Global Royal Families

Global Royal Families: Concepts, Cultures, and Networks of International Monarchy, 1800-2020.

Conference held at the German Historical Institute London (GHIL), 16-18 January 2020. Conveners: Falko Schnicke (GHIL), Cindy McCreery (University of Sydney), and Robert Aldrich (University of Sydney).

Conference Report

Co-financed by the GHIL and the University of Sydney, the event brought together scholars from four continents and eight countries to discuss the timely issue of global monarchies. Over the two and a half days there were nearly forty attendees and nineteen speakers presenting ideas spanning royal families across two centuries and the continents of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Despite the wide variance in time periods and geographical locations, there were many overlapping and complementary themes between the papers, including the importance of the visibility of monarchs, the need to secure status on a global stage, as the role of royals as official and unofficial diplomats, and the media’s influence over the public image of a royal person or dynasty. The conference’s main findings could be seen in its constant intertwining of global, national, and regional aspects of royal families and in proving the reoccurring political significance of monarchies in different nineteenth- and twentieth-century contexts.           

The conference opened with Robert Aldrich’s (University of Sydney) introductory talk detailing the coverage of global royal families in history and historiography. Starting with comparative examples from both the early nineteenth century and modern-day marriages between the Napoleon and Habsburg dynasties, Aldrich highlighted the intertwined genealogical, political, and cultural ties between royal families across the world. He maintained that in the nineteenth century European monarchies were affected by empire, which demonstrated their power to conquer and their interest in collections of ‘exotica’, yet simultaneously non-European monarchies were adopting western styles of clothing, architecture, and court culture to be more accepted on the global stage.

The first session focused upon royalty in international affairs and diplomacy and opened with a paper by Moritz A. Sorg (University of Freiburg) which examined the extent to which the First World War damaged royal family relationships across Europe. Sorg provided parallel case studies of Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and Ferdinand I of Romania to demonstrate how the First World War placed related monarchies on opposite sides, and the consequential impact this had on how these royal individuals were viewed in their respective countries and under the condition of increasing nationalism. Next, Michael Kandiah’s (King’s College London) paper focused upon how the British royal family since 1952 has utilized their ‘soft power’ to improve diplomatic relations between countries. Using oral testimonies of British diplomats, Kandiah explored how Queen Elizabeth II has been able to use her royal status, which places her above politics in order to maintain good relationships through official engagements, both internationally and in Britain.

The second session centred on the House of Windsor and their relationship with foreign royal houses. Continuing the focus on Queen Elizabeth II and the current British royal family, Falko Schnicke (GHIL) delivered a paper which analysed the content of speeches given at state visits and highlighted the input that the Government and the Palace had over these. He proved that is was the Foreign Office which inserted the references to personal family remarks within the speeches to demonstrate the network of monarchies and the intensity of the international royal relationships. Thus, the royal family functioned as a collective unit rather than as individuals. Following this Hilary Sapire (Birbeck College, University of London) examined the relationship between the British and Zulu royal families (in South Africa) in the colonial period and through the early twentieth century. She argued that royal events and the links to the British monarchy were used by both Zulu monarchists and nationalists to advance their cause for independence.

The first day closed with a keynote by Frank Mort (University of Manchester), which analysed how the media was used to transform the monarchy under George V and Queen Mary, and Edward VIII into a consumable entity for the public. The increased visibility of the royal family through informal royal visits both in Britain and the colonies helped to make them more accessible to the ordinary public. Mort took a bottom-up approach to judging how the public emotionally responded to different members of the royal family through drawing upon first-hand accounts of seeing royalty. He argued that the rise of human-interest journalism meant that there was a more extensive and global coverage of the royal family, and an attempt to make them more approachable by conducting unceremonious visits. He stressed the differences between George V and Queen Mary helping to solidify the notion of the royal family as a domestic unit, whilst the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) fostered a celebrity culture around his younger lifestyle.

The second day of the conference began with session three which looked at the global reach of the British monarchy, with John R. Davis (Queen Mary London/ Historic Royal Palaces) beginning with British attitudes towards India in the nineteenth century. Using Queen Victoria’s diaries and royal library catalogues, Davis argued that Queen Victoria was first introduced to German philology through Prince Albert. This early introduction to philology and reoccurring meetings with renowned scholars such as Max Müller, helped to fuel her interest in Indian culture during the latter part of her life. Moving into the twentieth century, Christian Oberländer (University of Halle-Wittenberg) contrasted this with a paper analysing how the British royal family were a model for the Japan’s Imperial house, looking particularly at the role of the Japanese sovereign as a ‘symbol’ emperor after the Second World War. He argued that by effectively adopting the emperor as a head of state and embracing state visits, the Japanese Imperial family was able to open themselves up to the public at home and in the West.  

Session four continued the theme of royal travel through focusing on the Spanish and Austrian royal families. Firstly, Javier Moreno-Luzón (Complutense University of Madrid) explained how Alfonso XIII of Spain (r.1886-1931) fostered closer relations with Latin America through royal visits, celebrations, and a shared culture to create a transnational image of the royal family. He argued that since the late nineteenth century until the end of the 1920s, the royal family successfully promoted Spanish national identity centring on the monarchy through the careful selection of sending different royal individuals to Hispanophone Latin American countries. Thereby they were able to simultaneously promote the historic ties to Spain and highlight a progressive future. Aglaja Weindl (University of Munich) provided a case study of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and how he was an ‘unexpected global royal’ because of his world tour in 1892-3. This extensive travel not only educated the Archduke but provided an opportunity to build better relations with other Protestant and Orthodox countries. Consideration of the routine of ceremonies with bad company whilst undertaking official duties was emphasized and provided a humanistic account of royal life.

Session five focused upon global encounters, with Judith Rowbotham (University of Plymouth) using a range of local, national, and colonial newspapers to analyse the reception of the British royal family within different colonies. With examples of tours through India, Canada, Australia, and beyond from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, she emphasized the impact that these visits had on global networking and diplomacy. Through specifically tailoring the tone of the visit and the activities, this not only aided relationships with the authorities, but allowed a sense of community to develop in the colonial public. Cindy McCreery (University of Sydney) followed this with a case study of the 1881 visit to Japan by King Kalakaua of Hawai’i and Princes Albert Victor and George of Great Britain, and explored how this occasion was used to foster better relations between the countries. With similarities that mirrored Oberländer’s paper, McCreery argued that the opening up of Japan to royal visits was an attempt for the country to reinvent its global image, appear more welcoming, and encourage trade deals. Such a tour also allowed the King of Hawai’i to develop an international presence. Photographs of the visit demonstrated that there was a clear acknowledgement of the status of foreign royalty, whilst showing differences in hierarchy due to age and position to the throne.

The following session centred around the importance of letter-writing between royals, with emphasis on female family relations. Susanne Bauer (University of Trier) explained her research project cataloguing and analysing the 20,000 letters of Augusta Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Queen of Prussia and Empress of Germany. She argued that Augusta expressed many political opinions within these letters, tried to advise her husband (whether he asked for advice or not), and was a key factor in building relationships with royalty and politicians across Europe and beyond with approximately 230 royal and non-royal correspondents. Mary T. Duarte (Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee, USA) analysed the letters between four generations of female royals over the course of the nineteenth century from the line of ancestors of Maria Theresa of the House of Habsburg. She scrutinized the type of advice passed from mother to daughter, and between grandmother and granddaughter, especially pertaining to marriage and sexual life. She contended that as the generations went on the tone of this advice softened, although duty and obedience was still often accentuated.

 The second keynote of the conference was delivered by Irene Stengs (Meertens Instituut/ Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam), who provided an in-depth anthropological analysis of the mourning culture in Thailand following the death of King Rama IX in 2016, and the meaning of the symbolism and rituals in the coronation ceremony of King Rama X in 2019. Taking a step-by-step approach through the elements and stages of the coronation ceremony, Stengs highlighted how this event was used to unite the country through a shared experience and emotions. Whilst there was historical and religious precedent for several aspects of the event, the incorporation of modern technology, such as mass television broadcasting and drones, allowed an increased accessibility and personal quality to the new monarch. She also presented a close analysis of the use of colour by the organizers of the event to mark a new reign, and explained the significance this holds within Thai culture.

The final day of the conference started with a session exploring the regional dynasties and transnational royal families. Aidan Jones (King’s College London) gave a case study of Alexander II of Russia’s visit to Britain in 1874 on the occasion of his daughter Marie’s marriage to Prince Alfred. He analysed the dynastic politics of the marriage arrangement and the wider implications this had for international diplomacy. Priya Naik (University of Delhi) followed this with a paper exploring the consumption of Britishness by Indian Princes in the first half of the twentieth century. She argued that the consumption of goods, language, culture, and customs by Indian Princes was an attempt for them to be accepted within British society and to join an international aristocratic network.

The final session analysed the different international models of monarchy. Nicholas Miller (University of Lisbon), like McCreery, focused on King Kalakaua of Hawai’i (r.1874-1891) but this time comparing him to Sultan Abu Bakar of Johore (r.1886-1895) in the Malay States. He focused upon the two kings’ different approaches to ruling small monarchies and gaining international recognition for theirs states, as well as addressing the issue of labour migration. Charles Reed (Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, USA) closed the conference by returning to India via the Gaekwad of Baroda. Like Naik, he highlighted the Gaekwad’s desire to foster good relations with the British. Reed’s approach was to explore how this was achieved through the lens of royal visits to Britain from the later nineteenth century and the public image they were trying to promote of a princely state in India during the colonial period and after independence.

The conference closed with reflections from the co-organizers who drew out some of the key themes across the papers. The breadth of time period and geographical locations had highlighted that monarchies achieved local, national, and global reaches. Several papers highlighted that royalty was used, often unofficially, for diplomatic reasons to improve relationships between dynasties and nations, which provoked discussions about how individual royal persons perceived their role. It was agreed that monarchy is an evolving concept, and in recent times through embracing modern technology and utilising media coverage, royal families were able to appear relatable and relevant to contemporary society. The importance of the family unit at the heart of the monarchy was understood to be a central factor in emphasizing the longevity and stability of the institution. Finally, the visibility of royalty, either through first-hand accounts of travel, or increased coverage in the press and accompanying images, was a central theme across many of the papers. This increased visibility frequently allowed the royal individuals to appear more personable and enhanced their popularity nationally and globally. The conference illustrated some of the paradoxes of private life and public role for royal families on a global stage. It also confirmed the need for further studies, even in the twenty-first century, continuing and evolving the central position in political, social, and cultural life occupied by monarchs and their royal families in many countries.

Paige Emerick (University of Leicester)