September 8th 2022 marked a sombre day for the United Kingdom. Its longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, passed away at her Balmoral residence in Scotland after serving her country as monarch for 70 years. 

The late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on September 19th was watched worldwide with a record-breaking viewership of over 29 million people in the UK alone, according to television data. What could perhaps seem more surprising were the high levels of viewership abroad, with 11.4 million people in the US watching the funeral through online and television platforms. However, the most shocking figure came this week with reports of 4 billion people worldwide virtually attending the Queen’s funeral.

Where does this fascination for the UK royal family stem from? How does the House of Windsor differ from other European Monarchies? What role does public opinion and media play in the perception of the royal family in England and abroad? These are all questions worth asking in light of the Queen’s death and the accession  of her son as King Charles III of the United Kingdom. 

The fascination surrounding the British royal family can certainly be linked to its pompous traditions and unwavering duty, bar Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne in 1936. Other 21st-century European monarchies, although perduring, have not had the same national and international cultural impact. A number of countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain saw their monarchs abdicate between 2013 and 2014 with their first sons taking the respective thrones and positions as head of state. Regardless of the reasons behind these trasnfers of power, European countries welcomed their new monarchs, with little to no denunciation and condemnation of this untraditional transfer of royal title.

The modernisation of European monarchies, as can be seen in the Danish and Swedish royal families, have boosted public opinion and support. In contrast, tradition in marriage and institutions is only recently changing in the UK royal family. In Sweden, the crown-princess Victoria and her siblings married commoners, which was widely accepted and supported by the public. Contrarily, the idea of an American divorcée actress marrying Prince Harry in the UK was largely vilified in the English press. 

Whether the media covers  Princess Kate’s brooch at a public ceremony or Queen Consort Camilla’s speech at an event, the British royal family is put under an exceedingly close lens by the public and media, more so than any other European royal family. So why is press perception so high but also so important for this millennium-long institution? There are reasons behind this strong media interest. Firstly, British nationhood is based, to an extent, on the royal family, and more so on its monarch. Secondly, the former Queen, and current King, come under the national spotlight as individual people, including their opinions, life choices, and mannerisms. Thirdly, the monarch is the most important representative of the royal institution. The former Queen and now King are at the core of the indefinite UK debate between advocates of a republican system and supporters of the monarchy, which leads to the question ‘what is the best place for a nationwide debate’? The answer is the springboard that is the press and media.

Carfax2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Taking into account that as of 2008, Britain was the 3rd largest newspaper-buying country in the world, with approximately 80% of UK households buying a newspaper copy daily, the press is bound to give daily media attention to the most public institution of them all: the royal family. More than any other European country, the press is an efficient medium where the UK’s sense of nationalism and culture can be effectively reproduced. However, now that the Queen’s reign has ended, there are questions surrounding the arising media difficulties that King Charles III and his son and heir Prince William will face. With the widespread media across the country, the existing republican-monarchist polarisation is becoming increasingly apparent and will likely cause a problem in the long-term. Although the Queen’s popularity ratings stood at 75%, the subsequent monarchs, “brought up in an era of intrusive mass media and pervasive publicity” may not encounter such respect and admiration from the media.

However, when looking at the UK royal family versus other European monarchies, financial structure cannot be ignored, especially considering the importance of this factor within public opinion. While the Spanish monarch receives 7 million pounds, the Belgian monarch 10.4 million pounds, and the Danish monarch 9.6 million pounds, the UK’s Sovereign Grant (percentage of Crown Estate profits) stood at a staggering 42.8 million pounds as of 2017. However, by 2020, it was estimated that the UK royal family’s activities actually amounted to 82.2 million pounds yearly, which included the renovation costs of Buckingham Palace. Many European royal family members in recent decades undertook employment, becoming economically independent from their titles and position due to “downsizing” measures in a number of countries regarding royal costs. However, in the UK, Queen Elizabeth II’s immediate family, cousins, siblings-in-law and newphews/nieces are considered full-time royals, and as such are financially supported. 

Although “media texts constitute a sensitive barometer of sociocultural change”, it is undeniable that media and public opinion in the UK concerning the royal family is more present than in any other European monarchy. This widespread media attention for the UK royal family has a global effect, as one of the most rich and famous monarchies in the world.