Published:  12:23 AM, 12 June 2018

Meghan Markle and how the British Monarchy became a Matriarchy

Meghan Markle and how the British Monarchy became a Matriarchy

Helen Castor

Six hundred and fifty-nine years ago this month, a younger brother of the heir to the throne of England got married. The happy couple was John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, and his bride, Blanche of Lancaster, whose virtues would be commemorated by the chronicler Jean Froissart. Blanche was "young and beautiful," Froissart wrote, "vivacious, happy, fresh and charming, gentle and sincere, modest in manner."

Anyone who has observed Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, for the seven years of her marriage to Prince William, or has witnessed the scrutiny applied to Meghan Markle in the weeks leading up to her wedding on Saturday to Prince Harry, can recognize the job description.

The women of the royal House of Windsor are expected not only to provide an "heir and a spare" but to show unimpeachable morals and irreproachable behavior, to be decorative as well as decorous, and to do good works, putting their altruism on public display. What has changed is the level of attention that they get for taking up these duties.

There is a sense in which we live in an age of the monarchy as matriarchy. Medieval royal women knew that, on the royal stage, they were the supporting players. They may have been required to conduct themselves impeccably, but their husbands and sons - kings and princes - would be the ones in the spotlight.

Now, however, it's women who are the stars, and not just because the present sovereign happens to be female. For the past few decades, royal women have captured the public's imagination and affections. It was Harry and William's mother, Diana, who gave the royal brand a cover-girl-glamorous face and emotional warmth, making headlines and winning hearts across the world - even if the unhappiness of her marriage also rocked the royal boat almost to the point of capsize.

The Duchess of Cambridge has helped to steady the ship: she's as photogenic as her mother-in-law was, but appears genuinely content in both her marriage and her public role. And Ms. Markle - also strikingly beautiful and who, as a divorced, biracial woman with a successful career as an actor, would have been a controversial choice of bride for a British prince until shamefully recently - promises to bring a breath of 21st-century air into the deeply conservative royal establishment.

By comparison, the men of the family - even the approachable Harry and William - can seem a little dull; they are consorts to the main attraction, rather than standing center stage themselves.

What are we to make of this shift in the prominence of royal women when the fundamentals of their roles - to be decorative, nurturing and virtuous - have remained consistent?

In Western culture, female forms have always embodied abstract ideals, from Liberty to Justice to Victory - not, as the cultural historian Marina Warner points out, because women have been free, or sat as judges, or won battles, but precisely because they haven't. We therefore instinctively understand female figureheads - whether mounted on ships or as the embodiment of the ship of state - as static and symbolic, rather than active and individual.

Modern monarchs reign, rather than rule. They are required to be, not to do; to represent values, not instigate policy. This is the context in which a reigning queen, and the royal women around her, now find a natural place in our consciousness.

Famously, Elizabeth II's political opinions are completely unknown to her subjects. She, and her granddaughters-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge and, soon, Ms. Markle, are understood to represent the nation by doing and saying nothing other than embodying conventionally "feminine" virtues: family, beauty, charity, duty.

The political restrictions we have imposed on the functions of monarchy now exactly match the cultural restrictions so long placed on women.

For royal men, on the other hand, a life defined by wearing nice suits, attending charitable events and being a husband and father is a much less comfortable proposition. Traditionally "masculine" virtues require action; with the shift of power into democratic institutions, royal men appear thwarted and reduced by the limitations on what they can do.

The heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has notoriously struggled against the constitutional constraints on his ability to influence public policy: his "black spider memos" - handwritten letters lobbying government ministers in private on issues in which he takes a personal interest - were made public in 2015 after a protracted legal challenge by a national newspaper.

His sons William and Harry have both occupied themselves with military service (as Charles did before them), but what they might do next - beyond, in William's case, wait for a job that can be his only once his grandmother and father die - is far from clear.

As the line of succession stands, Britain's next three monarchs will all be male, since William's eldest child is a boy; but it remains to be seen how easily a king, rather than a queen, might embody the symbolic functions of the 21st-century crown.

If the monarchy has transformed into a female-dominated institution as it has lost its grip on government, power in Britain - as in the rest of the world - remains predominantly male.

More than 200 years before the wedding of Blanche of Lancaster, Matilda, the only surviving legitimate child of the 12th-century king Henry I, sought to claim the throne for herself; she was accused of putting on "an extremely arrogant demeanor instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex," and two decades of civil war were the result.

In the 16th century, Elizabeth I wore the English crown for 45 years, but her message was not that a woman could exercise power just like a man: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman," she told her subjects, "but I have the heart and stomach of a king" - and thus she was special, a gloriously unique female exception to the rule of male sovereignty.

We've since made our peace with increasingly disempowered crowns resting on female heads: between them, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II have sat on the British throne for 130 of the last 200 years.

But, despite the embattled presence of Prime Minister Theresa May, a quick head count in the Houses of Parliament or the boardrooms of major corporations shows the problems we still have with the reality of women with actual power.

Our newest royal bride, meanwhile, has already shut down her blog and deleted her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. From now on, even as her image becomes increasingly ubiquitous, her voice will be heard less and less.

Like Blanche of Lancaster before her, Meghan Markle appears to know exactly what she's letting herself in for, and all the indications are that she will do her job in the royal "Firm" with style and grace.

We can wish her well and at the same time question the job description: the recent prominence of royal women might make for splendid pageantry, but when it comes to the story of gender and power, it's the antithesis of real change.

The writer is the author of "She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth," and "Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity."

Leave Your Comments



Latest News


More From Reciprocal

Go to Home Page »

Site Index The Asian Age