From Royal Weddings to Royal Funerals: Britain and Its Monarchy Over the Years

No, Britain doesn't have a placid tradition of monarchy but rather a royal history marked by turbulence, celebration and tragedy

  • Topfoto/The Image Works

    Thousands gather following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh

    In Britain, all is not as it seems, nor ever has been. As they viewed the preparations for the royal wedding, with all its pomp and circumstance, the non-British seemed to willingly buy into the idea that the monarchy — and popular reverence for it — has been a fixed point in the British firmament for centuries, a source of stability however the nation's fortunes may have ebbed and flowed.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. The monarchy does not symbolize some deep sense of tradition; on the contrary, it has long been a contested element of what it means to be British. In the 17th century, revolutionaries turned the world upside down and deprived Charles I of his head more than 100 years before the French did the same to Louis XVI. The Crown was restored in 1660, but 28 years later another King was sent packing into exile. By the early 19th century, the scandal-stained Hanoverian dynasty was widely loathed. In his great sonnet "England in 1819," the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley described George III and his sons as "An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king, — / Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow/ Through public scorn — mud from a muddy spring."

    The monarchy was saved and re-invented by the sense of duty of Victoria — just 18 when she ascended to the throne in 1837 — and her remarkable German husband Prince Albert. During Britain's period of high imperialism and global economic dominance, it suited both the old landed grandees and those enriched by the world's first modern economy to elevate the Crown into a symbol of changelessness in a society that was changing at breakneck speed.

    Victoria's halo sanctified the reigns of her son Edward VII and grandson George V, a man whose principal pastimes were stamp collecting and slaughtering game birds on his Norfolk estate. But such splendid dullness could not be maintained. Though the reassuring presence of Elizabeth II, who was 9 when her grandfather died in 1936, has indeed been a stabilizing constant in British life, the years since George V's demise have seen regular eruptions in British attitudes toward the monarchy — all taking place against a backdrop of quiet, but continual and profound, constitutional change.

    Not the Wedding They Wanted

    On June 3, 1937, at a cháteau in france, the Duke of Windsor — who had reigned for 10 months as Edward VIII before abdicating in favor of his brother — married the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson, an American from Baltimore and, in 1936, the first woman to be named Time's Person of the Year. (The piece was distinctly catty; Simpson was said to have "resolved early to make men her career, and in 40 years reached the top — or nearly.") The wedding was a low-key affair, and after the ceremony one guest described the duke as having "tears running down his face," perhaps out of relief that the whole squalid business was over. If so, it was a sentiment his people shared. A vain, self-centered man who — to put it at its most charitable — was far too prepared to be used by Nazi sympathizers, Edward would have been a disastrous monarch as Britain fought for its survival in World War II.

    Relief from Hard Times

    Instead of Edward, the nation was blessed to have on the throne George VI, a man of palpable decency, whose wife Elizabeth was widely popular.

    On Nov. 20, 1947, their daughter Elizabeth, the heiress to the Crown, married her distant cousin Philip Mountbatten in Westminster Abbey. In the run-up to the wedding, its expense — shades of 2011 — was highly controversial. Exhausted and broke after six years of war, Britain was going through a period of penny-pinching austerity and food rationing, which made the question of a sugary wedding cake politically sensitive. Gifts piled in, from diamond-encrusted wreaths to a piece of cloth that Mohandas Gandhi had spun himself. (Elizabeth's grandmother thought it was a loincloth; she was not amused.)

    Perhaps because it offered a welcome relief from hard times, the wedding was enormously popular. Less than five years later, while in Kenya, Elizabeth was told that her father had died, aged just 56. TIME named her Person of the Year in 1952, with a tone quite different from the one it had used for her aunt. Elizabeth's significance, we said, was "that of a fresh young blossom on roots that had weathered many a season of wintry doubt."

    It's for historians to judge whether the Queen has lived up to such promise, but there is little doubt that, partly by assiduously avoiding any controversy, she did much to restore the monarchy's luster. Then along came a young, wounded, starstruck, beautiful girl from Norfolk. She changed everything. Again.

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