The Crown: Too cruel to the royals?

Our fascination with the monarchy and their relevance today

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, the king famously expresses the troubles that come with being a monarch: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Though being king or queen may seem to be a given life of ease and luxury with total control and ‘divine’ power, the responsibilities, constant scrutiny, and pressure of leadership that the monarchy undergoes, may make their task extremely difficult and even distressing.

In modern-day Britain, this is perhaps particularly true. Many feel that there is no place any more for the monarchy; they do not exercise real authority or make important political decisions but are merely a majestic figurehead and a burden on our taxes. However, many of us similarly like the tradition and history that the royal family bring to our ‘island nation’. We feel attached to them and like to marvel at their intriguing lives; a symbol of the ‘greatness’ of Britain. Today as the monarchy seems more irrelevant, The Crown has brought its presence and purpose in society to light.

We have always held a certain reverence and awe for our royal family, even though throughout the ages of British history their power has been reduced. Since Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, the former magnitude of the British Empire has disappeared. However, the last century has also allowed us to learn more about our royal family and feel a greater connection with them through the increase of journalism, radio and television. Whilst the royals used to be a distant image of power, always just out of reach, now we expect them to be more accessible and ‘real’ than ever, similar to other modern-day celebrities.

Since Season 1 was released in 2016, The Crown has been one of Netflix’s biggest hits, drawing millions of viewers across the world. In fact, Season 4 which was released at the end of 2020 reportedly drew in even more viewers than Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s own wedding! It seems that even though the monarchy does not seem to exert as great an influence as they once did on British politics, we still love to indulge ourselves watching them through the format of a soap opera. The Crown gives us a unique snapshot into the opulent lives of the royals, but what is gripping are the relationship dramas that play out behind the closed doors of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

Netflix says that the show has always been billed as a drama, and assumes this makes it clear that not all the stories told in the show about the monarchy are fact – there is of course leniency for dramatic licence. However, particularly in the depiction of the breakdown of the marriage between the Prince and Princess of Wales, the show has faced criticism for being too harsh in its depiction of Charles and overly dramatizing this sensitive topic.

The troublesome relationship of Charles and Diana was always going to be controversial, but the portrayal of them by Netflix could cause viewers to easily mistake fiction for fact. Since the famous Panorama interview given by Diana in 1995, the public has been outwardly shown a different, brutal perception of the royals through their treatment of Diana when she was married to Charles. The Crown touches on this, revealing Diana’s struggles with mental health and bulimia and also Charles’ infidelity during their marriage. Always ‘the People’s Princess’, her death in 1997 was a shock and great sadness to the world, casting a shadow onto the image of the monarchy.

A source near Charles himself has expressed displeasure with his depiction in The Crown, even describing it as ‘sinister’ and a form of subtle propaganda against the monarchy. Prince William has also allegedly criticised the TV show for exploiting his parents and presenting them in a false, simplistic way to make money. The Crown favours Diana’s side of the story, and whilst not all of the cruelty inflicted by the royals upon her is fact, there is certainly some truth behind it. However, is it too cruel?

Perhaps it is wrong that the lives of the royalty are fantasised for popular enjoyment, as this seems to take away from their standing and importance. As the stories we watch encroach closer towards the present, some find it dangerous to judge our current monarchs so blatantly; does history first need to put them to rest? Even though we know some of the events in the show are fictional, they are bound to impart on our opinion of the real royals in some way or other. It can be dangerous to bend the truth merely to bring in viewing figures.

Despite this, The Crown is not too cruel. We must know more about the monarchy, in order for us to keep respecting it and for it to thrive. The royal family put on the face of a stable institution, and have been willing to adapt to the times and needs of the people. This is why the British monarchy is one of the few that remains, whilst so many others have fallen. Watching The Crown makes the royals seem more human, and for society today, this is what builds public respect and lets people identify with them. The monarchy is now less about reverence than it was in the past and is more about having a figurehead we can look up to and respect in full knowledge of what it really is.

The Crown certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a true recount of the lives of the royals, and some mystery surrounding them must remain for them to continue to survive. However, there must be no harm in watching and revelling in this gripping version of their lives, from the safety of our sofas.

Amelia VI