In recent years, the slightly wooden and alarmingly unemotional character of the British Royal Family has softened at the edges, allowing glimmers of normality, of humanity, to shine through, and making them seem a little bit more like us. The younger generation of Royals, more personable and dynamic than their parents and grandparents, provide a new take on the meaning of monarchy, offering up their services as fellow people rather than symbolic figureheads. There can be no greater illustration of this modernised version of monarchy than the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, who is – as the press scrambled to inform us on every possible occasion – not only American, divorced and mixed race but also an actress. How shocking. Their wedding represented a decisive break from the archaic rules and traditions that had, for centuries, maintained The Royal Family in its aristocratic exclusivity, suggesting the beginning of a new phase in the life of this ancient institution.
It is this seemingly revolutionary moment in the life of the British monarchy that provided the starting point for David Starkey’s lecture, ‘A Monarchy of Misfits’, at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last night. Comparing Meghan Markle to Wallace Simpson, another American divorcee who, in the not so distant past, was treated in a very different way by The Royal Family, Starkey immediately draws our attention to the immense changes that the monarchy seems to have undergone in recent decades.
Royal attitudes have opened out in line with social evolution, meaning that young princes and princesses may, for the first time, marry solely for love, no longer restricted by concerns over their spouse’s title, religion, race or occupation. The talk seems, therefore, to reach its conclusion in its opening sentences, until Starkey suggests that this royal evolution is not quite as straightforward as we might think. Journeying back into the murky depths of the Middle Ages, he begins a whistle-stop tour of nearly a millennium of British royals, exploring their many surprising and seemingly unusual (mis)adventures in love and marriage.
He begins with one of the sons of Edward III, and his almost unbelievable marriage to an alleged descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, before describing the passionate match between Edward IV and the widow Elizabeth Woodville, and reminding us of the many wives of Henry VIII, a man whose addiction to falling in love was at the heart of the ‘first Brexit’: The Reformation. For their part, the Georges of the 18th century, required to marry a lady of their status but repulsed by the options laid out before them, entered into long term relationships with various different ‘actresses’ (or ‘women of easy virtue’), who bore them whole broods of illegitimate children. This means that it was only really in the 19th and 20th centuries that the notion of royal marriage became the symbolic institution that we see today: that ‘traditional’ manifestation of status and responsibility, steadfastness and duty is, in reality, a fairly modern invention. And so, as Starkey tells us, Harry and Meghan’s marriage, rather than constituting a rupture with the past, represents a return to historical practices, just another unconventional romance to add to the epic family saga of the British royals.
Starkey’s capacity to form links across different historical periods and attitudes makes for an intriguing and stimulating view of the past, imbuing it with a new sense of life and energy. His every word is chosen with a considered precision, making for an evocative and eloquent illustration of his ideas. However, I found that his reflections, although interesting, were in fact quite predictable, and lacking in any real relevance to our own social realities. One does not need to be a doctor of History to recognise the circularity of time and events, and to see that, as it adapts and evolves to the particularities of our era, the monarchy will necessarily recover and adopt different elements from its past. His lecture, rather than returning constantly to the past, might therefore have looked into the future, to examine the nascent links between the conservative character of the monarchy and the glossy, self-made celebrities of Hollywood, and to question how this might further transform the face of The Royal Family. In spite of this lack of significance, and the few hackneyed jokes that verged dangerously on the offensive, Starkey’s ‘A Monarchy of Misfits’ was an enjoyable and informative evening, and a welcome break from revision’s circulation of stale knowledge.