David Nash is Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University, specialising in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. He is a member of the History & Policy network and is also a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
The coming Royal Wedding is a useful reminder of how, since 1800, the monarchy has become a public institution. Some historians would have you believe that this was achieved by an astute monarchy, skilfully reforming its own practices – thereby saving itself from the tide of republicanism which reached a dangerously high watermark in the 1860s. The truth is more interesting than this, and it holds an important message for our own ‘Big Society’ in which we are, after all, all supposed to be in this together. Royal weddings historically remind us about middle class anxiety and related grievances caused by political and social threats to their existence – a theme that should not be lost on the Coalition government.
Since the first quarter of the nineteenth century the monarchy had been subject to the criticism of the middle classes – indeed, they defined their own version of polite and proper behaviour against the monarchy and its increasingly outrageous antics. Interestingly, many of these themes and issues turned around the phenomenon of Royal marriage and its consequences. The Queen Caroline affair of 1820 introduced 'public opinion' (itself a middle class creation) to the spectacle of an errant monarchy. Rumours of Caroline's own adultery and misbehaviour were dwarfed by the actions of her husband George IV who attempted to summarily divorce her through a public accusation of adultery. In a situation reminiscent of the last years of Diana, public opinion sided greatly with the Queen and through this middle class opinion defined what it considered to be proper standards of conduct within marriage alongside prudent and wise levels of conspicuous consumption which spectacularly eluded the monarchy.
In the 1860s republicans again seized the opportunity offered by a decaying monarchy. Victoria became a recluse after the death of her beloved Albert and she proved spectacularly poor value for money as her absence led to jibes about the ‘vacant throne’. These comments were all the more cutting because Victoria was seen to be retaining money from the Civil List whilst neglecting her duties – a middle class sin. The decade was also peppered with demands for money from Parliament to provide dowries for Victoria’s seemingly endless array of children. For the audiences watching Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas, the portrayal of a perpetual corps of 'on call' bridesmaids on stage provided a very clear commentary on matters closer to home....