A monarch's engagement.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 11 2005 5:14 PM

Prince Charles

Why Britons are passionately two-minded about his upcoming marriage.

The prince of indifference
The prince of indifference

"I am pleased," said Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, in reply to a reporter's question about the news that Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, is engaged and will marry Camilla Parker-Bowles in a civil ceremony at Windsor Castle at the beginning of April. The sons of Charles say they are "very happy" with the news (the children of Camilla have yet to speak publicly). Queen Elizabeth and her consort-husband, Prince Philip, are as well. "I am very, very pleased," said Nicholas Soames, a Conservative Party member of Parliament and a Churchill grandson. "I am delighted," said Prime Minister Tony Blair. "We're absolutely delighted," said Charles, of himself and his wife-to-be.

Many Britons, on the other hand, said they didn't give a damn about the forthcoming marriage. "Who cares," wrote one on a newspaper message board; "WHO CARES!!!" another. The largest group of respondents to a BBC poll, around 40 percent, agreed with that sentiment, while another two percent expressed "indifference" to the marriage. The oddly precise distinction between the groups—the non-caring and the indifferent—itself points to a curious characteristic of British public life.

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When someone says "who cares?" what they often mean is "WHO CARES?" as in "I care very much and I'm not going to stop telling you that I don't care until you tell me you care as little about this as I do." Many Britons, you could say, live according to various adaptations of Descartes' formulation on human consciousness: "I don't care, therefore I am." Indifference that is rarely indifferent and saying one thing that often means another are expressions of an endemic British trait of two-mindedness. Britons are of divided opinion about Britain, its gorgeous climate, ever-harmonious social classes, and especially about its monarchy. Some like the institution, some hate it, and many leaven their loathing with some liking and vice versa. Two-mindedness, in Britain, can take the form of passion. Now that there's the figment of another royal wedding on the horizon—this one more à la mode than its predecessors, a marriage between two divorcees, four * children between them, the soon-to-be husband godfather to one of his about-to-be stepchildren—Britons can't help but be entirely and internally divided about its virtue and significance.

Seventeen years ago, the republican Tom Nairn published The Enchanted Glass, in which he argued that the institution of the monarchy pervades British society more deeply than it may appear. Royalty, after all, is not only celebrity: It's a way of thinking, a political doctrine embedded in social and political conduct. It is history. And for centuries, the institution of the monarchy has had duality at its heart. The legal doctrine of the king's two bodies, medieval in origin and much elaborated upon by jurists at the turn of the 16th century, holds that a monarch possesses a corporeal self, which is natural and is subject to death, and a spiritual self, which never dies and passes intact to his heir. The notion explains the paradox in the acclamation at coronation, "The King Is Dead, Long Live the King."

The doctrine of the king's two bodies retains some force, ridiculed though it was in the 19th century ("Many things may be doubtful if we try to make two persons of one man, or to provide one person with two bodies," the celebrated legal historian F.W. Maitland wrote). You might argue that British two-mindedness—about monarchy, about many things—has itself evolved from the duality inherent in kingship. Kings are human, we know, but they are also unlike everyone else. They are strangers, but they are also more intimately known than neighbors. And unlike celebrities they don't go away. "Long live the king, the king is dead" isn't just an acclamation. It's an expression of British ambivalence toward their head of state.

To imagine Britain without a monarchy is to imagine it fully integrated into the European Union. Which isn't an impossible thought. Imagining a Britain without two-mindedness, on the other hand, is completely, utterly impossible. British republicans probably won't have their way until they've figured out how to help Britons feel as divided about a republic as they do about monarchy. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Correction, Feb. 24: The article mistated the number of children that Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles have between them as five. The correct number is four. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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