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The Half-Blood Prince

5 minute read

A royal commoner? A commoner King? It sounds a little like a straight-to-cable Adam Sandler movie: cute babies get switched around in the maternity ward, frazzled Mom and Dad don’t notice, and hijinks ensue. It’s an oxymoron, this phrase commoner King–a crossing of self-canceling categories, an unnatural hybrid like a jackalope or heffalump. We might as well speak of a bashful pole dancer or an honest roofer.

Yet a commoner King is the very thing that burst upon us, and upon Kate Middleton, on July 22, when the Duchess of Cambridge, as the official announcement put it, “was safely delivered of a son.” The archaic formulation was pleasingly stuffy, and it understandably passed over the notable fact that for the first time in many centuries, the future King of England and Defender of the Faith had emerged from a mother who is without a drop of peerage blood. My guess is the boy, quite apart from his personal qualities, will prove an inconvenience to antiroyalists and monarchists alike.

(Read TIME’s previous feature about why the royal baby will be such a figure of global influence.)

It was the need for a new royal family and a steady supply of royal blood that forced the Brits to reach across the Channel and pluck the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas from a remote corner of old Germany, and damn the hemophilia. In 1917, the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas de-Germanized themselves into the Windsors, a name that sounded much better when Armistice Day rolled around. In its adopted land, the bloodline has showed mixed results. We’ve seen the undeniably magnificent (the brave George VI and the present indestructible Queen), the blessedly inconspicuous (who is Prince Andrew’s younger brother again?) and the disastrous (Edward VIII, who had to chuck it all for the woman he famously said he loved, because she was not only a commoner but also–send the children from the room–an American).

Kate isn’t as bad as an American, but she’s close. Even though the martyred Diana was a commoner too, at least technically, she was nonetheless a daughter of the peerage. Kate’s mother is a descendant of coal miners. It gets worse. After working–working?–for an airline company, Kate’s parents founded a business (business?). And there’s more: This business actually produces things–things people need and want to buy and pay money for. Hard work and industry have made the Middletons immensely rich. What could be more common?

The Middletons’ wealth is what allowed them to place their daughter in a fancy school–and in the line of sight of extremely marriageable, and perhaps royal, young men. But Kate didn’t secure her position on account of blood, and this must confound antiroyalists. Her rise introduces an almost egalitarian element into what antimonarchists see as an irredeemably closed and corrupted system. It’s almost American-style upward mobility, with a British twist: if you work hard and play by the rules, regardless of race, color or creed, you too can marry your daughter off to become the mother of a King!

(Read TIME’s original 1982 story about the birth of Prince William.)

On the other hand, the new commoner King disrupts the case for royalty too. The fact of his lineage cuts straight through to the unreason that props up the monarchy. For blood–lineage–is what makes royalty. It creates a gap between them and us that is, in theory, unbridgeable. All the trades in Britain, from bootmakers to distillers, fall over one another to receive the royal purveyor’s endorsement, precisely because it imparts an otherworldly quality. By its nature, or supernature, royalty gets credit for whatever is good and evades blame for whatever is bad. Two centuries ago, the journalist William Cobbett noticed that the Brits referred to the Royal Mint but the national debt.

(Complete Coverage: The Royal Baby)

What happens to this notion of goodness and purity when the common and the royal come together in a single person, in a Burke’s Peerage version of the hypostatic union? Time, as the old editorial writer once said, will tell. With the birth of Prince George, the royalty is as popular as it’s ever been. The antiroyalist cause is reeling. The Saxe-Coburg-Gothas have managed to survive even themselves–not to mention one royal who hawked diet food on TV and another who was photographed in a Vegas hotel suite playing strip billiards with friends.

Besides, the new commoner King can count on a realm where all such contradictions are resolved–common vs. royal, blue blood vs. red. I heard it from a CNN anchor during the interminable coverage of Kate’s interminable labor.

“We’re all anxiously awaiting word of”–and here the anchor reached for the word that confers the highest status of all, far beyond mere Defender of the Faith–“the world’s newest celebrity.”

Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard

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