The first time British historian James Vaughn encountered British royal family fandom: A mug, commemorating the 1981 wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, prominently displayed at a childhood friend’s house.
Decades later, Vaughn recalled being woken up to a commotion in the middle of the night during a stay at a Connecticut inn. Every guest had tuned in to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding (a 5 a.m. affair on the East Coast).
Vaughn, who specializes in British history and “colonial and revolutionary” British North America at the University of Chicago, said these memories are examples of a royal family fan club culture in the U.S. that ranges from mild interest to complete obsession — with, of course, many others who want nothing to do with the royal family at all.
And, Vaughn said, the aura of monarchy itself is as interesting as those individual royals whose lives, romances and controversies have been made public.
Grid spoke to Vaughn about why a country, who won their independence from Great Britain, has such an obsession with their royals.
The royal family is a breath of fresh apolitical air for Americans
Though the king or queen is officially the sovereign head of state, these royals have, since the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, exercised less and less of their political powers.
Though technically a constitutional monarchy, the U.K., Vaughn said, is functionally a parliamentary democracy — led by a prime minister, cabinet and House of Commons.
“Just to give you an example, the Crown actually has the right, like the U.S. president, to veto legislation passed by Parliament,” Vaughn said. “There has not been an exercise of that veto since the reign of Queen Anne, in the early 18th century, over 300 years ago.”
Vaughn hypothesized that the idea of an apolitical leader is especially appealing to Americans, who, research shows, increasingly distrust those in leadership positions in U.S. government, and whose institutions are increasingly politicized — at least in the public eye.
This is also true for many in the U.K. While Parliament is highly politicized and can get fairly volatile, those on both sides of the aisle are often able to find common ground: a positive view of Queen Elizabeth II, “because they don’t know what her opinion is on that issue,” Vaughn said.
On almost any issue, in her seven-decade reign, relatively little has been gleaned of the queen’s political views, Vaughn said. Buckingham Palace has placed an emphasis on her privacy over any sort of controversial matter.
Especially in the polarizing age of social media, Vaughn said, this has helped her popularity endure in the U.S. without too much controversy.
Americans and American media love status and celebrity — defining traits of the royal family
In 2011, 22 million Americans woke up in the wee hours of the morning to watch Prince William exchange vows with Kate Middleton. In 2018, 29 million Americans woke up before dawn yet again — this time to watch Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.
These events have become so big and popular that American television networks often pull reporters and resources from other parts of the world — those who are covering “real news,” said one former television executive — in order to report on royal weddings.
Regardless of what it means for the country’s cultural fabric or health, Americans love to love (or love to hate … or hate to love) status and celebrity. It’s what keeps tabloids in business, and Entertainment Tonight on the air.
It also helps that the U.S. has no royal king or queen of their own, despite many celebrities clamoring for a similar status. But it does beg the question: Why the obsession over the British monarchy specifically, instead of the Spanish, Swedish or any other?
Vaughn said the answer is likely as simple as: both countries speak English, making the British royals the easiest family to access and follow.
For many Americans, the monarchy is now more about pop culture and less about history
Of course, not everyone is enamored with the royal family. Many have taken to social media in the past few days to criticize the monarchy and its legacy of colonialism around the world.
From renewed calls for the British Museum to return many of its stolen items, to candid reminders that Britain’s reigning monarch has sponsored mass genocide and slavery, Queen Elizabeth’s death has been emotional and provocatory.
And, historically, this love affair with British royals did not always exist in the U.S., especially with regard to British royalty — the American Revolution, for example.
Until the early 19th century, Vaughn said, Americans viewed the British monarchy negatively — as a medieval symbol of unearned privilege, nepotism and the still-recent history of the country’s independence from Great Britain and King George III. It all went against America’s view of itself as the underdog to root for — a country of regular folks fighting against the powers trying to control them.
“The British monarchy … goes through bloodlines, which seems to be an entire rejection of the spirit of the American Enterprise,” said Vaughn.
But following the Civil War (1861–1865) and into the early 20th century, the American-British relationship began to shift in both directions across the Atlantic.
Sitting British royals or heirs to the throne began visiting America with frequency — Edward VIII in particular, who abdicated his title of king after reigning for less than a year — so he could marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcee from Baltimore.
During both World Wars, the U.S. and Great Britain were allies on a world stage, further strengthening their political and cultural bonds. On similar timelines, they emerged from the second industrial revolution, accommodating new technologies, such as the phonograph, telegraph and film camera into their societies.
Political alliances, a wayward king and an American pop culture that grew beyond itself fueled Americans’ perception of the royal family — they began to be “feted and celebrated in the United States,” Vaughn said, and have been ever since the turn of the 20th century.
A long-lasting relationship that’s stood the test of some very British scandals
It is unlikely that King Charles reaches the heights of global popularity that Queen Elizabeth did, Vaughn said. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans’ interest in following the monarchy or visiting the U.K. will waver.
“While Queen Elizabeth II was certainly one of the most interesting stars in that firmament of icons and tourist attractions for Americans, it’s much wider than just a particular monarch,” said Vaughn.
The British family’s many scandals have not deterred (instead, they’ve possibly fueled) Americans’ obsession. Vaughn calls it “Anglophilia” — a strange yet unwavering, “I’m still going to watch” sense of voyeurism.
And ultimately, Vaughn said, there remains a certain nostalgia for the “land across the pond” that Americans view as quintessential “Brittania” — the British version of “Americana.”
“Seeing things like the Houses of Parliament, Oxford and Cambridge, a country that still has a House of Lords and judges who still wear wigs — that will still attract Americans.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.