October 8, 2020

On 2 June 1953, Elizabeth II became the first English monarch to be crowned on live television. Churchill was horrified at the prospect of the broadcast, saying it was “unfitting” for such a solemn and spiritual occasion to be “presented as if it were a theatrical performance”. But her subjects disagreed, and 20 million tuned in.

One moment remained too sacred for the cameras, though: the Act of Consecration, in which the Queen was anointed with a blessed oil to signify God’s sanction for her rule. This ritual took place under a canopy, and the cameras Elizabeth had – against official advice — allowed inside Westminster Abbey turned their lenses away.

The Queen’s decision to allow “modern mechanical arrangements”, as Churchill put it, to broadcast almost-but-not-all the sacred pageantry of her coronation holds the seeds of every subsequent spat between the ever-encroaching media and the royal desire to keep some things sacrosanct. This tussle took on a tragic note in the figure of Diana, the princess who both invited the cameras furthest into her world and also fled from them most desperately — a flight that in the end claimed her life, in the Pont de L’Alma tunnel in Paris.

Elizabeth’s grandson Harry has upped the ante on his mother’s tortured relationship with the media, first marrying an actress and inviting documentary-makers into their lives, then decrying the suffering inflicted on the couple by an intrusive press. And this isn’t Harry’s only paradoxical embrace of the modern world. Having gained his platform through royalty, he’s experienced a royal awokening — but doesn’t seem to realise that being both woke and royal is like being a turkey and still demanding to lead the pro-Christmas campaign.

To understand why woke royalty is a contradiction in terms, we need to delve into the history of that moment in 1953 when the cameras turned away: the Act of Consecration, where power and symbol converge.

Kings weren’t always seen as holy. The Anglo-Saxons, who feuded like Mafiosi, felt little compunction about murdering their rulers. The papal legates George and Theophylact were so concerned about the resulting chaos that in 786 they wrote a special synodal decree, warning: “Let no one dare to conspire to kill a king, for he is the Lord’s anointed”.

The decree didn’t have the desired real-world impact, as the Anglo-Saxons carried on murdering monarchs and just pivoted to canonising the deceased. (Six murdered Anglo-Saxon kings attained sainthood in the century after George and Theophylact’s message.) But the association between holiness and monarchy was set. In 973 St Dunstan devised a ceremony for the anointing of King Edgar at Bath Abbey — a ritual still going strong almost a thousand years later, in 1953, when the cameras turned aside from Elizabeth’s consecration as “the Lord’s anointed”.

As time went on, England’s rulers became increasingly skilled at using ritual and pageant to cultivate popular consent for their role as mediator between Heaven and Earth. Harry’s many times great-aunt Elizabeth I was expert at this kind of high and solemn LARPing. Nearly every summer of her 44-year reign, she would order the entire court to pack up into a cavalcade of some 2,000 animals, carts, carriages, nobles and liveried staff, for the “Queen’s Progress”.

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This massive, slow-moving, glittering procession was rich with symbolic meaning in a way that’s difficult to imagine today. Where much of the modern world comes to us through the written word, or via screens, in Elizabeth’s time only the elite could be expected to read and write. For the illiterate labourers who made up the majority of Elizabethan England, the world was visual.

Britain’s pub signs are a remnant of this symbol-culture, but in Elizabeth’s day all manner of things had “emblems”: such as shops, guilds, aristocratic houses and even mythic figures. And like internet memes on steroids, each emblem had layers of meaning. The phoenix, for example, Elizabeth’s personal emblem, could stand for femininity, renewal, singularity, fire, chastity and survivorship — associations she cultivated in her public myth.

On her Queen’s Progress, riding a white horse, Elizabeth I appeared as a living emblem: something from the world of legend, passing through her nation like a magical being. It’s no wonder that rich and poor alike went all out to honour her as she travelled. In 1573, the people of Sandwich strewed the streets with flowers, installed a new gilded lion and dragon at the town gates, decorated the house she was staying in with praise poems and organised a feast in which the town’s matrons supplied over 150 different dishes. At the other end of the social scale, the cost of hosting Elizabeth for three days at Sir Thomas Egerton’s Harefield estate in 1602 was £2,013, or the equivalent of £10 million in today’s money.

If the Queen’s Progress blended ritual and political power, so too did the entertainments she expected from those lords she visited. One of the most extravagant of these was a three-week festival of pageantry in 1575 at Kenilworth Castle, which included gun salutes, an acrobat, and a special-effects performance in which the Arthurian Lady of the Lake walked on the surface of the castle’s moat. Accounts of court pageantry were printed and distributed widely, like Hollywood gossip, and their iconography of nymphs, shepherds and classical allusion wove itself into the popular imagination, feeding an emerging common mythology of English national belonging.

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In the century after the death of Elizabeth I, this fusion of choreographed meaning-making and brute political power came apart. Charles I’s efforts at pageantry fell flat by comparison with Elizabeth’s, and his claims to be God-anointed head of the kingdom cost him his own head in 1649. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Glorious Revolution had stripped the monarchy of the executive power Elizabeth wielded alongside (and through) symbolism, and confined future royals just to the glittering show.

Victoria and Albert were the first British monarchs to abandon all hope of restoration to executive power. Instead they embraced their role as leaders in a moral and symbolic sense alone, becoming the patron of over 150 institutions and charities — a tradition continued by Elizabeth II today. But inasmuch as the British people have developed a shared national culture, it’s always been bound up in the role played by a monarch as unifier and emblem.

The modern world, though, increasingly resists the idea that we might need — or want — such a thing as a shared nationhood. Instead, the arbitrariness of birth in a particular place (or to a particular station, even royalty) is understood not as a potential source of identity, but an imposition. Harry clearly feels this keenly: as Douglas Murray recently noted, he has even managed to recast his own royal birth as a source of oppression.

In this worldview, pageantry centred on national identity makes no sense. Why would we celebrate something as random as where we’re born? The matrons of Sandwich fitted themselves into the emerging national story by cooking their best dishes for Elizabeth I; but today we prefer to dredge the sea of commercially-available content for stories or images that fit who we feel ourselves to be. And from this perspective, it’s a grave injustice for any self to be un-reflected, a belief Harry Windsor is keen to promote: “You know, when you go in to a shop with your children and you only see white dolls, do you even think: ‘That’s weird, there is not a black doll there?’ […] we as white people don’t always have the awareness of what it must be like for someone else of a different coloured skin, of a black skin, to be in [a world] created by white people for white people.”

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His desire to help foster an inclusive British culture is evidently well-intentioned, and the Sussexes’ celebration of young black British leaders has much to recommend it. But the pursuit of representation-in-diversity is, for a Prince by birth, peculiarly self-destructive.

Like Britain’s pub signs are vestiges of a medieval emblem culture, the monarchy is a vestige of a world where accidents of birth were not impositions or injustices but sources of shared meaning. Harry’s determination to celebrate our differences, though, is the exact opposite of the participatory work of common story-telling embodied by royal ritual.

Because no matter how many identities you try and represent, there will always be still finer sub-categories clamouring for representation. The only way truly to represent everyone in the world through movies would be to make everyone in the world their own movie. And if today we’re all looking for our own personal movie, it becomes ever harder to represent what we still have in common. Thus the cost of seeking a film, TV series or internet subculture for every taste is — as we are increasingly discovering — an ever more rancorous and divided political discourse.

So Harry has become a kind of royal Kryptonite: so entranced by the modern religion of differences that he’s effectively working to de-legitimise what’s left of the unifying power of royalty — the status that gave him a platform in the first place.

To replace that unifying role, Harry proposes a 21st-century variant on pageantry, in the form of a deal with Netflix rumoured to be worth £112m. There, he and Meghan will deliver not the collaboratively-created common mythology of Elizabethan political theatre, but its commercial, deconsecrated and passively-consumed descendant: ‘content’.

Harry doesn’t seem to have grasped, as Elizabeth just about did in 1953, the way cameras consume sacred meaning without replenishing it. He gestures in the direction of the public-spirited meaning-making encapsulated by Elizabeths I and II, in hoping that the Sussexes’ Netflix output will be the kind of “impactful” content that “unlocks action”. But public service, it seems, only goes so far: Harry still expects to be paid for making it.

We can only hope that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will be as keen to find ways of representing what we share, as they are to highlight what divides us.

Join the discussion


  • December 6, 2020
    My mum said that I was very upset and angry about what happened to Golly. But she said she sat me down and explained that there were bad people everywhere and the colour of their skin didn't matter. She raised me, as me and my husband have raised our own daughter, to treat everyone the same. We... Read more

  • December 5, 2020
    And they wonder why there are racists Read more

  • December 3, 2020
    Actually the goblins themselves are a latter-day PC rewrite. The original villains were the golliwogs. That Dinah Doll was a 'good guy' character wasn't enough for the Thought Police, who I think wanted both removed. Read more

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