Stars and Stripes: Fame and Noblesse Oblige…

By: Matthew Groves – BMS Blogger in Residence

Recent revelations of the alleged reaction from Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, to Royal life have been negative. In particular, the complaint as it has been revealed by Ashley Pearson, expresses that the Duchess was uncomfortable with the level of duty, drawing a comparison with the lack of glamour in a civil service role. Not only was being a Senior member of the Royal family “unglamorous”, Meghan seems to believe that her position within the world’s most dutiful family was nothing more than being a “civil servant in a tiara”. These claims about her reaction seem to be borne out by her decision, along with Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, to withdraw from their Royal duties, quit the Royal family, ignore their “HRH” titles, and begin a new life as a “private” Hollywood power couple in Canada Los Angeles.

The Duchess would be right to identify the high level of duty and service expected from our Royal Family. Unlike Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan would have been at a disadvantage in not having grown up in the United Kingdom, where the expectations of Royalty are understood.  Combined with the vocation of noblesse oblige, there is also the requirement to be understated in terms of personal wealth and to uphold the British cultural values of stoicism, moderation, and service. The pageantry (a better word for British Royalty than glamour) often associated with the Monarchy, always points to the institution rather than the individual. When the Queen performs her civic roles, we do not see a lady who relishes the fame and glamour, but a figurehead carrying out prescribed and expected duties, whilst symbolically embodying the nation.

Apart from the pageantry and ritual of monarchy, which enriches all of us as a nation, rather than just the Royal Family as individuals, is the embeddedness of our Royal family in the vast and complex world of charitable giving and representation. The duties that result from these commitments are neither glamorous nor sexy. They are though extremely worthwhile to what for a while was described by Prime Minister, David Cameron, as the “Big Society”. 

Her Royal Highness, Anne, The Princess Royal, who has an especially robust record of commitment to charity and public duty, has recently warned the younger Royals against “reinventing the wheel” in terms of Royal duties.  In a very British way of understanding her public work, her Royal Highness is clear that there should be nothing particularly glamorous or self-aggrandising about Royal duty, but the traditional model should be followed. The Princess conceded that she was something of a “fuddy duddy” on this. It seems what concerns the Princess Royal is what is termed in modern parlance, the shallowness of virtue signalling.  Princess Anne has the right to comment on this, as in 2019 the Princess carried out 506 engagements, compared with the 40 engagements attended by the Duchess of Sussex (who was pregnant).

The choice of words and accompanying design of deliverance by Princess Anne to describe her character – “fuddy duddy” – in self-deprecating British fashion gets to the heart of the matter.  British Royalty is not Hollywood. In terms of its ethos it is at the complete other end of the spectrum.  To flaunt wealth is bad form and the point of life is understated public vocation in the context of tradition and history. Furthermore, in holding a nation together, the Royal family must be apolitical, it must rise above politics.

The stars of Hollywood, of which the Duchess of Sussex is a part, on the other hand are not shy of flaunting their wealth, neither do they avoid commenting on matters political.  Indeed, they are forward and often abrasive in a divisive political way.  Hollywood actors are, after all, private individuals, who have a lot of private wealth.  They are publicly unaccountable.  They can say what they like, but it has no authority or political relevance on behalf of a nation. Royalty on the other hand must remain silent, because the Queen is the Head of State of 16 nations in total and not a private individual.  Were the Queen to express a political opinion, her position as Head of State would be compromised, and there would be tremendous political consequences.

The difference between the stars of Hollywood and Royal Princes is not only a matter of status, but of culture. The British Monarchy bases its legitimacy not only upon prescriptive rights, but on theology. The Queen rules by God and Right, Dieu et Mon Droit, the motto of successive British sovereigns for centuries. The Christianity of England is symbolised by the Queen as the Supreme Governor of the established Church of England, but also in Her Majesty’s personal ethos and within her approach to duty.

Her Majesty’s commitment in her broadcast to the nation and Commonwealth on her 21st birthday from Cape Town, South Africa was to:  “be devoted to your service and the service of our great and imperial family to which we belong.”, was given sacramental confirmation during the anointing with oil, at her Coronation with Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953.  There is in a sense (and not in the way Rousseau understood it) a social contract, as the Queen bears with us and our national struggles. Hers is a commitment of selfless and Christian duty, which is sustained by Her Majesty’s Christian faith.  Of course, public duty must be a burden at times, but the Queen can look to Christ, by whose stripes we are healed – as the King James Bible puts it.

These metaphorical stripes of suffering are a manifestation of her Majesty’s faith as she continues to lead and serve into her nineties, celebrating her 94th Birthday today, 12 April 2020. This is not the glamour of the stars of Hollywood. This is not virtue signalling or political grandstanding. It is a far higher way than that. It is also far more difficult and demands much more than a majority realise.

It is understandable that for someone who grew up in the United States of America and looked up to actors and actresses as a substitute for true Royalty, that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, would take such a high risk to misunderstand the demands and duties of Royal life. Many, many Americans do not misunderstand of course, but the political, celebrity, wealth culture of Hollywood cannot help here. While many Americans are not entranced by Hollywood, and many people from other countries are so entranced, anyone who is will find the cultural gap between their world and English tradition most difficult to surmount. One is reminded of the words of the children’s author and apologist C S Lewis: “Where men are forbidden to honour a king, they honour millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters.  For the spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served:  deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

It is understandable that for a young woman who sought the American Dream of self-fulfilment in fame, celebrity, and riches, a life of noblesse oblige was difficult for her to cope with.  Monarchy cannot morph into something like Hollywood is though, for to do so would destroy its legitimacy and position within society. Monarchy is sustained by tradition, commitment, duty, and religious faith. From the outside it might look as though it is a life of wealth, glamour, and privilege, but it is hard graft, unglamorous in its daily deeds and further demands a selflessness that is alien to Hollywood and its values.