The Collateral Damage of Queen Elizabeth’s Glorious Reign

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In Tina Brown’s “The Palace Papers,” other royals stand and wait, but what purpose do they serve?

By Sam Knight in The New Yorker: The Queen is the only royal who actually matters or does anything. That’s not fair, of course, but the monarchy is unfairness personified and glorified, long to reign over us. Naturally, the rest of the Royal Family—the heirs; the spares; Princess Michael of Kent, whose father was in the S.S. and whom Diana nicknamed the Führer; Princess Anne, Charles’s younger sister, who’s known to feed the chickens in a ballgown and Wellington boots after a night at the palace—are all busy. They have numberless engagements and causes, which fill their identical, repeating years, but they exist only as heralds for the magical authority of the Crown, which resides in the Queen and nobody else. “They are high-born scaffolding,” as Tina Brown, a former editor of The New Yorker, writes in “The Palace Papers,” her latest chronicle of the unhappy House of Windsor. The Queen decides. She elevates. She exiles. The rest of them sweat: about their annual allowance; their ridiculously discounted rents on apartments in Kensington Palace; the granting of a weekend cottage on the grounds of Sandringham; their access to the balcony of Buckingham Palace for big photo ops; their entry to the Knights of the Garter, a reward for not fucking things up too badly; their Instagram followers; today’s ghastliness in the MailOnline.

“I have to be seen to be believed” is her signal aphorism. Illustration by Sadia Tariq

It’s an unspeakable existence: brain-melting privilege with the agency of a root vegetable. In the summer of 1997, a few weeks before Princess Diana died, the Labour politician Peter Mandelson went to see Prince Charles and his lover, Camilla Parker Bowles, at Highgrove, Charles’s eighteenth-century mansion in Gloucestershire. Charles showed Mandelson around his beloved garden in a light rain and complained about his portrayal in the media, Brown reports. Mandelson advised the prince to cheer up. But he recorded his sympathy in his memoir: “For Charles and the Queen, their lives were quite literally their job. Every move they made, every smile or raised eyebrow, every relationship made or severed, was seen as part of their defining function: simply to be the royal family.” Simply to be. Who could stand it?

The Queen, who turned ninety-six last week and will celebrate seventy years on the throne this summer, has stood it very well. She has been an exemplary monarch. But, then, she has always had something to do. Elizabeth was too young, too hidebound, to develop any passion projects before the death of her father, George VI, in February, 1952. Her formative experiences as an adult were a couple of short, happy years as a naval wife in Malta and a few months in the Auxiliary Territorial Service—the women’s branch of the British Army—during the Second World War, when she learned to fix a car.

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