“And so Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, faced with the choice between duty and love, bravely chooses duty.”
Or so went one report of the decision by Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend to accede to the political and religious realities of their time. No British royal could marry a person whose divorced spouse was still alive. It would scandalize the Church of England, whose Defender of the Faith was the Queen herself, and deeply compromise the moral stature of the monarch.
In the Netflix series “The Crown,” we see royal person after royal person torn between duty and love. King Edward notoriously abdicates the throne in order to be with the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson.
His brother thus takes the throne as George VI, but with grave reluctance. Not only does he not want the office of monarch for himself, but he fears his heirs, at the time mere girls, will be crushed by its responsibility when one or the other succeeds him. But he takes it anyway.
Elizabeth herself gets to marry the man she loves, but she repeatedly learns that she must put Philip in his place: two steps behind her as head of the country, head of the Church, and head of the (royal) family.
Duty versus love. Choosing the former over the latter seems positively medieval to many of us watching “The Crown” today. Of course, we think, Edward should have married Mrs Simpson and been able to keep his throne. Isn’t romantic love the supreme good, the theme of all our popular songs?
Of course, we think, Margaret should have married Peter. Doesn’t love conquer all?
Of course, we think, Elizabeth should have been gentler, kinder, and more generous toward Philip, toward Margaret, and even toward her alienated uncle. All we need is love, isn’t it?
What “The Crown” shows us, however, and what is fitting for us to remember this Victoria Day weekend, is that such choices are not, in fact, between duty and love. They are always choices between loves.
Elizabeth must decide whether she loves her late father and his legacy as king; her family, the royal House of Windsor; and the countries she serves as monarch—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yes, but also her other domains, such as our own country—more than she will love her husband or sister. Or even more than she loves herself.
For loving these great institutions and nations above her immediate family means choosing to endure the disappointment, disapproval, and even disdain of those closest to her. It is a grave thing willingly to incur the wrath of one’s beloved. It is a noble thing to do so on behalf of those one realizes one simply must love more.
In doing so, Elizabeth—like Victoria before her—can appear sub-human, even robotic. But it is instead deeply human to weigh up conflicting loves and to choose, freely and responsibly, to incur personal pain on behalf of those who depend upon one, as Elizabeth’s various subjects have depended upon her for lo, these many decades.
Wouldn’t it be fun, we think as children, to live in a palace, to wear fine clothes, to enjoy the deference of servants, and to do whatever you like as king or queen?
This Victoria Day weekend, we can realize afresh that the ideal of childhood fantasy must give way to the severe demands of adult responsibility.
And just as would be deeply improper for a sovereign (or a president) merely to do as he or she likes, so it is with each of us.
We each must choose what and whom we will love the most, and be willing to incur the cost of putting first things, and first people, first.
Especially on this weekend, then, I hope you will join me, in sympathy and admiration for those who exemplify such virtues, in wishing,
God save the Queen.