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Charles and Camilla: the sting in the fairytale

The British monarchy is so crisis-ridden that it can't even organise a wedding in a castle.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The attempt to unite Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in matrimony has exposed the holes in Britain’s Royal Family.

Today’s announcement that the Queen won’t be at the wedding ceremony was the latest in a series of cock-ups about the who, where and how of the heir to the throne’s second wedding. This fracas makes clear that the Royal Family has no idea what it is supposed to be anymore – or how it is supposed to behave. After trying to reinvent itself as a bunch of ordinary guys and gals, it now doesn’t know whether to behave as king or as commoner. Meanwhile, the media mocks from the sidelines, treating the Royals as a bunch of court fools.

First, there was confusion about where to tie the knot. Originally the plan was to wed in a civil ceremony at Windsor Castle, until the Sun pointed out that licensing laws would have meant opening up the castle for public weddings for the next three years. Not impressed by the idea of people throwing confetti on the Queen’s lawns, the event was shifted to the cramped venue of the local Guildhall, a venue that even Prince Charles admitted was pretty seedy.

Given that it’s a civil ceremony, in theory anybody who wants to should be able to attend and register their objections – though in practice the Royal protection police might have different ideas. The official notice of the wedding is now on public display, listing the couple’s occupations, addresses, and other personal details (Charles’ occupation is listed as ‘Prince of the United Kingdom’, while Camilla’s was left blank).

In an attempt to lend the event some legitimacy, the wedding will be followed by a church blessing at Windsor Castle led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a lavish reception attended by senior Royals. These schizophrenic arrangements are testimony to the Royal Family’s confused status: a surreptitious, downmarket tying of the knot, with the official gloss as an afterthought.

Then there is the debate about whether it’s legal anyway. Although the Lord Chancellor has given it his stamp, many legal experts are pointing out that the 1836 Marriage Act forbids the Royals from having a civil ceremony. The 1949 Marriage Act formalised civil marriages and superseded the earlier act, but included a clause saying that ‘Nothing in this Act shall affect any law or custom relating to the marriage of members of the Royal Family’. Both a BBC Panorama documentary and the tabloids have been banging this drum, forcing the Lord Chancellor to take the unusual step of revealing the basis of his legal advice.

Finally, there is the dilemma about Camilla’s status. Although she is sporting a Royal Family heirloom on her finger, her position is in limbo. In theory, she should be Queen if Charles becomes King, but thinking this might be a step too far Royal advisers have settled on the title Princess Consort. For now, Camilla’s legal title will be Princess of Wales, but for reasons of taste she will use Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall instead.

This unholy matrimony raises problems for Charles’ position as prospective head of the Church of England, which still frowns on second marriages (especially in cases, such as this, where the relationship helped to split up first marriages). A worried Church of England General Synod has been wringing its hands, unsure of whether to give its full blessing, and concerned about the implications for the relationship between church and state.

This is a very modern constitutional crisis. When Edward VIII tried to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson in 1936, the government and Royal advisers kept the issue away from the public eye until the King announced his abdication. It was only in 2000 that papers on the affair were released. By contrast, every part of Charles and Camilla’s relationship has been played out in full public view. From the couple’s engagement plans to their wedding invitation, to the Queen’s ban on Charles and Camilla sleeping together before the wedding, everything has leaked out. And neither the government nor the Royal Family seems to be in control.

What has changed? It’s not just that the latest generation of the Royal Family is particularly foolish, though many of them may well be. Instead, the Royal Family has lost the basis of its prestige, which lay in the value assigned to British tradition and the Empire. Over the past 50 years, the Royals have tried to reinvent themselves as ordinary, showing the ‘common touch’ and giving TV interviews at home. The contradiction between its old and new faces became increasingly difficult to maintain.

It is questionable how much any of this means to the public. If the Royal Family’s fall from grace means that they can’t organise a wedding, it also means that nobody cares that much. The press has been churning out six-page spreads, running polls over the rights and wrongs of the royal wedding, and predicting the saga will ‘split the country’. But Camilla v Diana will no more split the country than a series of EastEnders.

One BBC Online debate asked people whether the Queen should go to the wedding. ‘Perhaps the Queen is as bored and indifferent to this proposed wedding as the rest of her population’, offered one contributor (1). Others responded as if it was a question to a problem page, saying either that the Queen should go because she was Charles’ mother, or that she shouldn’t go if she didn’t want to. When the Royal Family has lost its symbolic significance, the decorum of Royal relationships is of little interest.

All of this exposes the continuing redundancy of the Royal Family. They don’t even seem to be much use for the British establishment anymore. Perhaps it’s time to get finally rid of them, once and for all.

(1) Should the Queen attend royal wedding?, BBC News, 23 February 2005

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Topics Politics

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