The Queen of Canada

Royal Façades, Sacred Participation, and The Crown

The Queen of Canada

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

the Crown [‘kraʊn] n, proper

The corporal, institutional, and divine embodiment of the sovereign of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and their territories, realms, and dependencies. 〈Anglo-Norman French corune

Last fall, a friend invited me to his office — the Manhattan headquarters of a major television network — to attend a taping of their evening international news segment. After a brief spot about Regina, the capital city of Saskatchewan, the executive producer burst into laughter because she thought the city’s name had been erroneously rhymed with “vagina” on live TV. She promptly cued her fact-checkers to confirm this was a mistake. They resolved that the reporter’s pronunciation of Regina was in fact correct: like vagina, but with an “R” rather than a “v.”

I was astonished that someone operating in the sphere of political science, let alone someone earning thirty times as much as the average elementary school teacher, didn’t know the Latin word for “queen.” Then, with a shock familiar to all America-based Canadians, I realized she was American. While living south of the border, we Canadians often forget that, despite certain shared elements of language, pronunciation, and custom, we’re no longer in Canada, nor in one of the other 15 Commonwealth realms — that globe-spanning set of countries whose head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.

Was there any reason for the producer, who hails from a country birthed in opposition to monarchy, to be familiar with the word that has appended the name of every English queen in history? Perhaps not. Except, of course, that the oldest member of the British Empire (apart from the United Kingdom) happens to be America’s closest neighbor.

Suffice it to say, this news producer wasn’t a fan of The Crown.

For many living outside the Commonwealth, and perhaps for Americans especially, Peter Morgan’s Golden Globe-winning series about Queen Elizabeth II provides the first prolonged and vivid opportunity to emotionally invest in an ancient kingdom. The closest thing to an inverse phenomenon for Canadians would be a prestige drama about the life of Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, or John F. Kennedy: an artistic submergence into the heart and trials of a figure who personifies Americanness. One of Netflix’s most critically acclaimed original productions (and the second most expensive TV show ever made), The Crown simulates belonging to a polity that is characterized, if not defined, by monarchy.

That said, those of us who are native to the Queen’s territories, and thus familiar with this experience, don’t come away from The Crown unenlightened. What makes the show stellar, apart from a highly enjoyable tour de force of our modern incarnations of pageantry, heraldry, and feudal hierarchy, is that it’s not really about royalty at all. It’s about people trying to manage being royal.

The Crown’s fourth installment, which was released last month, is no different. Having successfully smelted the bulk of their individuality into a royal façade, Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies’ resigned, middle-aged Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip pass this task off to the family’s younger adults. Yet it takes the monarch and her consort three whole seasons to achieve their dispassionate equanimity.

Claire Foy, who portrays Elizabeth in The Crown’s first two seasons, seems to play not the Queen of England but a regular Englishwoman who’s been compelled to inhabit her. The same is true of Matt Smith as Philip. Rather than the Duke of Edinburgh, he performs a young, energetic man who’s just started a family and is trying to fill a position fundamentally unsuited to human beings. Both are forced into personas that are impartial, unfeeling, inexpressive, and obedient — all the things real people aren’t.

Since the middle ages, English sovereigns have been considered to be of two bodies: one eternal, the body politic’s conduit to God; one impermanent, possessor of human emotions, desires, and flaws. At its heart, The Crown is about the tension between the spiritualized Queen that the Commonwealth feels they know, and a woman, not unlike the viewer, who only a handful of people can say they’ve truly met. This Janus-like dynamic is quintessential Athenian drama — comic and tragic masks come to mind — and trickles down throughout the House of Windsor.

At times, it’s thematically overt. The characters themselves discuss the tragedy of having to ignore their most heartfelt instincts. “We are half-people, ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology,” the former King Edward VIII, played by Alex Jennings, says to his niece, Queen Elizabeth II. “The two sides within us, human and Crown, engaged in a fearful civil war, which never ends and which blights our every human transaction as brother, husband, sister, wife, mother.”

The most spellbinding, cinematographic thrusts of this painful dichotomy are less direct. The compound nature of the sovereign as both person and immortal comes to a boiling point in The Crown’s aesthetics. Its first two seasons both end in portrait sessions with the photographer Cecil Beaton (a royal propagandist, in a sense, but also a serious artist whose work spans topics like fame, artistry, beauty, and homosexuality). They are masterful bookends that serve as mise-en-scènes for the series itself.

The shoots intertwine the born Elizabeth with the invented one by juxtaposing Beaton’s glorifying snapshots with the moments in between them. The photographer’s recitations of mythic verse and words of encouragement blend them together. “All hail sage Lady, whom a grateful Isle hath blest,” he quotes at the close of season one, invoking William Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets. “Forgetting Elizabeth Windsor now. Now only Elizabeth Regina.” On her flash-bathed face, we can read Elizabeth’s agony at her failing marriage in parallel with her regal perseverance. (Complex nonverbal performances are one of Foy’s fortes.)

By the end of season two, it’s the extended royal family in front of the camera. Elizabeth gently rocks newborn Prince Edward while Philip yells at his chatty relatives to shut up. Beaton quotes John of Gaunt from Shakespeare’s Richard II into the freshly fallen silence: “This other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress built by Nature for herself, against infection and the hand of war, this happy breed of men, this little world, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

Breathtaking chemistry between intimacy and idolatry is The Crown’s highest art. For the beauty of this dance to fully register, one needs to feel the weight not just of Elizabeth’s private challenges but also of her phosphorescence as an immortal “symbol of allegiance, unity and authority,” to borrow from the Department of Canadian Heritage. One must appreciate how a political entity with antiquated origins can set the communal undertones of a far-flung collection of twenty-first-century nations. Despite the gap of intervening oceans and landmasses, Canada and a handful of sister states are bound to the United Kingdom by our shared cultural origins, our imperial inceptions, and an intangible ethos underlying my daily life, 3,500 miles from English shores.

Being Canadian is different than being American in many ways. But to consider the two cultures’ most primeval flavors is to arrive at a distinction that upstages differences in population size and geopolitical position: We are a constitutional monarchy and the United States is a republic. Two hundred and forty-five years ago, the coastal British colonies that became the first United States fought a costly war to break all ties with their former monarchy. To the north, the region now comprising most of central and Maritime Canada (Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) remained part of Britain itself for another 92 years — until confederation in 1867.

Officially a dominion of the British Empire rather than a British colony, newly christened “Canada” remained governmentally dependent on Westminster until 1931. Canadian citizenship didn’t even exist until 1947. British subjects worldwide — from the United Kingdom to South Africa — could vote in Canadian elections without being citizens until 1970, as long as they resided in Canada more often than not. It wasn’t until 1982, if you can believe it, that Britain relinquished the ability to co-write the Canadian constitution and allowed us to write one of our own. While politically independent today, Canada remains a domain of the British monarch, the Queen — her most populous territory outside the British Isles.

In many ways, America is the antithesis of monarchy. Its national story conventionally begins in the decades preceding the Revolutionary War, at the end of which the thirteen colonies officially jettisoned their sovereign, King George III, and enshrined the first modern liberal democracy. Many British loyalists relocated to present-day Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Since then, America has been free from all traditions except its own.

The historical identity of Canada is far less self-sufficient.

As Canadians, we’re the children of an empire defined by participation rather than independence. Our narrative is a tributary fed by a much older and longer river whose distant headwaters lie with the Angles and the Saxons, the Brittons and the Normans. Of course, it’s also fed by the ancient waterways of the Wendat and the Cree, the Haida and the Beothuk, and by those of the Gauls and the Franks through Québec and Acadia. But although Canadians belong to very diverse communities with wide-ranging backgrounds (whether immigrant, émigré, native, or settler), we’re all constituents of a British-made apparatus. In terms of today’s Canadian federation — its insignia and structures, its global configuration and the clockwork of its society — the river of English history runs dominant.

This might be hard to imagine if you’re American, so I’ll try to explain.

As with New Zealand, Australia, Barbados, Belize, and a handful of other countries, Canada’s head of government is our prime minister while both our head of state and military Commander-in-Chief is the current British sovereign. America’s president fulfills all three of these roles. Rather than bearing revolutionaries, our currency depicts rulers. Queen Elizabeth II is on every Canadian $20 bill. She’s on the back of every single one of our coins, along with the word Regina. Public land in Canada is known as crown land. In Canadian criminal court cases, the prosecution is referred to as Mr. and Madame Crown. Case titles are styled with the accused versus Her Majesty The Queen or simply R for Regina. We celebrate Victoria Day, not President’s Day.

Canada’s royal hardwiring is evident in every one of our ten provinces and three territories. (In Québec and Nova Scotia, namesakes of French monarchs predate those of British ones.) Let’s take my home province of Ontario, possibly Canada’s most regnal province and certainly its most Victorian one. The list of places, streets, highways, and institutions named for our royalty is virtually endless. To name simply a few:

Queens Quay, Queen Street, Queen Elizabeth Way, Queen’s Park (home to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario), King’s College Circle, King Street, Kingston Road, Kingston, King Township, King City, Windsor, Prince Edward County, the Prince Edward Viaduct, Georgian Bay, Georgetown, Victoria Park, Victoria University, Queen’s University, King’s Highway 401 (and 135 other major highways bearing the prefix “King’s”), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, The Princess of Wales Theatre, The Royal Alexandra Theatre (the oldest continually operating theater in North America), the Royal York Hotel, Royal Windsor Drive, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Royal Winter Fair, the Royal Canadian Legion, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Airforce, and my bank, The Royal Bank of Canada.

It’s not only words. The crown is everywhere. It’s on every Ontarian license plate. It’s on the front of every Canadian passport, the first page of which bids foreign immigration officials admit the holder “in the name of Her Majesty the Queen.” Atop the route signage along all 136 of the King’s Highways sits a crown emblem rather than the word “Interstate.” The cruisers of the Ontario Provincial Police, the Toronto Police Service (the continent’s oldest municipal police force), and more than a dozen other Ontario police departments carry the same sign. This image of a golden headband, arched and ermine-wreathed — which in its current manifestation represents the crown of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, a thousand-year-old symbol — used to be even more pervasive throughout the northernmost country in North America. It was emblazoned on every postal delivery vehicle and nearly every Canadian stamp until the late 1960s, when Royal Mail Canada rebranded as Canada Post.

Beyond imagery and nomenclature, the physiology of Canada’s towns and cities has thoroughly royal foundations as well. Walk down any Ontario street built up between 1837 and 1901 and you’ll see an abundance of Victorian architecture. By this I mean true Victorian architecture — constructed within, by, and for the British Empire, Queen Victoria’s dominion, during her reign — rather than the roughly contemporaneous architectural styles practiced in the United States collectively referred to as “Victorian.” The brick windows are arched, the roofs are dramatically peaked, and from the gables hangs elaborate gingerbread trim. There’s no chance of mistaking your surroundings for Park Slope or Haight-Ashbury, though you might, for a moment, mistake them for Hampstead. The styles of queens and kings are often quite literally molded onto the contours of daily Canadian life.

This deep monarchism isn’t bludgeoning. It’s more like the air around us than an anthem. While an outsider might find its signifiers brazenly tribal, to me they’re only vaguely unitary. I’d sooner compare its timbre to the milieu cast by New York City’s omnipresent fire escapes than to the ringing patriotism of stars, stripes, and bald eagles. In it lies a small comfort of belonging. I’m not always sure why.

In the weeks since The Crown’s fourth season debuted, there have been complaints, mostly by so-called royal experts, about the veracity of its plot. One biographer decried the show’s mutually exclusive victimization of Princess Diana and villainization of Prince Charles, pointing out that in reality they were far less archetypal. Another argued that, because the project is so artistically successful, audiences will be unable to understand that these events might have transpired differently in real life.

I have a much higher opinion of viewers’ critical faculties and their ability to allow for historical fiction. During my own binge of season four, I found myself wishing for greater fictionalization. Surely dramatizations that bend truth in the aid of faithful sentiments are not just valid but desirable. It’s part of the process of adapting a narrative for the screen, whether from fiction, nonfiction, or observed events. If done well, enhancing the world in which a chronicle takes place can speak to its heart more effectively than a verbatim recollection.

The British monarchy is itself what anthropologist Ilse Hayden refers to as “mythohistorical.” One of the Crown’s chief allures is its continuity from William the Conqueror to Prince William which, while genuine in terms of genealogy, is a political mirage. That the royal line has been largely unbroken since the Norman Invasion doesn’t mean that those 40-odd individuals shared ideals or ruled by uniform means. The monarchy’s current regalia is a mashup of medieval, Tudor, Jacobean, and modern creations that were combined by design in the late nineteenth century to emphasize cohesion. But so what? They accurately reflect a vibrant legacy of shared jurisdiction.

As the show’s focus strays from its proximity to the Crown itself, the viewer’s need to grasp this unifying authority begins to wane. Charles and Diana, played by Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin, meet many of the same obstacles as their elders did before them. These are best thought of as temptations outside the boundaries of a fundamentalist religion: They can’t wed or separate from whom they wish, openly show affection, express unsuitable insights, overly emote, or innovate. Their losses again come at the cost of relationships with siblings, spouses, and children. Their life’s work is self-sacrifice for the benefit of strangers.

In the case of Diana, the need to understand what it’s like to call a monarchy home is replaced with comprehending her radioactive pop-cultural appeal, her transformation of tabloid culture, and her unique place in admirers’ hearts because she was unqueenly.

Charles’s geopolitical resonance, however, remains both Commonwealth-centric and vital to his character’s dramatic arc. He’s Canada’s forthcoming king, presumably as “Charles III,” a nominal continuation of the seventeenth-century House of Stuart. He’s the second largest sun in the galaxy.

“You have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends: Subjected thus, how can you say to me, I am a king?” Charles asks in season three, dressed as Richard II in prop crown and ermine mantle during a University of Cambridge theater production. The scene moved me beyond empathy or pity. It was something more like fellowship, or relevance — as if I were witnessing one of my own, in some important, albeit made up, way.

“Imagine that Trump, every week, had to go up Capitol Hill to a sort of white colonial building in which Uncle Sam lived, who was the embodiment of America, and Trump had to bow to him,” the English actor and intellectual Stephen Fry suggested in a 2018 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Fry was of course alluding to the fact that the prime minister of the United Kingdom does indeed do just that; instead of a Neoclassical house in Washington, D.C., it’s a palace in London, and instead of a non-existent America incarnate, it’s a reigning monarch.

George Orwell was explicit about the utility of this pairing in the Partisan Review’s 1944 spring issue:

“It is better that [an electorate] should tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship the power and the glory belong to the same person. In England the real power belongs to unprepossessing men in bowler hats: the creature who rides in a gilded coach behind soldiers in steel breast-plates is really a waxwork. It is at any rate possible that while this division of function exists a Hitler or a Stalin cannot come to power.”

Whether or not sovereigns have the iconographic magnetism to temper the rise of demagogues, the image that the Queen makes available to her subjects around the world, as opposed to the person she is in private life, does seem to provide something existentially valuable.

A world away from her autocratic ancestors, who decreed executions and edicts of expulsion, Elizabeth II is something closer to a checker and balancer of the zeitgeist. Naturally, for many of those most affected by Britain’s violent imperial past — West Indians, Scottish Highlanders, Native Americans, Indigenous Canadians, Aboriginal Australians, Irish Republicans — the Crown still symbolizes terror, extermination, and oppression. In practice, the Queen’s involvement in statecraft is largely ceremonial. (The extent of her political influence through various official, though confidential, mechanisms of suggestion, such as her weekly meetings with the British PM, is unknown.) But as a figurehead, she is the binder of historical, multinational, and multicultural social fabrics.

Canada has its Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian buildings, its Union Jack-bearing provincial flags, its regally named arctic islands. But without a living, breathing Regina, I doubt we’d be much more royalist than Ireland. She substantiates kindred spirits where they wouldn’t otherwise exist. In the loosest sense, we inherit policy from our head of government and identity from our head of state. As I write these words, correcting for my British-Canadian spelling, drinking a cup of Earl Grey, desktop thermostat reading in Celsius beside a stack of old Enid Blyton books, I’m both performing and at the whim of my subjecthood.

This projected kinship, this sacred participation, is the authentic and insightful story we tell ourselves about ourselves, the heart of all folklore and every fairytale.

Alessandro Tersigni

is a writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in the LA Review of Books, Literary Hub, Guernica, The Globe and Mail, Format Magazine, and Tsuki World. He writes about imagery, art, design, film, TV, humor, the pastoral, screens, philosophy, self-reflection, and other topics.

All contributions from Alessandro Tersigni

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