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 Palace discussions in the 1980s, Queen Elizabeth II, speaking of her son and heir apparent, occasionally remarked that “an Edward VII situation” should probably be avoided. No student of history but rather an active participant (and as fond of genealogy as any ordinary British housewife), she was referring to the fact that Queen Victoria remained on the throne so long that her eldest son was nearly 60 before he finally assumed the crown. Her caution was well-founded: though disease carried off her grand-uncle at age 28 and smoking killed both her grandfather and her father, the royal women tended to be long-lived. Her grandmother Queen Mary seemed as permanent as the rocks at Stonehenge, and her beloved mother Queen Elizabeth famously passed her century mark with a smile and a frilly wave. When the Queen made those Edward VII remarks, she was in her third decade as monarch. She’s now in her sixth decade on the throne, and nobody’s reported such remarks from her in a long time. This represents a staggering clutch of anticlimax for the British people and an embarrassingly long apprenticeship for the Queen’s eldest son Prince Charles – if his mother lives as long as her mother did, he might well be in his mid-80s when he comes to the throne.
So, abdication. Not the disgraceful, self-absorbed kind practiced by the Queen’s uncle King Edward VIII, who abandoned his duty in order to marry his domineering sweetheart, but rather the conscientious kind, designed to spare both the nation and the institution the odd ordeal of a frail and geriatric constitutional monarch. Thirty years ago, the idea might have been that the Queen gradually relinquish certain duties and appearances to the Prince of Wales and then abdicate in favor of him at some point – well, right around now. And she has indeed ceded increasing portions of her heavy portfolio to Charles over the years. But she shows no intention of quitting – if anything, her Christmas addresses to the nation, featuring grim vows to carry on to the bitter end, implicitly repudiate the idea. The alternate abdication scenario involves Charles himself: that, rather than totter down the aisle at Westminster Abbey when he’s 86, he would immediately abdicate in favor of his own oldest son, the heir presumptive (who even so would come to the throne at nearly 50).
Either alternative would be a colossal waste of potential, and it’s possible that Charles senses this more keenly than anybody. He has a reputation for a certain personal prickliness, and if it’s true, it’s justified by the frustration of living his entire life in anticipation of a climax that either finds him too old to enjoy it or is instantly conferred on somebody else Unlike every Windsor before him, Charles had a fairly comprehensive formal education, first at a series of prep schools and then at Cambridge University. He joined the Navy, qualified as a helicopter pilot, commanded frigates, then retired to take up princing full-time. And his mother’s adamant health has made it necessary for him to pursue that bleakest of all consolations, a productive life. The Prince is President of hundreds of charities and foundations, he’s an expert in architectural heritage and restoration, he’s a tireless advocate for education reform, and he was championing environmental causes twenty years before they became fashionable. He’s toured the world representing the Crown and the Commonwealth, and in person he’s affable, prone to laughter, and intensely interested – resembling his grandmother far more than his mother. He has shown none of the rashness of George V, none of George VI’s lack of imagination, and none of Edward VIII’s fecklessness. Were he to come to the throne now, at the peak of his powers, he would be the greatest king the Windsors have ever produced.
His Prince Albert-like multifaceted ability has been compromised in only one area: love. Charles is very likely the last British royal who will marry for Palace approval – in his case, making Lady Diana Spencer his bride in 1981 after a perfunctory courtship. The Prince was born in 1948, and his new bride was thirteen years younger than he was, a high-strung courtier’s daughter descended from the choleric Spencers of Althorpe. True to her bloodline, she was fairly pretty, fond of the city, and full of self-pity – a less suitable match for Charles’ old-fashioned horsey-set inhibition could not have been found in the furthest fleshpots of Thailand, and by all accounts the marriage was in trouble before the bunting was taken down in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Princess Diana gave birth to a male heir, Prince William, in 1982 and a second son, Prince Harry, in 1984 (the latter birth being dogged by controversy, since the Prince bears a striking physical resemblance to a man with whom Diana later had an affair), but the growing tension between husband and wife was visibly apparent well before they separated in 1992. The very public battle that followed the separation – Charles aggressively pursuing infidelities (including a relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles) and Diana weeping for TV interviewers – had as its ur-text Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story, which came out in June of 1991 and shocked the ranks of royal-watchers with lurid tales of its subject being driven to bulimia and thoughts of suicide by her husband’s boorish indifference. By the time of the couple’s divorce in 1996, this conception had firmly taken root in the public’s imagination. It’s never been conclusively proven that Diana herself orchestrated the revelations her friends made to Morton for his book, but considering the nature of the book’s content, no other genesis seems possible. Small wonder the book’s appearance (first in serialized installments, then as a multi-million copy best-seller) further deepened the antipathy toward Diana already congealing among members of the royal family.
After the appearance of the Morton book, the Prince forbade his staff and friends to make any public comments at all. Diana simpered her way to a kind of secular martyrdom, and any mention of her vicious backstage power-plays with members of the Prince’s household, any hint of her own infidelities, and any mention of drug use, cynicism, or drooling stupidity became anathema. And secular martyrdom became violently-asserted sainthood after the Princess died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. Conspiracy theorists were quick to create scenarios of Palace vengeance, although the Prince insisted on flying to Paris to help Diana’s sisters claim her body, and he also insisted that as the mother of the heir presumptive, she be given a full royal funeral rather than be packed off to Althorpe.
The tidal wave of national grief at Diana’s death caught even the most ardent culture-mavens by surprise, and it obviously completely bewildered the royal family itself. The Queen and her husband were raised in an era that frowned on ostentatious public displays of private emotions, and Prince Charles had long been on record as disliking the expectation that he ‘perform’ for what he tellingly called ‘those people.’ Public resentment at all this stiff-upper-lip reserve quickly turned into a kind of ad hoc referendum on the monarchy itself, and Diana’s image-crafting proved just as effective when she was dead as it had been when she was alive. In the bizarre equatings of public sentimentality, a Charles who refused to wail at the foot of a catafalque must be a Charles who’d never cared about his young wife and probably didn’t care about his two young sons either.
Diana mania has continued to the present day, and as with Thomas Beckett and Thomas More, the public has enthusiastically abetted the canonization of a self-serving publicity addict. But the events of the Prince’s private life as they have unfolded since that hysterical summer of 1997 have had an undeniable kind of charm. Although Charles himself of course never responded to speculations that Diana had not been above using his own children to score points against him in the public mind, in her absence father and sons seemed to grow much closer (part of this might also be the simple passage of time; like his great-grandfather King George V, Charles clearly liked his children more as they grew older). Charles turned to Camilla Parker-Bowles for comfort, and in April 2005 the two were married in a civil ceremony (the Church of England, of which Charles will theoretically one day be head, frowning on a religious ceremony for a remarriage) with the Queen’s blessing. Photographs of Charles and Camilla together tell just as unerring a story as those of Charles and Diana had, only in reverse, and even ardent Diana-supporters have been forced to admit that if ever a man won through confusion and tragedy to marry the love of his life, it’s Prince Charles. His marriage to Diana had been a brief moment of ecstatic delirium followed by a long and depressing descent into the quotidia of mismatch. His marriage to Camilla represented a return to sanity, both for a man with perhaps an excess of it and for an institution that absolutely requires it.
Charles has given his entire life to the service of that institution, the family ‘firm.’ His schedule of public appearances, speeches, and charitable events is unremittingly extensive; despite possessing an immense fortune independent of the Civil List, he is and always has been the hardest-working royal. As noted, this makes it all the more bitterly ironic that one way or another, the throne itself is almost certainly going to evade him. Through outspoken engagement in the world of politics and issues, he has changed the nature of the British monarchy more subtly and fundamentally than any Windsor monarch before him, and yet he himself may never be monarch. His work and his dedication may ultimately serve only to shape a legacy for his heirs.
We’ll take a look at his heir, Prince William, in our next chapter, as A Year with the Windsors concludes.
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.