The Royal Family of the 21st century


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a graduate student in possession of a degree from St Andrews must be in want of a spouse.

Throughout their university careers, a single statistic haunts every St Andrews student from the very first day – one in three graduates from St Andrews go on to marry a fellow student. The announcement of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s engagement last year was the most high profile St Andrews graduate engagement of the century.

For weeks, it was the topic of conversation on everyone’s lips across the world, placing St Andrews once again firmly back in the public eye. “Waity Katie” was no longer sat home twiddling her perfectly manicured thumbs, but splashed across the front page, under the title “Britain’s Middle-Class Princess”. For the first time in British history, the future King of England had not chosen a fellow royal or aristocrat as his choice of bride, but rather a middle-class girl from Berkshire.

Marriage in the Royal family has never been a subject to be taken lightly. Throughout history, royal marriages have been carefully arranged to ensure stable political alliances, as unions with other well-suited royals were essential to the continuation of the royal bloodline and stability of Europe. Marriages were ultimately based on power rather than love. In the eyes of past royalty, it was inconceivable that such a powerful union would be based on something as transient and flighty as human emotions. Mistresses were there to fulfil the role of sexual lover and companion, whilst wives were merely pawns in the European monarchies’ game of political alliances and pursuit of royal-blooded heirs.

It wasn’t until Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 over his choice to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, that cracks began to appear in the notion of “power marriages”. Whether it was the draw of a responsibility-free, modern lifestyle or a momentary lapse of love-induced madness, Edward’s permanent rejection of his traditional role as King ignited a miniature revolution within the younger members of the Royal family – the notion that royal marriage could be based on love. Since then, royal marriages across Europe have slowly but surely evolved to include “love” as an important factor to consider in their unions. The days of Royals only marrying other Royals is a thing of the past; European monarchs are picking up spouses left, right and centre. Back in 2004, Prince Frederik of Denmark married an Australian estate agent, whilst just last summer, Princess Victoria of Sweden married her personal trainer.

The view of the royal family in the public’s eye has changed dramatically with the technological innovations of the 20th century. Long gone is the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, as the dawn of television and radio broke into people’s homes during the 1950s. The royal family’s aura of detached mystique slowly began to slip away. No longer allowed to take a passive, distant role in relation to their country, the thrust of technology forced the royal family into the public eye more than ever before.

In 1969, a television documentary entitled The Royal Family, showed the family sat playing in the Buckingham Palace sitting room and the Duke of Edinburgh frying sausages at a Balmoral barbeque, in an attempt to depict the royals as “ordinary” people. Over two-thirds of the population watched the documentary. Their public “reinvention” backfired when the film was received badly for destroying the mystique that made the Royal family unique. At the time, David Attenborough allegedly described the film as “killing the monarchy,” and it was consequently removed from public view.

It seems, however, the royals didn’t learn their lesson. In 1987, Prince Edward, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew cavorted across television screens once more on the gameshow, It’s a Royal Knockout. The royals were dressed in inflated medieval costumes and clambered over obstacle courses in a plastic medieval castle, alongside Gary Lineker, Cliff Richard and Meatloaf. Once more, the television stunt was a total publicity failure; the Royals were turned into a country-wide laughing stock. Prince Philip was quoted as saying to the BBC executive, “Why doesn’t Edward let the TV people get on with it and just turn up to accept the cheques? He’s making us look foolish.” Only a few weeks ago, Camilla Parker-Bowles followed in the footsteps of Princess Margaret by playing a cameo role on Radio 4’s The Archers.

Not only has modern technology changed the way we see the Royal family, but it has also altered how they see themselves. The 21st century has seen the Royal family swap ponies for parties, the Navy for nightclubs; they marry as many times as they are divorced, attend university with the ordinary “riff-raff” and fall out of Mahiki with their knickers on show. If Queen Victoria were to witness her descendents’ antics, she’d have been seriously unamused.

It seems that by associating themselves with the “common man”, the Royals hope to ensure their survival over the coming years. The  possibility that, as ordinary university students, one can rent a property on Hope Street that was once inhabited by the future King of England, is testament to the growing sense of a more down-to-earth monarchy.

Guardian journalist, Alexander Chancellor, once a Kate and Wills sceptic, is now a complete convert to the “love story of the century”. Chancellor claims that Kate appeals to Britain in the “glossily pretty way that Britons wish of their celebrities”. The woman of coal-mining descent has used her middle-class aura to bring “Eton-toff” William back down to the real world. As a result, perhaps the Royal family will survive for another century.

Writer and historian, Stuart Clayton believes that, though the Royal family have had periods of unpopularity, their status has been “generally held in high regard, in a world where monarchs are something of an anachronism.” So, maybe our Royals are something to be cherished. Perhaps they should be seen as emblems of better days gone by, when everyone wore hats and didn’t eat in public. They have endured centuries of revolutions and coups across the world, and yet, they are still here, drawing thousands of tourists to London every year.

Julie Birchill of The Independent, however, believes it is Kate who is marrying beneath her, into “the weirdest clan this side of the Addams family,” and Birchill hopes that William has “more of his mother than his father in him.”

Either way, it seems like a happy ending for both Kate and William. as Prince Charles quite rightly said on the news of their engagement, “I think they’ve practiced long enough.” Once all the media frenzy has subsided and the wedding cake has been packed away, the couple will be just another happy example of St Andrews’ favourite statistic.

Nina Zietman


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