"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
On the late morning of 13th June 1917, German Gotha bombers set out from occupied France for London, England. By lunchtime, they were over the East End. Their deadly cargo cascaded down on the crowded streets, setting off panic. One bomb smashed into Upper North Street School killing 18 children. The raid claimed a total of 162 dead and some 432 injured. The news was greeted with great acclaim in Germany as a new epoch in warfare.
King George V was less happy. The raid reminded the British people of his German roots. As a member of the German ducal House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the public soon made the connection. With royal families in retreat across Europe, it didn’t help that the King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India had a German name.
The anti-german sentiment was one thing. Throwing anti-royal opinions into the mix made the King fear for his dynasty. Revolution in Russia with rising republicanism at home compounded those fears.
The name needed to change and quick. The task was assigned to Lord Stamfordham, a devote servant of the King and by all accounts an intelligent man. It is worth pointing out that the King was a rather dull figure. He had little imagination, no evident leadership skills. Beyond the survival of his line of accession, he appeared unfocused. Having said that, George V was astute enough not to allow his cousin the Tsar of Russia to seek refuge in England. As such he, in effect, condemned his cousin and family to death. With no escape for them, the Bolsheviks executed the whole family. This distasteful episode stains his reputation.
Until recently, it was generally held that Prime Minister, Lloyd George, objected to the Tsar coming to England. New evidence points to the King intervening. With republican sentiment on the rise, this unsettled him. He recognized that having the Tsar in England threatened his own throne. He moved to oppose the offer of refuge.
Anyway, Stamfordham set about a rebranding with a new name as the foundation. In an inspired choice, he opted for the ‘House of Windsor.’ The King agreed. Yet, Stamfordham went further. He understood that the Royals could no longer survive on the support of the upper classes and the gentry. With increased democracy vocal working-class voices emerged. The Royals needed to position themselves as appealing to all classes. Stamfordham then laid the template for a public relations strategy that continues today.
He proposed that the King and his German wife conduct tours to greet ordinary folks. This was an anathema to many in the royal household. They held that Kings and Queens should be distant figures. Moving amongst the common citizenry would degrade the monarchy. Some felt it could reduce it to an undignified spectacle. But the King remained concerned about the rise of socialism. He associated this with republicanism, although that assessment was mistaken. A test Royal visit went ahead.
The public response was instant and favourable. George then harnessed his two sons to the process. In the process, he unwittingly created a rock star prince. His eldest son, Edward, a dashing prince, caused a sensation across the world stage.
By 1935, his silver jubilee, George V has secured the place of the House of Windsor. He'd proved steadfast during the Great War. True is, he'd had a good war. His reputation was intact. Cheered with adulation whenever in public. He remarked ‘I can’t understand it, I’m an ordinary chap.’
He could thank Lord Stamfordham. The Royal brand sold stability as the locus of the nation. To this day the Windsors adopt the same strategy, with various modern refinements.
These days the Windsor PR machine controls and contorts every image we see of the Royals. With the annual address, seated with a Christmas tree behind her, two photographs were in the shot. For a brief moment, we glimpse of Charles and Camilla, before the camera zoomed in. It perfectly frames the Queen with William, Kate and kids. No picture of the old cantankerous comedy act Prince Phillip or of randy Andy, the once favourite son. No Anne or Edward. Instead, the PR machine decided to pander to public opinion. The most popular young Royals are playing a support role to the Queen.
The Queen apparently calls the Royal Family ‘The Firm’. The product sold these days is a kitschy view of British society and traditions. The Royals sit at the focal point. They are the nexus that connects the threads. Fridge magnets, tea-towels plus assorted brick-a-brac are the tangible manifestations and money makers.
You’d think that someone who got her job because her family were pan-European powerhouses might recognise the benefits of Europe. Thus, media reports that the ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ are surprising. The story is based on comments she is supposed to have made during a 2011 meeting with Nick Clegg (remember him?) or members of her Privy Council. Clegg asserts he remembers no such remarks. The Palace issued a denial.
Taking a position on such a divisive issue brings risks to the Windsors. It exposes them, plus the reporting of the Queen’s views, wither accurate or not, takes away control. That’s the main issue here. The Windsors need to control the narrative to maintain their legitimacy. Idle repeated comments take that away. And god forbid Princess Diana comes along to hijack the narrative in a different direction.
Like all brands, the Queen jealousy guards the integrity of the product. The House of Windsor is not a tin of beans, yet it needs selling in the modern world. Thus it goes on. Harry has the Invictus Games, with William focused on conservation. Both talk about mental health. It’s all very appealing, trendy, with heavy spin.
The subject fascinates me. Given the evident uncertainties that face the House of Windsor, they need to evolve. In the past, they've shown a callous ruthlessness and robustness that defies the odds. In recent years William, Kate and Harry invigorated the brand. Yet, one of the rules of branding is ‘the less you offer, the more you’re remembered’. That proved true of the Queen. The new blood may need to back off a bit to not overexpose. It's a delicate line to walk.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.