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Editor's Blog

Prince William and Kate Middleton and the future of the royal brand

Royalty used to have final say in matters of life and death. These days -- at least in most of the world -- they are more like celebrity spokesmen for their country.

By Editor / February 19, 2011

A State banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth II At Britain’s Windsor castle.

Christophe Ena/Reuters/file

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Real monarchs were famous for getting their way. They would dispatch armies on a whim, shout “off with their heads” in a fit of pique, and demand dainty dishes like four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

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Most of today’s monarchs are figureheads, grandfathered by history but checked and balanced by parliaments, councils, a watchful media, and a skeptical public. (For a special report on the state of royalty around the world, go here.) The best royals know they are anachronisms and thus have become astute brand ambassadors. Members of the House of Windsor, for instance, work hard as British boosters and ribbon-cutters. Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden supports Scouting.

Even Euro-royals more inclined toward fast cars, glittering parties, and yachting can be counted on to back environmentalism and other progressive causes.

Some royals behave badly. Most are poised and dignified. William and Kate, whose imminent marriage has stirred public interest well beyond the British isles, look as if they’ll be the latter – sensible personifications of the generation they come from, able to inspire and charm even indifferent countrymen.

A Briton I know who never let on that she cared for royals once returned from London thrilled at having seen the queen during a parade. “She fairly glowed!” she marveled.

I’ve talked with a few mid-level royals during my days in journalism – Arab crown princes, mostly. By far my most memorable experience of royalty was one quiet morning when I was working as foreign editor of The Boston Globe. The receptionist in the lobby phoned: The King of Uganda was downstairs and would like to meet me.

Actually, he was the Kabaka of Buganda: Ronald Mutebi II, the 37th in a 500-year-old line that reigns in the Ugandan heartland. In the tradition of Central African leaders, he was cruising the city in a small fleet of limousines, dropping in for chats with people he believed were important. Little did he know.

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