By April Howard
Rétif de la Bretonne, writing of the French, claimed that ‘everyone considers the King as a very personal acquittance.’ Shortly after he committed these words to paper, King Louis XVI was guillotined in the Place de la Révolution.
Royalty features in most of the fairytales we have encountered in our lifetime. Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales usually centre around a princess, reimagining feudal medieval society for his 19th century audience. While his stories, along with those of the brothers Grimm, are typically dark parables and cautionary tales, our modern, Disney-informed ideas of fairytale are far more rose-tinted. So, too, are our ideas of monarchy.
The Monarchy as an institution is a constantly evolving phenomenon. The notion of the Divine Right of Kings has long been dissolved, and many people may question the purpose of the monarchy in today’s political climate. The Queen stands as the face of British imperialism, a faint afterglow of a time gone-by. She is now a relic, placed on display behind glass, in an exhibition of outdated ideals. As an Irish Catholic, my view of the British royals has been less than romantic. I watch in disconcerted awe as people, some of whom are generally left-leaning, buy royal merchandise, scream and cry at royal events, throw street parties for every jubilee, and jump to defend or express admiration for the Queen at any opportunity.
However, as a student of medieval history, I can understand the appeal of art which romanticises royalty. I have always had a love for Arthurian literature, for example. Tales of King Arthur and his knights were largely forgotten after Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1485) until the Victorian revival. I would argue that at the height of empire, the UK needed a cultural myth, a sense of noble identity to rally behind. As Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness: ‘what redeems [the conquest of the earth] is the idea only… something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to’.
As a child, I loved the Princess Diaries. This film reflects an American understanding of the monarchy, underlain with republicanism. While the people of the US are broadly fascinated with the British royals, this fascination comes with distance, separated by both the Atlantic and a society which has long freed itself from the constraints of the British crown, they have a cosy seat from which to view the spectacle of royalty. The film focuses on the transformation motif which is a staple of American teen films (think Clueless, She’s All That, The Breakfast Club…), as Mia gets her hair straightened and learns how to sit like a lady. Mia’s royal status merely acts as a catalyst for this.
In many ways, the death of Princess Diana shattered the fallacy of the royal fairy-tale most profoundly. She was a classic fairy-tale princess: beautiful, graceful and compassionate, married to a prince twice her age. Her tale of a woman plucked from the life to which she was accustomed and reliant on a man whose heart ultimately belonged to someone else holds much resonance to Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Diana’s story also ends tragically. This unhappy ending, which we no longer really culturally relate to fairy-tale convention (thanks to Disney), broke down many people’s fairy-tale understanding of the royals. Many films and shows have focused on this brutal side of the royal institution, the recent film Spencer, for example, is a psychological thriller portraying the degeneration of Diana’s mental health over a weekend in Sandringham. The Crown, too, has brought Diana’s story to light. The Crown has in many ways done much to de-romanticise the monarchy. The show displays the royal family, in all its intricacies and traumas, in a way that is as humanised and de-dramatised as a drama series can muster while still holding a level of entertainment value.
With recent allegations levied at Prince Andrew, one must question the function of royalty more than ever. It is also worth noting that this man was raised on taxpayer’s money, and much of this money will be pumped into his legal fight. The fairytale veneer of the monarchy has profoundly cracked, and it seems that it will only rupture further and further until the whole façade crashes down around us.
Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash