Duchess of Cambridge is less modern than you might think, claims Professor

By William Axtell | 10 July 2012

Professor says consort "binds subjects" to King and follows traditions established across 500 years

A photograph of two members of the British Monarchy
Princess Kate with Prince William at Canada Day, 2011© tsaiproject / Skeezix1000 / Wikimedia Commons
Princess Kate seems set to be a thoroughly modern kind of consort - British, middle-class and university educated. But is this really true?

Professor Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, of Oxford University, thinks not, arguing that Kate, along with her equally modern-seeming mother-in-law Diana, fulfills the same role as consorts have for centuries.

“It fascinates me that the Duchess of Cambridge is doing exactly the same kinds of things that a queen consort would have done at any time from 1500 on,” she says.

The first duty of any consort is to provide an heir - and preferably a spare, as many of Henry VIII’s wives found out to their considerable cost.

Both Kate and Diana achieved this, giving birth soon after their marriages to two children who could inherit the crown.

Watanabe-O’Kelly argues the secondary, but still key, role of the consort is to provide essential PR for the monarch. This is achieved through a combination of glamour to emphasise the monarch’s status and good deeds such as visiting hospitals and sick children.

“A monarch can only rule if the emotions of the people are with him and, in the division of labour between king and queen, his beautiful, kind consort enables him to bind his subjects to him through the emotion they feel for her,” she says.

The national devastation which greeted Diana’s death bears testament to the devotion which can be inspired in the monarch’s subjects.

“When a beautiful and beloved princess dies, the national outpouring of grief is part of the emotional connection the people feel for her and through her for the whole royal family,” says Watanabe-O’Kelly.

Very similar scenes of intense grief greeted the early death of Queen Louise of Prussia, in 1810, when people lined the streets for miles and threw flowers onto the coffin, showing such emotion is not a new phenomenon.

On the other hand, Watanabe-O’Kelly argues, without this vital service the monarchy quickly loses its charm.

"We all saw how difficult things became for the monarchy in Britain when it seemed as if the Queen did not share her people’s feelings at Diana’s death,” she says.

She is quick to point that there is one crucial different between Diana and Kate and their predecessors: with very few exceptions, such as Anne Boleyn, the monarch married a foreign princess.

Aside from building alliances with foreign powers, such marriages created an important opportunity for cultural exchange. Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria of France, the consorts of James I and Charles I, promoted the masque at court, a form of theatre involving music, drama and dance.

“Foreign princesses played an important role in their new kingdoms by introducing foreign cultural elements,” says Wanatabe-O’Kelly.

“They often brought with them personnel such as a chaplain or musicians, objects such as books, jewels, fashions and furniture, and often less tangible things such as theatrical genres, ideas or a different religion.”

Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly is leading the major international research project Marrying Cultures: Queens Consort and European Identities 1500-1800. The project is investigating the ways foreign consorts brought about new cultural synergies in early modern Europe and how they contributed to European identities.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to follow in the footsteps of royal consorts:

Hever Castle and Gardens, Kent
The childhood home of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, Hever subsequently passed into the ownership of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after he annulled their marriage.

Queen Charlotte's Cottage, Surrey
Now located in the beautiful bluebell woods at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the cottage was given to Queen Charlotte by her husband George III as part of their marriage settlement. She gave the cottage a makeover in 1770 and it was a great source of pride to her.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight
For a bit of gender reversal to a time when a man was consort, visit the private family home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It was here Albert ran some of the unique education programme he devised for his children, playing an active part in developing the garden and estate.

Follow William Axtell on Twitter @WilliamAxtell.
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