In the first episode of The Crown‘s fifth season, Queen Elizabeth II, played now by Imelda Staunton, finds herself in an unconventional dilemma. Aside from her son and heir’s unraveling marriage, her beloved so-called second home, the royal yacht Britannia, is falling apart. And it will cost millions to repair. “She’s a creature of another age,” her husband Prince Philip says of the vessel over dinner. “… In many ways, she’s obsolete.”
As the episode, and season, progresses, it becomes clear they’re not only talking about the boat.
Scenes later, an August 1991 edition of The Sunday Times publishes the results from a national poll that found half of the British public wants Elizabeth to abdicate the throne in favor of her son, Prince Charles. Snippets of the article appear onscreen, calling the sovereign “‘out of touch,’ ‘irrelevant’ and, more bluntly, ‘old.’” The criticisms sum up what the newspaper calls “Queen Victoria Syndrome.”
The diagnosis is a reference to Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose lengthy 63-years rule lasted from 1837 to 1901. By the time of her death, she was called “the Grandmother of Europe.” She was the longest-reigning sovereign of Great Britain, only surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II herself, who ruled for 70 years until her passing this September. It is true that in the ’80s and ’90s, criticisms of Queen Elizabeth being out of touch circulated. Sarah Gristwood wrote for Huff Post in 2015, per History Extra, that “by the end of the decade [the 1980s] courtiers had begun to talk about QVS or the Queen Victoria Syndrome, whereby a nation could become tired of an ageing monarch and a parasitic royal family.”
Such criticism hurts Elizabeth in The Crown, but as an admirer of her great-great grandmother, she takes any comparison with Queen Victoria as a compliment. She considers concepts like calm, constancy, and stability—frequent descriptors of Victoria—as badges of honor. The newspaper’s, and therefor the public’s, diagnosis does not shift her ideas of what the crown should stand for. While Charles (Dominic West) spends the season advocating for a modernized monarchy, Elizabeth remains staunchly loyal to tradition, to keeping things as they are. This also explains why she insists on repairing the royal yacht, even asking the government to cover its 14 million-pound renovation. In her plea to the prime minister, the queen calls the Britannia “a floating, seagoing expression of me.” She acknowledges that it has aged, yes, but does not believe it’s time to let her go.
The Crown has always resonated with our world beyond the screen, but it feels all the more relevant this season as discussions about the monarchy’s role in society continue to escalate. Anti-monarchist sentiments have probably existed for as long as the institution itself, but criticisms intensified as the public grew more critical of oppressive forces in power and the white wealthy class in recent years. Last year, Barbados, once a British colony and a Commonwealth country, removed the queen as its head of state and six more Caribbean countries followed suit this year. After Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Sept. 8, heartfelt tributes were mixed with celebrations from those who called out the monarchy’s history of colonization and genocide. Even Meghan Markle’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which she recalled experiences of racism at the palace (including a member of The Firm questioning her future child’s skin color), sparked criticisms of the royal family’s backwardness when it came to addressing racism and social justice. Even today, Charles was egged by a protestor who said England was “built on the blood of slaves.” This is a time when the public, especially young people, are increasingly distrusting of people in power, the rich and privileged, and those who participate, perpetuate, and benefit from oppression. A centuries-long bloodline of kings and queens who live in palaces happens to fit all of those things.
In season 5, episode 1 of The Crown, Staunton’s Elizabeth quotes Queen Victoria while expressing her fondness for the yacht Britannia. She said her great-great grandmother liked to travel by sea because being on a boat allowed one to “forget the world and it’s sad turmoil.” (This is actually something she said about Scotland’s Dalmunzie Castle.) Even with all of their charity work, community service, and philanthropic efforts, (Charles’ Prince’s Trust, for example, has helped over a million youths in the U.K.) this nautical image can sum up the royals’ out of touch nature: avoiding the world’s problems, brushing off real people’s struggles as inconveniences you can sail away from.
Now, in 2022, 31 years after the events portrayed in that episode of The Crown, the now-King Charles III sits on the throne. He has long voiced his plans for a “slimmed down monarchy” that would reportedly consist of only a few key members including the sovereign and his direct heirs, meaning less royals would be funded by the sovereign grant. A source told the Financial Times, the organization would be “less about the history, heritage and glamour, more focused on the role of head of state.” Even Prince Harry said to Newsweek in 2017, “Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.” But will reform and reluctance to rule be enough? Or will Queen Victoria Syndrome ail the monarchy as a whole?
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.