A well-trodden Via Dolorosa is often an individual’s path to power, as many historical examples attestby Piers Brendon / May 3, 2020 / Leave a comment
Now Boris Johnson has recovered from a nasty bout of coronavirus he may well contemplate the political advantage to be gained from having shared the ordeal of so many of his compatriots. The key reward is that he will be able to say with quite unaccustomed sincerity, “I feel your pain.” Solidarity is forged in adversity and where leadership is concerned nothing succeeds like suffering, as many historical examples attest.
In 1871 Edward, Prince of Wales caught typhoid fever, described as “the pre-eminent ‘filth disease’ of the Victorian period.” It was presumed to have killed his father, and for over a month Edward himself, showing symptoms remarkably similar to those of coronavirus, hovered at death’s door. At the time the monarchy was in a parlous state. Queen Victoria, the Widow of Windsor, remained in purdah. Her eldest son had recently been embroiled in the scandalous Mordaunt divorce case and was widely regarded as (in Walter Bagehot’s phrase) a “debauched booby.” And there was an upsurge of republicanism, red caps of liberty being raised on poles in Trafalgar Square.
However, the prince’s illness provoked a tidal wave of sympathy that swept the country. Radicals sneered at “the great epidemic of typhoid loyalty” but, as the fervent public thanksgivings for his recovery demonstrated, it infected all classes of society. The republican movement subsided, a proposed enquiry into the crown’s finances was roundly defeated in parliament and the queen could express confidence in the future of her dynasty. In fact, the reprobate Prince of Wales did more for royal popularity by contracting typhoid than he had ever accomplished in the full bloom of health.
Coincidentally Edward’s grandson, George VI, provided another graphic illustration of the way in which experiencing a common affliction can bind ruler and ruled together. In the early days of the Blitz its victims occasionally booed the king and queen as they toured bombed districts, seeing the visits of these gilded folk as a show of slumming. But on 9th September 1940 Buckingham Palace was bombed. The queen famously (and perhaps apocryphally) declared that she could now look the East End in the face. Certainly the air raid was a huge propaganda coup for the king. It demonstrated that he was in…