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Was the Abdication necessary?

The Eagle & the Crown, by Frank Prochaska

7 January 2009

12:00 AM

7 January 2009

12:00 AM

The Eagle & the Crown Frank Prochaska

Yale, pp.240, 25

At least one very startling claim emerges in this study: according to her own account, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, never consummated her first two marriages. Indeed, she never allowed any man (before the Duke of Windsor, presumably) to touch her ‘below the Mason-Dixon line’. If this is true, it makes a nonsense of the Abdication, since an unconsummated marriage, within Christian canon law, is automatically grounds for annulment. This would mean that the lady was not — or did not need to be — a divorcee, and thus her pairing with Edward, Prince of Wales, should have raised no objection whatsoever.

Wallis certainly did represent a kind of American triumph in the realms of the British monarchy: the Baltimore girl who captured the heart of a king and for whom he sacrificed an empire. Famously, the American press was running with the story long before it was disclosed on this side of the Atlantic, and in its traditional firecracker manner: ‘King’s Moll Reno’d in Wolsey’s Home Town’ and ‘King Will Wed Wally’. This does not demonstrate, however, that the American press never practised censorship: as Frank Prochaska astutely points out, the US media was discretion itself when it came to Roosevelt’s ‘molls’, or indeed JFK’s (or Roosevelt’s disability for that matter). It just indicated that the dignity of the British monarchy didn’t weigh heavily in the States. In Canada, by contrast, the King’s choice of bride was regarded with great dismay, Canada being at that time still both strongly Scottish Presbyterian and deeply loyal to the monarchy.

America always did have a tradition of focusing on women — probably rooted in the frontier attitude of valuing women for their rarity. And if most Americans cheered for Wallis (though not all — some judged her wanting, on a moral scale), most Americans had also championed Queen Victoria. Indeed, Victoria suited them down to the ground — the very word ‘Victorian’ transferred effortlessly across the Atlantic — as woman, mother, wife, emblem of domestic virtue, queen, empress and Protestant. Until the early 20th century, American culture was still predominantly British and Protestant, and these cultural links remained strong. The only demonstrators against Victoria’s jubilees in the States were Irish Catholics, though I would add here that the Irish Catholics in America were generally more politically extreme than those in Ireland — it was America which gave us the Fenians, after all. When visiting Ireland, Victoria herself was generally well received, and in 1900, with real warmth.

Americans may have been republicans from the point of independence, but they were seldom, it seems, chippy or fanatically anti-monarchical in their republicanism. A constant theme in Prochaska’s authoritative study is the early transference of the power and lustre of the British monarchy to the American president. From George Washington onwards, American presidents were seen as kings. Lord Hailsham — one of many British aristocrats of his period whose mother was American — was perceptive when he told an American audience in 1963 that

your system of government is an elective monarchy with a king who rules … but does not reign. Ours is a republic with a hereditary life president who … reigns but does not rule.

America may have been ‘England without the upper classes’, but it is not without its own hierarchies, many created by the fabulous wealth of the later 19th century.

Prochaska’s book is knowledgeable and often subtle in analysis: the 19th-century American mixture of abundant confidence with a fear of appearing unsophisticated when abroad was a product of its helter-skelter change. America really invented the modern cult of celebrity, which can be dated to around 1911, when the ‘snapshotters’ (paparazzi) began to follow royalty seriously. The American commercial energy often drove forward the cult of kingship; Macy’s store was selling a record of Edward VIII’s Abdication speech within a day, for $1. The ever-cordial Edward VII was a wow in the United States where his royal patronage was used beneficially to promote medical charities.

But there are areas where I would have to dissent from the author’s judgment. George V is given a sour profile — the ‘killjoy’ King and his strait-laced Queen. Yet, in the archives of George V’s dealings with Ireland, he emerges as a meticulous constitutional monarch who cared deeply about doing the right thing, and being fair: he condemned the Black and Tans, and Queen Mary tried to save the life of Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Fein mayor of Cork. There are some lacunae here, too: as a young woman, the present Queen had a fascinating correspondence with Eisenhower, in which Ike unburdened himself with startling emotional openness to his correspondent, but this is hardly touched on. I would also like to have known more about the friendship — of a kind — which developed between the Queen Mother and Mrs Rose Kennedy: it must have been steel meets steel. And did Princess Margaret make any impact on the States? She was the original glamorous royal princess, surely. But no book can include everything, and this book includes a great deal, from George III to Elizabeth II, about the relationship between America and the Crown, reflecting much about America’s eternal enthusiasm and the Crown’s enduring hold on the imagination of men and women.

Mary Kenny’s latest book, Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy, will be published in the Spring.

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