Regardless of how people felt about the British royal family, they would have been hard-pressed to avoid the image of Queen Elizabeth II in London—and in much of the world—during the late spring of 2012. The year marked the queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating 60 years with Elizabeth II on the throne. From an optician’s window on Kensington High Street, the monarch appeared encased in an ornate gold frame and surrounded by signs proclaiming a £50 discount. Nearby, on Piccadilly Circus, photos taken at different stages of her life beamed from souvenir shortbread tins, coffee mugs, tea towels, and miscellaneous tchotchkes.
But the brand of the British royal family doesn’t belong to Britain alone. Even as the world has seen a marked decline in the number of crowned heads, especially in Europe, since the beginning of the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth II and her family continue to attract worldwide fascination. In 2011, millions of people in 180 countries watched the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. During the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics the following year, 900 million viewers worldwide watched Elizabeth II play herself in a skit delivering secret orders to the British spy James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) before parachuting with him, via stunt double, into Olympic Stadium. Meanwhile, British tabloids and online media beam royal missteps and debacles around the world.
It is hard to imagine, say, the monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Thailand, or Norway as global brands in quite the same way. And while the successful branding of the British royal family is partially a product of Britain’s historic role in the world, it also has causes closer to home—in the evolving relationship between British royals and their subjects.
“Royal-watching” has historically attracted much of the citizenry in what is now known as Great Britain. Until the broad-scale development of mass media in the late 19th century, people typically learned about royal activities through proclamations “nailed on the market cross, read aloud by a sheriff or other local official, or circulated and reported in [a] village or alehouse,” according to the historian Kevin Sharpe in Selling the Tudor Monarchy. Until recently, many royal rituals were regarded as private, and sometimes secretive, affairs of state rather than occasions for public cultural celebration. But as more citizens migrated to London and its environs, their presence increased at the processionals that preceded coronations, funerals, and triumphal civic pageants celebrating victories over enemies on the battlefield, according to historical records.
Yet royal-watching has not always been a tourist activity. From 1066 until 1743, when George II was the last king to fight in battle, the British were involved in more than 50 wars. During much of this “warrior king” era, royal-watching often meant watching out for monarchs—or their armies. Kings and queens were under constant pressure to replenish their royal treasuries and to rouse and replace lost troops, equipment, and transportation. With many warrior kings as likely to plunder their own subjects as protect them, the notion of engaging in any kind of royal-themed tourist experiences, or of collecting souvenirs or traveling to seek royal encounters, would have been unfathomable.
After 1688, the British Parliament began to abate the power of the monarchy through increasing constitutional restrictions. At the same time, two other key factors reshaped the nature of royal-watching. The role of the warrior king waned by the end of the 18th century, replaced by the decidedly more passive role of the monarch as diplomat. Meanwhile, a structured and stable class system arose. For the lower classes who lived outside London, royal-watching typically involved lining the hedgerows along Britain’s village roads, where monarchs and their entourages traveled. Within the aristocracy, however, a more formal and demanding type of interaction emerged. During the 19th and part of the 20th centuries, the most important families in society were expected to host elaborate weekend parties at their estates and to resign themselves to royals inviting themselves over. Of course, most families regarded hosting members of the ruling class of their country as a great social achievement. Sometimes, however, the situation devolved into a classic example of being careful what one wished for. In the late 19th century, the lavish tastes of Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII) meant that entertaining him cost £5,000 to £10,000 (in 19th-century pounds) per weekend. It was rumored that Lord Suffield, a close friend of Albert’s, grew so desperate for relief from this duty that he burned and gutted his own home.
Between the two world wars, the British aristocracy was gradually but irrevocably felled by the combination of a global depression, a decline in demand for British goods around the world, the battlefield deaths and horrific injuries incurred during World War I by many sons and heirs of the great houses, and crippling changes in estate-taxation laws. By World War II, large weekend house parties had died out, shifting the locus of the royal family’s entertainment to their own palaces and to events such as the annual presentation of upper-class debutantes at court.
The decline of the aristocracy also meant that the British upper class began to interact with the royal family at events that members of lower social classes could also attend. At significant sporting events, such as Wimbledon and Royal Ascot, for example, tickets are available to the general public. Distinctions in the ways the social classes interact are still maintained even at these more accessible events, but sometimes class boundaries disappear completely around their fringes. In 2005, after the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in Windsor, many guests in their tails, top hats, and fascinators dined at the bistro chain Café Rouge in Windsor & Eton Central train station—at tables alongside more plebeian spectators who had stood behind the barricades, waving as the couple’s limousine sped off.
Today, processions of monarchs and dignitaries at the coronation of a new British monarch mark the occasion as a truly global recognition of the British crown. It is not just the ceremony that’s international. The British scholar John Balmer, who has done extensive work on “monarchic brands,” has observed that because the queen is the sovereign of the United Kingdom and 15 other realms (not to mention the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, with 53 member countries), she is, de facto, “16 queens rolled into one.”
This international reach of the British monarchy, especially as it is manifested in consumer culture, highlights a key difference between that royal family and other monarchies around the globe. For example, it is illegal to speak ill of Thailand’s royal family, and being caught doing so can result in jail time. So it is highly unlikely any Thai retailer would risk offering, say, a coffee mug that pokes even gentle fun at King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s extreme wealth. It might be assumed that the few remaining monarchies in Europe would be motivated to tailor their royal-related merchandise to a broad array of touristic tastes. But the range of royal-themed goods, services, and experiences on the continent in no way approaches what can be acquired in Britain. Although Oslo’s main street—at the crest of which is the royal palace—is awash in tourist shops and global retailers like the Hard Rock Cafe, the average number of royal souvenirs found in establishments along the street is essentially zero. It isn’t that Norwegian retailers spare their visitors kitsch; their shops are stuffed with sacred to silly varieties of moose, reindeer, Vikings, Laplanders, and a bevy of trolls. But two weeks of exploring tourist and antique shops in Norway’s interior and on its coastline revealed that royal merchandise is a blip on the country’s retail radar.
Contrast this muted mercantile response with the types of artifacts people can find in Britain to satisfy the “curious psychological need for royal narratives and for imagined participation in royal lives,” as the tourism scholar Philip Long wrote in Royal Tourism. Even when Charles, prince of Wales, and his wife, Diana, divorced in 1996, and the resulting negative public sentiment led many to assume that the future of the monarchy was tenuous, manufacturers responded with commemoratives of that event. One souvenir plate even satirized the divorce by sporting an image of the couple with a large black crack down the center.
Marketplace representations of the British royal family run the gamut from what the anthropologist Helaine Silverman labels “portable royalty” (e.g., teaspoons, thimbles, coffee mugs, key chains) to large-scale, expensive choices—including refrigerators boasting full-size William and Catherine engagement-photo decals, and replicas of royal housewares and jewelry made of gold, silver, porcelain, and other fine materials priced in the thousands of pounds. For many people, the British monarchy reflects what the Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn calls the “glamour of backwardness.”
From 2012 to 2014, the Diamond Jubilee, Prince George’s birth, William and Catherine’s tour of Australia and New Zealand, and their subsequent whirlwind visit to New York City helped sustain interest in visits to sites associated with the monarchy. There are numerous historically significant and (mostly) well-trodden royal venues in Britain, including Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and Westminster Abbey. But there are also four annual racing events, each on a different continent, that bear Queen Elizabeth’s name. There is a “Queen Elizabeth Land” in Antarctica, a Queen Elizabeth II September 11 Garden in Lower Manhattan, and a statue of her posing with her ubiquitous handbag in Brisbane, Australia. Even the Kremlin, associated with the regime that brought the Russian monarchy to a violent end, offered an exhibit in 2013 called “The ‘Golden Age’ of the English Court: From Henry VIII to Charles I.”
Defenders of the monarchy often argue that it is a vital tourist draw. In truth, except for the specific records of how many people visit a particular site, it is very difficult to accurately assess the economic impact of royal tourism. The BBC’s former economics correspondent Evan Davies has asserted that 10 percent of all tourists visit the United Kingdom because of their interest in the royal family, but notes that many more “are attracted [to] Britain … as a unique and glorious heritage center, to which the monarchy makes an inestimable contribution.” Doing away with the monarchy while retaining its trappings, for example, would likely not be as alluring for tourists, since the royal family acts, in the words of The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, “as a sort of charismatic megafauna for the entire royalty-tourism ecosystem.”
The staff at St. James’s Palace, the official royal residence, has gradually adopted more sophisticated marketing techniques to promote the royal family and tourist experiences related to the monarchy—efforts to which the queen and her relatives have occasionally contributed significantly. Foremost among these was the queen’s decision in 1993 to open Buckingham Palace, the monarch’s administrative headquarters, to the public, despite her desire to keep her public and private lives distinct. In 2013, foreign tourists ranked the tour of the palace as the top “Only in Britain” activity.
This article has been adapted from Cele C. Otnes and Pauline Maclaran’s new book, Royal Fever.