A few weeks ago, after my TV set collapsed, I signed up for Netflix. It’s one of several streaming services that allow us to glue our eyeballs to computer screens (as well as to the TV) to watch all sorts of movies, network productions and wrestling matches.
I soon got hooked on “The Crown,” which traces the history of Elizabeth II, the current long-lived British monarch. As usual, the Brits do a bang-up job dramatizing the history and culture of England. I sometimes wonder why the French, Italians, Spanish and Estonians don’t also produce first-rate narratives of their histories, as well. Maybe someday they will.
Much of the show’s first episodes focus on the 1936 abdication of the king, Edward VIII. As you probably know, he gave up his kingship so that he could marry a twice-wed Baltimore woman. Both Parliament and the Church of England frowned upon British royalty hitching up to divorcees.
The same sort of veto applied many years later when the queen’s younger sister, Margaret, wanted to wed a divorced man, Peter Townsend. They were required to wait two years, and they never made it. The rules of the church and centuries of tradition caused the romance to end.
Which leads me to the headline for this column: the idea that members of the British royal family are, to a large extent, confined to a golden prison. They are limited to whom they can marry, who their closest friends and associates may or should be, and whether their political beliefs may be publicly disclosed. These restrictions apply even to the king or queen.
Within those confines, however, British royals can still have a pretty lively time.
Occasionally heard during “The Crown” are the melody and lyrics of the UK’s unofficial national anthem, “Land of Hope and Glory,” composed in 1902, with music by Edward Elgar and words by A.C. Benson. It is a stirring, patriotic song. But it is so imperialistic in tone I wonder how other nations — especially those who came under British rule — did not bristle each time the anthem was rendered. Just look at these power-oriented words:
“Land of hope and glory, Mother of the free, How can we extol thee, who are born of thee? Wider still and wider, may thy bounds be set, God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.” If there was ever a more musical statement of unvarnished national ambition, it would have to be “Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles...” (“Germany, over all others...”)
In the episodes of “The Crown” I’ve watched so far, two things stand out in my mind.
One of them is what an immoral, self-centered pipsqueak the Duke of Windsor was, even before he assumed that title after his abdication. Like many British princes before him, one of his main bachelor activities was bedding willing married women, of which the Court of St. James always seemed to have a limitless supply.
However, another of the duke’s primary traits emerged in the years after his abdication. His often-voiced and spiteful loathing of all things and persons British (including his own close relatives) made it clear how fortunate his countrymen were that his reign was cut short.
Another chapter of “The Crown” will be unveiled later this month. I intend to watch every minute of it. Although I don’t think a British-version monarchy would ever work in the USA, it’s enlightening (and perhaps frightening) to see how history deprived the most powerful nation — the United Kingdom — of its world leadership within a few decades.
Could the same process be happening to our beloved country right now? We’ll have a better answer to that question one year from now, on Election Day 2020. On that momentous Tuesday, fellow Americans, we’ll all be able to step right up and place our bets.