In hindsight it seems inevitable that someone would eventually make a glamorous drama about the early life of Elizabeth II. After all, the whole world has been unapologetically obsessed with the British royal family for decades. Not a moment too soon, Netflix has obliged with The Crown, a tastefully opulent series that spares no expense when it comes to sets, costumes, extras, or locations.
What seems less inevitable is that The Crown would prove to be as good as it is. This is partly due to some extremely fine directing and acting, particularly from Claire Foy as the Queen and the first season’s John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. But primary credit goes to Peter Morgan’s thoughtful, profound, and philosophically provocative scripts.
Morgan is the award-winning scriptwriter behind the 2006 film The Queen, and with The Crown he’s evidently returning to a topic in which he has a great deal of interest. His scripts for The Crown are a delight. It seems next thing to sacrilege to say it, but he gives us something reminiscent of Shakespeare: characters of great ambiguity and complexity; long and mesmerizing dialogues; scenes that pause for a lengthy, imagery-laden speech. The effect is more stylized than realistic, but the subject calls for a larger-than-life presentation.
Season One begins with Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh, and covers her accession after the early death of her father, through the first few years of her reign as she matures from a shy and tentative newcomer to an able monarch. But this transformation comes with an overwhelming personal cost. Like her immediate predecessors—her father, whose dedication to an unexpected and unwanted duty hastened his death, and her uncle, whose abdication forced her branch of the family to assume that duty—Elizabeth finds herself perpetually torn between two realities: the Crown and the individual.
This theme isn’t driven home in a ham-fisted way, but it’s powerful and unmistakable because it’s the unifying principle governing the whole series. As Elizabeth tries to find a balance between her personal inclinations and her public duties, other members of her family are making their own choices. Uncle David (the former Edward VIII) chose personal inclinations over public duties, shaking the monarchy to its foundations and indirectly causing his brother’s premature death. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s free-spirited sister Princess Margaret, who like her uncle is also in love with a divorcé, argues that people want the Crown to seem human and relatable.
But Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s grandmother, insists not:
“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win, must always win.”
Traditions in Conflict
This conflict between Elizabeth Mountbatten and Elizabeth Regina is most painful in the Queen’s relationship with her husband. The Duke of Edinburgh, as depicted in this series, is resentful about having to leave his working life as a naval officer in Malta to become little more than a glorified attendant upon a wife who suddenly outranks him.
The situation is made no easier by the fact that while Philip wants to see the monarchy modernized (his suggestion to have the coronation televised causes a great stir), the nobles and public servants surrounding the Crown look down on him as a distrusted foreigner of lower status than their Queen.
It’s difficult to believe that the real Duke of Edinburgh didn’t understand what he was letting himself in for when he married the heir to the throne, regardless of what friction there must have been when Elizabeth II ascended the throne early. But all the same, there’s a delicate and refreshing irony in Elizabeth and Philip’s situation here.
The whole predicament is far too complex to fit into the men-oppressing-women narrative of feminist history. Elizabeth, trying to find a meaningful role for her husband at her side, bucks protocol by appointing him to chair the coronation committee. The serious mustached men who run the country are horrified that their sovereign should let a paltry consideration like the happiness of her home interfere with court etiquette: “They’re playing marital games with our oldest tradition!” one frets.
What struck me about this was the absence of a patriarchal conspiracy. The irony is that while he talks of egalitarianism and modernizing, Philip is clearly suffering from the shock of suddenly no longer being the head of his home, resisted by the Mustaches when he tries to find a meaningful role. On the other hand, the Mustaches want to retain every encrustation of monarchical tradition, but in doing so they force Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage to flip gender roles, very much against their own will.
Monarchy and Divinity
Why should this be so? As the series progresses, it becomes startlingly clear that the divine right of kings is a concept which—in this version of the events, at least—is still alive and well.
“Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth … You are answerable to God in your duty, not the public,” Mary of Teck counsels Elizabeth at one point. Winston Churchill agrees: “What is the purpose of the crown? Should it be accountable to the people, to be audited? Or should it be above temporal matters?”
For the traditionalists, the Crown is a quasi-divine institution, and when she is crowned, Elizabeth attains a quasi-divine status. “Wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have? A goddess,” the former Edward VIII observes during the coronation.
This was all fascinating, because one tends to think of the divine right of kings as a concept which disappeared after 1688. The “Glorious Revolution” definitively put the day-to-day government of England in the hands of Parliament, not the monarch. Operating under such limitations, how can any monarch claim divine right?
The answer is given by Queen Mary:
“To do nothing is the hardest job of all. And it will take every ounce of energy that you have. To be impartial is not natural, not human. People will always want you to smile or agree or frown. And the minute you do, you will have declared a position, a point of view. And that is the one thing as sovereign that you are not entitled to do.”
In the world of The Crown, personal preference is individualistic and human, and therefore something to be shunned. In order to transcend humanity, in order to fulfill her calling as the living embodiment of the British Crown, Elizabeth must become impartial, inhuman, divine. When Princess Margaret begs for permission to marry her divorced lover, for example, Elizabeth is trapped by her role. As a sister, she supports the match; as the monarch and head of the Church of England, she’s forced to forbid it.
This has all sorts of theological implications. If in becoming queen, Elizabeth is elevated to the divine; if in embodying divinity she must remain ultimately neutral and aloof in the political life of the United Kingdom, then it follows that God Himself must be viewed as ultimately disconnected from and neutral in human affairs, and that the God enshrined in the British constitution is in fact a deistic god with little to say about human affairs.
In this view the divine is purely transcendent, with no immanence. But Princess Margaret believes differently. Asked to represent the Crown during one of Elizabeth’s absences, she argues that the monarch ought to be warm and relatable, someone that people can feel they have a personal relationship with. The Crown should be incarnational; the divine should be brought down to earth.
A False Dichotomy
An individual can be known in a way that a corporation never can be, and so incarnation can never occur where the individual is not valued. This leads us back to the old question of the one and the many. Which should be given priority, the rights of the individual or the good of the collective? As we know, the Trinitarian Christian faith solves this old philosophical quandary because in the Godhead, both individual and collective are equally ultimate.
Unhappily for its characters, The Crown hasn’t solved this dilemma. According to the series, personal desires are by definition pitted against public duties. The Crown thus sets up a false dichotomy between the one and the many. As we see, the individualists (like Princess Margaret) want the Crown to be personal and incarnational, but there’s a danger involved. An individual who treats the Crown as a personal possession will inevitably use that power and influence to gain her own desires, and the Crown will become a political football rather than a venerable institution.
On the other hand, while the traditionalists want the Crown to be divine and impersonal, the catch is that the monarch herself is only human. Elizabeth drives herself mercilessly to live up to the transcendent divinity she’s supposed to embody, but the effort takes a tremendous personal toll—she gets facial spasms from the constant smiling and the strain within her marriage becomes increasingly difficult to hide from the public.
R. J. Rushdoony often spoke of the state’s assumption of divinity in any worldview that falls short of Trinitarian balance. That’s what’s happening in The Crown, and the result is a compelling and fascinating study of the unbearable burden of divinity. In The Crown, the monarch is half divine, half human, and as of the first season, the show gives no hope that its fictional Elizabeth II will find a way to reconcile the two.