Too sniffy, too hidebound, too fusty? Or just the right touch for the birth of a child destined one day to inherit the crown of one ofthe world’s most longest-surviving monarchies?
To some, Buckingham Palace’s decision to announce the royal birth with a framed proclamation mounted on a gold-trimmed wooden easel, planted at a conspicuous point inside the palace gates, will be seen as symptomatic of the stuffy protocols that have for too long bound Britain’s royal court.
For the first royal heir in direct line of descent to be been born in the 21st century, the palace chose a tradition that has been used to announce royal births and deaths since the 18th century.
The last time the easel was used was for the birth on June 21, 1982, in the same wing of St. Mary’s Hospital a mile and a half from the palace, of Prince William, first-born son of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. William, of course, is the father of the new baby, and second in line to the throne after Charles. The newborn child now stands third in line, replacing William’s younger brother, Prince Harry. (Archival images of the easel in use three decades ago have gone into circulation on Twitter, including one used on the inevitable @RoyalEasel parody feed.)
In announcing plans to make the birth public with a formal letter on Buckingham Palace stationery, signed by the attending obstetricians and carried to the palace by a palace vehicle accompanied by police outriders, royal officials acknowledged that there were swifter and more efficient ways of breaking the news — and promised that they, too, would be used, but not for the drama of the initial proclamation.
In a briefing for reporters a month before the birth, they said the announcement in the palace forecourt would be followed, swiftly, by an “electronic press release” giving additional details about the birth, as well as by posts on the royal Twitter feed. “It is very important that it will not be announced first on Twitter, although it will be announced on Twitter in due course,” a royal spokesman said.
“We wanted to retain some of the theater of the notice,” he said. “It is quite important to us that this is done properly, and with the degree of dignity that the event demands. This is the birth of a child who will be in line to the throne. It is a rare occasion and nice to be able to do it with some historical precedence.”
Those who regard the easel’s use in the age of live television and the Internet as arcane may see it as a measure of how far the Windsors have fallen behind other European monarchies — “the bicycle monarchies,” as traditionalists in Britain have called them, after the cycle-to-work habits of the Dutch royal family — in adapting to a populist age.
Some, no doubt, will see the old-fashioned mode of announcement as inauspicious for an infant destined, in time, to carry the banner for the monarchy — perhaps for its very survival — against those who would like to abandon the thousand-year-old history of kings and queens and see it replaced by a republic with a non-hereditary head of state.
Others will accept that that the easel is an simple way of reaffirming royal tradition, serving the institution of majesty in much the same way, and at much lower cost, as other, more elaborate traditions that remain an essential part of royal pomp and ceremony — the gilded carriages, the ermine-trimmed robes, the trumpet fanfares, and much else besides.
In the term used by the palace spokesman, it is all part of the theater of monarchy its magic, to use the term favored by the 19th-century scholar Walter Bagehot, who wrote what many still regard as the seminal work on the subject. And monarchists would argue that many of the monarch’s “subjects” — still another archaism commonly used in Britain’s official lexicon — would miss it if the drive for modernization were ultimately to strip the theater and the magic away.