King Charles III, in Kenya. (LUIS TATO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

March 6, 2024   7 mins

In 1946, lorries and diggers rumbled into the grounds of Wentworth Woodhouse, then one of England’s grandest mansions. Its manicured lawns, gardens, and parkland stood on a coal seam that neared the surface, and the Labour Party’s Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, wanted to mine it. His aim was to address a national fuel crisis — and also, as historian Catherine Bailey shows, to strike a blow against the hereditary privilege Shinwell believed the mansion’s owner, the Earl Fitzwilliam, to represent.

Built in the 18th century near Rotherham, Wentworth Woodhouse’s 300 rooms and five miles of corridors hosted King George VI in 1912. But war, death duties, and the nationalisation of Britain’s coal mines battered the Fitzwilliam wealth, and by 1946 they were powerless to stop Shinwell’s diggers. Formal gardens, lawns, and ancient trees were uprooted for open-cast mining; the act was decried as “vandalism” in Parliament, while James Lees-Milne of the National Trust said the aftermath was worse than “French battlefields after D-day”.

Compared with digging up a Georgian formal garden to extract low-quality coal, smearing jam and porridge over a bust of Queen Victoria ranks fairly low in the vandalism stakes. But this latest attack on the symbols of class hierarchy has the same complicated relationship to fossil fuels — and to the wealth, power, and inequality these bring — as Shinwell’s 1946 assault on the Fitzwilliam family seat.

Both these stories shed light on a quieter but just as pervasive source of national uncertainty: how, in post-imperial Britain, should we relate to the threadbare living remnants of the royal dynasty that presided over its once-glittering elite?

“How, in long since decolonised Britain, should we relate to the threadbare living remnants of our erstwhile royal dynasty?”

Elizabeth II was the last monarch of the British Empire, and her reign’s defining characteristic was the studied serenity with which she presided over its dismantling. Since her death, the surviving Windsors have come to seem increasingly ailing and withdrawn, not to mention assailed by indiscreet relatives all too eager to exploit their proximity to the guttering flame of royalty. Today, the King faces cancer treatment, while the Sussexes continue in their usual fractious vein; now, as the Princess of Wales recovers from abdominal surgery, her uncle is going to appear on Celebrity Big Brother.

But this tawdry spectacle is unsurprising. For Britain’s period of 19th-century hegemony rested ultimately on a crucial energy source — coal — and a subsequent energy transition played a key role in ending it. Now, as the climate-anxious wage war on the remaining symbols of that era’s high culture, what’s left of its aristocracy is following in the footsteps of Manny Shinwell by strip-mining its own legacy, both literally and metaphorically.


The group that smeared Victoria’s marble face with jam and porridge last weekend was This Is Rigged. Condemning rising food insecurity, it declared: “We refuse to be dragged back to the Victorian era.” But while they are no doubt referring to the extremes of poverty suffered by some in Victoria’s day, Britain could only be said to be returning to her era now if we disregarded the other pole of economic inequality: wealth.

There is today no imminent prospect of returning to Victorian levels of British wealth and power. That position was inextricable from the imperial project, by then underway for centuries. But it was consolidated by “black diamonds”: Britain’s abundant stocks of coal.

The nation was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, exploiting these domestic energy resources to mercantile and expansionist ends. Coal drove the machines that manufactured British goods for overseas export, along with the ships and trains that distributed them, even as it sent British travellers, administrators, soldiers, and other overseas meddlers around the world. And coal enabled Britain to project power. By 1900, the penultimate year of Victoria’s reign, around 85% of globally traded coal came from the British Isles, while Britain governed a quarter of the earth’s surface. In return, unimaginable wealth flowed back to the homeland.

As Queen Victoria governed this immense, triumphal Britain as a kind of national mother, her consort, Prince Albert, gave royal imprimatur to the frenzy of scientific and cultural exploration enabled by imperial wealth: a bounty that coexisted with the kind of grinding poverty referenced by This Is Rigged. For the Victorian aristocracy and upper middle class, though, this world of squalid urban slums, workhouses, child labour, and food riots was an object for their philanthropy — even as the wealth was a gratifying reward for imperial conquest, and evidence of Britain’s racial and cultural superiority.

But even as, in Modern Egypt (1908), Lord Cromer expressed this view — describing Britain’s moral duty to “control and guide” alien races based on natural superiority — at home the end was nigh for the natural resource that underwrote it all. Clashes between labour and capital grew ever fiercer: the 1893 miners’ strike, then the largest ever, involved 300,000 workers, and a still greater national miners’ strike in 1912 saw over a million men down tools.

There was no sign of such fractures when Victoria’s grandson King George V visited Wentworth Woodhouse the following year. The visit concluded with an audience of 25,000 gathered in its still-pristine grounds for a concert that included a torchlight tattoo performed by local miners. But if labour issues threatened the established class hierarchy, the pivotal change that would eventually strip George V’s grandchild — Elizabeth II — of her empire came through innovation.

Two years after the 1893 miners’ strike, the first internal combustion car arrived in Britain. By 1930 there were a million such vehicles on Britain’s roads. And with them came the slow shift from coal to oil: a change that played a key role in ending the British Empire. England’s coal production peaked the year after King George visited Wentworth Woodhouse. The British Empire did, too, just a few years later. For if coal was Great Britain’s trump card, oil was America’s.

As energy demand began to tilt decisively away from coal, so too did the geopolitical balance. As historian James Barr shows, after 1945 America set about dismantling what remained of Britain’s imperial reach — with special focus on those overseas holdings and alliances that granted Britain control over the world’s ‘black gold’. The subsequent scramble for the Middle East has been much-discussed; suffice to say Britain lost, conclusively, during the reign of Elizabeth II.

The late Queen was thus the last monarch to preside over what was once the greatest empire the world had ever seen. So however ambivalent we are about our imperial legacy today, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if she also turns out to be the last British monarch to have trailed something of the grandeur that attended that empire. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my local community centre still hasn’t changed its large framed photo of Elizabeth II for one of our current King.

There is very little mileage left in that imperial legacy now. At Wentworth Woodhouse, two sets of death duties and the nationalisation of their coalfields threw the Fitzwilliams abruptly onto hard times: a large portion of the Wentworth Woodhouse contents were auctioned in 1948. And our leaders have, since the war, pursued a similar fire-sale strategy at the national scale.

You name it, if it’s British and seems a bit “posh”, someone’s trying to sell it overseas. Grand houses; Old Masters; classic brands; key firms in strategic industries (for example the chip designer Arm in 2020); London’s property market. In its place we have a financial services sector widely denounced as a front for international money laundering, in which grand old Mayfair townhouses once occupied by the old imperial aristocracy now shelter a new kind: hedge funds, traders, and family offices for the world’s oligarchs. Sometimes nothing remains but a Georgian or Victorian façade, behind which the bones of the building have been gutted and replaced by steel girders and suspended ceilings: the most eloquent imaginable metaphor for the hollowing-out that has taken place.

And in this brave new world, what are the descendants of Britain’s erstwhile caste of upper-class Victorian imperial administrators to do? Those who are bright enough go into finance; the rest leverage crisp vowels, social connections, and cultural know-how into careers as concierges and fixers to the genuine new plutocracy. And it’s in this light that we should understand the Sussexes, and perhaps also Gary Goldsmith: without the discretion or nous to thrive as butlers, they simply aim to squeeze what celebrity capital they can out of their royal connections. 

Under Manny Shinwell, as declining energy dominance forced Britain to begin self-cannibalising in earnest, physical mining ripped up a pristine country-house garden. Today, Goldsmith and the Sussexes alike continue in the same vein, with their own metaphorical strip-mining of Britain’s remaining cultural wealth.

As for the rest of us, we can only hope we’re nearing rock bottom. With the recent “student visas” bombshell barely off the front page, this week a “cash for care” scandal revealed employment agencies are selling British visas under the guise of staffing British care homes. In other words: while our current crop of leaders hasn’t literally put granny up for auction yet, in a bid to keep the lights on a few more days, they’re not far off. 

What would a less defeatist, more future-oriented Britain look like, on the other side of rock bottom? It’s hard to say, though I suspect somehow that Charles remembers the old world too keenly to be the man to represent it. Perhaps his son will drag us out of our doldrums, and set a new tone: it happened with Victoria, after all, after the chaos of the Georgian era.

It’s less clear today what kind of kingdom, if any, they would have. The declinist view is that maybe it doesn’t matter if care workers can’t speak English; we can just fling a few more quid at the emblems of Britain’s former grandeur, and live off leisure, tourism and the “creative industries”, as with the Levelling Up Fund grant now restoring Wentworth Woodhouse. I’m less sure. For while This Is Rigged seem to think we can both end oil extraction and still demand cheap (and oil-intensive) disposable nappies, between competing environmental concerns and new geopolitical tensions our energy future is ever more uncertain.

Meanwhile the industries of the future appear to be AI and biotech, all underwritten by a new “scramble for Africa” focused on the rare earth minerals required for the tech sector and the “green transition”. Thus far, though, Britain’s push to be at the forefront of all these efforts has appeared lukewarm: the £940m recently hailed in UK funding to support green innovation pales into insignificance beside America’s $1.25 trillion.

But even if (and, I hope, when) we find a way through, perhaps under a newly-ascendant William V, I doubt it’ll be to the future imagined by This Is Rigged: a world both free of fossil fuels and still somehow brimful of state welfare and cheap conveniences. The best we can hope for is that some more creative future leader will take us back to the Victorian era not just in a bad way, but also a good one. If we’re to have the poverty and inequality, at least let us also have the grand architecture, the moral seriousness, the scientific innovation, and the unifying leadership. Britain could still have this; we just need to muster the energy.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.