to young manhood in such a distant orbit from the throne as to seem almost unconnected with it. Queen Victoria never seriously considered abdicating, even though her grieving for her beloved Prince Albert left the throne virtually unoccupied for decades. King Edward VII succeeded her less than ten years before his own death – much as Prince Charles looks to do in our own time, since he’s a man of 60 and his mother might reign another twenty years. And while King Edward was still Prince of Wales, his eldest son Prince Albert Victor grew into a very handsome young man whose image – reprinted on cheap postcards and engraved on everything from tourist brochures to cigar boxes – set many a female heart a-flutter (President Theodore Roosevelt had yet to spawn the fad of teddy bears, or one feels certain Albert Victor would have been pelted with them).

As we’ve seen, that earlier pattern took a tragic turn it couldn’t take today: Prince Albert Victor caught the virulent strain of pneumonia then running rampant throughout the West and – too early for saline drips and antibiotics – promptly died, catapulting his less picturesque younger brother into the spotlight. The world of 1892 never had the chance to see Albert Victor outlive the indiscretions of his youth, marry a redoubtable young woman, and mature into his royal responsibilities. Barring unforeseen catastrophe, the world of 2012 will get to see Prince William lose his hair, put on weight, and hoist a few charming infants (what’s the term for the heir presumptive’s presumptive heir? No monarch has ever lived long enough to need such a term…) into public view on the balcony of Buckingham Palace before he takes up the crown and scepter.

As we bring “A Year with the Windsors” to a close – and as Prince William embarks on an adulthood in the family ‘firm’ that was denied Prince Albert Victor – it’s instructive to compare the two young men. Instructive and even a bit startling, since it provides a jarring snapshot of an almost completely changed world.

When Prince Albert Victor looked upon the world (at the admittedly rare moments when such curiosity could penetrate the enveloping fog of stupidity that constituted his normal mental meteorology), he saw a quarter of it covered in the British flag. The world’s greatest industry, the world’s most advanced jurisprudence, the world’s most aggressively marketed culture, the world’s most extended economy, and the world’s largest empire, protected by the most powerful navy in history. He could expect to ascend to a throne that was regarded with almost religious veneration by its millions of subjects, a king and emperor whose hefty public monies were voted without question and whose vast private fortune was unmonitored and unmeasured. Thanks to the nearly mythical status achieved by his grandmother, the monarchy stood in higher credit with its people than it had since before the American Revolution. The new century then dawning looked likely to continue the gilded, garden-party world in which Prince Albert Victor was born and raised.

The calamitous 20th century intervened. Prince Albert Victor’s younger brother King George V saw his world convulsed in the Great War – and his nation swept over by a wave of anti-German sentiment that prompted him to change his family’s Teutonic tangle of surnames for the Shakespeare-approved Englishness of ‘Windsor.’ The First World War crumpled monarchies by the dozen, and George V and his imperious wife Queen Mary avoided this fate in large part by commonizing the monarchy, letting in the light that Walter Bagehot had maintained was antithetical to the magic of the institution. They played up for public consumption an egalitarian ethos they only imperfectly felt (George V often claimed he was only a very ordinary sort of person, but we may justifiably doubt whether Queen Mary ever thought the same about herself), and it had a double-edged effect: not only did it slowly begin to convince the British public that their ruling family were not a collection of affected toffs like the Romanovs in Russia, but it also slowly began to encourage the royals themselves to believe their own public relations. Even though nothing could be further from the truth, they began to think of themselves as ordinary folk, with rights that superseded any musty old throne.

What else could possibly explain the iniquitous decision made by George V’s eldest son David, who came to the throne as King Edward VIII, to renounce his kingdom in order to go on yacht-cruises with the (commoner) woman he loved? In abdicating, the Duke of Windsor was asserting his belief that he was an ordinary man, with an ordinary man’s right to chart his own destiny. His startled successor, King George VI, may have disagreed with his brother’s selfishness, but he fully partook of the split personality that underlay it: kings were no longer more than human, despite their inhuman status and privileges. He was another monarch who insisted he was just an ordinary man, a husband and father, a back yard gardener who happened to be King. His wife Queen Elizabeth reveled in that duality and raised it to the level of art, and his daughter Queen Elizabeth II has struggled with it for the whole of her reign. Whenever Prince Charles makes a maladroit gaffe on the public stage, that duality is at the heart of it – and yet it’s a life-saving duality: had the House of Windsor not adapted to the 20th century’s steady rise of popularism, it would have gone the way of the Bourbons and the Hohenzollerns and the Romanovs.

It’s an adaptability Prince Albert Victor would never had considered, and it’s Prince William’s chief inheritance (that, and the Windsor legacy of being saddled with an unsuitable brother who, Fates be praised, isn’t expected to wear the crown). As he puts his formative years behind him and enters into a full and life-long schedule of royal duties, Prince William becomes part of a working monarchy that has evolved into an uncanny blend of style and substance. William is an affable young man who first won his place in the hearts of his countrymen by his stoicism during his mother’s death and funeral and then cemented it by his recent lavish marriage (to a commoner, yet no thrones trembled this time). Consciously or not, he has almost always been a publicist’s dream come true, always air-brushed out of the public disgraces of his oafish younger brother, always making just the right moves in asserting his royal identity. As a teenager, he insisted on being called “just William” instead of Your Royal Highness, and if, as has been speculated, his father allows the crown to pass directly to him upon the death of the Queen, it seems likely William will guide the monarchy into even broader channels of popularism, far more mascots than monarchs.

However he adapts to his job, recent polls make one thing clear: the British public and the Commonwealth want him to have it. So the future of the House of Windsor seems likely to have a William V to continue a very different legacy from the one the last royal William bestowed on his niece Princess Victoria in 1837, when the whole rigmarole began.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.