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The Crown Must Always Win: A Conversation

On the remarkable classicism in Netflix's hit show, The Crown

Editor’s Note: Created and written by Peter Morgan (the award-winning screenwriter of The Queen), The Crown, an original drama from Netflix about the life and times of Queen Elisabeth II, has become something of a smash-hit, a success with critics and viewers alike. Rich with resplendent detail, magnificent performances, and the pathos offered by real-life, it’s a moving tribute to one of the seminal figures of our times. It’s respectful but avoids pandering, honest without being indulgent, and dramatic while avoiding undue embellishment. In short: it’s a rare artifact of modern historical storytelling. But it’s more than just a biopic. It’s also an examination of a troubled age and a reflection on the nature of tradition, hierarchy, and even marriage. And as Joshua Gibbs and Heidi White argue, it’s deeply classical in many ways.

Please note that, although it is light on spoilers, this dialogue assumes at least some knowledge of the show.

JOSHUA: Heidi, I have many friends who are classical educators and a number of them have responded to The Crown with marked surprise. The show is not simply a fine character study, or an enjoyable visual treat. Rather, The Crown is a program which gives a fine and highly unexpected treatment of classical convictions. I could not say I have ever seen another television show represent classical Christian interests, judgments, and confidences with such clarity.

Where do you think The Crown’s most surprising successes come from?

HEIDI: I agree that The Crown is remarkable for far more than its quality production and stellar performances. Beyond the story itself, which is gripping, is a wrenching contemplation of what it means for these characters, clustered around the institution of the British monarchy, to live beyond their humanity while attempting to maintain it. What does it means to be an individual whose life is subject to an institution, in this case, monarchy?

The easy answer for our modern sensibilities would be to dismiss the institution in favor of the individual, as most films and programs do. The Crown takes a braver route and honors tradition, while still acknowledging its cost to the souls of its adherents.

As you said, this allows The Crown to explore what we in classical education already acknowledge, that Western history and traditions matter. Memory makes us who we are. The Imago Dei was made for both individuality and institution. This in mind, the contribution of The Crown to classicism, beyond the fact that it is good television, can be summarized in a quote by G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

If the British monarchy is the fence, then The Crown asks, “Why is it there?” instead of “Let us clear it away.”

JOSHUA: The quote from Chesterton is aptly applied. While The Crown is about the British monarchy, it asks the viewer to find their own condition in Elizabeth. I am not a king, but inasmuch as The Crown presents a monarchy as essentially human, I recall Rousseau’s claim that all men are descended from King Adam. As I yield to the beauty of the show, I am also called to “live beyond my humanity while attempting to maintain it,” as you elegantly suggested. Elizabeth is not presented as a prodigy or an alien, but a girl and then a woman; the viewer is thus not free to say, “I am excused from the demands of tradition placed on Elizabeth.” Tradition is not the exclusive province of the nobility.

As with other contemporary presentations of British nobility, the common man has more at stake in tradition than his betters—the poor actually gain more from tradition than do the rich. While it is an embarrassment to favorably compare the two programs, Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey has invested his soul in tradition and aptly perceives just how much society has to lose in giving itself over to innovation and novelty. So, too, Mr. Stevens from The Remains of the Day intuits the mystical connection between dignity and tradition. Society cannot merely be a game which satisfies the wants of those who happen to be “at the table” at the moment, as Remi Brague suggests in “The Impossibility of Secular Society.” Rather, as Burke argues, society is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

The Crown takes a braver route and honors tradition, while still acknowledging its cost to the souls of its adherents.

The government is not the Church, but when working best, government does a good impression of the Church— even as man, at his best, is a good impression of God. Burke’s conception of government is a mystical bond between the living and the dead, and his description of all human society sounds a good bit like “the communion of the saints,” the sacramental union between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.

In all this, the common man has a far greater interest in tradition than the aristocrat. When the aristocrat gives up on tradition, he has his money to sustain him unto death. It is the poor man who must bear the weight of the spiritual-infrastructural collapse. The priest may quit the cloth and contentedly contemplate the divine in his cell, but if the layman has no liturgy to attend, he has nothing.

HEIDI: I am glad that you quoted Edmund Burke. You and I share a common vision in identifying his philosophy in the show.

Burke is often called “the father of modern conservatism.” By conservatism, of course, we do not mean the vulgarity of entrenched capitalism that is commonly associated with the term. Rather, true conservatism promotes the preservation of what is good in a society. This is the partnership between the living and the dead to which you referred. To this end, instead of individuals merely serving themselves, thoughtful conservatives within a given culture choose to embrace the social institutions that uphold civilization’s virtues (monarchy, church, marriage and family, customs relating to commerce, civilized manners and hierarchies) that contribute to free and secure civilization.

However, this requires individuals to submit to institutions, which is hard, especially in modernity. This is where the humanity of The Crown is luminous as it lays bare the tension between individuals and institutions. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the marriage between Elizabeth and Philip, which is my favorite aspect of The Crown. The pathos is especially poignant here because marriage is itself an institution of individuals. Here we have two unique individuals encountering two institutions: monarchy and marriage.

Claire Foy as Queen Elisabeth II

JOSHUA: The royal marriage is where The Crown is most even-handed. Philip is not really a progressivist and Elizabeth is not really a traditionalist. At least not yet. Philip is a man who does not ponder deeply his responsibilities or motivations, nor does he have an interest in doing so. Elizabeth is a person who has not pondered her responsibilities or motivations deeply, but she is in the process of doing so. I suppose some people might find their own marriages reflected in the royal marriage—one person more pragmatic, the other more idealistic. However, their marriage seems more like the argument every man is always having with himself. Should I do what is right or I should I do what is easy? Should I live by a rigorous and unpleasant code or should I do what comes naturally? From an idealistic standpoint, I far prefer Tommy’s vision of human thriving. If I am being honest, though, I more often live like Princess Margaret.

Margaret is a very fine example of Burke’s dictum, “The individual is foolish… but the species is wise.” Both Margaret and Edward believe they have “seen through the BS,” that the world is a tangle of superstition, irrationality, and fear, and that the strength of their own spirits allows them to peer through the foolishness of the world to see what lies beneath. Burke is more than a little condescending toward those who think they have “seen through the BS,” though; the first step to real enlightenment is admitting that, as an individual, no one has sufficient clarity of thought to see through the BS. The individual is the BS which the species must see through. For this reason, the wisdom which is regularly commended to Elizabeth is that of silence and dispassion.

I would like to say something about the royal marriage as a marriage, though, and not just one man’s internal debate. Philip is very slow to make peace with the fact that his marriage must be something other than he originally wanted. He wears his disappointment on his sleeve, but Elizabeth buries her disappointment beneath duty and dignity. It strikes me that marriage will often be disappointing, given that our ideas of marriage are typically skewed by films, lust, Top 40 songs, Williams Sonoma catalogues . . . We all must find some proper place to put our disappointment.

What is your take on the royal marriage? Has Elizabeth treated Philip well, or has she belittled him, as he seems to think?

Claire Foy as Queen Elisabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Phillip

HEIDI: Like you, I find the humanity in the royal marriage poignant. The way that these two flawed but searching humans continue to miss each other’s hearts is crammed with pathos. We see both sides and wish that they would find each other. If Philip would support her as The Crown yet love her as his wife, they could find space for solace and individuality. If Elizabeth would soften her rigidity in his presence and interact with him as a yearning wife instead of a scolding nanny, she could perhaps turn his heart toward her unnamed need for human connection and motivate him to see beyond himself.

As I watch The Crown, I see that dynamic reflected not only in my own marriage and relationships, but also in society. If Elizabeth represents The Crown, or the institution of monarchy, then Philip represents the restless spirit of his age. As you said, he is not really a progressivist. Philip is a man driven by desire, but he does not seem to know what he wants. He resents being “a dancing bear,” and bitterly complains that he and Elizabeth are “a coat of paint on a crumbling house.” He identifies what she and the royal household so far refuse to face, that the monarchy is changing in a changing world.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems unable or unwilling to humble herself to communicate to Philip what she needs from him and what she has to offer. They could help each other, but instead they hurt each other. In the same way, post-WW2 Britain is ambivalent toward its own traditions, but not yet opposed to them. Western civilization was new to modernity, but not yet committed to it, suddenly driven by desire rather than duty. What, then, does humanity do with the old traditions? Burke said, “it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society.” Philip does not want to pull anything down, but he sure wants something. But what? This unanswerable query is the question that haunts their marriage, just as restlessness and unnamed desire haunted the West during this tumultuous time in human history. Europe was a civilization that had just come adrift from its moorings after two world wars, a bevy of fascist dictators and the rising thread of communism. We experience this poignant wrestling between duty and desire, tradition and innovation, institution and individuality in the general culture of the time as well as in the royal marriage.

JOSHUA: I had not previously considered the distinction you drew between ambivalence and opposition to tradition. This is quite apt. Britain was not alone in their uncomfortable position between desire and duty. The years immediately following World War II certainly raised the stakes, although I suspect that a terrible wavering between past and future is simply the basso continuo of life on earth.

In a certain sense, the past is very weak. Tradition is very weak. The dead are not present to defend themselves. They can be dismissed quite easily. Our forefathers are never in the room, they are always gone for the weekend, and we always have the house to ourselves. They have given us some very odd rules to follow in their absence, and insisted we not mess with the thermostat, and told us to keep the door locked at night. We have quickly discerned that everything will not immediately fall apart if we do not obey all the rules they have given us, but we are not sure how long we can get away with breaking the rules. We promptly monkey with the thermostat, but an hour later it is too cold and we find, after pressing all the buttons a dozen times, we do not know how to get it back to the temperature it was before.

A fundamental element that orients Elizabeth to duty over desire is her commitment to her vows.

Western man regularly believes himself to be on the precipice of total disaster. Every generation says, “This is it. It’s all finally collapsing around our ears.” As opposed to dismissing Western man as a worry wart, I think a bit of hand-wringing is simply a prudent tradition. This is Tommy’s hand-wringing in the episode “Scientia Potentia Est,” where he chastises Elizabeth for breaking tradition in her choice of a personal secretary. Tommy alleges that catastrophe emerges in the wake of The Crown making deeply personal choices. Elizabeth is skeptical.

Elizabeth: Abdicating the Throne and choosing my Private Secretary – is hardly comparing like with like.

Tommy: I disagree. I served your uncle, as you know. And it’s in the small things that the rot starts. Do the wrong thing once, it’s easier to do it again. Do the individualistic thing once, it is easy to do it again. Now, in the case of your uncle, it started with wanting to use Buckingham Palace simply as the office and York House as his home. Then he stopped attending church, decided he wanted to sell Sandringham. He dismissed courtiers who’d served under his father in favor of younger, sycophantic supplicants. Of course, no one saw the abdication coming then, but the ego, the willfulness, the individualism, the rot had set in.

We are incredulous of the idea that little things matter, though Tommy knows that he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. We cannot tell ourselves, “I will break all the little daily rules, but keep the big yearly rules.” No. If we break the little daily rules, we will simply get good at breaking the rules and getting away with it. When the time comes to keep the big rules, we will have practiced escaping justice and see little value in being honest. To return to your point, though, we are always positioned between duty and desire. Duty tells us to do these little things. Desire tells us to grab the brass ring. Desire is always having us save the world. Duty is always telling us to brush our teeth.

How do we submerge the world-saving ambitions of desire, though? On the occasions when Elizabeth is able to deny herself, how does she do it? What does she tell herself such that she doesn’t have to get what she wants?

John Lithgow as Sir Winston Churchill

HEIDI: I love these questions. In mulling them over, I think of Margaret and Philip, desire-driven creatures, trying to decipher this mystery for themselves. In “Gloriana,” Philip snaps at her to set aside her role as queen to be a wife, sister, mother, a “living breathing thing, a woman,” while Margaret hisses, “You don’t know for a minute what it is like to be unhinged, to be flailing about.” “I give them silence,” she tells Margaret. Indeed, Elizabeth’s silence is one of the great achievements of The Crown. We see and feel her conflict, but we do not hear about it. After all, she tells Margaret in “Pride and Joy,” the monarchy should shine, but not the monarch. So, what motivates the silent monarch? How does she submerge desire under the weight of duty?

Part of the answer haunts the halls of the royal residences in the figure of Edward VIII. You insightfully quoted the all-important conversation between Elizabeth and Tommy regarding Elizabeth’s private secretary. “The rot of individualism” looms large in the many memories in the specter of Edward VIII, the abdicator. Elizabeth’s inner circle and the nation itself evaluate the young queen as a potentially stabilizing force in a shifting cultural landscape.

The impact of this cultural (and, for Elizabeth, personal) trauma infects everything. It appears in some form in every episode of season one. If, as you say, “Western man regularly believes himself to be on the precipice of total disaster,” a sentiment of which I often plead guilty, then the crowds of people whose work is to uphold the British monarchy seem obsessed with keeping it all stable and relevant in order to stave off the collapse that they nearly experienced less than a generation before. Interestingly, it is often Uncle Edward who offers Elizabeth insights that anchor her to tradition, which I find mesmerizing.

Aside from the collective compulsion to protect the institution of monarchy in the wake of Uncle Edward’s abdication, a fundamental element that orients Elizabeth to duty over desire is her commitment to her vows.

In “Gloriana,” The Crown explores the tension of competing vows. On one hand, she and Margaret made a promise to their father to “never put anything or anyone over one another.” She desires to keep that promise, but other vows conflict. Upon her coronation, she became the head of the Church of England, the Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith. She made a sacramental vow to protect the traditions of the church, which compete with her promise to her father. Will she give her royal consent to Margaret’s marriage, thus fulfilling her desire to keep the promise to her family, or will she uphold the sacramental vow she made to God and country by refusing her consent in order to uphold the sacrament of marriage as prescribed by the Church? Over and over again in “Gloriana” Elizabeth refers to her vows. She seeks counsel as to which vow takes precedence. In an ambiguous situation, she orients herself to the promises she has made to be the dividing line between duty and desire. In the end, she embodies the advice given to her in a letter from her grandmother upon her father’s death:

I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else. Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, The Crown must win. Must always win.

Heidi White is a homeschooling mother and the co-director of The Journey School, a hybrid classical school in Colorado Springs, where she teaches literature and Latin. She is the founder and director of Journey Together, a local program that curates cultural enrichment events for adults. She writes fiction, poetry and essays. She lives on 5.5 acres in the Colorado woods where her children climb trees while she drinks coffee and reads books on the porch.

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