What Britain's monarchy means to the world and the British
The slim, almost boyish figure of the next King of England moved across the thick carpet of the elegant Brown's Hotel off Piccadilly. He signed the hotel register as flashbulbs popped.Skip to next paragraph
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En route back to his enormous black Rolls Royce at the front door, its royal insignia attracting a small crowd, he suddenly stopped. He had spotted two young women in their 20s working on a guest register in a distant corner of the hotel lobby.
"What are you doing?" he inquired politely in his deep, aristocratic tones.
The receptionists looked up -- and the expression on their faces told a good deal about the role of the monarcy in Britain today, on the eve of the future King's wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in St. Paul's Cathedral July 29.
Their jaws fell. Their eyes widened. They were speechless. "the guest register, is it?" asked the immaculately groomed Prince Charles, well-accustomed to the impact his presence has on people.
One of them recovered and blurted out, "Yes." The other just stared, thunderstruck. "Well, I hope they pay you well for working so late." A royal smile, and the handsome Prince was on his way.
"He knows how to do his job," said one observer. I stayed behind to glance at the young women. Their faces were buried in their hands in pleasure and shock. They would not forget that night. Royalty had struck again, transforming a humdrum working night into a moment of awe and romance.
The British monarchy remains one of the most entrenched and popular in the world today. A London Times poll in 1980 found that 86 percent of Britons wanted to retain it -- compared to only 50 percent after Edward VIII abdicated in 1936.
Much of the monarchy's appeal here lies in the strength of character of the monarchs themselves; the way they have been above and beyond politics since the end of the 17th century, the anitiquity of the throne. The throne symbolizes both continuity and unity for Britain and a link to the Commonwealth, as well.
"We've been very lucky, really, in the monarchs we have had in recent history ," said Patrick Montague-Smith, the man who edited Debrett's Peerge from 1962 to 1981.
"Except for the Duke of Windsor [Edward VIII] they've been conscientious and reliable. Very suitable. It would be very difficult for the country if they were not."
The current wave of popular affection dates from Queen Victoria and has continued through Edward VII, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II. Each has had a high-minded and religious sense of their roles as monarch, as head of the Church of England, as symbol of the nation, as adviser to prime ministers.
Each has personified to a fast-changing country the basic qualities of religious devotion and conscientious family life. The monarchy's biggest crisis this century came when Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Since then, under George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, the stature of the monarchy has grown steadily.