'Uneasy lies the head that wears a throne.' This wistful schoolboy howler from 1066 And All That is the essential summary of two related absurdities. The first is the intrinsic inanity of a royal family; the second is the ridiculous blend of deference and denial that goes into the making of public support for it. Philip Ziegler is a historian of uncommon candour and, especially considering the 'authorised' nature of his work, unusual humour. Yet in the very first paragraph of his very first page he pitches face-forward into the enduring fallacy that sustains our monarchical cult: 'To have been born in 1894, eldest son of the eldest surviving son of the eldest son of the Queen Empress, was to be heir to an almost intolerable burden of rights and responsibilities.' There you have it, even if expressed with Ziegler's manners and proportion ('almost' and 'rights' slightly qualify the supposed awesomeness of the burden). This is, still, the bleat of the drawing-room and the drone of the saloon bar. 'I don't know how they do it.' I wouldn't have her job.' Yet the ensuing 560 pages contain conclusive and exhaustive evidence a. that the Windsors are a burden on us, not the other way about, and b. that the chief difficulty at every stage of Edward VIII's life lay in the finding and invention of things for him to do.
LRB 8 November 1990 | PDF Download