What ‘The Crown’ Teaches Us About Power and How to Wield It

The final six episodes of “The Crown”were released this week, bringing Peter Morgan’s engrossing saga of the Windsors — bookended by the marriages of Elizabeth and Philip in 1947 and Charles and Camilla in 2005 — to an end. The Netflix series had all the appeal of a classic prime-time soap, and sure enough, tens of millions of people have tuned in, escaping reality to dwell for an hour in a bubble of fashion, money, gossip, intrigue and betrayal.

To many, escape is the whole point of royal watching — which is why royal mania is so often dismissed as a frivolous distraction. The royals are no longer as powerful as when they oversaw the rise of modern Britain and its empire. But the world of the Windsors is still intimately, and sometimes painfully, connected to our own. In that sense, the saga of the royal family, as captured in “The Crown,” offers supreme lessons in resilience, demonstrating that even the most traditional leaders can change with the times, relinquishing old roles to find new ways of exerting power and influence.

It may be easy to look at the monarchy today and assume its role is almost entirely ceremonial, but kings and queens — and their extended families — still exert tremendous social influence, especially as exemplars of morality. That was a role that King George III and his advisers pioneered way back in the 18th century when, to maintain their relevance, the royal family was expected to establish standards of proper behavior and stand by them. For better and worse, that expectation persists.

In the most favorable instances, royals have used this soft power to engage in cultural repair and provide moral leadership. Queen Victoria, for example, served as the first patron of the British Red Cross, helping to reform the kind of care received by those injured during conflicts. On the eve of World War II, King George VI met with Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, N.Y. In eating hot dogs together, the king and president telegraphed Anglo-American solidarity in the face of rising fascism.

Over time, such stories have helped us understand that the actions of the royals affect not just their world but also our own, which may explain both our perpetual curiosity about the family and the intensity of our emotions as we litigate their choices. Many prestige cable shows have insightfully examined the dynamics of a marriage — take Tony and Carmela Soprano, — but when “The Crown” dissects Charles and Diana’s doomed marriage, it is re-enacting a pivotal moment in history that informed how many modern couples think about marital obligation and what we owe our partners and ourselves.

The final season of “The Crown” — and, in many ways, the modern story of the Windsors — has been haunted by the ghost of Diana, a figure who perhaps understood this dynamic between perception and obligation better than anyone. We may remember Diana first for her outfits and her sudden renown but she went on to do humanitarian work that benefited AIDS patients, spoke openly about her bulimia, pursued solutions to homelessness and campaigned for land mine removal in Bosnia and Angola.

In different but no less powerful ways, King Charles III is currently trying to use his influence to help mitigate the impact of climate change. At the core of these efforts is an acknowledgment that, whatever their political role, royals can, and should, have consequence. But their actions also reflect a recognizable human urge to shape the world around us and take control of our circumstances. That’s why we can see so much of ourselves in the royals when they strive for control — and often fail to achieve it.

Of course, the royals can still seem clueless and out of touch. Take their halting and awkward attempts to reckon with the role their ancestors played in shoring up a brutal empire. Centuries ago, monarchs funded the slave trade and Queen Victoria and her descendants provided symbolic glue for the British Empire and Commonwealth realms. The royal family is still tethered to that imperial past. The Prince and Princess of Wales, William and Kate, received significant public criticism during a 2022 royal tour of the Caribbean when some suggested they failed to adopt a sufficiently apologetic stance toward Britain’s colonial past. King Charles fared better on his recent visit to Kenya by acknowledging Britain’s violent response to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. Even so, the royals are navigating what the British journalist Afua Hirsch described last year as “a clamoring chorus of global trauma” led by “those colonized in the name of the British crown.”

But what history teaches us — and The Crown” artfully conveys — is that the royal family can embrace change when forced to. The show has always been most successful when it’s not just penetrating the royal bubble but puncturing it. Yes, we’ve followed the Windsors, but we’ve also entered the homes of the grieving mining families of Aberfan following the sudden collapse of a colliery spoil tip. We’ve observed the Bahamian-born valet Sydney Johnson lovingly care for the exiled Duke of Windsor. And in the final seasons we’ve watched the Egyptian businessman Mohamed al-Fayed and his son Dodi make tragic efforts to recast themselves as British elites. The exploits of the monarch are never just about the monarch. They are also, inevitably, about us. When the queen encounters her subjects, she often comes away changed. Though it could still be improved and modernized, the monarchy we see now, under King Charles, is a far cry from the one in 1947 captured on “The Crown” when it began.

We might thrill to be escorted inside Balmoral Castle and Buckingham Palace, where we keep close company with Queen Elizabeth II and her restless brood. There’s certainly pleasure in listening in to the imagined private conversations of a queen so famously tight-lipped that her unofficial mantra was reportedly “Never complain, never explain.” But all of these stories, from the young Elizabeth to Charles and Diana to William and Harry, have reverberated precisely because they offer more than simply voyeuristic escapism. They help us understand our world a little better — and the way that we have shaped the royals’ rarefied realm.

Arianne Chernock is a professor of history at Boston University and the author, most recently, of “The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women.”

Source photograph by ullstein bild, via Getty Images.

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