Although the British monarchy has not exercised power over its subjects since the 17th century, the public’s fascination with its royal family has yet to wane. In fact, since the Victorian Age in the 19th century, Britons’ interest in the royal family has bordered on frenetic adoration. In the 21st century, the media frenzy caused by the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, as well as by the births of their three children, demonstrates Great Britain’s obsession with the royal family and its personal milestones.
Victoria: Marriage and MourningAlthough the British public had followed their sovereigns’ personal lives with interest prior to the mid-19th century, the Victorian Age ushered in an unprecedented wave of national curiosity about the monarchy. Queen Victoria assumed the throne in 1837 at the young age of 18, and she soon won the public’s affection with her unaffected manner. However, her close relationship with Viscount Melbourne, the prime minister, soon sparked gossip among the royal and political set and in the streets of London. Melbourne, who was more than twice Victoria’s age, became her chief confidant and adviser, and Victoria arranged for Melbourne to have a suite of rooms at Windsor Castle. Although the two were not romantically involved, the many hours they spent together, and the extent to which Victoria revered Melbourne’s conservative opinions on state matters, unnerved Britons, particularly because the queen was unmarried.
Romance blossomed for Victoria in 1839, when she asked her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, to marry her. The royal wedding in February 1840 was cause for great celebration in Britain and it set the standard for nuptials far after the Victorian Era. Scores of British women imitated the style of Victoria’s dress, and in a much further-reaching trend, Victoria has been credited with popularizing white as the definitive color for wedding dresses in many nations and cultures. Her wedding ring, a diamond-encrusted gold serpent winding around her finger, was also wildly imitated during the Victorian Age.
Albert, who was more liberal than Melbourne, supplanted him as Victoria’s adviser and encouraged Victoria to discuss such issues as poverty and child labor. When Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861, Victoria was heartbroken and entered a mourning period of 10 years. She withdrew completely from interaction with the public, and an initially sympathetic but increasingly critical British public began to question whether the queen was earning her income.
Victoria slowly emerged during the 1870s and began to involve herself in the commonwealth’s politics again. The British public began to regard her more highly as well. At the time of her death in 1901, Victoria was very popular, and the nation mourned her loss.
Edward VII: From Rake to SovereignVictoria and Albert’s son Edward VII succeeded his mother to the throne. Edward had earned a reputation as a drinker, gambler, and womanizer. Following a visit to the United States in 1860 (he was the first British monarch to visit the U.S.), Edward had an affair with an Irish actress that scandalized the monarchy.
Although Edward was seated in the House of Lords following Albert’s death, he did not participate a great deal in British politics; instead, he spent the following 40 years building his public reputation as a notorious playboy and dilettante. His lifestyle earned him the continued fury of Victoria and the shock and disdain of much of the upper class.
When Edward assumed the throne in 1901, much of the British public was worried that this lifestyle would continue during his reign. However, Edward proved to be a vibrant and shrewd sovereign. His many trips abroad improved relations between the United Kingdom and other nations. Those successes abroad finally garnered the respect of the British populace, which dubbed him the “Uncle of Europe.” After only nine years as king, however, Edward died of health complications in 1910.
George V: The Windsor Name Is BornGeorge V succeeded his father as king that same year. As Edward VII’s second son, he had not been raised as the heir and had served as a naval officer until his elder brother Albert died in 1892. Immediately after ascending the throne, George was forced to deal with a contentious issue that had arisen between the conservative House of Lords and the more liberal House of Commons. George continued the policy his father had charted, which supported the liberals. Although the issue resolved itself when the conservatives conceded, George emerged in the British public’s eyes as supportive of reform and liberal thought. He further endeared himself to the masses during World War I by visiting the front several times. Also during the war, noting Britons’ marked aversion to German politics, George changed the royal family’s name from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg to Windsor.
George’s Silver Jubilee in May 1935, celebrating his 25 years as king, was a great celebration for the British public, who had grown to love and respect him during his long reign. Following the celebration, George’s already-failing health declined rapidly, and his family and advisers began planning his funeral—even the date that his death would be announced to the public. When George failed to succumb as expected, he was lethally injected so that the coronation of his son, Edward VIII, could proceed as scheduled in January 1936.
Edward VIII: Abdication and ScandalWhile George had exemplified the traditional British monarch in terms of respectable lifestyle and sense of responsibility, Edward represented the opposite characteristics. The first son of George and Mary of Teck, he was raised by nannies, educated in boarding schools, and began service in the navy at the young age of 13. Following a stint at Oxford University, he entered the Grenadier Guards and began traveling abroad extensively on goodwill trips for his father. At home, Edward was popular with the British public, although he was considered idle and indulgent and was infamous for his relationships with married women.
Edward met Wallis Simpson, a beautiful American who not only was married but also had been previously divorced, in 1931. Edward began courting Simpson, much to the despair and outrage of the royal family, the British government, and the public, who thought his behavior was undignified and absurd. When Edward ascended the throne in 1936, his plans to marry Simpson unleashed a national crisis. Because the monarchy and the Church of England were intrinsically linked, Edward would contradict himself by marrying a divorcée while also swearing to uphold the church’s doctrine. As a result, Edward abdicated the throne in December 1936. He and Simpson were married in France the following year and lived there for the remainder of their lives. Edward’s choice of spouse and his decision to abdicate were extremely unpopular with the British populace.
George VI: Britain’s Pillar of Strength during World War IIEdward’s brother and successor, George VI, proved to be a pillar of strength for the British during the next turbulent years. George, who had attended Cambridge University and served as a naval and air force officer, had not been trained in royal duties because he was not a likely heir. After the brief, scandalous reign of Edward, the British government, media, and public regarded George with initial trepidation but soon grew to respect the dignity and normalcy that he restored to the throne.
George and his wife, Elizabeth, were alarmed over the state of European affairs as Nazi Germany and fascist Italy became increasingly aggressive. George and Elizabeth traveled to North America and France during the late 1930s to promote British goodwill. Those trips were extremely successful and paved the way for diplomacy to bind the Allied nations during the impending war.
When World War II began in 1939, rather than evacuate, George, Elizabeth, and their daughters remained in London. Their support for the military and for all Britons who faced blackouts and bombings earned them the unwavering respect and love of the British people. The king and queen visited hospitals and shelters daily, and George traveled extensively to inspect and support British troops.
Though George’s health began to fail during the late 1940s, he withheld his illness from the British public until he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1951. Having seen Great Britain through its most devastating crisis and having restored the British monarchy’s reputation, he succumbed to the disease in February 1952.
Elizabeth II: The Longest ReignGeorge’s daughter Elizabeth II was just beginning a goodwill tour of Australia when she received word that her father had died, and she was to be crowned queen. She was the first monarch whose coronation, which took place in June 1953, was televised, both domestically and internationally. The public was not instantly enamored of her. She appeared reserved and shy, lacked the warmth of her parents, and was portrayed negatively by the press.
Elizabeth also inherited from her father the unwieldy task of dismantling much of Great Britain’s empire, which evoked a variety of strong reactions from Britons. Nevertheless, the British public has gathered in great numbers to commemorate her long reign at various points in her career, including such landmark anniversaries to her ascension to the throne as her 50th wedding anniversary in 1997, her 90th birthday in 2016, and her Saphire Jubilee in 2017, which also marked the first time a British sovereign had reached their 65th year on the throne. All were celebrated by hundreds of thousands of cheering Britons in London and across the United Kingdom.
Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, have four children: Charles, Edward, Andrew, and Anne. Although Elizabeth’s manners and public behavior as queen have been generally respectable, the conduct of her children has caused quite a stir throughout her reign. Charles, Andrew, and Anne have all divorced their spouses, much to the delight of Britain’s infamous tabloid newspapers. Of particular interest to the media and to the British public were the personal affairs of Charles, heir to the throne.
Charles and Diana
Charles, Prince of Wales, married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Beautiful and charming, Diana, Princess of Wales, captured Britons’ hearts from the outset. The couple’s wedding was televised throughout the world and regarded as something of a fairy tale. However, Charles’ infidelity eventually led to the couple’s divorce in 1996. The media’s obsession with Diana and the scandal of a future king obtaining a divorce tarnished the royal family’s reputation. Although the queen stripped Diana of the title “Her Royal Highness,” the former princess remained an object of the media’s focus and the public’s adoration. When Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997, she was mourned extensively by Britons and by millions around the world. Following her death, Charles and Diana’s sons, William and Henry, have received the brunt of public focus that was formerly cast on their mother.
Prince William’s marriage to Middleton on April 29, 2011, was the subject of massive domestic and international press coverage. The subsequent births of their three children—Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis—and the media frenzy each birth set off across the world, exemplifies the public’s insatiable fascination with the royal family. Prince Harry’s announcement of his engagement to American actress Meghan Markle in late 2017 marked another royal milestone and brought worldwide focus onto the family once again.
About the Author:
Anne Blaschke is visiting assistant professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross. She has also taught at Bridgewater State University, Wheelock College, and Boston University. Previous to those positions, she was a writer and editor for ABC-CLIO. Anne received her BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara and her MA and PhD in history from Boston University. Her specialties include 20th-century American political and cultural history, women’s and gender history, racial politics, ethnicity, sports, and international relations.
Blaschke, Anne. “Public Fascination with British Monarchy.” World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2018, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/547682. Accessed 10 May 2018.