The Royal Retreat to the Countryside

In Depth
The Royal Retreat to the Countryside
The Queen leaves for Windsor. Image:AP

Buckingham Palace has canceled large public royal engagements from garden parties to the annual Maundy Thursday church service for the foreseeable future, and Queen Elizabeth has decamped to the relatively suburban surroundings of Windsor Castle. “Her Majesty will move to Windsor Castle for the Easter period on Thursday, March 19, one week earlier than planned. It is likely that the Queen will stay there beyond the Easter period,” the Palace announced. It’s no Sandringham, the country estate beloved by the Queen, but compared to London, it’s practically the countryside.

At 93 years old, Elizabeth is, of course, the definition of “high-risk.” But with this move, the Queen joins a long history of royals who’ve decamped to the country (or at least escaped London’s dense confines) during outbreaks. Historically, the prospect of disease has been enough to send kings and queens—who don’t typically move for anybody, if they can help it—packing.

The most famous infectious disease of European history was, of course, bubonic plague, which wreaked havoc all over the continent beginning in the 14th century, popping up again and again over the next three centuries, periodically cutting a swath through the country and terrifying its inhabitants. Its prospect frightened monarchs, too, whose response was generally two-part: Get the hell out of London, and make sure nobody followed them.

James I arrived on the throne just in time for one of England’s deadliest bouts with the disease; “Among James’ first actions as English monarch was to issue a book of Orders relating to the plague outbreak, outlining rules and procedures to be followed in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease and to aid those suffering from it,” according to Holly Kelsey for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In other words, it handed down quarantine instructions in hopes of containing the plague’s spread because it was part of the king’s purview to handle a major outbreak of infectious disease. Charles II’s orders in 1666 commanded the creation of a remote “pest-house” to quarantine victims, with a red cross and “Lord have mercy upon us” on the door.

Of course, while plague terrified everyone, high and low alike, it was those without the resources to run who suffered most: “In reality, plague was a disease of the poor and it was those living in the poorest areas of London, in highly concentrated ramshackle tenements, full of tenants and families, and those without the means to leave the capital, that generally died,” recounts Rebecca Rideal in her book 1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire. Contrast that with these lovely 2014 photos of Malmesbury House, where Charles waited out the same bout of plague. Elizabeth I, for her part, didn’t even necessarily wait for outbreaks: “Each summer, when plague was often rife in London, the Queen and her entourage would venture beyond the capital on a series of visits to towns and aristocratic homes in southern England,” according to The Queen’s Bed by Anna Whitelock.

In some cases, the royals essentially pulled the ladder up behind them after escaping, tightly guarding their sanctuaries. Anybody who wanted to enter Salisbury, where Malmesbury House is located, had to present a certificate of health; when Elizabeth and her court fled to Windsor in 1563, she erected a gallows to hang anybody who dared come from London and similarly banned any trade with the city.

It wasn’t just the prospect of the plague—which looms large in the historical imagination as the ultimate in infectious terror—that sent monarchs packing through the ages. There was the “English sweat,” a mysterious disease of the Tudor era that killed within hours. Symptoms ranged from fever to abdominal pain to aches, but most of all, it was distinguished by profuse, uncontrolled sweating. A 1557 account said it was “so sharp and deadly that the lyke was never hearde of to any manne’s remembrance before that tyme”—which, as History Today points out, is a hell of a statement considering the plague was still floating around. It appeared out of nowhere and it struck rich noblemen as well as the poor.

And it certainly scared Henry VIII, looming as it did over his entire reign, reaching into his own court. In a 1528 outbreak, “the King, learning with horror that some members of his household had succumbed to the disease, fled with the Queen and Anne [Boleyn] and a small retinue to another house, and then another after that until he was sleeping in a different place each night,” Alison Weir writes in The Six Wives of Henry VIII. He even wondered whether it might be a sign from God that he should back off Anne Boleyn—though we know how that turned out.

None of these monarchs were acting out of unfounded fear, either. Henry’s older brother Arthur died of what may have been the English Sweat; Edward III’s daughter Joan died in Europe’s awful first bout with the plague in the 14th century, on her way to marry a Castilian prince. And before modern medicine and hygiene practices, it didn’t take a history-altering outbreak of a fearsome infectious disease to strike down the mighty. William III died when he caught pneumonia after breaking his collarbone in a fairly simple riding accident; dysentery killed the loathed King John. The royals’ habit of steering clear remained in effect well into the 19th century, with Victoria and her household holing up by the seaside in the royal summer home at Osborne as cholera raged; Prince Albert’s early death was attributed at the time to typhoid (some modern historians now suggest it might have been a chronic disease like Crohn’s).

But the death that comes across the eeriest in the current moment is the death of Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, known as Eddy. It’s a quirk of history twice over that Queen Elizabeth II sits on the throne in the first place—it wasn’t just Edward VII who had to dip out to put the crown on her head. Her grandfather, George V, was Victoria’s second son; his elder brother died in 1892 of what was called the Russian flu, a wave of influenza that swept the world. Biographer Jane Ridley notes that The Times “carried daily reports detailing the progress of the epidemic” throughout the winter. “This really drove home that influenza was a serious and virulent disease,” Vyki Sparkes, co-curator of a Museum of London exhibit on epidemic disease, told the Guardian in 2018. George V, too, survived the great 1918 pandemic.

Disease, in other words, shapes the fates of entire nations; for at least 200 years, viruses and bacteria have been more likely to take out a world leader than war.

Boris Johnson’s government was even slower than the glacially moving Trump administration to take coronavirus seriously, and consequently, it took a while for the royals to finally cancel everything and rearrange their lives around the threat. “A senior Palace source said last night that the Queen was determined to set an example by ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ until there was ‘compelling advice to the contrary,’” the Daily Mail reported on March 7.” As recently as March 11, outlets noted that the Queen had been photographed in a gloveless handshake, in a sign she wasn’t sweating covid-19. It was an echo of one of Princess Diana’s most iconic moments when she was photographed shaking the hand of an AIDS patient. It also calls to mind a different piece of royal iconography, from a different regime: Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, a painting in which the French leader touches a plague victim with a bare hand in a Christ-like presentation. But given the inaction of the Johnson government, that comparison might be foreboding: Napoleon commissioned the painting when he wanted to clear rumors he’d wanted to execute the sufferers to speed up a strategic retreat.

But as the pandemic has worsened, the messaging has switched into a more self-consciously Blitz-style presentation. Elizabeth’s parents famously refused to leave Buckingham Palace throughout the war, and her family’s stoicism in the face of Nazi bombs is intimately tied to the Windsors’ continued place on the throne and the United Kingdom’s national mythology. The royal family presents itself as something akin to the Tower ravens, as though their very presence guards against national catastrophe, ensuring that no matter what comes, the United Kingdom remains itself.

And so the Windsors are threading the needle very, very carefully. The Times of London reports that the Queen is currently planning the fourth special address of her 68-year reign to address the crisis; Prince William is stepping to the front of the lineup, visiting the London Ambulance Centre in person with Kate to thank the staff for their work. Even so, the Crown is carefully tucking away members of the line of succession, just in case. The Queen is off to Windsor, which is running on a skeleton staff; Charles and Camilla—who are both also high-risk—are off to Birkhall, Charles’s residence in the Scottish Highlands. Will, Kate, and the kids are planning to spend the next few weeks in rural Norfolk—“but may return to London after the Easter holiday,” which puts them safely in the country until the UK has a clearer picture of just how bad this is going to get. Surely an institution with a memory as long as royalty hasn’t forgotten about Eddy.

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