Mine is a mixed marriage. My wife’s a Brit. Though she’s not a royalist – and though she values her sleep like few people I know – she got up at 3 am (we live in LA) to watch Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral live. She debated watching it after getting a good night’s sleep, but the sheer historicity of the moment won out. I’m American but I’m not one of those Americans who’s enthralled by royalty. In fact, I don’t get “royalty” at all. Yeah, yeah – I know all the history; I know that there’s always some sort of history. A “Genesis story” describing how this one family’s blood suddenly became “royal”. Let me say straight out: Queen Elizabeth was a remarkable woman. But, I don’t get the “royal blood” thing. What makes anyone’s blood “royal”? Nothing. There’s no such thing as “royal blood”.
That said, I also got up at three a.m. On the one hand, I don’t sleep much so, it wasn’t all that extraordinary to be up at that hour. But, I’m also one of those people who wakes up at four a.m. to watch his favorite “footie” team – Tottenham Hotspur – play. Spacecraft arriving on Mars. I want to see what happens when it happens, not in tape-delay.
This isn’t always a pleasant experience. As did the nation, I watched the Challenger space shuttle explode live. When these great adventures fail, they turn moments of triumph into years of tragedy. That should never dissuade us from taking the risks. Waking in the middle of the night won’t guarantee that Spurs will win. I will wake in the middle of the night to watch them regardless.
My point is I understand how an entity – like a woman or a sports team – can be idolized. Given a higher spot in one’s personal pecking order and a bunch of special privileges to boot.
I think about Spurs a lot. Too much, frankly. But, I don’t think they’re royal. If anything, it’s their fallibility that appeals! I’m not asking where the idea of royalty came from. I’m asking why it still holds some people in its thrall.
No argument: the Queen’s funeral has been magnificent spectacle. To their credit, the British government, so far, has pulled off a massive public event that literally the whole world is watching live. Elizabeth herself was pure dark horse. Entirely home-schooled, raised in a bubble’s bubble, part of a family with dubious values (unless you like Nazis), Elizabeth rose above her unfortunate circumstances and truly became the most famous – and most powerful – woman in the world.
Not only was Elizabeth good at being queen, she understood that the world was changing around her. Royalty wasn’t what it was and wasn’t going to be what it was then for very much longer. Democracy kinda makes royalty irrelevant.
This moment from “Monty Python And The Holy Grail” keeps playing in my head. Arthur – King Of The Britons – meets a little opposition from a fellow Brit who denies Arthur’s royalty: “I didn’t vote for you,” says the citizen. Well put, citizen!
Even a cursory glance at royalty’s history paints an ugly picture of royalty. Like they say, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Pretty much all royalty points to the divine as justification. God made them royal. Oh, didn’t you get the memo? This blog has argued that monotheism is dangerous precisely because it puts a “voice of God” inside its believers’ heads. But, that voice isn’t actually God’s – or anyone else’s. That voice is theirs. Whether they know it or not, they’ve already made the connections. They don’t believe in God anymore, they believe they are God.
The birth of democracy should have spelled the end of royalty. Presidents aren’t supposed to be kings. That’s not how some Americans want it though. About a third of America still laments that America won the American Revolution. They detest democracy. It’s too unreliable! And then there’s all that diversity!
Royal blood is an anachronism. It’s ludicrous. And it doesn’t explain what made Elizabeth II truly remarkable – which she was. If anything, Elizabeth understood what royalty was and what it wasn’t. She also understood that royalty had to adapt and change rapidly in order to stay relevant. Staying relevant, Elizabeth understood, meant keeping the whole enterprise aloft.
Did Elizabeth succeed in keeping her family employed for a little bit longer as Britain’s home grown performance artist Von Trapps? Absolutely. So long as Charles keeps the royals on a spending diet while making their royalty as accessible as possible to as wide an audience as possible? The English royal family will have a venue.
Historian Barbara Tuchman opens her magnificent “The Guns Of August” this way –
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration... The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”“The Guns Of August”, Barbara Tuchman
That could have been today albeit on a much, much grander scale. As MSNBC keeps pointing out, this has been “pageant as narcotic” (that’s per author Clive Irving, author of “The Last Queen”). Plenty of pomp and an overdose of circumstances. There’s no denying the overwhelming sense of moment, of history. The Brits do pageantry like no one else. Even if one doesn’t know British history, one senses its history in the pageantry. And, man, it’s an amazing show! And the Brits are playing their royal card with expert craftsmanship.
Elizabeth was truly rare among people. She was even rarer among royalty. That’s what gives this funeral so much extra “oomph”. She wasn’t just a royal who basked in royalty’s glow. She gave royalty integrity it kept trying to lose. I’d even say that Elizabeth transcended her blood – that she transcended royalty entirely.
On the one hand, being a royal put Elizabeth into a job she’d never have gotten otherwise. On the other, she handled it like a pro. That’s as opposed to someone who inherited the gig – and then made a hash of it.