The Trauma of the Windsors

Are the children of the most privileged family in the world traumatized?

Posted Nov 17, 2020

Season four of Netflix’s The Crown traces the career of Queen Elizabeth II from 1979 to 1990—years in which Britain was dominated by Princess Diana and the then-only-female Prime Minister in British history, the “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, who ruled the country with barely any opposition.

The show, created and written by Peter Morgan, has sterling male performers, notably the recurrent roles of Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), and heir, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor). But it is dominated by women, starting with the brilliant Olivia Colman as the Queen and a stunning Gillian Anderson (unrecognizable from her former roles) as Thatcher. Added to these two pillars of Season Four are Emma Corrin as Diana Spencer and the recurrent role of Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret, played by the incomparable Helena Bonham Carter (with the add-on of Emerald Fennell as Charles’s paramour, Camilla Parker Bowles).

Three of the women characters are figures of power and self-control—Elizabeth and Thatcher and Bowles. Two—Diana and Margaret—are women in deep distress. (It is a reviewer’s relief that there can be no spoilers with characters whose fates are so well-known, historically and in popular culture, as Elizabeth, Thatcher, Charles, Margaret, and, alas, Diana.)

And we also have studies of three of the women as mothers: Elizabeth (who has three children with Philip in addition to eldest Charles), Thatcher (who has a twin boy and girl), and, of course, Diana and her two boys, Princes William and Harry.

The easiest mother to deal with is Diana, who is loving and giving. Her personal anguish is proportionally the most devastating to view. She was an innocent 19-year-old, the younger sister of a former lover of Charles’s when she was engaged to Charles (they married in 1981 after Diana had just turned 20). Season Four ends with the couple permanently alienated and Diana deeply distressed, although they did not officially separate for another two years (1992) nor divorce until 1996.

Diana was, naturally, a romantic young woman swept off her feet. She fairly quickly learned that Charles’s heart belonged to Bowles, however, who was never far off. And she herself rather quickly adopted the Royal style of forming sexual liaisons outside of marriage.

Charles is left wanting the affection and support that only Bowles could provide him by his mother, Elizabeth, who was as dutiful a mother as she was a queen. But the mothering job required more than the stiff upper lip and sense of obligation that sufficed for her role as monarch. For instance, it is generally helpful for a mother to be able to hug her children. (Elizabeth describes how she attended her children’s baths, but as a spectator.)

Elizabeth’s distancing from her emotions is exemplified by her inability to identify which of her children she favors (it’s not Charles), for which her husband “teases” her. Her standoffishness is compared with Diana’s empathy, including not only her sons but even the Windsors, with whom she constantly, but futilely, tries to connect (as well as the child with AIDS she hugs in a Harlem hospital). 

Indeed, the central conflict Diana confronts is how to deal with a family whose roles and relationships are defined by protocol and ritual, rather than by ordinary emotional attachment. Her anguish, illustrated by repeatedly illustrated episodes of bulimia, is emotionally and visually eviscerating.

Philip (another family outsider who gives her some sympathy) and Elizabeth constantly lecture her and Charles about how feelings, emotional intimacy, and sexual relationships are all secondary to appearances and duty in the royal family.

But Elizabeth also gives Charles a rather startling lecture about privilege, telling him that not one person in the world would grant him (or Diana) the whining and discontent in which each is submerged. They have all the material benefits in the world, they do each have stable (in their fashion) families, and they each can, ultimately, select whom they want to bed with. In all of this, they are contrasted in a remarkable episode with Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke), an unemployed man, separated from his family, who breaks into Elizabeth’s bedroom in Buckingham Palace to describe his victimhood at the hands of Thatcher’s severe austerity program. 

If privileged Diana and Charles as princess and prince are traumatized, what is Fagan? Can everyone be defined in terms of their victimhood and trauma?

In yet another illustration of unsuccessful parenting, Thatcher is shown as an over-doting mother who ignores how much she favors her son over his twin sister. The result: a bumbling young fool who glides through life facing no consequences (the Windsors' version of which is Charles’s younger brother, Andrew). What, the Iron Lady and imperious Queen are suckers for their favored children?

Of course, history now leads us to ask, is Andrew (who has been exiled from Buckingham Palace due to his disgusting association with Jeffrey Epstein) the better off for his being the favored child?

Is everyone really the victim of some sort of parental malfeasance? 

On the other hand, didn’t William and Harry turn out rather all right, despite being deprived of their devoted mother at a young age to be thrust into the arms of their emotionally obtuse father?

How were they seemingly able to form loving and secure families themselves?

Are they somehow the beneficiaries of trauma?