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Prince Charles, George Peele, and the theatrics of monarchical ceremony

Today marks the forty-sixth anniversary of Prince Charles’s formal investiture as Prince of Wales. At the time of this investiture, Charles himself was just shy of his twenty-first birthday, and in a video clip from that year, the young prince looks lean and fresh-faced in his suit, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasping and unclasping as he speaks to the importance of the investiture:

Well I feel that it is a very impressive ceremony. I know perhaps some people would think it is rather anachronistic and out of place in this world, which is perhaps somewhat cynical, but I think it can mean quite a lot if one goes about it in the right way; I think it can have some form of symbolism. For me, it’s a way of officially dedicating one’s life or part of one’s life to Wales, and the Welsh people after all wanted it, and I think also the British on the whole tend to do these sorts of ceremonies rather well, and for this reason, it’s done well, in fact, and I think it’s been very impressive, and I hope other people thought so as well.

Charles’s reflection on what the investiture means to him—a “dedication” of his life to Wales—is a striking one, made only more striking by his claim that the Welsh people “wanted it.” Does Charles speak there of the moment in 1969, imagining that the Welsh people were clamoring for a new prince of Wales (they certainly were not universally clamoring, as a recent report reminds us)? Or does he intend to reach back further into history, suggesting that the entire history of the English princedom of Wales was merely a fulfillment of Welsh desire?

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Príncipe Carlos de Inglaterra (1973) by Iberia Airlines. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

If it’s the latter, then the best we can say, perhaps, is that he’s certainly not the first man to have suggested it. In the early 1590s, George Peele debuted his chronicle history play Edward I; in it, the English king must vanquish foes from both Wales and Scotland, but it’s Wales—and her prince—that gives him the most vexing difficulty. In the play’s early scenes, “Lluellen” (Peele’s spelling for Llewelyn ap Gruffydd) is a dynamic presence, a character who has commanded the loyalty of the Welsh and who has designs on dominating all of England and Wales, returning the native Britons to their ancient glory. Though Edward’s forces will eventually vanquish Lluellen and his countrymen on the field, the real battle for Wales, according to Peele, is won not by sword but by ceremony—specifically, by investiture ceremony.

The “investiture” ceremony that takes place in Peele’s play is set at Caernarfon Castle, where Charles would also find himself in 1969. And if Charles tended toward understatement in acknowledging “some form of symbolism” to the investiture, Peele fairly delighted in such symbolism. In his version of the first-ever ceremonial presentation of an English prince of Wales, Peele has the infant prince dressed in Welsh frieze, presented with Welsh cattle and corn, cheered by native Welshmen and women brought along by eager Welsh lords looking to make a deal with the English king. It is, as Peele’s stage directions indicate, a “showe,” and the play makes clear that this is ultimately what defeated the native prince of Wales—the presentation of an English prince, with a dash of Welsh flavor.

On that day 46 years ago, the monarchy also saw fit to make such symbolic gestures. There was the setting, of course, at Caernarfon, but there was also the coronet of Welsh gold, as well as the prince’s own speech in what was by all accounts very good Welsh—a speech in which he encouraged Wales “to look forward without forsaking the traditions and essential aspects of her past.” What Peele’s play and Charles’s ceremony share is a sense of the theatrical, a sense of how profoundly performance can work on the hearts and minds of spectators. Peele, of course, was writing during a time when the theatrical and the historical overlapped uniquely, when many of the most famed and popular entertainments of the day found their origins in English history, when Shakespeare himself was making a name in chronicling the exploits of English kings and princes (including, of course, that most memorable prince of Wales, Hal, whose father wrestles with another native competitor, the memorable “Glendower”). One wonders what men like Peele and Shakespeare might’ve thought about Prince Charles on the stage in Caernarfon, “dedicating” his life to Wales. It is, to be sure, a call to service that would have been unfamiliar to a culture that understood the princedom at least in part as an instrument of English dominance over its western neighbor.

Between Peele’s stage show and Charles’s formal investiture are many important—and richly suggestive—deployments of the title “prince of Wales.” Some of these live on stage, many during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and some live in the historical record. All of them, however, are important expressions of the acutely symbolic function of the investiture ceremony, and, perhaps more importantly, the deeply complicated and frequently obfuscated history of how the English heir to the throne came to be called the “Prince of Wales.”

Image Credit: “Caernarfon Castle Panorama” by deadmanjones. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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