One year ago today Prince William married Catherine Middleton while the world watched on their televisions. I didn’t have a television to watch it on because I was there. Yes. That’s right. I was there as crowds of people flocked along The Mall and flashed their phones at the procession of history. Of course I was there!
When I was ten-years old I woke at the crack of dawn to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding. I repeated this ritual five years later with Andrew and Sarah. I even watched Edward and Sophie’s modest little affair. All my life I watched royal events from afar. I was not about to let this one go by without being part of it. So I found two friends who wanted to go (both American) and we made our plans in eager anticipation. But there was one thing I did not plan on: my own British royal family.
I genuinely adore my in-laws. My Mother-in-law is a former science teacher, avid gardener, legendary cook, aspiring photographer and fiercely committed Labour supporter, which means she is somewhere left of Michael Moore in her political affiliations. She finds the Royal Family at best an embarrassment and at worst an inappropriate addition to a free Democratic Society. And she is not alone.
When I proudly boasted about travelling to London for the Royal Wedding, my American friends and family were universally jealous and anxious to see photos and hear stories of the day. My British friends and family thought I was joking. When they realised I was in earnest, they turned…not exactly hostile but their disgust was clear. Several rolled their eyes and mumbled “She’s American” by way of explanation. One commented in shock: “I had no idea you were royalist!” The horrified tone of voice meant to indicate he had learned I was a closet puppy torturer or secret collector of Nazi memorabilia.
From my in-laws there was a lot of tense silence. No one wanted to talk to me about it and went ominously quiet if I introduced the subject, like it was something embarrassingly private, not suitable table conversation. When I spoke to my husband about the travel arrangements he gave a heavy sigh of resignation, as if we were discussing my preparations to undergo life-altering surgery. I found the whole situation thoroughly confusing.
It’s your Royal Family not mine! This is your history and your culture. What is your problem?
Intellectually I understand why the Royal Family might be a source of shame. I agree completely that power and title inherited by virtue of familial connections is out of step with democracy, equality and freedom. I appreciate how the mere existence of the Queen encourages a culture of class-conscious elitism which trickles down through society.
Unfortunately Britain, no one gets to choose their family—especially not their Royal Family. Not without revolutions and chopped off heads, which did not work out so well for the country last time (*cough* Cromwell *cough*). Like it or not, Britain needs the Royals and they are a part of you. The Queen, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard: these are the images the world associates with Britain. Tourism would crash and burn without the fairytale appeal of the Royals. They might cost in pride and taxes but they make up for it when hoards of overseas visitors flock to UK shores lured by this ancient, majestic institution.
But the Royals are also an inescapable part of Britain’s national life story, and the British are not known for giving up history easily.
The British understand history…they have long memories and an appreciation of time which most Americans lack. The first flat my husband and I lived in was a converted Gothic church. The congregation faded away but the building remained. In America that church would have been torn down and replaced by a modern high rise without a backward glance or a batted eyelash. The Foss Way built in Roman times, now known as the A46, is still a regularly used road. A ROMAN ROAD! We got rid of Route 66 after less than 60 years.
I understand why the Queen is controversial, particularly for my left-leaning family and friends. We have an auntie in my family we never talk about either. But like all families, the Royals are a part of the British character. They may not be a part every Brit wants to boast about or invite over for Christmas dinner, but the Royals say something about who Britain is and where Britain came from.
They also throw an awesome wedding!