The coming Royal Wedding is a useful reminder of how, since 1800, the monarchy has become a public institution. Some historians would have you believe that this was achieved by an astute monarchy, skilfully reforming its own practices – thereby saving itself from the tide of republicanism which reached a dangerously high watermark in the 1860s. The truth is more interesting than this, and it holds an important message for our own ‘Big Society’ in which we are, after all, all supposed to be in this together. Royal weddings historically remind us about middle class anxiety and related grievances caused by political and social threats to their existence – a theme that should not be lost on the Coalition government.
Since the first quarter of the nineteenth century the monarchy had been subject to the criticism of the middle classes – indeed, they defined their own version of polite and proper behaviour against the monarchy and its increasingly outrageous antics. Interestingly, many of these themes and issues turned around the phenomenon of Royal marriage and its consequences. The Queen Caroline affair of 1820 introduced 'public opinion' (itself a middle class creation) to the spectacle of an errant monarchy. Rumours of Caroline's own adultery and misbehaviour were dwarfed by the actions of her husband George IV who attempted to summarily divorce her through a public accusation of adultery. In a situation reminiscent of the last years of Diana, public opinion sided greatly with the Queen and through this middle class opinion defined what it considered to be proper standards of conduct within marriage alongside prudent and wise levels of conspicuous consumption which spectacularly eluded the monarchy.
In the 1860s republicans again seized the opportunity offered by a decaying monarchy. Victoria became a recluse after the death of her beloved Albert and she proved spectacularly poor value for money as her absence led to jibes about the ‘vacant throne’. These comments were all the more cutting because Victoria was seen to be retaining money from the Civil List whilst neglecting her duties – a middle class sin. The decade was also peppered with demands for money from Parliament to provide dowries for Victoria’s seemingly endless array of children. For the audiences watching Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas, the portrayal of a perpetual corps of 'on call' bridesmaids on stage provided a very clear commentary on matters closer to home.
In the republican press, Royal marriages provided a sharp contrast to middle class ideals of marriage. Financial prudence was praised and, in consequence, the reckless habits of the male monarchy and aristocracy were vilified. The National Reformer waspishly suggested that the marriage of close cousins (such as Victoria and Albert) was extremely ill advised since such unions regularly produced ‘ill-formed, unhealthy and insane children’.
As the decade drew on, middle class marriage seemed under assault from a monarchy intent on despoiling the ideal. The Mordaunt divorce case heavily implicated the Prince of Wales as a potential correspondent in an extremely messy divorce. Standards of behaviour were compromised by the appearance of the Prince in court when he was called as a witness alongside the treatment of Lady Mordaunt who was systematically portrayed as insane. For middle class republican radicals, the Prince’s actions in the Mordaunt household served to conjure up the rapacious insatiable monarchy of previous generations and expose the leisured classes' habits of, in one correspondent's words, ‘living in a state of advanced Mormonism’.
So why did the contrast between middle class aspirations and Royal indulgence strike such a chord? Arguably Britain never had a revolution in the continental style because this tide of criticism turned the monarchy into a public institution like many others in late nineteenth century Britain. The middle classes knew about these institutions because they had been closely involved in their creation. They could shape them, criticise them - and if necessary reform or dissolve them if they were no longer useful.
Furthermore, the critics made their case at a time when middle class identity seemed under threat from two directions - a rejuvenated aristocracy aligned with capital on the one hand, and the unknown consequences of franchise reform which eventually appeared in 1867 on the other. By the same token, middle class status was always threatened by changing economic fortunes. Some of the parallels with 2011 are uncanny: uncertainty about public sector professional jobs, about the government that might be elected under a new electoral system and the spiralling costs of secondary and higher education pose threats to the uneasy middle classes' identity.
To such people, the Royal Wedding seems an expensive irrelevance. It may not spark revolution - but it might provoke an enriched debate about whether institutions such as the monarchy are fit for purpose.
Cross posted with appreciation from the History and Policy network, which aims to promote the role of history in public policy