The Half-Blood Prince

Britain welcomes an heir, born to a future King and (gasp!) a commoner

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JOHN STILLWELL / PA WIRE / EPA

A royal commoner? A commoner King? It sounds a little like a straight-to-cable Adam Sandler movie: cute babies get switched around in the maternity ward, frazzled Mom and Dad don't notice, and hijinks ensue. It's an oxymoron, this phrase commoner King--a crossing of self-canceling categories, an unnatural hybrid like a jackalope or heffalump. We might as well speak of a bashful pole dancer or an honest roofer.

Yet a commoner King is the very thing that burst upon us, and upon Kate Middleton, on July 22, when the Duchess of Cambridge, as the official announcement put it, "was safely delivered of a son." The archaic formulation was pleasingly stuffy, and it understandably passed over the notable fact that for the first time in many centuries, the future King of England and Defender of the Faith had emerged from a mother who is without a drop of peerage blood. My guess is the boy, quite apart from his personal qualities, will prove an inconvenience to antiroyalists and monarchists alike.

It was the need for a new royal family and a steady supply of royal blood that forced the Brits to reach across the Channel and pluck the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas from a remote corner of old Germany, and damn the hemophilia. In 1917, the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas de-Germanized themselves into the Windsors, a name that sounded much better when Armistice Day rolled around. In its adopted land, the bloodline has showed mixed results. We've seen the undeniably magnificent (the brave George VI and the present indestructible Queen), the blessedly inconspicuous (who is Prince Andrew's younger brother again?) and the disastrous (Edward VIII, who had to chuck it all for the woman he famously said he loved, because she was not only a commoner but also--send the children from the room--an American).

Kate isn't as bad as an American, but she's close. Even though the martyred Diana was a commoner too, at least technically, she was nonetheless a daughter of the peerage. Kate's mother is a descendant of coal miners. It gets worse. After working--working?--for an airline company, Kate's parents founded a business (business?). And there's more: This business actually produces things--things people need and want to buy and pay money for. Hard work and industry have made the Middletons immensely rich. What could be more common?

The Middletons' wealth is what allowed them to place their daughter in a fancy school--and in the line of sight of extremely marriageable, and perhaps royal, young men. But Kate didn't secure her position on account of blood, and this must confound antiroyalists. Her rise introduces an almost egalitarian element into what antimonarchists see as an irredeemably closed and corrupted system. It's almost American-style upward mobility, with a British twist: if you work hard and play by the rules, regardless of race, color or creed, you too can marry your daughter off to become the mother of a King!

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