The royal divorce Anti-climax: British monarchy is weakened, but this is not the cause.


NOTHING MUCH CHANGED with the long-awaited announcement of a divorce between the Prince and Princess of Wales based on their 3 1/2 -year separation. Prince Charles

remains heir to the throne of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, and would be the first divorced British king since George I acceded in 1714.

Charles' aunt and a brother are divorced; his divorced sister has remarried. The institution of marriage is even weaker in Britain than in the U.S. The myth has grown up that while the middle classes may ignore traditional morality, the royal family may not. In the golden age of monarchy, 'twas the other way round.

The British monarch is titular head of the Church of England. This church was created by Henry VIII to legitimize his divorce and remarriage, but it frowns on remarriage. This provided the politicians' excuse for forcing the abdication of the bachelor King Edward VIII, who insisted on marrying a twice-divorced Baltimore woman, Wallis Warfield Simpson, 60 years ago. In the view of many, his real sin was to blurt out opinions that embarrassed the government, while hers was to be American.

Mrs. Alice Keppel, the faithful mistress of King Edward VII, was the great grandmother of Camilla Shand, the love of Prince Charles' life. But she married Andrew Parker Bowles after Charles went to sea in the Royal Navy in 1973 without proposing. And he married Diana Spencer in 1981 on the rebound. Diana's glamour and manner captivated the public in royal ceremonies.

Mrs. Parker Bowles, now divorced, has a keener grasp of British tradition than the Princess of Wales, who wished to be "queen of people's hearts." The second myth of recent vintage is that the monarchy must be popular. (The virtue of George I in the eyes of the Whig grandees who made him a weak king was his unpopularity.) Believing may make it so.

The purpose of the monarchy today is to symbolize the unity of the British people through ritual, and to exercise discretionary power in the event of political breakdown. The monarchy is losing its appeal to the British taxpayers because its ritual has become less meaningful to them. Parliament has accordingly lowered the royal subsidy.

Whether this slide continues may depend on the public view of Charles in coming years. If Diana wishes to become queen mother to a future King William, she requires a successful reign preceding his.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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