There are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise, they’re quite important things.”
So says Elizabeth II in the recent BBC documentary , made to mark the 65th anniversary of the queen’s crowning in Westminster Abbey. It’s a simple statement, but it serves as an insightful description of monarchies as well as crowns: difficult to bear, terribly impractical, seemingly useless—and of critical importance.
The time is ripe for Americans to reconsider the advantages of crowns—or at least, to reflect on what we might be able to learn from constitutional monarchies and the longstanding traditions of England’s kings and queens. The American form of government and its elected officials are none too popular with our citizens at present, leading voices on both left and right to muse upon what it might be like to reinstate the institution we scorned in 1776. It’s this climate of dissatisfaction that (at least partially) explains our current fascination with shows like The Coronation and Netflix’s The Crown. Amid the chaos of our postmodern politics—the turmoil of Trumpism, the government shut-downs, the multiplying divisions within parties—there is something about the permanence and stability of the old-fashioned British monarchy that American viewers find refreshing.
At any rate, there is something refreshing about Elizabeth herself. Nowadays, we expect our politicians, presidents, and even popes to be stars—celebrities who express their individuality in tweet-storms and air their every whim on Facebook. Elizabeth’s remarkable discretion (The Coronation marks the first time she has agreed to an on-camera interview) may strike us as both odd and downright boring. Yet her infamously “stringent control” over media access to the monarchy is integral to her success. For sixty-six years she has faced the challenge of balancing her individuality as Elizabeth Windsor with her public persona as Elizabeth Regina, and in all her time on the throne she has rarely permitted her personality to overshadow her office. It is this regal emphasis on office—on “the monarchy, not the monarch,” as Claire Foy’s Elizabeth puts it in The Crown—that Americans could stand to learn from.
The Coronation has been hailed as a rare chance to see the “real monarch” finally let down her guard. But other than giving viewers a taste of Elizabeth’s sarcasm and a few charming anecdotes from the big day, the documentary does little to undermine the queen’s official persona. Elizabeth shows herself to be far less interested in displaying her personality than in discussing the rituals, regalia, and history of each moment in the ancient coronation ceremony. The footage from that ceremony, filmed in 1953, is itself a testament to just how private the queen is, for it almost didn’t exist. Sixty-five years ago, Elizabeth tried to resist having her coronation televised, fearing this would damage the monarchy’s mystique.
The “mystique” of monarchy is a concept rather foreign to American sensibilities, but one with which shows like The Crown serve to reacquaint us. In both seasons, writer Peter Morgan (a self-proclaimed “royalist”) asks his audience to consider the value of a leader whose personality isn’t on display for all to see. Royal regalia, grandiose coronation ceremonies, and formal receptions at Buckingham Palace aren’t empty rituals, the show proposes. Rather, these customs (all of which underline the royal’s position above her subjects, rather than her equality with them) are invaluable—precisely because they assist the Queen in transcending her individuality. John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill sums it up: “When you appear in public, performing official duties, you are not you. No one wants you to be you, they want you to be it: the crown. The minute you become yourself you shatter the illusion, break the spell.”
Elizabeth is not called upon to entertain the people or use personal charisma to exert her influence upon them—she is there to symbolize England and thereby unify it. Shows like The Crown and The Coronation reintroduce this style of leadership to our egalitarian imaginations, hardwired to balk at any distant or impersonal tendencies in our officials. A brilliant speech in season 2 of The Crown, spoken by Lord Altrincham, illuminates the monarchical mindset that Elizabeth (and Peter Morgan) are striving to uphold:
I believe that monarchy provides clarity. A symbolic head of state [transcends] the self-serving interests of the egocentric and self-motivated politicians who go in and out of office. . . . When working at its best, monarchy can rise above such matters and unify a society. It can set the tone and become the embodiment of the nation, of national character.
Elizabeth’s resistance to being made into a celebrity is a key theme of season 2. “I feel like an actress,” she complains in one episode, after reluctantly agreeing to televise her annual Christmas speech. “A common little showgirl. . . . Memorizing lines, and remembering angles, wearing makeup.” As she knows well, “it’s not the sovereign’s place to entertain.” She has been pressured to televise her speech in an attempt to reach faraway subjects, yet she feels keenly how crucial it is that she strike the right balance between “accessible” and “regal.”
This careful guarding of her person “has dulled her lustre to modern eyes,” complains the Guardian. But we should remember that England almost ended up with a very different kind of monarch on the throne. The notorious Edward VIII, who abdicated in order to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson and later may have become a Nazi sympathizer, would have been a personality, an individual who ruled according to his whims. As he whines in The Crown, “the last royal to have a mind of his own was me—and that’s why they threw me out.” Edward, unwilling to temper his egocentric desires, refused to abide by the traditions that “unify a society.” Even Princess Margaret, had she become queen, might have threatened to “impose [her] individuality on the institution,” as Lithgow’s Churchill points out. We might be tempted to laugh at Elizabeth’s prim and proper manners, but the alternative can be dangerous.
Americans today know too little of the British monarchy we broke from more than two centuries ago, but perhaps shows like The Coronation and The Crown can bring that institution’s virtues to our attention. At the very least, they should convince us that Elizabeth’s status as mystery woman is to be admired, rather than derided—and that our reality-TV star of a president should take a few pointers from England’s discreet and dignified queen.
Ramona V. Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.