By Richard Lacayo
Updated October 10, 1990 12:00 PM

In the ’50s, when he was not yet famous but was furiously laying plans to be, Andy Warhol would convey to friends the measure of his ambition by reaching for the pinnacle, the stratosphere of celebrity. “I want to be as famous,” he would confide in his mild whisper, “as the Queen of England.”

He might as well have said that he wanted to be as famous as the Atlantic Ocean. The British royal family has something that vast and immemorial about it. The clan that now calls itself the Windsors has been in the public eye, not for Warhol’s 15 minutes, but for three centuries. In those same years many of the other crowned families of Europe have been ousted, executed or packed off to rule the weightless realm of café society. The Windsors still occupy the throne, as implacable and enduring as the planet Jupiter.

It hasn’t been easy. The Windsors are expected to behave like the Cleavers even when they’re feeling like the Simpsons. Being famous is more than their fate; in a sense it’s their job. As the real decision making power of the monarch has dwindled, the public symbolism has become more important. And in an age of mass media, the royals are obliged not only to symbolize their nation but also to serve as a vast screen on which an international public can see their own family relations enacted in CinemaScope—complete with love scenes, cliff-hangers and blaring trumpets. The royal family has been obliged to perform a nimble balancing act. Appear too stodgy and they look remote from their people. Become too human and they risk inciting a boot-them-out backlash.

On more than one occasion in the past, Britons have seemed ready to rid themselves of a dynasty that, seen in a certain light, could look costly, shiftless and too-too-Teutonic. Case in point: When George IV of the Germanic Hanoverian line assumed the throne in 1820 he asked his cabinet for £550,000 to pay off his debts. They refused. When he died 10 years later after a liquored and libidinous life, the Times of London harrumphed, “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King.”

The lesson of George IV is not lost on the Windsors, who take their family history not just as a source of pride but also as a series of warnings to the present. When Princess Margaret found herself unable to marry the divorced Group Capt. Peter Townsend in the mid-’50s, the shadow cast by Edward VIII’s shenanigans with the American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson loomed large. When the Queen decided that Prince Charles should see important government papers, she told friends it was because she didn’t want him to become like Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria, who came to the throne unprepared at the age of 60 because his mother had kept him out of the affairs of state.

Like her father, George VI, Elizabeth has been a model of dignity and decorum. But a stroll among her ancestors in the National Portrait Gallery is enough to remind her of any number of hot-blooded blue bloods—kings who lived in a roaring state of nature, leering, tipsy and unbuckled. For every placid monarch like George V, content to examine his world-class stamp collection, there was one like Edward VII, who preferred to inspect court ladies and actresses.

Where does the Windsor saga begin? Actually, with the Hanoverians (see box). The Windsors didn’t adopt that name until World War I, when George V changed it from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to deflect the anti-German feeling that the war had engendered. The royals like to consider Queen Victoria their matriarch because her marriage to Prince Albert established the present branch of the family tree. Emphasizing the new male line that descends from Albert also allows the Windsors to distance themselves from Victoria’s predecessors, the so-called Hanoverian kings. Starting with George I, who was imported to England from Germany in 1714, they were five increasingly preposterous rulers who made the British people rue almost the very idea of royalty. One of Victoria’s biographers described the three kings who immediately preceded her as, in order, “an imbecile, a profligate and a buffoon.” He didn’t get any argument.

Such was the state of the Crown when Victoria acceded in 1837. Though she was a niece of the last Hanoverian king, William IV, she made it her business to undo their legacy. They had been plump, coarse and old. She was a composed 18-year-old, fair and petite, under five feet. (As she would say later: “We are rather small for a queen.”) Several of the Hanoverians had been leering skirt chasers. She brought the monarchy a bit of wholesome romance through a devoted marriage to her German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Go-tha. The free-spending Hanoverians were always rummaging through the public purse. She and Albert put the royal finances on a firm footing again.

When Victoria died in 1901, after the longest reign in her nation’s history, her reputation for rectitude had become so stultifying that her son, Edward VII, could find himself cheered by the British people for the same habits of banqueting and bed-hopping that had caused such trouble for their predecessor George IV. Victoria also lived long enough to see her nine children and 40 grandchildren married into most of the royal families of Europe. On her deathbed she was supported by her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who 13 years later would lead his nation into war against hers.

The transformation of the royal reputation may be Albert’s achievement even more than Victoria’s. It was he most of all who created the image of the modern British monarchy. At a time when the Crown’s role in running the state was all but evaporating, Albert devised a new function for it as a symbol of unity and national values. With the middle classes taking power from the spoiled and lazy aristocrats, Albert gave them a royal family that the common man could both look up to and identify with: wreathed in pomp and ceremony but frugal, sober, dutiful and monogamous.

Though Victoria’s name has come to stand for prudishness, it was as much Albert who brought the moralizing strain to their marriage. As a young woman, the Queen didn’t blush to size him up bluntly in her diary. (“Such a pretty mouth,” she noted. “A beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.”) But Albert worried that their children would take after his wayward parents, who had divorced in a tangle of adulteries. Above all he vowed that Edward, heir to the throne, would be raised in an atmosphere of hard schooling and abstinence.

Naturally, Edward grew up to be dim, jolly and goatish. When his parents sent him to Ireland in 1861, some cavalry officers arranged for the 19-year-old Prince to lose his virginity with a local actress before starting at Cambridge. Gossip about this and further incidents sent Albert rushing to the university town to warn his son against the dangers of loose women. Feeling unwell even before the trip, Albert upon his return climbed achingly into bed. Within three weeks he was dead from typhoid,

Victoria plunged down a black hole of widowhood. Just 42 years old, she shut herself away from the world for decades. During that time Albert’s bedroom was kept as it was on the day of his death, even to the extent of having fresh bedclothes laid out every night. Her withdrawal was all the more noticeable because Victoria had been a very visible queen who had learned to use Britain’s new railways to bring the royal presence to distant parts of her realm. At a time when the performance of ceremonial duties had become the monarchy’s chief claim to earning its keep, Victoria’s reluctance to appear in public led to grumblings once again that the royal family was a luxury the nation could ill afford. “It is impossible for a recluse to occupy the British throne,” warned the Times.

Victoria eventually roused herself sufficiently to regain the public’s affection. But she never stopped blaming Edward for his father’s death. “I never can nor shall look at him without a shudder,” she once confessed. Because she doubted both his intellect and his ability to keep a secret, she refused to let him see the government papers that it was the sovereign’s duty to review. Edward couldn’t have cared anyway. He drifted into his 30s and 40s as a hearty playboy, his mother’s opposite in every way. Did Victoria have no-smoking signs posted throughout Buckingham Palace? Edward enjoyed a dozen cigars a day. Did she regard food as mere sustenance? He was called Tum-Tum. She filled her diary with reflections upon Parliament and her burgeoning empire. A typical entry in his: “Midnight supper, Lady Dudley.”

It was her son’s womanizing that Victoria found most repugnant, especially after he married the beautiful Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863. Throughout his life the insatiable Edward conducted a series of lengthy affairs with some of the most celebrated beauties of the day, including the actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. On the side he favored teatime trysting with married women, which let him fortify himself with buttered scones and cream cakes before smacking his lips all the way to the bedroom. There were also the occasional quick encounters in a hackney cab and the frequent trips to Paris, where he could improve Britain’s relations with France while enjoying the company of Guila Barucci, the self-proclaimed “biggest whore in the world.”

With prosperity at home and a vast empire abroad, the public was willing to overlook the moral lapses of a robust and even randy monarch. Edward spent nine popular years as king. When his own horses won the Derby, as they did thrice, it was cause for national celebration.

Though Edward was a loving father, the pattern of alternating temperaments among royal generations would hold true. George V, who acceded upon Edward’s death in 1910, was prim, exacting and a stickler for impeccable dress. He was also a homebody, content to live with his Queen Mary and their growing brood of children in the cramped York Cottage at the royal compound at Sandringham.

George led the country through World War I, when in addition to changing the family name to Windsor he also encouraged closer ties between the royals and the people by allowing the Windsors to marry British nobles and commoners. Among the first to benefit from this new trend was the present Queen Mother, who was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon when she married George’s son Albert, the future George VI.

George V proved to be an exacting father. His two eldest sons, both of whom would become kings, responded in opposite ways. The younger, Albert, who suffered from a pronounced stutter that made him terrified of public appearances, became shy and withdrawn. The older, David—the future Duke of Windsor—grew up partial to nightclubbing and married women. “He obviously means to have fun,” said Lady Cynthia Asquith after seeing him at a dance. His father saw things differently. “After I am dead,” he predicted, “the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”

He was only off by a bit. The boy came to the throne in 1936 as Edward VIII, intent upon marriage to Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American married to a British businessman and with one divorce already behind her. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his cabinet were convinced that the British people would never stand for a twice-divorced queen. They presented Edward with a choice—the lady or the land—calculating that he would choose the former, a step that would not only preserve the monarchy but would also remove a king who gave signs of sympathy with the Nazis. Edward resisted for a while, then caved in. After a reign of almost 12 months, he abdicated. Bearing the newly invented title Duke of Windsor, he left England for the Continent, where Mrs. Simpson was waiting. They would return home only for rare visits—and, decades later, to be buried.

The episode shook all of Britain. Almost exactly 100 years after Victoria had begun her efforts to repair the royal reputation, the family was back in the soup. On the night of Edward’s abdication, the sentries around Buckingham Palace were issued live ammunition for the first time in history. Public anger was perhaps overestimated, but Edward’s younger brother, now George VI, came to the throne in December 1936 with all of Britain poised for the worst.

For that matter, so was he. Albert had never expected to be king. After returning from World War I naval duty, he had devoted much of his time to visiting the factories and industrial regions that failed to interest other members of the royal family. But formal speaking engagements left him shaken and depressed. When he learned he was suddenly to be king, he went to his mother, Queen Mary, and wept for an hour.

No wonder it was rumored that George VI was too frail to survive the coronation ceremony. But his very narrowness and humility turned out to be qualities that were once again in favor among the British people. After the indolent nightclubbing of Edward VIII—he would let government papers pile up for weeks while he entertained friends—they wanted what George represented: a conscientious and principled king, a winning queen and two likable young daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. The King and Queen provided Britain with a center of gravity during the grim days of World War II, remaining in Buckingham Palace even when London was being fractured by German bombs. Plain vanilla George consolidated the century-old plan of Victoria’s beloved Albert—to ensure the popularity of the monarchy by making it as homey and familiar as an old rug.

Determined to prove that he was worthy of the throne he had never wanted, George may have driven himself too hard. He had written early in his reign that he hoped he would be allowed time to “make amends” for the trauma of his brother’s abdication. A heavy smoker, he was just 57 when he died of lung cancer in 1952. But he had made amends. He left the monarchy more popular than ever.

Elizabeth took up the scepter knowing that her main job would be to preserve the gains her parents had made. If today she sometimes appears a bit dowdy, the British people seem to like it that way. For now, the Windsors appear to have found just the right balance between naughty and nice. But every time Elizabeth strolls past the royal portraits in that gallery, she must worry just a bit about which family traditions the next generation will uphold.