As the name itself indicates, the Royal Family is above all a family. The concept of the family in British society has changed throughout history, and during the reign of Elizabeth II the changes regarding this social entity have become very significant. To some extent, the family situation within the Royal Family started to correspond with the general development in British society particularly in the 1990s, when members of the Royal Family became divorced, just like with other Britons. Nonetheless, even though the Royals have been reflecting some of the social changes similarly seen with the rest of Britain, they cannot fully follow all the social trends, especially as the idea of the Royal Family being a family is a part of their identity.
The idea of the monarch and his or her family as an exemplary model is nothing new to us. Nevertheless, the model that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set in the second half of the nineteenth century was expected to be followed by the general public at the time, which subsequently ignited a completely new way of rigidity and conservatism of the family morals that survived a long time after Victoria’s death.
Victorian prudence, though, had its prequel in the era of George III. George published his Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vices, Profaneness, and Immorality in 1787, which was condemned immorality and depravity. One could argue that his son, George IV, never led an exemplary life, especially with his secret first marriage, his gambling, the political opposition during his reign, and his attempts to divorce his promiscuous wife whom he is said to have bitterly disliked. Therefore the Victorian prudence concerning family life might have not only reflected The Queen’s personal persuasion, but it might have also been an attempt to purify the name of the Royal Family, as well as a tool to set the morals of the country back to ‘normal’.
Moreover, it was as early as 1867 when Walter Bagehot noted in his book The English Constitution that a “family on the throne is an interesting idea. . . [as] it brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life”, wherefore the seeming normality and down-to-earth attitude which Victoria and Albert, and now the current Royal Family, attempt to evoke in their subjects. Michael Billing agrees with this statement in his book Talking of the Royal Family. He argues that by “being Royal, ‘they’ are different from ‘us’; [but by] belonging to a family, ‘they’ are familiarly similar”. Therefore, by this he means that their role as a family unit is very important not only from the moral, national, and media point of view, but also as a psychological tool, accompanying their public image strategy.
Though, to continue with the historical causes for the current situation, during the late Victorian period, as the influence of religion began to decline, the Royals reacted to this by creating a form of moral responsibility for their subjects. It was at this time that it could be argued that the Royal Family, despite being a privatised, nuclear group of people, they soon became to embody the idealised family for the British to follow. The Royals were thus obliged to follow very strict rules in connection to their family lives, which were, in several cases, in contradiction to their personal wishes.
In the course of the 20th century, there are certain examples that ought to be mentioned: Edward VIII gave up the throne in 1936 in order to marry the woman he loved, whilst in the 1950s the late Princess Margaret was not allowed to marry a man of her choice as he was divorced. The divorce-related past of the spouses the Royals wanted to marry has, however, been a complicated issue until recently. Unlike his aunt, Prince Charles, as a first-in-line heir to the throne, obtained The Queen’s permission to marry a divorcee whose spouse is still alive, Camilla Parker Bowles, in 2005.
Although there are cases in British history, like Henry VIII, when the ruler either annulled the marriage or got divorced, in the post-Victorian society (and because of the 1772 Royal Marriages Act and other laws from 1836 ad 1949 regarding civil ceremonies), the Royal divorces have been, until recently, rather non-existent, as the rulers and their families were expected to present themselves as the ideal example for their public to follow.
The role that the Royal Family as a family unit represents in Britain is not only a role model, but they also have an ideological importance. In an era when divorces are more frequent than ever before, the importance the Royal Family as an ideological entity is significant, and in the context of ideological shielding of the nation, it is necessary for them to appear as an ideal family. Obviously, there are no longer any marriages of ‘convenience’, and there is no real ‘need’ to marry only within the Royal circles, which indicates another shift to ‘ordinariness’.
The situation regarding the family rigidity within the Royal Family has started to change, most notably in the 1990s and now after three out of four of the Queen’s children have been divorced, which is a significant change in the Royal tradition. As a result, the current change in the approach of the Royals to their family matters corresponds not only with the general trend in British society, but it also confirms that the Royal Family is, in fact, not unlike any other family unit. And yet, the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was a notable moment for the Royals, because it not only helped to regain the respect they lost with previous divorces of other Royal generations, but it also restores hope in the family domesticity which we still hold today.
The ideological importance of the Royals as a family unit is, however, present in the mere linguistic usage as well – Storry and Childs have stated that “The Queen is sometimes referred to as ‘the mother of the Commonwealth’”, and the titles the members of the Royal Family possess, such as ‘Prince of Wales’ or ‘Duchess of Cornwall’, symbolize the idea of the United Kingdom actually being united. Therefore the Royal Family as a ‘family unit’ has the importance not only as a moral guide and example, but also as a supreme unifier of the nation whose head its members are. Nonetheless, with the changes that the post-war era brought, Elizabeth II had to deal with the divorces and scandals that have occurred during the last few decades. With this, hope is now being pinned on the young Royal generation to restore the family unity and domesticity; after all, in Michael Billig’s words: ‘the job of the Royal Family is to be a family”.
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