This week's emotional outpourings destroyed this fallacy. For it is matriarchy not kingship that lies at the heart of the modern British monarchy. Like many countries, we need a mother as figurehead of the modern nation. Men are all but irrelevant, provided they give us a matriarch we can love. Women typically excel at the transcendental being and feeling that is the essence of modern monarchy, which royal men, trained in striking the anachronistic military postures of their warrior ancestors, find virtually impossible. And when the matriarch-in-waiting dies, we are in trouble, like the family that loses its mother and starts to feel unstable. A father can die, but the family unit is not threatened. Last week we behaved with the hysteria of a motherless nation.
This dominance of royal females - at least in the public imagination - has been true in Britain for more than century. Unconvinced? Ask yourself who we will remember in years to come from the Royal Family over the past 150 years? Queen Victoria, of course, who by the end of her reign was seen as the grandmother not just of Britain, but of Europe. Queen Alexandra, perhaps, who though overshadowed by the long reign of her mother-in-law, was in her elegant beauty an icon of the Edwardian era and far more popular than her philandering husband. Then there was Queen Mary, statuesque and with a forbidding presence. Chips Channon, a diarist of the time, said that meeting her was like meeting St Paul's Cathedral.
The Queen Mother will be remembered along with Churchill as the great leader in Britain's hour of need, comforting the nation in the face of Hitler's threat. And, of course, there is the Queen, providing stability throughout the dismantling of the British Empire. Diana was the next in a great line.
In contrast, future generations will struggle to recall the four kings from this period. The only figure to stand out will be Edward VIII, forced to step down, not because he was disliked, but because he refused to provide Britain with a suitable queen. The Abdication was, in truth, a matriarchal crisis.
Diana would have been the mother figure for the new millennium. Even when Charles divorced her, he was unable, fortunately for himself, to extinguish that popular fantasy. He could not quite undo the good he had done himself by marrying her for she was quickly reinvented as Queen of Hearts. Last weekend's car crash finally killed the dream.
Indeed, Diana had to a great extent already succeeded to the all-important position of chief matriarch. The awkward silence of the reigning Queen, until last night's broadcast to the nation, suddenly threw light on the extent to which the monarch has latterly abdicated that role. Her behaviour towards Diana raises questions about her understanding of how to ensure a smooth succession. Instead of being so concerned about getting her son on the throne, perhaps she should have worried more about keeping a good woman close to it.
Much of the imagery of these women is, of course, about public fantasy, the need to project on to royalty the ideals of the good mother. It may have nothing to do with reality. Queen Mary, for example, says the royal biographer Elizabeth Longford, "was shy, rather remote and found it difficult to express maternal feelings". The present Queen, says Hugo Vickers, a royal historian, " had understandable difficulty in being both a good queen and a good mother, particularly for her two older children". But the public has always been able to overlook the gap between reality and fantasy. Until now. It may be, after Diana, they will expect more genuine warmth from the women they look up to.
The big question is the extent to which the Queen, following on from her broadcast, can fill the huge gulf that has been left. It falls to her to do what Queen Mary did after the abdication crisis: provide the strong female presence that produced stability until the present Queen Mother established herself properly as a support for the sickly George VI, who had little appetite for kingship.
But the Queen is well past retirement age. And she is not, in any case, a natural motherly type. Her reign has always been short on expressed emotion, which is so much demanded by the public. She has instead relied on doing her duty, conjuring up the image of the reliable, dependable mother rather than the hugging variety. Until Diana came along, the Queen Mother, whose longevity masked her own daughter's inadequacies, was more easily projected into that role. "She has the build of a maternal person," says Dorothy Rowe, the psychologist and author. "For many years she has had the soft round face of a mother." But the Queen Mother cannot live forever. Suddenly a family that was awash with potential matriarchs is found wanting.
Charles is a problem, but not because of his eccentric, aloof style. We have livedwith kings like him. George V, says Hugo Vickers, "was a dull old stick who enjoyed sticking stamps in books and shooting pheasant". But he had Queen Mary at his side. Likewise we have tolerated, with barely a whimper of discontent, the ridiculous Prince Philip. The problem with Charles is that, like Edward VIII, it seems impossible for him to provide a suitable matriarch. Britain will not accept Camilla Parker-Bowles as the matriarch trusted to share our feelings and express our emotions in the 21st century.
In the short term, Prince William shares his father's problem. Too young to marry, his bereavement means that he can notrely on Diana's matriarchy, as the King Mother, to carry him through until he finds a suitable partner. But popular opinion is working out a sticking plaster solution. Ask many Britons who they would like to succeed and they say they want Prince Williamwith Princess Anne as Regent. The Queen's daughter may be frosty, dutiful and cast from a different mould than Diana, but if the monarchy is to survive, she may have to take a much bigger role as matriarch.
There is a more radical solution, given the shortage of matriarchs. Prince Charles might provide a radical rethink of kingship, a warmer, more "feminine" image. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But real emotion in moments of national trauma, which Bill Clintonoffered after the Oklahoma bombing and Tony Blair gave after Diana died, offers a model of male leadership. Who knows, Prince Charles, out of his tragedy, could yet emerge as New Dad, New King.Reuse content