In my wildest dreams, I will one day have an occasion to wear a tiara. Not beauty-pageant costume jewelry, mind you. Diamonds. Watching Netflix’s The Crown, a long and lavish drama based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II, is probably the closest I’ll get, and season two releases this week.
This has been a long, strange year, and I’m ready to lose myself in Christmas at Sandringham. Yes, British palaces may be drafty, but there’s always a servant close by to stoke the fire and bring the tea.
Though the show is rumored to have cost $200 million, showrunner and executive producer Peter Morgan has said the budget figure is closer to $130 million for both seasons of The Crown thus far. Netflix flaunts its humongous production budget in every episode. Yet while there is no lack of wealth or creature comforts on display, one gets the sense that we are meant to sympathize with the royal family rather than envy them. It seems the adage, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” is no less true in a constitutional monarchy than in Shakespeare’s day.
Morgan goes out of his way to remind us that members of the royal family are human beings. They are a family, and not an especially functional one. The pressure to fulfill a deceased father’s expectations is not eased by the fact that he was the king; it is heightened. The sting of a marital argument is not reduced because it takes place in a splendid suite of adjoining bedrooms.
That said, The Crown‘s message is not that the Windsors are just like us, but with diamonds. Rather, unlike us, the royal family are not their own; they must spend their lives in service to something bigger than they are.
First, a few disclaimers. Elizabeth (as portrayed by Claire Foy) is not necessarily working from accurate presuppositions in discerning her duty. She has inherited the view that a king or queen’s authority is derived from God to the effect that monarchy is a sacred rather than political office. In the series, this idea is articulated by Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins): “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards. An example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God.”
I doubt many readers, even royal-loving Anglophiles like me, share this spiritualized view of monarchy. While a king or queen does have a calling to fulfill, that calling is no more sacred than that of a president or a mayor. But we do not have to share Queen Mary’s over-realized theology of monarchy to appreciate the seriousness with which she and her granddaughter approach their callings.
Also, while I find Elizabeth’s deep devotion to her country admirable, I don’t believe the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is worthy of absolute loyalty. Granted, it had just defeated Nazism, which must be the high-water mark of any nation, but the British Empire did not always act benevolently or justly. We should not assume that doing what is best for one’s country is always synonymous with doing what is best.
We should not assume that doing what is best for one’s country is always synonymous with doing what is best.
Glory through Self-Denial
With these qualifications in mind, Christians can readily identify with the dilemma confronting Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family. We, like they, must habitually referee the conflict between our own personal desires—being true to yourself, if you will—and service to something larger than one’s self.
Elizabeth’s father, King George (Jared Harris), sets the pattern for the family. A private person with a pronounced stammer, he nevertheless enters the limelight of the monarchy against his own inclinations. The wealth, power, and privilege that come with the crown shouldn’t enable self-indulgence, but self-denial.
The wealth, power, and privilege that come with the crown shouldn’t enable self-indulgence, but self-denial.
After her father’s death, Elizabeth follows his example; she and her husband submit their own wishes—where they will live, who they will work with, even what name they will take—to the judgment of Parliament. The queen submits again and again to the wishes of others because she is convinced that her own desires must be sacrificed for something greater.
The perfect counterexample to Elizabeth’s self-denial is her uncle’s selfishness. David (Alex Jennings), briefly king under the name Edward VIII, rejects his duty to his country, choosing to give up the crown to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams). He gains the desire of his heart, but loses everything else. David and his wife live in exile without glory. They watch Elizabeth’s coronation, the grandest of ceremonies, on a tiny black-and-white television screen. The glory belongs to the one who has denied herself.
This is what The Crown does so well. Sacrifice and self-denial are not novel themes, but we don’t often see them in an intrinsic relationship to glory. While the more overt message of The Crown is that glory requires sacrifice, the inverse also shines subtly through: sacrifice leads to glory. The biblical resonance is hard to miss. Christ Jesus emptied himself and chose to submit himself to his Father’s kingdom plan, even to the point of death. His voluntary humbling led to glory:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:10-11)
I don’t know what sacrifice God may be requiring of you today. Maybe you’re a mother who put a fulfilling career on the back-burner and now spend your days changing diapers. Maybe you’ve fallen in love with an unbeliever and know you must break it off. Maybe you’re faithfully serving an ungrateful and undeserving employer. Although denying ourselves may look like drudgery or feel like slow death, there is glory to come. In fact, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Take heart, children of the King. At the end of our sacrifice is a kingdom. There will be diamonds.
Author’s Note: I wrote this article before the release of Season Two of The Crown. I have since learned that Episode 7 contains graphic nudity and extended scenes of sensuality. Please view advisedly.