By Helen Berry
The purpose of British royalty is for people to look at them. Successful monarchs throughout history have understood this basic necessity and exploited it. Elizabeth I failed to marry, and thus denied her subjects the greatest of all opportunities for royal spectacle. However, she made up for it with a queenly progress around England. As the house guest of the local gentry and nobility, she cleverly deferred upon her hosts the expense of providing bed, breakfast and lavish entertainment for her vast entourage, in return for getting up close and personal with her royal personage. It was not enough to be queen: she had to be seen to be queen. Not many monarchs pursued such an energetic itinerary or bothered to visit the farther-flung corners of their realm again (unless they proved fractious and started a rebellion). But then, most of Elizabeth’s successors over the next two hundred years were men, who could demonstrate their iconic status and personal authority, if need be, upon the battlefield (which was no mere theory: as every schoolboy or girl ought to know, George II was the last monarch to lead British troops in battle).
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, improvements in print technology and increasing freedom of the press provided a new way for British people to look at their king or queen. The rise of a mass media in Britain was made possible by the lapse of the Press Act in 1695 (the last concerted attempt by the government to censor newspapers). The Constitutional Settlement of 1689 had determined that Divine Right was not the source of the king’s authority, rather, the consent of the people through parliament. So, during the next century, from the very moment that the monarchy had started to become divested of actual power, royal-watching through the press increasingly became a spectator sport. Essentially harmless, the diverting obsession with celebrity royals proved the proverbial wisdom inherited from ancient Rome that ‘beer and circuses’ were a great way to keep people happy, and thus avoid the need to engage them with the complex and unpleasant realpolitik of the day.
It was during the long reign of George III (1760-1820) that newspapers truly started to become agents of mass propaganda for the monarchy as figureheads of that elusive concept: British national identity. The reporting of royal births, marriages and deaths became a staple of journalistic interest. Royal households had always been subject to the gaze of courtiers, politicians and visiting dignitaries, but via the press, this lack of privacy now became magnified, with public curiosity extending to the details of what royal brides wore on their wedding days. George III made the somewhat unromantic declaration to his Council in July 1761: ‘I am come to Resolution to demand in Marriage Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz’. She was a woman ‘distinguished by every eminent Virtue and amiable Endowment’, a Protestant princess from an aristocratic German house who spoke no English before her wedding, but no matter: she was of royal blood and from ‘an illustrious Line’.
The first blow-by-blow media account of the making of a royal bride ensued, starting with the employment of 300 men to fit up the king’s yacht in Deptford to fetch Charlotte from across the Channel. Over the course of the summer in an atmosphere of anticipation at seeing their future Queen, London printsellers began cashing in, with pin-up portraits of the Princess ‘done from a Miniature’ at two shillings a time. Negotiations towards the contract of marriage were followed closely by the newsreading public during August and were concluded mid-month to general satisfaction. Finally, after two weeks of wearisome travel, on September 7th, the Princess arrived at Harwich. The St. James’s Chronicle reported that Her Highness was ‘so condescending as to shew herself at the Cabbin Window’. She disembarked the royal yacht (renamed the Royal Charlotte in her honour) which was ‘decorated with near a hundred silken Colours and streamers’, and was greeted by ‘a great Multitude of People of all Ranks’. Meanwhile, preparations in London were noted in detail, from the rehearsal of wedding anthems and illuminations in the Chapel Royal, to the arrival of the nobility in town for the ceremony. Her Serene Highness’ progress to London was accompanied by an entourage, and the minutiae of her progress from Harwich to Witham was recorded by journalists. The Princess rested for an hour at Romford, where she ‘was pleased to indulge the spectators with the sight of her person from a window’, after which she got into the king’s coach and proceeded to St. James’s via Mile End, Bethnal Green, Hackney-turnpike, the City road, and finally Hyde Park, where there was an accompanying salute of guns. There was no hanging about: she arrived in London at three in the afternoon on 8th September, and was married to the king by ten o’clock at night on the same day. Lloyd’s Evening Post reported the exact seating arrangements of the assembled royalty (‘the Royal Family on stools, and the Quality on benches’). Her Majesty, as she now was referred to in the newspapers, was ‘dressed in a white and silver negligée’. The modern obsession with princesses and royal fashion had begun.
Modern technology via live TV, podcasts and instant online messaging has not changed the basic historical principle that British royalty exists to be looked at. But why are the royals apparently so endlessly fascinating? The argument that they are ‘just like us’, that their lives play out dramas of hatching, matching and dispatching with which we are all familiar, but on a more glamorous scale, seems spurious. They represent no-one and are like no-one we know, but are somehow supposed to represent everyone. They evoke a loose agglomeration of patriotic sentiment, celebrity prurience, an opportunity for a day off, and a bit of licensed consumerism (a much-needed boost to the UK economy in the form of barbecues, booze and commemorative paraphernalia). Harmless pleasures indeed, and woe betide anyone who raises a dissenting voice against Wills and Kate on their Big Day. But history warns that royal weddings and patriotic sentimentality are a distraction. What happened to the power of which monarchy was divested in this country several centuries ago? Who is exercising it, here and now? And what are they doing behind the scenes on a ‘good day to bury bad news’, as we the people are watching the shiny spectacle of royal nuptials unfold? In 1761, when George and Charlotte wed, the Seven Years War was raging, redefining the global balance of power between European imperial nations fighting over colonial territories to see who would win the biggest slice (in crude mercantilist terms) of economic pie. Today, it is Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that are the testing ground for democratic rhetoric, religious ideology and competition among vested interests over access to oil-rich markets. But let’s not get too serious. Wills and Kate – God bless ‘em!
Helen Berry is Reader in Early Modern History at Newcastle University. Her second book, The Castrato and his Wife, will be published by Oxford University Press in the autumn.