The Proper Gander Column from the May 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Most of us would struggle to find similarities between our lives and that of, say, Charles I. However, Fit To Rule – How Royal Illness Changed History (BBC2) wants to ‘reintroduce you to our monarchs as human beings, people rather like you and me’. The show’s presenter, Dr Lucy Worsley, argues that the wellbeing of our previous kings and queens was like a barometer for the state of the nation. Aware of this, each sovereign has had a personal army of advisers and doctors to scrutinise and promote their health. Back in the sixteenth century, collecting Henry VIII’s urine for analysis was the only occasion you could take the piss out of a monarch without ending up in the Tower.
Fit To Rule doesn’t dwell as much on royal diseases as we’re led to believe, suggesting a focus group decided the snappy title first and then crow-barred a format around it. So, the programme also bounces between GCSE-standard potted histories of the lines of succession, royalty fuelling divisions between Protestants and Catholics, and the decline in the belief that monarchs were god-like. Sadly, the association between royalty and gods sort of survives today in the deference shown to the elite, although at least scrofula sufferers no longer queue up to be touched by the monarch in the hope of a miracle cure. Nor has the conflict between Protestants and Catholics gone away, as it still soldiers on in Northern Ireland, for example. And we haven’t really moved away from the expectation that kings should be virile and queens should be fertile in order to ensure an heir, as shown by media’s drooling over Kate-n-Will’s upcoming sprog. These comparisons aren’t to be found in Fit To Rule, though, which presents history as a spicy soap opera. James I’s and Queen Anne’s possible bisexual dalliances (worryingly discussed in the context of ‘illnesses’) are described much like an EastEnders plotline. In a way, the quirks of the royal dynasties are like a soap, as both distract us from thinking about the economic forces which really move society along. So maybe reminding ourselves that the royal family are only human can help encourage us to scrap this divisive institution.