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)

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