Human Sacrifice, Duty, and Netflix’s ‘The Crown’

This past week I have been devouring Netflix’s sumptuous new drama about Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. The series begins in 1947 with Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip of Greece (Mountbatten), and ends with Winston Churchill’s resignation in 1955. Although the series is ostensibly about the Queen, it is more accurately an exploration of British power more generally in the immediate postwar years. Questions of duty – of what is the ‘right thing to do’ – fill the series with moments of tension, where individual people have to make close calls, often with unhappy consequences for others.

Perhaps the title is a clue, but to my mind The Crown is a probing investigation into the ways in which an impersonal idea of duty calls for human sacrifice. Rather than a person being the focal point of attention, as in Helen Mirren’s wonderful 2006 film, The Queen, in The Crown the focal point is an idea – that of ‘the Crown’. At different moments and in different ways, individual people brush up against the power of this idea, and they must decide what to do about it: should they submit to it, or could they master it and in doing so, make the person (not a concept) the most important reality?

Broadly speaking, I’d say that those on the side of the concept – of submitting to the idea of ‘the Crown’ – are Winston Churchill, Tommy Lascelles (the Queen’s Private Secretary), Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and at times, the Queen herself, and also from time to time, the Duke of Windsor. These are people of an older generation to the Queen, and they are manifestly overpowered by a ringing sense of duty to honour ‘the Crown’.

But what is the Crown? It’s an object, certainly, and we often see it. But more potently, it is set up as an idea. The monarch, and those attached to the monarch, are in a sense superhuman. Royalty is expected to be the ideal humanity, so much so that this expectation strips the actual people involved of any personality whatsoever. Royalty is supposed to give the ‘ordinary man’ something to fantasise about, to lift him out of his sordid life. Anointed by God, the Crown is a people’s earthly saviour.

The ‘ordinary man’ – whoever he is – may once have bought such an idea. But in the early 1950s winds of change are about, and these are represented by Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, Group Captain Peter Townsend (former equerry to King George VI), and at times, by the Duke of Windsor. In these people we trace the stirrings of personality. When Queen Mary sends a note to Elizabeth as she disembarks the plane that brought her back from Kenya on the announcement of her father’s death, Elizabeth is told that she is no longer Elizabeth Windsor, but Elizabeth Regina. This is an active attempt to hollow out the person, to let her be filled by the various duties imposed on her in service of the Crown. Philip, on the other hand, is consistently concerned about the ways in which those who support the idea of ‘the Crown’ are in fact making the monarchy seem like a monstrous institution to a changing society.

When Princess Margaret is repeatedly denied the right to marry the divorced Peter Townsend, the Queen risks outrage among the press, who represent the changing voice of ‘the people’. The people generally support Margaret’s right to love whomever she pleases, and she and Peter catch the imagination of the media as a glamorous, less up-tight couple who could bring fresh admiration for a new idea of the Crown. Instead of people bowing down to a static, impersonal and objective idea of the Crown, Margaret and Peter attempt to return the attention to the emotional lives of individual people; they help us and the country at the time to remember what really matters: a concept, or actual people?

Prince Philip supports Margaret’s choice, although he has doubts about the age gap between the two (Peter is 15 years Margaret’s senior). Edward, the former King and now Duke of Windsor, is torn both ways, because he sympathises with Margaret’s persecution by the establishment – monarchy, parliament, and Church – but he also has one eye on what he lost in his abdication in 1936, and his distasteful snobbery is evident in his care for the moral cleanliness of such a reified idea as the Crown. It is tragic that Edward, himself persecuted by the establishment in similar ways, should still believe in the credulity of what is essentially objectivisation.

Objectivisation is the opposite of personalism; it projects everything outwards, wrenching it from the inner, microcosmic world of the human person. The Crown is precisely that: it is an objectivisation of the monarch, so that it is no longer rooted in the unique, developing individual, but becomes a static phantasm, to which actual people must submit. Needless to say, when objectivisation occurs, the result is often slavery of some form or other. When people are made to serve a concept, the consequences can be devastating.

The Crown begs the question as to whether Elizabeth II became a slave in 1952 when she acceded to the throne. Her entire life altered as she stopped being Elizabeth Windsor and became, by duty’s mandate, Elizabeth Regina. There is an argument to be made that Princess Margaret’s life was essentially crippled by being denied the right to marry the man she loved. And there is an argument to be made that Prince Philip has been an important influence of personality in an environment so hostile to personality.

As a Christian, I cannot justify the existence of monarchy on Biblical grounds, which is what the Church of England has done for centuries; as far as I am concerned, the idea of kingship was fulfilled in Jesus Christ: ‘king’ became the most personal of people.

And yet, people need strong and upright leadership: leaders who care about their people, who feel with them, who serve them. But does leadership have to be exercised through monarchy, especially the British monarchy? While this question is being turned over when important people have a spare hour to think, actual people are still being sacrificed to a notion of the Crown, most recently in the on-going micro-management of Prince Harry’s personal life: a heady mixture of public expectations, press involvement, and Palace reticence.

The Crown is an important exploration into the dynamics of monarchy and personality, and its humane portrayal of the Queen herself should arouse some sympathy. A second series has been commissioned, and I am excited to see how the story will unfold.

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