Preview: David Starkey’s ‘A Monarchy of Misfits’

Henry Day 25 April 2019
Image Credit: Cambridge Arts Theatre

On Sunday 28th at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, Dr. David Starkey will unravel the history of royal marriages in his talk ‘A Monarchy of Misfits’. Although fostering a life-long interest in monarchic history – Starkey has typically approached history with a top-down perspective, examining the past with a close eye on aristocracy and royalty – the talk is prompted by Harry and Meghan’s media-storm marriage last year. The question of the royal family’s freedom to follow their heart, rather than strictly follow religious custom, was most recently raised in the Netflix series ‘The Crown’. Set in the years following Edward VIII’s abdication, motivated by his love for a divorced American woman, many viewers may look to Harry’s choice of Meghan and notice that she is not only ‘a divorced American actress’ but also ‘of mixed-race and uncertain religion’. What has changed throughout the 80 years between Edward’s romance and Harry’s? How can such national shame and constitutional crisis in 1936 be so celebrated today? Seen as a ‘fundamental modernisation of the British monarchy’, Starkey inspects royal marriages throughout history to measure the morals of their time.

Without revealing too much, Starkey’s central claim is one about the national character. As opposed to parallel monarchies – in Europe or elsewhere – the British have an uncommon attachment to the notion of authentic love within marriage. No matter the religious scandal, the social disturbance, love trumps all: we are romantics to the core. The French aren’t so insistent on love within marriage. If you love your spouse then that’s a bonus, but marriages are primarily social and economic arrangements and extra-marital romance is to be expected if not accepted on the public stage. Despite being dubbed ‘the rudest man in Britain’, a telephone interview with David left me with a different impression. David’s passion for history is infectious; his eagerness to draw comparison and illustrate connections between events creates a feeling of excitement and discovery. He suggests that the royal family, and therefore royal marriages, can be understood as symbols of their historical period. They encapsulate the pressures and expectations imposed upon royal romantic life, and expose in their consequences the values of the time. If in the past, royal marriages were restrained by pressures of religion, nationality, class and politics, what might we learn about our own society through an understanding of royal marriage customs today? More broadly, what might we learn about the development of our society through tracing this development over time?

For many students, historians or otherwise, the question remains: why spend so much money to see a talk at the Cambridge Arts Theatre? The answer is quite simple. Too often do we lament the study of a subject we claimed to love way back at interview; too many times has Tripos taken away the pleasure of learning. When faced with this question over the phone, David describes history as an exhilarating process, an exercise of the mind to decipher and connect the events of the past. Although some students might take issue with some of David’s views and previous statements, it is impossible to deny his entertainment value and charisma as a public speaker. First coming into public consciousness through radio programme The Moral Maze, Starkey never fails to stimulate discussion through his characteristically provocative sharpness. This talk will best satisfy the student who is tired of working deeper and deeper into an increasingly specific part of their field. It will appeal to the student interested in history and understanding its broader patterns. It will fascinate the student who is eager to understand the more profound mechanisms at work beneath the constant royal media coverage and speculation about drama within the walls of the Windsor house.