Breaking the Mould
by Robert Toogood
The small Balkan Kingdom of Ascania had enjoyed a long and (the subjects would say) illustrious history, although people in the rest of the world who have never heard of it might raise their eyebrows at this and consider it an exaggeration. The fact is that the Ascanian people were reserved and kept themselves to themselves. They had no ambitions to make a stir in the world. In a way this worked in their favour, as the Ottoman Empire, who also knew nothing of this obscure kingdom, erroneously thinking its lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, considered it wise not to disturb it. So while other nations in the Balkans were overrun and subdued, the small kingdom of Ascania was ignored and left to itself.
In a moment of unusual expansiveness the inhabitants might allow themselves to expatiate on the virtues of their kingdom. They were a patriotic people, proud of their land, their independence from the two mighty empires between which they were squashed, and their ruling house which could trace its line back for a thousand years. Not that the peace and tranquillity of this tiny kingdom, which had been ignored by the great powers even during the two World Wars, was completely immured from contact with the influences beyond its borders. As we all know, great cultural and social changes took place in the 1960’s and this fresh spirit of the times even reached people in Ascania, some of whom dared to venture outside their comfort zone and courageously, with trembling legs, risk the influences of foreign travel and the shock to their long-held values from which they never fully recovered, returning home stunned by what they had seen and heard. These were the brave few, however, as ninety-five per cent of the population were content and felt no urge to undergo the discomforts of modern travel.
The reigning king of the country was King Karl XXIV and the most ultra-conservative of all his people. In fact it was one of the things they really liked about him. He was known as Karl ‘the Remote’ and he knew as little of their real lives as they knew of his, for it was as if they moved in different worlds. The king had a wife whom he kept as hidden away as much he could, because Queen Dinah had an underdeveloped sense of tact to put it politely. It was a great relief to him when she died young. The royal pair during their marriage had been blessed with two sons, Wilhelm and Heinrich and during their childhood the princes were constant companions, which was as well, as they were not encouraged to make many friends and those they were allowed to have were restricted to the most privileged class. It came as a profound shock to the dull and rather ineffectual king when the two princes came to him one day and asked to be allowed to travel and visit other countries. King Karl simply could not understand why they should want to do this, yet with many misgivings he eventually agreed.
Wilhelm enjoyed visiting new sights and scenes, but they had little impact on his mental outlook and he came home still as ultra-conservative as his father, but Heinrich, who hid his identity, really enjoyed the places and people he met and with whom he engaged. He liked to escape from the formality of the Court and was often abroad. Wilhelm conventionally married Katerina, one of Ascania’s wealthier subjects, and settled down to breed new royals, while Heinrich escaped from his royal duties by going abroad as much as he could. It was while he was away in far-off America that he fell in love with – of all things! – an actress, Meg Marble – and got engaged. Reluctantly King Karl allowed Heinrich to marry her, but principally because it would have been hard to stop him without revealing there was a breach within the royal family.
So Heinrich’s lady-love flew to Ascania and they were married in the Cathedral. King Karl and the Crown Prince Wilhelm did not take to Princess Meg, but they smothered their dislike in a show of unity. The princess, they soon discovered, was not only foreign, but wilful and opinionated. Even more scandalous was that their subjects knew that everywhere she went she ignored royal protocol, which the Ascanian newspapers were quick to point out. Soon Princess Meg began to lose her initial popularity with the people. What was worse, she was also disliked by those in the palace, from King Karl down to the footmen, waiters and kitchen staff. In short, she offended just about everyone except Prince Heinrich, who saw no wrong in her and did just what she told him.
Although she had earned the people’s dislike, Princess Meg resented it and eventually persuaded her husband that they should renounce their royal status and live independently in America, which they eventually announced to the newspapers and radio without warning and so gave even more offence to the family and people. King Karl made it very plain that he would not pay for their regal lifestyle if they took this step, being unable to justify their income if they excluded themselves from their royal duties.
It caused a public scandal in the country and shook the people’s confidence that there should be disharmony and a rift in their royal family. Ascanians felt the prince and his wife no longer loved them and the feelings of royals and palace staff were hurt to the point of fury. Prince Wilhelm bewailed the loss of his brother and King Karl his younger son. The no longer royal couple refused to compromise and flew off to America leaving Ascanians shocked and hurt.
Heinrich and Meg had rebelled against the status quo by acting out of character. By their conduct they had broken the mould for how royal personages should behave. The trouble with breaking moulds, however, is – who will pick up the pieces?
(c) Robert Toogood 2020