Once in a lifetime
What three royal jubilees reveal about Britain
May 26th 2012 | from the print edition
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BEFORE Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the villagers of West Hoathly in Sussex were placed under secret observation. A file was drawn up, noting their views on the monarchy, the country and the impending celebrations. The royal family was marvellous but these festivities had better not cost too much, said one villager, recorded as “Nurse, female, 50”, explaining: “People are not in the mood.”
West Hoathly was reliably monarchist, the file records, with anti-republican sentiment boosted by recent American elections (“Fancy having Jimmy Carter,” a villager shuddered). But still its Jubilee enthusiasts sounded a bit bleak. We’re due a celebration, said “Male, 53”—we’ve made it to 1977 without a nuclear war.
The files were commissioned by Mass Observation, a private social-research project that has studied the British since the 1930s. In all, 107 volunteers were recruited to record the Silver Jubilee. Their diaries and notes, together with complementary files on the 2002 Golden Jubilee, now form part of a vast archive held at Sussex University. On the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee—to be marked from June 2nd to 5th—the archives offer a remarkably evocative glimpse of the recent past.
The 1977 files describe a country that was tired and riven by industrial conflict. Its people talked of feeling a bit lost, and yet—from a distance of 35 years—they seem enviably grounded in a shared culture with deep roots. There was striking uniformity to their celebrations. Invited to have fun, people first grumbled then formed committees. It is remembered that at previous royal jubilees children were given commemorative mugs, prompting endless rows about paying for them. “The Vicar! He needs grinding up afresh, that one,” fumed a farmer’s wife in north Wiltshire, on learning that her Women’s Institute branch must buy mugs. “Not that I’m criticising him, of course,” she added hastily.
Celebrations in 1977 involved children’s food—sausage rolls and jelly, hot dogs and ice cream—and beer for the grown-ups. There were violent sporting contests, from tugs-of-war to free-form football matches. To conquer reserve, fancy dress was worn, often involving men in women’s clothing. From the West Midlands came news of an all-transvestite football game, with the laconic annotation: “all ended up in the canal.”
London displayed both patriotic zeal (flag-draped pubs in Brick Lane, big street parties in Muswell Hill) and hostility (cheerless housing estates, slogans declaring “Stuff the Jubilee”).
Scotland was a nation apart. A file reports “total apathy” in Croy. In Glasgow the anniversary was called “an English jubilee”. Snobs sneered along with Scots. At Eton College, a wooden Jubilee pyramid was smashed by old boys. At Oxford University, examinations were held on Jubilee Day, in a display of indifference.
The Silver Jubilee is not really about the monarchy, asserts a file from south Wiltshire: the day is about “people wanting a bit of fun”. A report from Wimbotsham in Norfolk, close to a royal estate at Sandringham, stands out for its focus on the queen’s 25 years on the throne. Locals held a service on the village green, praying for the monarch in “happy togetherness” under dripping umbrellas before a tug-of-war, races and tea for 700.
By 2002 and the Golden Jubilee, Britain comes across as a busier, lonelier, more cynical place. The royal family was “just showbiz”, sniffed a diarist from Sussex. There is angry talk of Princess Diana and how her 1997 death was mishandled by the queen. There are fewer street parties than in 1977, all agree. This is variously blamed on apathy, the authorities (whose job it is to organise events, apparently) and above all on health-and-safety rules. In 1977, in contrast, one Wiltshire village cheerfully let a “pyromaniac” doctor take Jubilee fireworks home to add extra bangs.
The 2012 Jubilee finds Britain changed again. Diamond jubilees being rare (the last was achieved by Queen Victoria in 1897), the queen is firmly at the centre of the celebrations. Local councils have received more than 8,000 applications to close roads for street parties, suggesting that 2002’s passivity is fading. The country is not returning to 1977 and its home-made fancy-dress costumes or Coronation bunting dug out of attics. Today’s shops heave with Jubilee cakes, disposable decorations and flag-emblazoned baubles, letting consumers buy patriotism out of a box.
After 60 years on the throne, a jubilee about the queen
Visiting Wimbotsham, Bagehot is shown elaborate plans: cake-baking contests, pony rides, a teddy bears’ picnic, a sports day, a pensioners’ tea. But there will be no tug-of-war (people might hurt themselves) and the face painters have liability insurance. Still, the festivities will dwarf those seen in 2002, locals say. The monarchy endured a “big lull after Diana”, suggests David Long, the driving force behind Wimbotsham’s Diamond Jubilee. As the queen grows older, she is “more highly thought of”. Linda Nixon, a Wimbotsham pensioner, credits Prince William’s royal wedding with reviving enthusiasm. Prince William and his brother Prince Harry are “like everyday people”, she says.
In the Mass Observation Silver Jubilee files, critics grumble about the monarchy costing too much or entrenching privilege. Supporters say the queen confers global prestige or offers a bulwark against constitutional meddling by politicians. In short, the debate is about the best way to organise society. In both Golden and Diamond Jubilee Britain, by contrast, the issue is whether the queen deserves to be respected, and whether the public can relate to her. In short, individualism is all.
Diamond Jubilee Britain seems to be a hybrid. As in 1977, an unhappy nation fancies being cheered up, and the monarchy fits the bill. As in 2002, a truculent nation demands a monarchy on its own, emotional terms. Is that sustainable? Perhaps not, but it promises to be a fine party.
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They held a little Jubilee party at Buckingham Palace -- otherwise known as Buck House.
"Our house, in the middle of our street. Our house!" the band Madness sang from the palace roof.
And, the Royal House of Windsor seems to be in pretty good shape.
Queen Elizabeth -- the opinion polls say -- is more popular than she's ever been with approval ratings of over 80 percent. That's not an accident. There's been a royal rebranding.
"Well, I don't think the royals ever saw the House of Windsor being a brand," public relations agent Mark Borkowski told CBS News.
The royals faced a PR disaster 15 years ago when Princess Diana died, and they were slow to sense the national mood of grief. The royal brand had to modernize.
"They clearly looked at their assets, and they focused on those assets," Borkowski said.
Diana's children -- and the woman one of them married -- could provide the glamor and accessibility that was needed. With an aging grandmother, William and Kate and Harry could also ease the royal burden of public appearances.
"So what we're seeing is the emergence of an inner core of young, cool royals," Rachel Johnson, a society magazine editor, explained to CBS News.
Johnson thinks the kids bring star power.
"I mean, you know, rail-thin Hollywood types who are turning into the biggest celebrities in the world, and so that is inevitably sprinkling its fairy dust over the whole, all of them," she added.
With that kind of surrounding cast, great royal extravaganzas like this weekend's river pageant become even more of a spectacle.
The world -- and even jolly old England -- have changed a great deal in the 60 years since Elizabeth has been on the throne, and the secret of her enduring popularity may be that, while appearing to change with the times, she hasn't really changed at all.
"She doesn't have to do anything," Johnson said, "She is her job. She doesn't do her job."
No wonder her job rating approval is so high.
Analyzing Royalty’s Mystique
Matt Dunham/Associated Press
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Published: May 28, 2012
Next week, after the confetti from Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration has been swept from the streets of London, more than 100 scholars will convene at Kensington Palace to ponder a phenomenon as puzzling as it is familiar: the robust survival of the British monarchy in a democratic age that long ago consigned similar institutions to the gilded dustbin of history.
This three-day conference, which will feature talks on subjects ranging from hats and monarchs to the role of the Crown in a constitutional system, commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s ascension to the throne as well as the recently completed renovation of the palace. But it can also be seen as an unofficial celebration of another refurbishment: that of the study of modern monarchy itself.
Biographers and popular historians have never lost sight of royalty, especially if madness, romance and scandal were involved. But until recently the serious study of modern British monarchy — those kings and queens who for the past two centuries have reigned but not ruled — was covered in a thick layer of dust, if not disrepute.
“For many historians on the right, the monarchy was just there and it was good, so there was no reason to study it,” said David Cannadine, a professor of history at Princeton University and an organizer of the conference. “For historians on the left, it was absurd and indefensible, so there was no reason to study it.”
Many scholars trace the resurgence of scholarly interest to an essay by Professor Cannadine published in 1983, in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, lamenting the tendency to see the modern monarchy as little more than a highbrow soap opera of minimal interest to a profession that had turned decisively toward bottom-up social history. Since then, however, scholars have gone into the archives and emerged with serious studies of royal finances, ceremony, philanthropy and political power, often linking this most elite of elites to the concerns of ordinary people.
“The modern monarchy is not just a subject for biography,” said Arianne Chernock, an assistant professor of history at Boston University. “It has so much more use as a window onto broader cultural trends, attitudes and the way people imagine themselves as citizens.”
Professor Chernock is currently writing a book about 19th-century British perceptions of queenship, which, she argues, illuminate the broader rising demand for women’s political rights. “From the death of Catherine the Great to the election of Margaret Thatcher, no women were technically ruling European states,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean sovereigns aren’t doing real work. What does it mean to have a hereditary position when so few women have any power?”
Britons debated the relationship between Queen Victoria’s femininity and her sovereignty, while newspapers were filled with coverage of foreign female monarchs like the rapacious Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar (who expelled British missionaries and legalized the slave trade there) and Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti, whose struggles with the French were depicted as struggles on behalf of the rights of the people.
Even the feminist trailblazer Helena Normanton, Britain’s first practicing female barrister, who was called to the bar in 1922, was obsessed with monarchy and queens, filling her files with elaborate diagrams about their movements and activities.
“You get a profound sense that this fascination was linked to Normanton’s own pioneering work,” Professor Chernock said. “Women are taking comfort in the sense that they have this tradition of holding power.”
The monarchy has also been taken increasingly seriously by historians of the British Empire, who point out that even as the power of the Crown declined at home during the 19th century, it was expanded abroad, where Queen Victoria was often seen as a unifying figure as well as a defender of minority interests.
She was far from a mere symbolic prop in the imperial drama, said Miles Taylor, the director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London and author of the forthcoming book “Empress: Queen Victoria and India.” Instead, he argued, she took an active role in drafting the 1858 proclamation bringing India under Crown control, restoring religious freedom and guaranteeing its inhabitants the same rights as other imperial subjects.
“From there on, Queen Victoria became seen as a sort of patriot queen, separate from the British government, deified and invoked for her generosity and sympathy,” he said.
Even today, said Maya Jasanoff, a professor of history at Harvard University, constitutional monarchy may sometimes provide a more durable framework for the protection of multiethnic rights than republican democracy. She pointed to Prince Charles’s much-mocked declaration a few years ago that as king he would like to be known as “defender of the faiths,” plural.
“It’s pretty easy to understand why conservatives like monarchy: He or she represents power, tradition, hierarchy, stability,” said Professor Jasanoff, the author of “Liberty’s Exiles,” a recent study of loyalists after the American Revolution. “But what some people might find harder to understand is why liberals might like monarchy.”
Research on the 20th-century monarchy remains a bit thin, scholars say, partly because of lack of access to documents. The current queen’s papers will not be available until after her death, and researchers seeking material on subjects that are still delicate, like the House of Windsor’s 1917 name change from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, or the abdication of Edward VIII, may not get an enthusiastic response at the Royal Archives, which are private.
“I don’t see a lot of distinguished work,” said Frank Prochaska, a professor of history at Oxford University and the author of “Royal Bounty,” a widely cited study of the British monarchy’s transformation over the past two centuries into a philanthropic powerhouse above the political fray. “It’s going to be a while.”
But some scholars are finding angles on more recent royal history, if not necessarily ones that will win them invitations to Jubilee conferences. In “Capital Affairs” (2010), Frank Mort, a cultural historian at the University of Manchester, argued that the neo-imperial pomp surrounding Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was shadowed by fears of declining sexual morals, spurred partly by immigration from the former colonies.
Mr. Mort is currently writing about the abdication, which he argues is too often seen “from above” as a drama of high constitutional principles rather than from below, as a reflection of popular sexual politics. He presented a paper on the subject in April at a University of London conference on “the royal body,” which also featured work on paparazzi and other modern topics, alongside papers like “ ‘Great Codpeic’d Harry’: Imagining the Sexualized Body of Henry VIII.”
“Modern royal masculinity is relatively unstudied,” said Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who presented a paper at the conference on the role of George V, George VI and Prince Philip in promoting national cohesion through manly sport.
That may partly be because for the last two centuries British royal men have more often been standing somewhere behind the throne rather than sitting on it — a phenomenon that some scholars say may suit the modern monarchy just fine.
Clarissa Campbell Orr, a historian at Anglia Ruskin University in England and the author of several books on queenship, said that women may be more comfortable with the constitutional monarch’s condition of being rather than doing.
“A man who is a king, or a king in waiting, is always fretting,” she said. “A woman is less likely to fret and more likely to just get on with it.”