In 18th-century Russia, acts of lese majeste were taken seriously, so when Willem Mons, Peter the Great’s chamberlain, had the
temerity to have an affair with the tsar’s wife Catherine, punishment was swift – and brutal. The unfortunate Mons was executed and, to make sure the lesson was not wasted on the wayward tsarina, she is said to have returned to her room that evening to find the severed head of her lover staring back at her from inside a jar of alcohol.
Fast-forward two centuries, and when James Hewitt, a dashing staff captain in the Household Cavalry, was revealed to have had an affair with Diana, Princess of Wales, wife of the heir to the throne, the worst he had to deal with was being denounced by the tabloid press and fellow officers alike as a cad and a bounder. Treason has come a long way since the days of absolute monarchy. Today’s constitutional monarchs – largely stripped of anything other than ceremonial functions – do not demand or get unthinking obedience from their subjects. Ours is no longer an age of deference. Take a step wrong and they can be sure the media will be on their case.
So what of the opposite side of the coin – loyalty? Has that also gone down to a commensurate extent? Not necessarily. While the media may treat the royal family, and its junior members in particular, as an extension of celebrity culture, the Queen continues to enjoy a very particular respect. Nor, to the fury of Britain’s small but vociferous band of republicans, is there discussion of the institution of monarchy itself.
This is not a uniquely British phenomenon, either. In studying Europe’s other monarchies – in the three Scandinavian countries, and in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands – for my book, The Great Survivors, I was struck more by the similarities than the differences. Our royal family may be grander, better known and more expensive to maintain than the others, but the challenges it faces and its responses to them are in many ways similar.
Take the public reaction to royal births, deaths and marriages, and to important anniversaries such as jubilees. This June’s celebrations marking the Queen’s 60 years on the throne are expected to draw even larger crowds than those that turned out in 1992 and 1977. Look at how many people witnessed Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton last April or, indeed, the marriage of Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden in June 2010.
Of course, everyone likes an excuse for a party. But what of the mass outpouring of grief that followed Diana’s death in 1997, or of the estimated 200,000 people who queued to pay their respects to the Queen Mother five years later? Such loyalty, however, is conditional. Opinion polls show wide swings in the popularity of monarchy over the years, largely in line with the behaviour of members of the royal family. King George VI – brilliantly portrayed by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech – won huge respect and affection from his subjects for his fortitude during the Second World War (and inspired enormous loyalty from Lionel Logue, his unorthodox Australian speech therapist).
Our present Queen also enjoyed considerable popularity during her first decades on the throne, only to face a crisis in the 1990s when everything that could go wrong for the British monarchy did. The same is true elsewhere: the Norwegian monarchy’s approval rating, for example, plunged from just over 90% to under 60% in the run-up to the marriage of Crown Prince Haakon to Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby – a single mother with a son by a man with a conviction for drug dealing – in 2001.
Yet the polls do not move only one way. A decade on, Mette-Marit has established herself as a favourite with Norwegians, just as the British royal family’s popularity has bounced back since the low point of 1992 – dubbed by the Queen her “annus horribilis”.
Who, given the opportunity to create a state from scratch today, would make it a monarchy? Yet in the minority of countries that continue to be headed by kings and queens, the prevailing ethos could be summed up in a simple phrase: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In 1948, King Farouk of Egypt declared: “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left – the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.” Farouk was right, at least about one king: himself. Four years after his pronouncement, he was forced to flee his country.
Sixty years later, however, paradoxical as it seems, the majority of other European monarchies are still reigning over their nations. Most – if not all – will still be there 60 years from now.
The Great Survivors is out now, published by Alma.