Last week's battle of the injunctions between a royal favourite and the press was, in reality, less about the privacy of the royals and their staff than about the nature of knowledge and power. It was to do with who is allowed to know what about the most powerful people in the land. And, of course, it concerned sex and corruption.
Prince Charles has unprecedentedly denied an allegation that cannot be published or broadcast in the British media. Some salute his vigour for that. Others lament his breach of the royal mantra: never complain, never explain. Ever since the "floral revolution" ignited by Diana's death, the royals have been unable to avoid both our curiosity and our criticism. This is despite the protection given them by our craven, royalist, party-political system.
Power, sex, secrets and lies are the stuff of the royals' current troubles. The first revelations were that Charles duped Diana and the 750 million people who watched his wedding. While she, on the one hand, expected a candid, companionable and exclusive partnership, he thought otherwise. The droit de seigneur enjoyed by princes would, he believed, prevail. Charles may have expected her to suffer like Alexandra, Edward VII's sad and silent wife who, according to Rebecca West, provided him with a "torrent of children". For the Windsors assumed that Charles's marriage - just like those of previous Prince of Waleses - was an institutional rite in which the future was to be secured. It was definitely not an alliance or a commitment that might interfere with his life, his family, friends, his lovers or his staff.
Many of the rest of us recognised Diana's expectations of the more democratic deal won by women in the 20th century. The ingénue knew more about how the world works than her husband did. In death, she has been as disturbing - as much of a nuisance to his family - as she ever was in life. Her butler, Paul Burrell, took it upon himself to safeguard her secrets. His criminal trial was supposed to discredit the uppity presumptions of pantry people like him, while simultaneously silencing a source.
Instead, it put Prince Charles's household at serious risk of exposure. No wonder the Queen was encouraged to call a halt to the trial. Burrell knew that Diana had taped an alleged victim. That he might be able to point to sexual crime and corruption around the son and heir was a potential Exocet missile. He knew, too, about allegations of bullying and impropriety by Charles's favourite, Michael Fawcett. He also knew the rumours about a royal person engaged in sexual activity with a servant. And he knew about Diana's inlaid mahogany box of dangerous secrets.
So serious were the suspicions released by the trial that there had to be an investigation by someone, somehow. The Royal Family conceded that they would have an in-house inquiry by Sir Michael Peat, Charles's private secretary, who investigated the Prince of Wales's private economy and the role of his main man, Fawcett.
This scandal is not so much about libertinism in royal households, nor about whether a member of the Royal Family was involved in sexual activity with a servant, witnessed by another person. Rather, it is about whether the Prince of Wales allowed a suspected sexual predator to work in his children's household; whether he neglected his duty of care and his duty as an employer to protect his other servants.
According to Burrell, Diana was alarmed that the perpetrator of an alleged homosexual rape of the valet George Smith, "was still at large, working for her husband". She went further, "begged" Prince Charles, "trembling with exasperation", to sack the man. We are entitled to wonder whether Diana also suspected that her husband used his power to protect the alleged attacker from the criminal justice system. Sir Michael Peat's inquiry has already criticised Prince Charles for not calling in the police to investigate the rape allegation.
Now, out of all these simmering scandals and the injunctions used to try and keep them out of the press, we are seeing the development of an historic collision between democracy and autocracy. This is a battle over what can be seen and known about the institution that presides over British society. The monarchy's success, indeed the survival of its sovereignty, depends on it being seen. Being visible and spectacular is the performance of its supremacy.
The monarchy is, in fact, most at risk from republicanism when it sulks in the shadows, scared of its own secrets. That was the lesson learned by Georges I, II, III and IV, and by Queen Victoria. It was then bequeathed to the modern monarchy.
Today, there is a sense that the Windsors are Jacobeans, busy with horses, dogs and sex. Burrell reports coyly that palaces are jolly party places, where the Royal Family - however stupid, dutiful and emotionally deprived - retains power, borne out of money and sex.
We in Britain have been duped by the aura of our great Queens. From Elizabeth I to Anne, Victoria and this second Elizabeth, they have been royalty's redeemers. These women have reigned over an unreconstructed patriarchal system with sex at the centre. Patriarchy - paradoxically - requires the monarchy to be (mostly) male, although neither monogamous nor necessarily heterosexual. It also requires that the heir to the throne is not just a private person but a public institution. All royal relationships are inscribed in the public performance of power, from squeezing paste on to the toothbrush, attending the Cenotaph, opening Parliament and indulging in sex.
Despite democracy, despite the erosion of deference, the royal system has prevailed. Now it is under threat from the legacy of a disappointed wife and from vengeful servants. What is it about servants? Royal bodies are both omnipotent and dependent. An army of servants feeds them, walks their dogs, holds their pee-pee bottles, and - Burrell's book tells us - fastens their seat belts for them, too. They know the trails of royal skidmarks; they know everything. Prince Charles reckoned he could manage without everyone except his personal assistant, Fawcett. As the Queen told Burrell in their tête-a-tête after Diana's death, he knew more about her family than anyone did.
Burrell explains in his book, A Royal Duty, how the art of being a good servant is to "know what the master or mistress wants before they know it themselves". Any relationship with a servant, whether it be sexual like Queen Victoria's romances, or emotional like Diana's adhesion to Burrell - her "rock" - are prisms that refract the truth of all royal relationships: they're predicated on power. Charles is a grown man who has to submit to his mother. He makes other grown men submit to him. Just as a princess could be excited by "the normality" of a cup of Nescafé with her butler, so a prince may get pleasure from submission to a servant. Sado-masochism is inherent, it seems.
Royals have lived neo-polygamous lives with their servants. The proximity of those servants produces intimacy, and their craft demands self-effacement and huge empathy. They are completely trustworthy because they have knowledge, but no power. Burrell is eloquent about the servants' agency in this relationship: royals are totally dependent on others to function, the "need to be needed and the knowledge that you control can be almost addictive", he says. The royals' only experience of equality is in their addictive neediness.
All of this was endangered by the intrusion of Diana into their world. The posh ingénue plucked from the fields of England to provide the son with heirs, brought a sense of society - however slight - that seems to escape the self-absorbed royals. It took Diana to stand up for gay people with Aids, despite the fact that gays were serving in the palaces. Now gay rumours swirl about those very palaces, threatening the people whom those servants are meant to protect. Today Charles, a pointless prince who has loitered so long on the threshold of absolute personal power, must surely know that he can't have the prize for which he, poor man, was made. He cannot be king. And six years on from her death, much of the cause lies with the woman who famously declared that she would never be queen.Reuse content