The Royal Separation: Twilight of a royal myth: Richard Tomlinson looks at the history of an unhappy dynasty that has been damaged by its attempts to promote an unrealistic image

YESTERDAY'S announcement ends the pretence that the royals ever were the perfect British family. Within the family, the one person who still appears to believe in this myth is the Queen Mother, who was largely responsible for its invention in the 1930s.

It is ironic that she owes her exalted status to Edward VIII's determination to marry a divorced woman; but she also believes that in doing so he nearly destroyed the monarchy, which is probably why she was at first so reluctant to attend this weekend's marriage of the Princess Royal to Timothy Laurence. The palace must be hoping that the wedding will help to erase the memory of the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales. That is unlikely. There is too much mileage in new speculation about their public and private arrangements for the ratpack to call off the chase.

As a mother, the Queen deserves sympathy, but she and the Duke of Edinburgh have to take some of the blame for the family's misfortunes. In the 1970s as Princess Margaret flew off to Mustique with Roddy Llewellyn, and the Prince of Wales was pursued with his latest girlfriend round the polo fields and country houses of England, the Royal Family could claim to be the most interesting people in the world. By the late 1980s, as Prince Edward launched It's a Royal Knockout at Alton Towers and the Duchess of York 'knighted' a dog at a private party in New York, the Queen and Prince Philip realised the family had become too interesting for their own good.

It was Buckingham Palace, not the popular press, which decided in the late Sixties that they would broadcast the myth of royalty as the ultimate family - to a worldwide television audience. 'I would have thought', the Duke of Edinburgh told a group of journalists in 1968, 'that we're entering the least interesting period of our kind of glamorous existence.'

Richard Cawston's film Royal Family, commissioned by the new press secretary William Heseltine (later Sir William) and approved by Prince Philip, guaranteed instead that they became the most interesting people in the world. The illusion the film projected was that underneath the naval uniforms and garter robes, the Windsors were 'ordinary' people just like us. Prince Philip was shown barbecuing sausages, while his wife mixed the salad.

According to Sir William, the Queen and Prince Philip - who had final editorial control - were delighted with Cawston's film. There is no evidence that either wondered whether the Windsor genes were perhaps not conducive to happy family life. George V terrified his four sons to such an extent that they all grew up displaying symptoms of acute nervous anxiety. His eldest son, the future Edward VIII, compulsively tugged his collar, chain-smoked, and was comforted by a string of affairs with married women. As a young boy, the Duke of York (later George VI) - who was left- handed - was forced to write with his right hand and every night was strapped into a pair of splints to cure his knock-knees. He developed a paralysing stammer, which he never fully overcame.

The Duke of Kent, who died in 1942, was forced into the Navy by his father; in reaction he became (briefly) a cocaine addict in the late Twenties and was with difficulty extracted from a homosexual blackmail scandal. The Duke of Gloucester, who died in 1974, was a drunk, deemed unfit for all but the simplest royal duties. To complete the dismal picture, Prince John - the saddest of all - was probably an epileptic.

This seems an acutely unhappy family; yet there was one exception, which may have been in the Queen's mind when she agreed to Cawston's film. Her own childhood was intensely happy, perhaps because her father, the Duke of York, remembered the horrors of his.

The Royal Family myth really begins in the Duke and Duchess of York's house on Piccadilly in the early 1930s, where the Duchess would encourage suitable writers to record the comings and goings of this ideal menage. One was Anne Ring, a former member of the Duchess's household, who wrote the first 'biography' of Princess Elizabeth (then four years old), 'with the sanction of her parents'. Another was Lady Cynthia Asquith, whose Married Life of HRH the Duchess of York was written with Her Royal Highness's 'personal approval'.

Rather different was Marion Crawford's book The Little Princesses, which became a best-seller in 1950. She had been governess to Elizabeth and Margaret and her memoirs were definitely not written with the Duchess's approval. The book simply reinforced the myth that this was an ideal family. Nevertheless, 'Crawfie' became a royal unperson, banished from the presence of her former charges for the rest of her life.

The first sign that the Queen now regards her family as an embarrassment rather than a wasting asset came this spring, when the film Elizabeth R was broadcast to mark 40 years on the throne. It was consciously commissioned as a sequel to Royal Family; but this time the family was only glimpsed rarely and in formal settings. Her speech at Guildhall two weeks ago can also be interpreted as a sign that she wishes to move the monarchy in a new direction. The question is: which direction?

One route would be to become more like the more prosaic continental monarchs of the Low Countries and Scandinavia. The irony here is that the parents and grandparents of these monarchs once looked to British royalty for clues about how to survive in the 20th century. At the end of the First World War, three of the great continental royal houses disappeared - the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs - leaving the recently renamed Windsors as Europe's senior dynasty. During the Second World War, the one-sided nature of this relationship was reinforced by Hitler, who forced most of these monarchs to flee to England.

But since the war, those monarchs who recovered their thrones seem to have regarded the British model - with its mixture of grand ceremony and homely family life - as increasingly outmoded. This is partly defensive; the Grimaldis of Monaco are not the only continental royal family which has suffered what are sometimes described as 'rifts'. Spain is preoccupied with the relationship of Felipe, heir to the throne, and his girlfriend Isabel Sartorius, a commoner and daughter of divorced parents.

Continental royalty also feel, however, that they represent the best case for monarchy. Princess Margarita of Romania, who hopes her father will be restored to the throne, told the Independent on Sunday last year that 'you have to realise that monarchy is not about carriages and horses any more'. Monarchy's principal function, in her opinion, is to guarantee democracy with a head of state who is above politics.

There is little sign that the Queen wants to give up her carriages. Nor, despite her decision to pay income tax, is there much evidence that she wants to be seen in future as the nation's first citizen, paying her dues like everyone else. Her much vaunted speech at Guildhall actually conceded nothing to her critics.

What the Queen would probably like to do is erase the past 22 years from the nation's memory; to revert to the monarchy of the early years of her reign, when her family only appeared in tableaux. This may also be the thinking of her Private Secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, who - as the Princess of Wales's brother-in-law - must hope that the Royal Family business can now be quietly forgotten. If this is what Sir Robert and the Queen have in mind, it will be the most ambitious royal attempt to reverse British history since James II ascended the throne.

Richard Tomlinson is writing a book about the monarchy, to be published by Little Brown.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
Pistorius leaves Pretoria High Court to be taken to prison
news

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style
tech

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher Jobs in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Primary Teacher Jobs in BlackpoolWe ar...

Health & Social Teacher

Competitive & Flexible : Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobRandstad Educati...

***SEN British Sign Language Teacher***

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Successful candidate should hav...

Early Years and Foundation Stage Primary Teachers in Blackpool

Negotiable: Randstad Education Preston: Early Years and Foundation Stage Prima...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album