How to have fun... by the Royals
Mexican waves, plate spinning, heartfelt embraces – the Royals are having a ball. But who were history’s other fun-loving royals, and can they ever go too far?
Not since Shakespeare’s Prince Hal (the future Henry V) propped up the bars of Eastcheap with his ribald companions Falstaff and Poins, have the Royals looked like they’ve been having so much fun.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge embracing and Mexican-waving at the Olympics. Prince Charles spinning plates and rock climbing in Guernsey and Jersey. Prince Harry nightclubbing and playing ping-pong in an Angry Birds hat. Even ‘the Queen’ skydiving. And we appear to love them all the more for it.
But of course the Royals (at least some of them) have always known how to have a good time – and often in a considerably less wholesome way than our current Royal Family.
Take Princess Margaret: she smoked, she drank, she had unsuitable boyfriends and she frequented nightclubs. She spent long, lazy months on Mustique with rock stars and billionaires. And nor was she anything new.
King Edward VIII was unfortunate perhaps in apparently enjoying golf, cocktails and the company of married American women. It cost him his throne. Perhaps he took after his grandfather Edward VII, who had a reputation as a libertine and, almost worse, enjoyed many things French. Indeed, back through history, there have been strait-laced kings and queens – and plenty who have enjoyed a good frolic, too.
His father may have lost his head, and he reigned during the Great Plague and the Fire Of London, but Charles II was a notorious bon viveur. He raced his own horses. He danced and drank. He had dozens of lovers, including Nell Gwynn, Jane Roberts (a vicar’s daughter), Moll Davis and Lady Shannon, and almost as many illegitimate children. On his first night in London following the Restoration, he shared his bed with a married woman: Barbara Villiers. No wonder he was known as the Merry Monarch.
George IV was also known for his love of fast living. When he became Prince Regent, he hosted a party that cost a staggering £120,000 (a princely fortune in those days) – and he didn’t even invite his wife. But how much should the Royals be seen to be having fun?
The question goes back, at least, to our national playwright, William Shakespeare, who apparently believed that one sort of behaviour was acceptable in the young, but less so once you have inherited the true trappings of responsibility.
Thus, it is OK for Prince Hal to consort with Falstaff and his gang of loudmouths throughout most of Henry IV Part One and Two – at that time, after all, he is still the Prince of Wales – but impossible once he inherits the crown. And Hal knows this. When he becomes King Henry V, he refuses even to acknowledge his old barfly friend. His response to Falstaff’s greeting, ‘I know thee not, old man,’ must be the most damning dismissal in all English literature. And the main reason that it strikes such a dismal chord is its universal truth.
What is acceptable in a young pretender is not necessarily so in a mature king. Thus it is more acceptable, as Shakespeare tells us in his many royal histories, for a young prince to sew his wild oats than for an old king to do likewise. Prince Hal is allowed to crave small beer, but at the end of Henry VIII the old king has to join his archbishop in a paean of praise for his daughter, the infant Elizabeth – who incidentally is allowed not a vestige of naughtiness by Archbishop Cranmer.
But ‘having fun’ is often also about ‘looking normal’. And how ‘normal’ should the Royal Family look? They must, after all, be both ‘like us’ – and separate, aloof. They are figureheads.
The schizoid division between the regal and the normal is not new, either. The pressure to behave as royalty is and always has been in opposition to the requirement to be popular, representative of the people you rule over.
This has long been a problem for those born to reign. On the one hand, there are those who say ‘Come on, be normal. Give us some sort of notion that a real heart beats beneath that forbidding exterior’. On the other, there are those who argue that royalty is royalty.
This sort of courtier, confronted with what they consider too much unbending, will respond, ‘With respect your Majesty, you are not supposed to be like the rest of us. You are not amused – at least not by the same jokes as your subjects. You are royal and it behoves you to remember.’
It was the Queen’s little sister, Princess Margaret, who suffered this fate most dramatically. For every one who told her to behave naturally, there were an equal number who reminded her that she was the daughter of a King, the sister of a Queen and the aunt of an heir to the throne.
From time to time, though, she remembered her antecedents, adopted the mask and behaved with icy froideur, especially to those who presumed too much and behaved with what, in her regal moments, she believed was undue familiarity.
So while the venerable Queen, and her even more venerable husband, seem to have been allowed to enjoy themselves more and more, it is the Queen’s grandchildren who have really been having fun.
But today’s fun-loving young Royals aren’t like the Prince Hal of old. They aren’t selfish. They don’t (very often) hold court in bars. They serve with distinction in the Armed Forces. They are aware of their duties and perform them with good grace.
During our runaway successes at the Olympics – at which Zara won Silver – it was relatively easy for the princes, William and Harry, to be seen to be taking pleasure in the success of others. We wanted them to celebrate with us. We weren’t looking for leaders.
In future, this may not be as easy. You do not have to be an economist to realise that we are now in the middle of a period of financial decline. It may well be that the Royal Family, young or old, may have to offer a shoulder on which to cry as often as a smile of satisfaction or even a whoop of triumph.
Over the next few years, if we are to believe the forecasters, there may be little to celebrate and comparatively more to moan about. In future, consolation may be the order of the day rather than mutual congratulation.
But let’s not get gloomy. Now is a time for rejoicing, for having fun, whether you are a Royal or a commoner. Tomorrow may be different, but at least we now have a real suggestion that we are all in this together.
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