As a very young girl I was so smitten with the fantasy that was the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer that I wrote to the Queen to ask if Price Edward could be my pen pal. After all, I had been named after a princess (Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent) and I saw no reason not to believe that one day Edward would fall in love with me and make me a princess too. I took this fantasy so seriously that I even sealed my letter with wax, imagining that that was the appropriate behavior for a future British princess.
Just as quickly as Lady Diana sold me the fantasy of being a princess, Princess Diana took it away. By the time I had reached a proper prince-marrying age I couldn’t imagine anything I would like to do less than to be involved with the British Royal family.
Clearly, I am not the only one who felt that way.
The life of a British royal has changed in remarkable ways over the short time since little girl Marina wrote her letter to the Queen. Royal marriage is probably the greatest instance of how the family has been forced to evolve. In the past royal families arranged marriages that enabled them to acquire land and power. Today, we live more in a meritocracy than ever before and power that is based on merit is difficult to acquire through marriage. You may want to argue that powerful families can maintain their position even in a meritocracy by ensuring the gene quality of the next generation. But while no one can deny that the new Princess Kate is genetically well-endowed, I don’t think that is the whole story behind why the Royal family is willing to endorse the marriage of the future King to a woman who is not of noble birth.
Many North Americans don’t realize that while the Sovereign is wealthy, the Queen as an individual has very little personal wealth or personal income. Her living expenses are paid for by the Civic List which in 2010 paid out to her £7.9m plus around £22m in grants for travel, communications and the upkeep of palaces. That is serious money and the willingness of the general public to continue to support her, and the future King, in the manner in which they are very accustomed depends on the family continuing to be relevant.
In fact, irrelevance is the biggest threat to the economic future of the family.
Last fall the British Chancellor George Osborne announced that the Queen will be having her income reduced by 14% by 2012-13. This is the first time her income has been reduced, but over time the family has faced greater pressure to be self-sufficient including paying taxes on their personal income (which they started to do in 1993). In a time in which everyone else is tightening their belts the Royalty starts looking like an expensive institution and if the family wants the public to keep paying, then they need to be certain they are providing value for money.
Having said that, I don’t think the Royal marriage of William and Kate is about wealth. Even without the Civic List the Queen is unlikely to end up living in a tenement house eating sardines out of a can no matter how irrelevant the family becomes. Still though, she must have moments when she wonders if it will all come to an end.
I think this marriage is about a different type of currency – public opinion. That may not be the kind of power that Royal families have sought in the past but it is still power none-the-less.
Since 1990, public opinion polls have asked the British public a series of questions about the future of the British monarchy including the question: “Looking to the future, do you think Britain will or will not have a monarchy in 100 years?” In 1990, 49 percent of respondents thought there would still be a monarchy in 100 years time. By 2002 that figure had dropped to 26 percent, falling again in 2006 to 24 percent. In the last round of the polls (taken in April 2011) there seemed to be a resurgence in public confidence with a positive response from 37 percent of those polled and with 79 percent of Britons agreeing with the statement: “William and Kate getting married is good for the future of the monarchy.”
Today isn’t just about a wedding based on love. It is a wedding that sells the public a fresh royal fantasy in an age in which we value merit over pedigree. Kate Middleton earned her prince. She wasn’t handed him on a silver platter. She went to (his) university, she is physically fit, and she developed style and poise. She even had enough sense to withhold sex when things weren’t moving quickly enough down the path to wedded bliss.*
So the marital arrangement sells the public the fantasy so that little girls can resume lying in their beds at night dreaming of their prince, and the Royal family has taken advantage of a wedding to maintain its power and its sizable income.
By the way, just in case you are wondering, I did get a letter back from the Queen’s Lady in Waiting on rose-colored stationary telling me rather regretfully that the Queen does not permit her children to have pen pals. In retrospect, that was really rather kind since Edward was a gorwn man when I wrote and surely would have no interest in sharing letters with little Canadian girls. Still, the fantasy was fun while it lasted and, as a member of the Commonwealth, to some degree I do feel that I got what we have paid for.
*For an excellent piece on Kate’s mating intelligence you might want to read Geoffrey Miller’s piece “What’s in a wedding?” in this week’s New Scientist (23 April 2011).