The news that the second Earl of Snowdon, the son of Princess Margaret, is looking to commission a new biography of his mother, one that will correct her portrayal in The Crown TV series and give a more rounded picture of her, is a reminder that royal women have long had to contend with those who seek to distort their characters. There was far more to Princess Margaret than one who liked smoking, drinking and going to parties. Passionate about culture, a good friend to many, a conscientious public servant, the Princess deserves a better press.
This is something that she shares with her ancestress, Mary, Queen of Scots, subject of a recent film in which the Scottish Queen is played by the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. Ronan can’t quite bring off the many facets of Mary’s character: an intensely serious woman who was also skittish, and thanks to her extreme youth in her personal rule, even girlish.
Mary was an extremely bad judge of character, marrying two unsuitable men in succession. Both Lord Darnley and James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, were murderers, and yet it was Mary who got the blame for Darnley’s death, and her guilt was supposedly proved by the infamous Casket letters, which were almost certainly forged.
The letters served as the excuse for forcing her abdication, and her subsequent demonisation in Protestant eyes as a scheming, untrustworthy papist whore. But the worst one can say about Mary is that she was a bad politician who lost not just her throne, but also her life; her grandson Charles I did the same, but being a man he was never quite vilified in the same way.
If the film never quite gets Mary right, it also does serious injustice to her rival Elizabeth. While Elizabeth was often called a virago in her lifetime – that is, a woman with manly qualities – this was a term of praise, and in particular a reference to her learning. The film depicts her as a woman who overcame her femininity in order to rule. Yet the real Elizabeth was all woman. She used her femininity to control and manipulate her counsellors and her Parliaments; indeed, the whole country fell in love with Good Queen Bess. The only other royal woman to have achieved such ascendancy over her people was Victoria, and then only in old age.
Victoria’s middle period was marked by sharp criticism from politicians and rising popular republicanism in Ireland (and to a much lesser extent in England). Coping with the death of her beloved husband, the Queen constantly complained that people failed to take account of her feelings as a woman. Indeed, when she sought comfort in the company of her “personal attendant” John Brown, it was assumed by many that he was her lover or even her secret husband. AN Wilson, in his biography of Victoria, cannot make his mind up about the Brown story; but he does point to some evidence that it may have been true. One thing is certain: as a royal woman, Victoria felt mistreated and misunderstood by public opinion for many years.
The current Duchess of Sussex, unlike Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Victoria and Princess Margaret, was not born into royalty but has married into it, and has already found that public opinion can be fickle. When she married last May, she could do no wrong; now, not so much. The recent attempts by anonymous friends to counter the perceived hostility of some of the coverage may well be futile or counter-productive. On the face of it, her best ploy is to say nothing and simply smile and wave, and smile and wave some more. That was what Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother did. It worked for them, triumphantly.
But Meghan, like Mary, Elizabeth and Victoria, is a political creature. Mary and Elizabeth were on opposite sides in the great struggle that dominated Europe in the decades after the Reformation, a conflict that still continued in the reign of Queen Anne. Victoria, as Wilson’s biography reveals, was anything but politically neutral, but rather a Tory imperialist impatient of domestic reforms. Meghan seems too devoted to her causes (female empowerment and the environment, to name but two), ever to want to spend her life smiling and waving. She is intelligent and committed – qualities usually thought to be advantages.
One assumes that the Duchess is surrounded by people who give her good advice. No doubt someone tells her how to handle the press. But there is more at stake here than spin doctoring. What the Duchess needs to do is study the history of royal women, and how many of them did make a difference; then she needs to work for her causes, and win. In other words, be an Elizabeth I or a Victoria, not a Mary, Queen of Scots.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald