Captious critics are finding fault with Buckingham Palace security just because strangers are materializing in Queen Elizabeth's bedroom and chatting up the sovereign in the dead of night. It must be a rum thing for Herself to have her subjects surging 'round her so promiscuously. But royal life often has been arduous.
It is said that the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to look at it. The cure for envying the life of bygone royalty is to read accounts of it.
True, before democracy got off the leash, when a sovereign was sovereign, the public side of royal life was agreeable. "My people and I have come to an agreement that satisfies us both," said Frederick the Great. "They are to say what they please and I am to do what I please." Czar Paul I, when asked which courtiers he considered important, replied: "The ones I talk to, but only when I'm talking to them."
But a king's "private life" sometimes lacked privacy. Louis XIV, tottering around on six-inch heels (he was only five feet four), greeting ladies with one of six different tips of its hat (depending on the ladies' status), led a life so public and regulated that it was said anyone anywhere could note the hour and the day, and know exactly what the king was doing at that moment. He complained that his granddaughter's miscarriage disrupted his day's schedule.
In "Epitaph for Kings," Sanche de Gramont notes that the primary function of a French king was to procreate--to guarantee a succession--so his sex life, and its result, were semi-public matters: "Queens gave birth in public so that there could be no question about a dauphin's origins....The duc de Bourbon, who arranged Louis XV's marriage with the Polish princess, Marie Leszcynska, reported that on his wedding night the king 'proved his tenderness seven times.'"
In what we smilingly call modern Washington, nothing is more important than "access." Who got his phone calls returned? Who saw the President today? At Louis XIV's court, access was carefully calibrated and allocated like rubies. A favored few among the throng entitled to watch the King dress might be allowed to hand him his shirt. The especially privileged could be present when (I'm sorry, there is no delicate way to report royal realities) he defecated.
Royalty endured discomforts that would unhinge a 20th century American. Louis XIV's doctors inflicted bleedings, purgings and baths in asses' milk, and broke his jaw extracting the last of his rotten teeth when he was forty. Versailles' Hall of Mirrors was "heated" by just two fireplaces, and wine occasionally froze in the king's glass.
I have hitherto suggested that civilization began to totter when courtiers stopped bowing to the king's meal as it was carried through the halls at Versailles. But what happened at the table was not for weak stomachs. Manners of that era can be inferred from the rules an Austrian archduke felt constrained to impose on guests in 1624: No spitting in plates or wiping noses on the tablecloth. At Versailles, a few fastidious courtiers ate with a newfangled device called a fork, but Louis XIV, according to Saint-Simon, ate even chicken stew tidily with his fingers.
Privacy, as we know and value it, was an 18th-century invention. Cleanliness came later. At Versailles, baths were rare, and were considered primarily medicinal. In 19th-century London, when someone commented to Lady Montague about her unclean hands, she replied merrily: "If you call that dirty, you should see my feet!"
But enough about the good old days. Strangers' perambulations through Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber are less alarming than the news issuing from the royal nursery. Explaining what hardly needs explaining--why the Princess of Wales left the hospital the day after giving birth--the palace said she did so "because it is very fashionable nowadays." That is an appalling reason for anyone, but especially a princess, to do anything. Even worse is the report that Prince William's parents plan to give him "a thoroughly modern upbringing."
No good can come of that, whatever it means. William's parents should be as cautious as the residents of Deal in Kent, where some Americans want to put up a plaque commemorating the tricentenary of William Penn's departure from there to America in August, 1682. But some residents feel that if the trend continues, the shore will become cluttered. After all, it already has one monument marking the landing there of Julius Caesar in 55 BC.