In the Presence of Majesty: Why Americans are Still Fascinated with Britain’s Royal Family
Professor Joe Goldblatt
The Lord Provost of Edinburgh first sent me a query asking if I had attended Her Majesty the Queen’s Garden Party at Holyrood Palace in the past ten years and if the answer was negative would I then like to be invited in July? I immediately responded that I had not previously attended and therefore my name was soon forwarded to Buckingham Palace as a potential guest.
A few months later a formal envelope and letter from Buckingham Palace arrived at my home. The invitation inside the envelope invited me and my guest to be in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Whilst I have been in the presence of many people during my long life, I do not recall ever being invited to be specifically in their presence. I looked forward to an intimate meeting acompanied by chit chat with the Queen, a woman whom I had admired for most of my life.
Therefore, I readily accepted and awaited further instructions from the Palace. A few weeks prior to the date of the Royal Garden Party I received a letter instructing me what to wear, where and when to turn up and what not to do such as the taking of photographs. I was also offered, for a nominal fee, an official video of the Royal Garden party so I could prove to others that I was actually in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen and her other family members.
On the appointed day, I ordered a taxi to bring us to Holyrood Palace and my wife and I entered the palace grounds with great excitement. Our first sight was a large portable loo discreetly tucked away behind some bushes near the entrance gate. I noted that distinguished gentlemen wearing formal morning coats and top hats were popping in and out of the loo. I also noticed that the grounds were filled with ladies of a certain age wearing enormous hats that were decorated with flowers and feathers. My wife chose to wear a modest headpiece known as a fascinator and indeed, I was and still am, very fascinated.
As we moved further into the beautifully landscaped grounds we noticed large white marquees (tents) offering cups of tea and cakes. I was surprised to see that the Palace was serving these delicious treats upon their Royal china that was accompanied by silver service. The reason for my surprise was that I soon discovered that I was one of nearly 5000 guests.
At precisely 4pm the door to the upstairs room at the Palace opened and accompanied by a loud royal fanfare, Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne and Prince Charles processed onto the stairs and when they were in place, the band played our national anthem “God Save the Queen”. The Royal family gazed into the distance of Holyrood Park and at the end of the song a loud roar of applause and cheers was sent upward by their guests.
The Queen then descended the stairs and was introduced to pre – selected guests whilst other members of the Royal family mingled with additional guests. I noted that the Duke of Edinburgh was wearing a somewhat tattered top hat and I wondered if it was, like pieces of my own wardrobe, a sentimental item that despite being warned by his wife and others of its disrepair, he simply could not part with.
The Duke and his children appeared attentive and interested in the subjects they were introduced to. In the United Kingdom, citizens are still subjects. Each and every person introduced to the Royal ramily curtsied or bowed ceremoniously in respect for their hosts.
And at precisely 5pm Her Majesty the Queen along with her family departed her Garden Party and a few minutes later the guests made their way to the gates and were left with an enduring memory of having been in the presence of royalty. My wife and I also made our way home and because we live near the Palace we decided to walk through Holyrood Park. Our feet began to hurt and so we removed our shoes as a sign of transitioning from a royal occassion to one less formal as we once again became mere mortals.
This week His Royal Highness the Prince Philip died and I witnessed for the first time in my life the formality of mourning throughout a nation when a member of the Royal family dies. Although the mourning ritual was necessarily restrained due to the global pandemic, I was still fascinated at how a nation mourned a man described by his eldest son as “the grandfather of the nation.”
In addition to the flags flying at half staff, the speeches of tribute in all of the parliaments, and the non stop news coverage, I also felt that for many of my fellow subjects in Scotland that the loss of a member of the Royal family raises the question tosome of the relevance of Royalty in the future.
In Scotland many individuals are either devoted Royalists or anti Royalist Republicans. This is due to the fractious relationship between the English and Scots over many centuries. The Scottish Royalists support the Royal family at any cost or inconvenience and some Scottish Republicans want the institution to be ended as soon as possible.
However, it is believed that most Scots are somewhere in the middle regarding their support for the Royal family and this may due to some individuals who have strong familial links to the English.
As an American ex – pat who became a Scottish citizen, my feelings are more complex. When I was given the opportunity to pledge allegiance to the Queen or Country during my UK citizenship ceremony I chose Country. Perhaps I am still experiencing my USA DNA of not pledging allegiance to individuals or it could simply be my own sense of independence as an individual who does wish to be reduced to being a subject.
One of my close American friends who has lived in Scotland for over 40 years describes our country’s fascination with the Royals as typical celebrity worship. She explained that America, having gotten rid of the Royal family nearly 300 years ago, subsequently found other celebrities and role models such as movie, television and sports stars to replace them. However, she believes that the Americans have always longed for a Monarch they may look up to because they represent wealth, success, history, continuity and much more to a relatively young and heterogenuous nation.
Regardless of their motivation, I do know very well that the British Royal family is extremely popular in the USA. The recent Oprah Winfrey interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle) was one of the most widely viewed television programmes in American history. A photograph of a member of the Royal family upon the cover of USA magazines or newspapers also significantly increases sales. Therefore, it is apparrent to me that just as the song “You’ll Be Back” sung by a British King George III from the hit American musical “Hamilton” sums up the complex relationship between Americans and the British monarchy.
“You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”
Lyrics by Lin Manuel – Miranda from “You’ll Be Back” in Hamilton the Musical
However, despite the American fascination with the British monarchy, I have discovered, after nearly fifteen years of life in Scotland. that some but not all Scots have very little deep emotional attachment to this historic institution. Rather, some see the Royal family as primarily an example of functionalism for the purpose of promoting tourism, including luring my American cousins to visit us.
Regardless of the future of the Monarchy in Scotland, I do believe that my American cousins will still visit us and either celebrate or remember with mixed feelings a monarchy they still believe that also, for better or worse, still belongs to them.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University where he first had the privilege of first being in the “presence” of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II when she opened its new campus.