Two recent, but starkly different, series of photos reflect the complicated relationship between Britons and their royal family. In one, the Duchess of Cornwall sits open-mouthed in terror as protesters surrounding a car carrying her and her husband, Prince Charles, chant: "Off with their heads!"
In the other photo, released Sunday, Charles’s son William lovingly wraps his arms around his fiancée, Kate Middleton, as they gaze into a camera wielded by celebrity photographer Mario Testino for the first official pictures marking their engagement.
Both images seem destined to become iconic snapshots of a troubled nation in 2010.
As the heir to the throne found out when his car was set upon on Dec. 9 by participants taking part in volatile protests against cutbacks in education spending and a rise in tuition fees, the royals are not immune to the public backlash as Britain edges deeper into an age of austerity.
On the other hand, Britons of a conservative bent harbor hopes that Prince William’s forthcoming marriage to Middleton could boost the country’s spirits and, in the longer term, secure the future of the monarchy showcasing two "21st century" royal role models
Wedding weighs down budget, but boosts some sales
Nevertheless, next year’s wedding comes with plenty of pitfalls – not least the question of who will pay.
“The majority of Britain is going to be struggling next year with the impact of all the cuts on every aspect of life and I just think its totally inappropriate for us to spend millions on a royal wedding,” says Jenny Jones, a Green Party representative on London’s local government assembly who has called for the royals to contribute to the expected £5 million ($7.9 million) tab just for policing the event.
“I just think the royal family doesn’t really ‘get it,' " she adds. "We are heading for months, probably years, of civil unrest. Education cuts alone are going to expand rather than diminish that and I think the royals could quite easily become seen as part of the problem.”
And yet the evidence of the widespread appetite for the pomp and circumstance that will accompany the most important royal wedding for decades is already evident. Within hours of the young couple’s engagement announcement last month the Internet was flooded with souvenirs.
Sales of merchandise, ranging from mugs bearing the likenesses of "William and Kate" to rings similar to the Epiphany Platinum Clad Diamonique Ring once worn by William’s mother, Diana, and sported by Middleton for an engagement photocall, are alone predicted to reap as much as £18 million ($28 million).
The phenomenon is a boon in particular for constituents of Tristram Hunt, a Labour MP in the northern English city of Stoke-on-Trent, home to Britain’s ceramics tradition.
“Firms are churning [royal-related] products out and people are ordering things online so it’s clear that there are good economic consequences. But people also do wish them well,” says Mr. Hunt, who also happens to be one of Britain’s most well-known historians.
“People like William because he suffered this terrible trauma as a young man when he lost Diana, and also because there is a sense that he has played his hand pretty well since then. We also like the story of Kate having the picture him on her bedroom wall long before they met. What’s not to like?”
Brits like William more than Charles
Indeed, such is the popularity of William that he is in danger of eclipsing that of his father, the heir to the throne. Two polls last month indicated that a majority of Britons wanted William and his fiancée to become the United Kingdom’s next king and queen, not Charles and his wife.
Despite this lack of regard for Charles and his brush last week with a baying mob, one would be wrong to assume that Britons are coming around to French or Russian notions of how to look after royal families
“The Queen is enormously popular, well-respected, and admired,” explains Hunt. “The Prince of Wales rather divides opinion, more among the chattering classes than perhaps the people at large, who are beginning to forget previous histories.
"So there remains a large minority who are very enthusiastic about the family," he continues. "Then there is a middling minority who regard having monarchy as sort of the least-worse system and finally then there is the active but relatively small minority who are avowed republicans.”
Hunt adds that, in many ways, the greatest problem facing the monarchy today is that “everyone lives forever.” Charles is waiting to ascend the throne in the wake of his still-sprightly mother, and it could be 30 years or more before his son gets a chance to head up the family firm.
The feeling on Kate and William: 'They're alright'
For now, the future of the monarchy appears secure. A bedrock of some 70 percent of Britons support continuation, even if such support can veer close to indifference.
On a cold but sunny Saturday last weekend for example, foreign tourists and immigrants dominated the throngs of visitors taking photographs of each other in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s official London residence.
Were it not for Keisha Wilkins and Daniel Papphrides, two young Britons in their 20s enjoying lunch on the edge of a nearby park, few if any natives would have been present. Asked for their views on Prince William and his fiancée, as well as the rest of the royal family, their thoughts are imparted with a casual nonchalance.
“I suppose she seems like quite a nice person, and you can relate to her because she is round about our age,” says Mr. Papphrides, currently unemployed. “I think she has only just finished university, hasn’t she? I feel they [the royals] are all OK but I think people should not try to associate her so much with Diana.”
Ms. Wilkins, a secretary, adds: “I think at the end of the day the royals do give back.”
“They have the Princes’ Trust [a charity founded by Prince Charles in 1976 to help young people] and it’s a brilliant organization, for example. People try to make him out to be this weird guy but they are all alright, really.”