A Right Royal Marriage: is the Union of Will and Kate a Turning Point for the British Monarchy?

About the author
Natalie Kulenicz read History at Magdalen College, Oxford.


It’s been a great few years for the royal family.
In a stroke of impeccable timing, we’ve seen the royal wedding of the century, a diamond jubilee, and the birth of a new heir to the throne — already affectionately known across the media as ‘HRH Grumps’ due to to his curmudgeonly countenance in official christening photos — in two and a half years.

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The excitement engendered by these specific events has created an atmosphere of general celebration, not just for these individual, major stages in the personal history of the British monarchy, but for the institution as a whole. Hardening attitudes towards the monarchy as an institution seem to be softening, at least on the surface.
An opinion poll conducted by the Sunday Telegraph in July revealed that 74% of those questioned believed that the newborn prince would one day ascend to the throne, with only 9% predicting a republic to have taken root by the time George is likely to be crowned. More immediately, 53% of those participating in the survey affirmed that they believed the country to be actively ‘worse off’ without a monarchy. Encouraging figures indeed for the royal family, it would seem. And although it’s difficult to pluck an exact reason for such an outpouring of regal affection from the sea of general monarchical festivities of the past couple of years, it seems certain that the union of the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has been the catalyst, for this very modern royal romance has seemed perhaps the most natural Windsor union yet. Having met as students, encountered obstacles along the way, and marrying in their late 20s, the progression of William and Kate’s relationship rings truer than previous royal pairings have done. And of course, much has been made of the fact that the assimilation of Kate the Commoner into an oft-perceived to be elitist dynasty has created the impression of a more open royal family with freer links to its subjects.

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Image shows Elizabeth Woodville, in a painting by an unknown artist, c.1471.
Though born a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville is the ancestor of every English monarch since Henry VIII.

After all, when Kate joined the royal family, the situation was hardly resonant of Edward IV’s secret 1464 union with the commoner Elizabeth Woodville. Then, the Earl of Warwick, who had been plotting to match Edward with Bona of Savoy, a French princess, was furious, and the Privy Council fumed that “however good and however fair she might be, she was no wife for a prince such as himself, for she was not the daughter of a duke or an earl.” It looks like Kate got off pretty lightly.
It’s not only the welcoming with open arms of a royal bride not sprung from the highest echelons of the aristocracy that indicates there’s something different about this union. For perhaps the first time, it seems as though the royal family — at least the younger set — are integrating themselves better into a wider, more significant media context than there’s ever been. Not only were we last week treated to the sight of William warbling away with Taylor Swift and Jon Bon Jovi with an impromptu rendition of Livin’ On A Prayer, at Kensington Palace’s Winter Whites Gala held in support of homeless charity Centrepoint, but the so-called Kate Middleton Effect — the phenomenon which sees fashion designers’ online sales increase to the point of selling out within minutes after the Duchess has been seen wearing one of their garments — seems to gather in force every time she is seen in public.

Image shows Kate Middleton holding the day-old Prince George and waving, with Prince William standing beside her.
Kate Middleton the day after her son’s birth, wearing a blue polka-dot Jenny Packham dress.

Most recently, the blue polka dot Jenny Packham dress she wore when first presenting her newborn son to the press and public outside the Lindo Wing on 23rd July sold out in 48 hours. Minutes into their press appearance, Packham’s name began trending on Twitter, and her website crashed as buyers flocked to snap up the same design. All of these factors seem to have combined to make the British monarchy appear altogether more accessible, more in touch with the public, even if this connection is created through hysteria and iconography based around the mundane.

An Open Shop?

We must be cautious, however, in concluding that the British monarchy’s dark days and alienation from the public are definitely behind us. Opinion polls are useful indicators of isolated moments in the national consciousness, but they are targeted to those who are particularly passionate about a particular issue, and the above poll was conducted in an atmosphere of decidedly elevated excitement.

Image shows Marlborough College, seen from the roof of a nearby church.
Marlborough College, which Kate Middleton attended. Other notable alumni include John Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon and Princess Eugenie of York.

And whilst the apparent opening up of the royal family to those who are not from aristocratic backgrounds hardly means that the dynasty has suddenly become a paragon of social mobility — Kate’s story is hardly a rags-to-riches tale. Her parents, who run a mail order party accessories business named Party Pieces, are widely regarded as self-made millionaires. They have sent each of their three children to £27,000-a-year Marlborough College, and are even rumoured to have bought Kate a £780,000 flat in Chelsea. Her sister Pippa regularly attracts headlines for attending extensive shooting and hunting parties. A quick scan down the list of Prince George’s godparents reveals, as well as the future Duke of Westminster, a glittering mixture of old Etonian classmates and daughters-in-law of ancient Scottish landowning families. Kate has always moved in elite circles since her time at school and the University of St. Andrews. Since a university education has become more of an expected norm amongst school leavers, the potential (from the royal family’s perspective) for making connections who are not aristocratic is hugely increased. This doesn’t mean that new friends are not from wealthy and influential backgrounds, however, and so the perception of a privileged, authoritative elite widens and expands to create a more varied but still relatively inaccessible elite.
That being said, the marriage of Kate and William seems fortuitously placed in a general atmosphere of modernisation. Although this turned out not to be the case, changes to the succession law in 2011 meant that, had their first child been a  daughter, she would not have had to yield her right to ascend to the throne to any subsequent brothers. The changes still stand. It seems too much of a coincidence that this change, decided on with the assent of the 16 Commonwealth countries at a summit in Perth, Australia, occurred six months after the April marriage of the Duke and Duchess. Pressure for the changes to the laws of succession had been gathering for some time, and it seems as though the event of William and Kate’s marriage was chosen as a reference point for the ‘historic’ modernisation of the monarchy — to herald it, and to be ever associated with what has widely been perceived as an important step in the history of the royal family.

The Glorification of the Everyday

Image shows a newspaper stand after Prince George's birth, with the Sun rebranded as 'the Son' and other headlines celebrating Prince George's birth.
Newspaper front pages show the current popularity of the Royal Family.

Clearly, the relationship, marriage and family life of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has received an unprecedented level of media attention. Kate is widely recognised as the world’s most photographed woman, something which has often exerted considerable negative pressure both on her and the royal family. When such an intense media lens is applied to the lives of an individual or a very small group of people, impossibly small actions take on a huge amount of significance. So when Kate and William, along with Prince Harry, attended the inauguration of the Harry Potter Tour at Warner Bros Studios in Hertfordshire earlier this year, much was made of their ‘wand duel’, an aspect of the visit taken to prove their accessibility and  approachability, and immersion in popular, current culture. Endless media comment was dedicated to the fact that William drove his wife and new son home from the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital after the birth himself, rather than relying on a chauffeur. Famously, instead of the first official family portraits of Prince George and his parents were not formal, studio-snapped images taken by a professional photographer, but relaxed, informal shots taken by Kate’s father Michael on a family day out. This perfectly normal action was afforded amazing amounts of coverage in the press, with many papers even bringing in photography critics to assess Mr. Middleton’s skills. Very soon after their marriage, Kate was seen shopping at a Waitrose in Anglesey, pushing her own trolley.
The level of disbelief that was attached to this perfectly mundane action placed another pearl in the string of isolated, particular events which have led to the impression that the royal family are breaking down barriers between themselves and the public purely through these exaggerated gestures of normality. Taken up and reinforced by the media, these gestures, which lead to implausible levels of surprise every time a mundane action is publicised, have the paradoxical effect of making the royal family seem even further out of reach, due to the level to which they are blown out of proportion. That being said, the constant reminders that the Duke and Duchess lead a ‘normal’ family life, reiterated as they are, stitch together to create an underlying consciousness of approachability and accessibility.

Marriage — a Dangerous Precedent

Image shows Wallis Simpson in 1936.
Wallis Simpson in 1936, for whom Edward VIII abdicated so that they could get married.

If the attachment of the royal relationship to this perceived alteration in the structure and tone of the monarchy is believed to have been masterminded by the PR powers of the Palace, it has to be noted that this is a remarkably risky strategy, and it pays tribute to the general recognition of the strength of Will and Kate’s relationship. In the recent history of the Windsor family, marriages have been turbulent events. Edward VIII’s proposed union with American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936 could have been a chance to make the royal family more socially open, but instead ended in bitterness, derision and abdication, though at least the two were eventually able to marry. Perhaps Edward was simply a few decades too early. The marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 saw popular support for the monarchy rocket, but its breakdown and eventual dissolution over the course of the 1990s symbolised a terrible decade for the royal family, and popular approval declined quickly — interestingly, despite the Queen’s decision in 1992 to pay income and capital gains tax, which should have given the royal family more of a popular boost, given the continually contentious issue of the cost of the royal family. Even in today’s apparently royalist environment, only 43% of people believe that the £36.1 million per year received by the royal family via the taxpayer-funded Sovereign Grant is good value for money. This might then indicate that the importance attached in the popular consciousness to the personal lives of the royals is significant in guiding popular perception of the monarchy after all. It also indicates that if the strong link drawn by all between the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the  modernisation of the British monarchy is intentional, there is a lot of pressure on both the couple and their young family.

Kings of PR

Image shows Edward VIII, in the 1920, holding a baby kangaroo.
Edward VIII made himself popular on a trip to Australia; the kangaroo was called ‘Digger’.

Despite a general, undeniable sense of permeating modernisation, it is still perfectly legitimate to consider the great wave of royal approachability and openness to be a case of smoke and mirrors. What seems more of a definite turning point, and one more directly linked to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is the more positive and poised relationship the British monarchy have developed with the press. This has no doubt been helped by the fact that, by and large, the younger generation of the royal family have so far evaded major scandals of the type which marred the monarchy during the 1990s. The pivotal importance of the press in shaping and representing impressions of the monarchy has always been acknowledged. In a 1924 issue of Photoplay, Hollywood’s most influential fan magazine for the first half of the twentieth century, it was noted that “Kings and queens,  presidents and premiers, know that the press is the real ruler of the world. So accordingly they keep their positions by bowing to its cameras and headlines. Name the most popular man in the world today and I’ll tell you the one with the best publicity bureau. His name is H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.” This Prince of Wales was to become King Edward VIII, and the article was written during one of his famous tours abroad, which led to a sky-rocketing popularity throughout the 1920s. Images of his famous royal visits could be seen on sets of cigarette cards, in which he was depicted cuddling wallabies in Australia, riding around with cowboys, and carrying the moniker “Our Genial Prince.” This interpretation of media engagement, which relied on the intuitive charm and ‘common touch‘ of one particular royal, was along the right lines, but focused too heavily on specific diplomatic, relatively impersonal events, and relied too heavily on the popularity and influence of one person which inevitably crumbled with the abdication crisis. The same was true of Princess Diana, whose extensive charity work and resulting intense popularity preserved a beneficial relationship with the press. Her powerful, individual popularity only profiled the relative unpopularity of the rest of the royal family, and any links between monarchy and subjects were completely severed after her divorce and death, having depended so greatly on her image.

Image shows Kate Middleton and Prince William kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace shortly after their wedding.
William and Kate kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following their wedding.

Now, the relationship with the press between married royal couples, especially William and Kate, seems much more balanced. They undertake tours of their own, which are often successful although from the point of view of the British people might seem unnecessary. But they both also demonstrate hallmarks of a normal, modern life, which resonate with the public more than was ever conceivable over the course of most of the twentieth century. It is this more mature press relationship — not unproblematic, always invasive, but ultimately positive — that represents a true turning point in the history of the British monarchy. In order to survive, they must seem relevant, and relatable, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge symbolise that attribute in the royal family’s younger generation. With regard to the openness, the more socially mobile character of the royal family, which some believe to have been initiated by the marriage of William and Kate, the truth and significance of the matter are highly debatable. Our renewed love affair with the royals may run out of steam when the excitement of a serendipitous couple of years has worn off. Marriages are, of course, occasions of consensus and unity by nature, and it is not unusual for a celebration of such magnitude to seal over cracks, if temporarily. But if the monarchy wishes to achieve a more positive, secure future, then this union and all that has accompanied it seem like a good foundation to build on.

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Image credits: banner; Woodville; Middleton; Marlborough; newspapers; Simpson; Edward VIII; wedding