Borman’s Crown & Sceptre (Atlantic Monthly, Feb.) chronicles the British monarchy’s triumphs, scandals, and changes.
How has the British monarchy endured for so long?
I think the secret of the monarchy’s success lies in the royal pageantry and traditions that are still so beloved of people across the globe. The fact that these ceremonies have remained virtually the same over the 11 centuries of the crown’s existence provides a much-needed thread of continuity in a rapidly changing world. At the same time, though, the monarchy has adjusted in response to changing times, otherwise it would be little more than a “brontosaurus... stuffed in a museum,” as Prince Philip once put it.
Who is the most underrated king or queen?
There are plenty to choose from here, but I think my favorite is George V. He tends to be overshadowed by the scandalous activities of his son, Edward VIII, who gave up the throne for Wallis Simpson and plunged the monarchy into crisis. By contrast, George was wholly undramatic—a steady, dependable sort of man who provided a vital figurehead during the first world war. Duty was his watchword and one that inspired his granddaughter, Elizabeth II, who affectionately called him “Grandpa England.”
You write in the book that some of the most successful sovereigns have been those who didn’t expect to inherit the throne. Why do you think that’s the case?
I found this fascinating because on the face of it, those monarchs who have been trained for the role for many years ought to be the most successful. But some of the longest-serving princes of Wales have made the worst kings—witness George IV, for example. By contrast, those incumbents who had no expectation of becoming king or queen seem to have made a much better job of it—as the two Elizabeths prove. I think this is largely because they didn’t take it for granted. They worked harder to make themselves successful and were far more mindful of popular opinion than the often arrogant characters who had been raised to see the throne as theirs by right.
What does the future of the monarchy look like?
That’s the burning question! The modern version of monarchy would make Henry VIII spin in his grave. The queen has little real power and can only advise, not directly influence, the course of political events. Yet opinion polls prove that she is still highly valued by her people. Those opinion polls get a lot less positive when people are asked to look beyond Elizabeth II’s reign, though. But her two immediate heirs, Charles, Prince of Wales, and William, Duke of Cambridge, both fully appreciate the potential of the crown’s philanthropic role. I think this holds the key to its survival long into the future—that and the glorious pomp and pageantry that has always been at its heart.