Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mrs King

Very busy with new house and work stuff, but here's the talk I gave on 10 February at the National Portrait Gallery...

Next month, a 29 year-old former accessories buyer for the clothing chain Jigsaw will marry a flight lieutenant from the RAF. But this won't be any ordinary wedding: Kate Middleton is marrying Prince William, second in line to the British throne.

The couple have always attracted attention from the press but the announcement last November of their wedding was something else. Every British paper ran the story on their front page – and all of them had an angle.

Daily Telegraph front page, November 2010
"Kate's very special," said the Daily Telegraph, playing up the romance. As with many papers, it highlighted the fact that the engagement ring is the one worn by William's late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales – and skirted over how her marriage had turned out. This is the royal wedding as fairy-tale.

The Daily Mail didn't seem quite so delighted. Yes, the engagement is a cause for celebration, but it's headline chides, "We got there in the end, darling," as if annoyed at having been kept waiting – or as if the happy couple owed it to the paper and the country to get engaged sooner. The Mail was also quick off the mark to use the announcement to flog some commemorative merchandise. It's the royal wedding as product, meeting the demands of its market.

Daily Mail November 2010"A royal wedding in the age of austerity," mused the Guardian, taking a step back to place the announcement in its socio-economic context, asking what it said about the state of the nation as a whole. Yes, okay, it's a royal wedding, but what's in it for us?

One paper didn't overtly lead with the happy couple.

Independent November 2010There's cheery. At first sight – and in the news-stand next to other papers – this seems completely different: no smiling, happy couple, not even any colour. But what's that down in the corner? "I wish her well," says columnist Julie Burchill, "but Kate Middleton is marrying beneath her."

For all it's doing it's own thing, the Independent is still taking a position on the story. Burchill's column is a reversal of earlier press criticism of Middleton – that she wasn't posh enough for the prince. There were reports in 2007 that she used inappropriate words like “toilet” and “pardon”. Several papers have discussed whether it's appropriate for our future queen to have a job, or that her parents run a small mail-order business.

The key word is appropriate. The papers – and perhaps the rest of us – seem to believe that anyone marrying a king or queen must have an appropriate pedigree, curriculum vitae and vocabulary. But the role of consort has no formal definition, and it's a role that Kate's various predecessors have all struggled with.

I'm going to look briefly at five other people who married kings and queens of England. I'm going to look at how much power and influence they had, and what they might tell us about the role Queen Catherine will play in future.

This dashing chap is the current consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The photo is from 1947, the year he married the then Princess Elizabeth.

Unlike Kate Middleton, Philip was already royal. Both he and the queen are great, great grandchildren of Queen Victoria. He was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, nephew of the then king of Greece. A year after Philip was born, King Constantine was deposed and the royal family had to flee the country. Philip was, famously, carried away in a cot made from an old fruit box.

So he grew up as a prince in exile. He was taught at the Schule Sloss Salem school in Germany, which has been set up by Kurt Hahn after the First World War with the explicit intention of producing leaders for the future. When Philip was 12, Hahn was arrested for criticising the Nazis. After his release he moved to Britain and set up a new Salem school in Scotland – Gordonstoun. The young Prince Philip was one of his first students, and his sons and grandsons also went there.

I wonder how much the prince's exile and education under the Nazi-hating Hahn influenced the consort he became. As I said before, there's no formal definition of a consort's role.

Jeremy Paxman interviewed Prince Philip for his book, On Royalty, published in 2006, and asked him about his role when his wife took the throne. “I did ask various people what I was expected to do,” said the prince. “And?” asked Paxman. “They sort of looked down and shuffled their feet,” (p. 234).

Instead, the prince has been able to make the role his own. I think his education and his family's exile have taught him to be useful, to make a contribution to the advancement of the country and its people. Paxman likens him to his predecessor as Queen's Consort, Prince Albert, and remarks on a similar “Teutonic approach to work”. Paxman speaks of a “more than nominal” involvement in the 800 organisations of which the prince is patron.

We can see the influence of his old school in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, set up in the late 1950s to encourage the personal development of young people through volunteering, self-reliance, the learning of skills and sport. Since then, some 4 million young people – from all backgrounds – have taken part.

Prince Philip was a thoroughly modern consort, too, championing science and industry. He was the first royal to be interviewed on television, and was also a TV presenter. Watch Prince Philip host a live programme for the BBC's The Restless Sphere series on 30 June 1957.

It's an extraordinary programme. For more than 70 minutes, the young prince single-handedly explains the experiments to be carried out during the International Geophysical Year, including early satellite technology, solar observation and oceanography. It's fascinating to watch him deftly explain complex technical ideas, work the different props, link to and fill time around pre-recorded segments from all across the world, and generally keep the show running smoothly. In another life, he might have presented Tomorrow's World. He cuts a rather dashing figure, a Renaissance man from a far off time when we still just about had an Empire.

But the prince also discusses evidence from different sources around the world that the oceans are rising and glaciers melting – as if the climate were changing. He tells us that more evidence – much more evidence, gathered over many decades – will be needed to know for sure. And over the next decades, he championed that research and concerns about the environment. Watch Prince Philip on breakfast show TV-am in November 1987.

In many ways, the prince was ahead of the game on the environment. Perhaps his position as a statesman without portfolio, constantly meeting experts and representatives in every walk of life, gives him a unique position. He's continually briefed on the latest scientific findings, and he uses his position to share them with the rest of us.

He's still speaking on the subject today, but two things have changed. First, there has been increasing evidence for climate change and increasing numbers of people speaking about it – and against it. It has become more fashionable and political – and the royal family as a whole are expected to avoid political statements.

And secondly, something has changed about the way the royal family is represented.

“A huffy note enters his voice when he talks about how his family have been treated by the mass media,” says Paxman, who then quotes the prince: “'It is absolutely extraordinary what has happened in the last thirty years. I mean, before that we were accepted as quite normal sorts of people. But now, I mean now I reckon I have done something right if I don't appear in the media. Because I know that any appearance in it will be one of criticism.'”

That's from a chapter in the book called “Gilded but gelded”, all about the royal family's relationship with the press. That's a big subject – too big to get into here, so I'll just recommend Paxman's book. Instead I want to stay on the consort's role and responsibilities – and the fact that Prince Philip says that no one else told him what he was required to do. He has clearly set out to be useful, to help people fulfil their potential and to help the world. But his response to the way the press now responds suggests another motivation.

“I will be criticized for doing something,” he told Paxman. “So I've retreated – quite consciously – so as not to be an embarrassment. I don't want to be embarrassing.”

I mentioned appropriateness before, and I think the other side of that is embarrassment. But embarrassing who? Himself? The queen? The royal family? The nation? And what is the response when you do cause embarrassment?

Even if she had lived, Princess Diana would not have been a consort – she and Prince Charles divorced in 1996. But, like Prince Philip before her, Diana created her own role and responsibilities as Princess of Wales – and recreated that role on several occasions. She seemed both to embody and challenge our ideas of what a consort should be.

This is a portrait of Princess Diana (currently on view in the NPG's 32). It's quite a surprising choice for the gallery – very unlike the way we might think of Diana from the time, in ballgowns and finery, the fairy-tale princess in that wedding dress. This is a simple portrait, Diana dressed informally in open-necked blouse and trousers. That simplicity contrasts with the setting, the smart, gold-lined door that frames her, the antique chair she's sitting on.

Other portraits of Diana from the time have her looking coyly away whereas here she holds our eye. That chimes with a description in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography of Diana meeting Charles at a polo match in 1980:

“Her directness and sympathy over the death the previous year of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten, caught his attention: she was not afflicted by the usual constraints on people dealing with royalty, and was neither tongue-tied nor overly deferential. Her credentials as a potential royal bride were obvious.”

What were those credentials? Princess Diana was not born a princess, but her father and both grandmothers moved in court circles and she first met Prince Charles when she was 16 – when he briefly dated her sister. She was well off, having inherited a sum from her great-grandmother. She was not academic, having failed her O-levels twice.

She was, says the ODNB, “A popular, essentially jolly girl with a talent for making friends,” and her O-levels didn't matter because, “arguably, none [were] required for girls of her class, who had no need to earn a living; indeed, displays of intellect could be frowned upon by the largely philistine county set”.

She was beautiful, and could play the part of the fairy-tale princess. And she had an ability to talk unaffectedly to anyone, enchanting people who met her. Both things made her very popular with the press and public, and it seemed she might be just the jolt in the arm that the royal family needed.

But when things started to go wrong in the fairy-tale wedding, it all became very different. It's easy to forget the outrage that met the 1992 book Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton – which finally blew the lid on the fairy-tale, after all the years of rumour. Diana had rarely been out of the news before, but now the tone of the coverage had changed. There were stories about her various alleged lovers, or the state of her mental health, or just endless photos of her. The ODNB speaks of the constant harassment, where “photographs of Diana angry, or Diana in tears, Diana at the gym or the corner shop, commanded a far higher price than photographs of Diana carrying out public engagements.”

There's an argument that the press wanted to get at the “real” Diana. Perhaps it was payback for the fairy-tale wedding that we'd all been sold turning out not to be true. Perhaps the institution had got caught up in the story and believed their own press but the royal family – as an institution – effectively lied to the nation and, even worse, to the papers.

But it also didn't help that in some ways Diana brought this press harassment on herself. She was interviewed several times by Morton for his book and got her friends to contribute, too. She'd done so on the basis that she could always deny doing so – and that lie, when exposed, damaged her reputation with the Press Complaints Commission, which had tried to defend her from the media scrum over the book. It was also her choice to dispense with her round-the-clock police protection – so she could pursue her private life without constant surveillance. And that left her exposed to the paparazzi.

Perhaps she was not the canniest player, but at the same time, Diana also used the attention of the press to great effect for important causes. The ODNB says that this was part of a conscious effort to refashion her role and responsibilities.

“From June 1987,” it says, “when she visited the first ward for AIDS sufferers in Britain, she associated herself closely with a huge number of causes and organizations devoted to different kinds of sufferers ... Her patronage was widely sought and widely bestowed: whatever disadvantages might accrue from having a notoriously temperamental and, as time passed, increasingly unpredictable royal patron, Diana's name—and more especially her presence—were guaranteed to raise the profile of issues and organizations, and to increase revenue significantly. There was nothing novel about the association of a royal woman with good causes of these kinds: charity was the traditional outlet for women of the upper classes. But Diana brought glamour to the work and a degree of publicity which was never available to her less photogenic but no less hard-working sister-in-law, the princess royal, among others.”

Though Diana charmed those she met, press coverage was as often cynical as it was supportive, questioning her motives, or using the occasion to put questions about her private life. When she told Martin Bashir in a television interview in 1995 that she wanted to be remembered as the “princess of hearts”, many newspapers showed open contempt.

A year later she was granted her divorce and again set about refashioning her role. Diana stepped down from all but six of her charities and asked Prime Minister John Major to make her a “roving ambassador” on humanitarian issues for Britain. When no official role was created for her, she did it anyway: leading a Red Cross mission to draw attention to the devastation caused by landmines. This was a major political issue. The royal family are meant to keep well clear of making political statements – but Diana was no longer part of the family, and had nothing to lose. As the ODNB says,

“Powerful vested interests opposed the landmine ban, and Conservative MPs went on record accusing the princess of being a ‘loose cannon’, interfering in politics beyond her remit, but her championing of the cause was a significant factor in the promotion of the treaty banning the mines.”

And when Diana died suddenly in 1997, the press – and the nation – were quick to forget all their criticism. “Princess of hearts” was how they remembered her. The empathy, the charity, the tragic fate of the beautiful, fairy-tale princess – that's the image of her that endures. And that's why, in the grand narrative spun by the press, it's not odd that Kate Middleton wears Diana's engagement ring.

We've not discussed love. “It's important to understand,” says Jeremy Paxman, “that, in making arrangements for royal marriages, love is not necessarily the prime consideration. If the couple enjoy each other's company, that is a bonus not a prerequisite,” (p. 87).

But I don't think that's true. We want to believe in the fairy-tale. When Diana's engagement to Charles was announced in 1981, the press asked if they were in love. “Of course,” said Diana immediately. Charles' response has been much picked over since. “Whatever love means,” he said.

Was he in love with Diana? Was he in love with someone else? Charles later admitted to infidelity, and there's been speculation that at the time he'd wanted to marry Diana's older sister Sarah, or his current wife, Camilla. The speculation continues that these women were not deemed appropriate consort material – they weren't suitably innocent or pretty or whatever it might have been.

The pervading story seems to be that Charles chose duty over love – and that that was a mistake. So it's interesting to compare Diana with someone else who wasn't quite a consort.

When Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, it was largely sold as romance. He chose love over the crown. Like Diana, Edward was a popular figure, photogenic and beloved of the press. Like Diana, his empathy with his people could lead to controversy. “Something must be done,” he said on seeing the collapse of industry and mass unemployment in Wales – and that innocuous, humane statement caused a scandal.

But the British press were discrete about his love life. We know now he had a number of affairs in the late 1920s and early 30s, but the press at the time paid no heed. Even when his relationship with Wallis became more serious – and their yacht trip round the Mediterranean was followed with keen interest by the world press – the British newspapers said nothing.

When Edward chose to give up the throne, the “abdication crisis” proved little of the sort. “Reading the official papers and the private diaries,” says Paxman, “what is striking is how, in the end, the king's determination to marry his divorced American mistress came to turn simply on the question of how it might be managed,” (p. 209).

That says a lot about how the royal family's relationship with the press has changed. But why was Wallis not a suitable consort for the king?

The official reason is that she was a divorcee. At the time, divorced people could not remarry in the Church of England – which made it tricky for the head of the church to marry a divorcee. The irony being that the Church of England was created to grant Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife so he could marry someone else.

But there were other issues with Wallis. The ODNB says that she “impinged on the performance of [Edward's] duties” as Prince of Wales. She was bossy, and had an abrasive irreverence towards Edward's position and the royal family generally. She came from a poor background and she was American.

And she didn't want to be queen. “All the indications,” says the ODNB, “are that she enjoyed her role of maîtresse en titre [chief mistress] and would have been satisfied to retain it ... Once Mrs Simpson realized that marriage to her would cost the king his throne, she tried to change his resolve. Anticipating much hostile publicity when the story broke in the United Kingdom, she retreated first to Fort Belvedere, and then to the south of France. From there, in a series of distraught telephone calls, she tried to persuade Edward not to abdicate, even if this meant giving her up. She accomplished nothing; this was the only subject on which she was unable to dominate her future husband.”

But if Wallis was thought unsuitable then, it's nothing to how she's thought of now. In the last six months, she's been depicted in three period dramas.

In Any Human Heart on Channel 4, she and Edward swan round a golf course, pushing in front of other golfers and pinching their cigarettes. In Upstairs, Downstairs on BBC One, she nearly causes a diplomatic incident in 1936 by turning up at a party with the Nazi Ambassador to Britain, von Ribbentrop. It's heavily implied that she and Ribbentrop are lovers, even that Wallis is a fascist sympathiser. She's briefly in the film The King's Speech, where Edward accuses his brother of heading a plot to usurp him. I gather, too, that Madonna is working on a film in which Wallis is seen cheating on Edward.

These are not flattering portrayals, and the received wisdom seems to be that Wallis was a bad influence on Edward, promiscuous, greedy, silly, even dangerous. Edward was naïve, or stupid, for marrying for love – or at least for loving this particular woman. The story goes that it is a good thing Wallis wasn't queen. And that instead we got this lady:

As with Wallis, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon didn't choose to be queen. She was already married when her brother-in-law abdicated, and her husband became George VI. But even when he'd just been Duke of York, she had “had her doubts and reservations about her suitability for public life and perhaps about her feelings for” him and “apparently turned down his first two proposals of marriage” - so the ODNB says.

She was the first non-royal to legally marry a royal prince since James II in the seventeenth century. But her in-laws, George V and Queen Mary, “thought that this pretty, natural, level-headed, and unassuming young woman would be a good partner for their unconfident son.” And that's exactly the role she played as consort.

Taking the oath of accession, the new king said he took on his responsibilities “with my wife and helpmate at my side”. Perhaps tellingly, at his coronation, “Elizabeth's throne ... was placed level with the king's. Later, in 1943, she was appointed a councillor of state, allowing her to deputize for the king in official matters—the first queen consort to fulfill the role—and she also held investitures on her own.”

The ODNB discusses at length the treatment of the abdicated King Edward, and the decision to deny his wife the title of “her royal highness”. The same title was, of course, stripped from Princess Diana when she divorced Charles. Though, “there is no reason to believe that [Edward's sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth] was directly responsible for the decision,” says the ODNB, “her opinion on the matter may be imagined. She saw Mrs Simpson as an interloper who had disrupted both the public position of royalty and private relations within the royal family. In the queen's view Mrs Simpson's actions had forced an unexpected and unwelcome change to her settled family life and had imposed ultimate burdens on her husband [which may have contributed to his early death]. To a woman who placed the highest value on responsibility, whether to family or nation, Mrs Simpson's irresponsibility, as she saw it, could not be tolerated, nor should it be rewarded.”

She was also fiercely protective of her husband. According to Walter Monckton, Edward's representative in the negotiations about what his role might be as Duke of Windsor, George VI was not against Edward taking on some minor royal functions – effectively swapping roles with his younger brother. “But in Monckton's opinion ‘the Queen felt quite plainly it was undesirable to give the Duke any effective sphere of work’. She thought the duke ‘was an attractive, vital creature who might be the rallying point for any who might be critical of the new King who was less superficially endowed with the arts and graces that please,” (cited in Lord Birkenhead, Walter Monckton, p. 169).

If Elizabeth had little choice about becoming queen, she also had little choice in her responsibilities during her husband's reign, which was so dominated by the Second World War – the lead up to it, the war itself and the immediate aftermath. In Paris in 1938 to help reinforce the Anglo-French alliance, it was Elizabeth's stylish white outfits – designed by Norman Hartnell – that won the admiration of the press. She was similarly praised for her style the next year in the US, and the king and queen's stay at President Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park has been cited as “a significant moment in the developing ‘special relationship’ between the two nations and one of the most important royal visits in the history of the modern monarchy”.

When the war began, Elizabeth and her husband famously refused to leave London, and she would not countenance her daughters being sent away to Canada. When Buckingham Palace was bombed, she said she was glad: “Now I can look the East End in the face”. As the ODNB says, “she reached out to the British people, sharing their experiences in a way that royalty had never done before. Interestingly, she chose not to appear in uniform during the war and came to symbolize the virtues of normality and peace.” The royal family also apparently conformed to wartime rationing.

Perhaps Elizabeth only chose her role and responsibilities after her husband's death. There's evidence that Winston Churchill advised her in her bereavement, “but it seems equally likely,” says the ODNB, “that the strength of character and the imagination required to play this new role came also, and quite naturally, from Elizabeth herself. She had no wish or aptitude for the role of retiring dowager. Comfortable with her people, adaptable, and with an unaltered ethic of service, she returned to public duties in May 1952.”

As Queen Mother for the next fifty years, she was patron of more than 300 organisations and charities. She was chancellor of the University of London for 25 years and colonel-in-chief of 13 regiments. She also lived lavishly, employing a large staff and entertaining on a grand scale. She apparently ran up debts of £4 million at Coutts Bank.

But while for any other royal that might have earned the displeasure of the nation – or the press – the Queen Mother never seemed to lose favour. Perhaps it was her cheery, ever-smiling attitude to her public duties. She clearly worked hard as the grandmother of the nation. And she was also discreet – giving one interview when first engaged. Woodrow Wyatt would later reveal that she had “conservative opinions” but she never voiced them openly. Whatever her opinions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor she never spoke about the abdication – and she attended both of their funerals.

The Queen Mother's own funeral in 2002 was a major event. A quarter of a million people filed past her coffin as it lay in state. She lived a remarkably long life and her popularity never wavered, even as it did for the rest of her family. Why? What did the Queen Mother do that the others didn't? Why do we remember her so fondly? What could Kate Middleton learn from her?

There's duty, hard work and the charitable causes. There's the empathy with the people. But other consorts had that. There's a loving relationship with the king. A bit of style doesn't go amiss either. A twinkle in the eye will more than make up for a slightly naughty gambling habit.

But I think the Queen Mother's chief asset was her discretion. She never spoiled the mystique of royalty, she never told tales and she never got caught up in politics. More than that, by keeping her mouth shut she never said anything embarrassing.

When the press speak to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, it’s as if they only want to catch her out. What does she think of Kate? What does she think of the student protesters? Why was her window open? If she says something innocuous it’s reported that she doesn’t care. If she says something more fun it’s reported that she’s not funny. The woman cannot win.

She does the charities and good causes. She supports her husband. And she keeps a relatively low profile. I discovered while preparing this talk that the Portrait Gallery holds no photographs of her, let alone a portrait.

We still don’t know what role Camilla will play when her husband becomes king. The couple have said that she won’t be a queen – but is that up to them? According to the law, as soon as the present queen dies, Prince Charles automatically becomes king and his wife queen. At the moment, Camilla is also the Princess of Wales because she's the wife of the prince – but she or those around her choose not to use that title. So maybe she'll choose not to be called queen, and maybe she won't be crowned when Charles is. But, technically, she'll still be queen.

And why shouldn’t she be queen? There are strong feelings on the subject. Some feel it wouldn’t be appropriate because she’s a divorcee – though so is her husband. Some feel it’s not appropriate given that she and Charles had an affair while he was still married to Diana. So Camilla not being queen is a sort of punishment for how Diana was treated. Or maybe its punishment for the embarrassment caused by the whole “Squidgy” business.

Would it have been different had Charles married her in the early 1970s? Would Camilla have been made a fairy-tale princess and received the same adulation as Diana? Would she have suffered the same problems, too? Or is there something about their different personalities and ambitions that means things would always have been different?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But it makes me wonder again how much a consort – or almost-consort – gets to define their own role and responsibilities, and how much they just react to us, as a nation, as perhaps voiced through the press. There’s no formal definition of a consort’s role, but we seem to know instinctively what is appropriate, what is embarrassing, and what makes our blood boil.

So we don’t know what kind of consort Kate Middleton will be. We don’t know how much say she’ll have in her role and responsibilities. But we will know when she gets it wrong.