Before the past two centuries, royal babies were the dominant players of human history. Their births were auspicious occasions, attended by astrologers and mendicants, court intrigues and elaborate sacrifices to the gods. The fate of kingdoms — and all the hapless souls living within them — hinged on the successful issue of these infants, who were born with a divine right to lord over others.
Countries and empires depended on the existence of heirs, well, male heirs, for their continued stability. After all, from antiquity to the Enlightenment, disputes about royal babies sparked myriad wars of succession — the tiny British Isles experienced at least half a dozen of them on their own. The remains of millions of forgotten peasants whose blood was spilled in the name of some presumptive heir still lie beneath the planet’s empty bogs, deserts and fields. It can be said without too much hyperbole that the world’s obsession with royal babies is built on a bed of skulls thousands of years deep.
So forgive me for looking with bemusement at yesterday’s arrival of the Prince of Cambridge. Of course, it’s churlish to speak sourly of a guiltless, newborn child. And, yes, he’s unlikely to provoke any violent battles for the throne, not least because the British monarchy now functions far more like a theme park populated by an awkward, endangered species — Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel likened the royals to pandas,“ill-adapted to any modern environment” — than the locus of centuries of undeserved privilege and imperial power. But all 21st century human beings who witnessed the #RoyalBaby circus should feel more than a bit disturbed.
Others tell me not to take this so seriously. I should revel in the farce and absurdity of the spectacle — where the rapt international media massed by palace gates and waited for hours for the chance to gawk at a fancy notice board stating that a woman gave birth to a boy. The attention lavished by some on the British royals is separated just by degrees from the attention lavished by others on the Jersey Shore and similar gaudy reality shows. What will the couple do next? What is she going to wear? Who will he now play with? How will they all cope?
But the British royals aren’t just a tabloid curiosity. And despite the social-media frenzy that surrounded the event, there was nothing “modern” about it. Intensifying republican movements, both in the U.K. and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, are testament to the disquiet that the lingering institution of the monarchy creates in the minds of many who actually care about values of democracy. And to those, like me, who hail from countries once subject to the British Crown, the royals aren’t just garish anachronisms, but the living link to histories of colonial misrule and injustice.
In his book Ornamentalism, the knighted British historian David Cannadine, currently at Princeton University, details how necessary the British royals were in building the networks of patronage and power that allowed the sun to never set on the British Empire. In their colonies, the British vacuumed up local grandees, sultans and chieftains into a firmament where the British King or Queen was fixed firmly at the center. “All the hierarchies of the empire were to find their culmination in direct allegiance to the monarch,” he writes. The pageantry that that entailed — awards and noble orders and ceremonial processions — meant something very real for the preservation of British supremacy. Important imperial agents and consuls, Cannadine writes, were “veritable walking Christmas trees of stars and collars, medals and sashes, ermine robes and coronets.”
So it’s hard for me to watch the twee rituals of the current Windsors — their easels, their hats, their funny syntax — without seeing the older rites of a far more powerful enterprise. Defenders of the British monarchy and similar symbolic institutions in Europe claim their royals stand for something immemorial and benign, figures of unity in troubled modern times. What they’re really doing, though, is invoking the sentiments of Edmund Burke, the 18th century godfather of British conservatism, who watched the regicidal upheavals of the French Revolution, the arrest of Marie Antoinette and shuddered in horror at what was being lost:
Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank … that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom!
More than two centuries later, humanity’s sense of its own freedom has no need for “dignified obedience” or “proud submission” to powerless, ornamental monarchs. I congratulate the Windsors on the birth of their new Prince. But I hope the days of his royalty are numbered.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Booker Prize–winning author. She is Hilary Mantel, not Hillary.