Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
My grandmother was one of a handful of distant but direct descendants of the British royalty in power at the time the first colonists arrived, by a twist of meteorological fate on the shores of Cape Cod, near what is now Plymouth. While her lineage would have made it unlikely that she would ever have ascended to the throne in Great Britain at the time, her status was an entirely different story in the New World, where governmental structure and positions of power were still to be decided and often handed out as favours. Her royal ancestor, an illegitimate son of King James I, was heir to the fortune the King had bestowed on one of his favourite mistresses, a woman who had–after having lost favour with him–eventually married a wealthy merchant and sailed, along with her small child, a little boy, to the New World not long after the pilgrims had established themselves in what was to become the state of Massachusetts.
Not long before the American Revolution, this ancestor, by then a young man, received an unusual visitor to the family home. It was an emissary of the King, disguised as a traveling merchant. The political situation between Britain and the Colonies was becoming treacherous. The King was desperate to get the colonists under control and was beginning to realize just how difficult it was to influence people who lived on a far-off continent and who were too busy trying to survive and unreceptive to the demands (including the exorbitant taxes) imposed by a distant ruler. He was ready to name a new type of governor to the region, a direct descendant who would himself become a King, the King of New England. When the bad blood had begun between the British ruler and his long-distance subjects, my ancestor’s family had wisely chosen to hide their royal affiliation, but the visitor was unaware of this. The family had been initially financed by King James himself and could not risk angering their powerful benefactor. They signed the papers the visitor presented, endowing my ancestor with the future title of first King of New England. King James clearly believed that the eventual outcome of the conflict would render this a good decision and that he would have a puppet-king in his pocket when all was said and done. Because the visitor was operating undercover, no fuss was made of the transaction and he went on his merry way without the locals being any wiser.
Despite their original affiliation, my ancestor’s family had spent their years in the New World struggling like all of the other colonists to create a new life (while destroying the lives of those who already lived there). When the bad blood had begun between the British ruler and his long-distance subjects, they had wisely chosen to hide their royal affiliation from their neighbours. As the conflict escalated, my ancestor’s father was killed during one of the many skirmishes that took place in the region. His mother, not yet having any children, became the de-facto Queen of New England. She quickly and quietly remarried to a younger man, a farmer, thus vanishing into an inconspicuous life.
The American Revolution came and went, and the Queen of New England, widowed again when her second husband succumbed to an unknown malady, died a quiet death at the age of seventy-two. Her son, a farmer like his second stepfather, was now a grown man, married himself with three young daughters. While preparing for her funeral, he opened the big chest at the foot of her bed. In it was a roll of parchment sealed with a heavy wax stamp. He gently lifted the seal off with his knife and read the document. What a revelation! While the Revolutionary War was over, the anti-royalty sentiment was not and Great Britain was most certainly not finished with trying to win back the Colonies. He once again sealed and hid the document. When his eldest daughter married at the age of nineteen, he took her aside and told her the story of how he had been given the title of the King of New England, and how this title would make her Queen upon his death.
While the British had, for the moment (as they liked to believe), lost the Colonies, the King (now Charles) continued to send the occasional messenger, always in greatest secrecy, to remind the current King or Queen of New England of the eventual role he or she would play once the unruly Americans, as they now referred to themselves, were back under the royal wing. Caught between a rock and a hard place, my ancestors kept it zipped.
And so the generations carried on, with the traditional visit from the royal messenger occurring upon the death of each succeeding descendant. But it was becoming less and less likely that the British could install anyone on any kind of throne in New England, which was on the way to becoming part of something much bigger — the future United States of America — a place that was to be founded on the principles of democracy and full of disdain for anything resembling a monarchy.
My maternal grandmother was born in 1892 and eventually came to know that she was — at least on paper — a princess. Her mother, the current Queen of New England, taught her not to speak of the situation and kept the ancient, official documents under lock and key. Despite the unlikelihood of becoming an acting Queen of anything, my grandmother was nonetheless educated to lead — she studied music and pursued a successful career as an opera singer until her marriage to my grandfather in the late 1920s. It was the height of the Women’s Suffrage era and my grandmother was an independent thinker. Her husband, a chemistry professor, bought a small chemical company and set her up as manager. And manage she did.
When her mother finally died, and she became the theoretical Queen of New England herself, she received what would be the final British visit — supposedly from an actual member of the royal family. But this visit was different. A British sub-monarchy in the U.S. was clearly impossible by now, so this thoroughly modern heir to the imaginary New England throne was offered a modest sum of money to sign away her right to rule. She may have been tiny, but she sent him packing in a big way. She’d be damned if she was giving up the right to anything, however slim the chance! Why, hadn’t she recently fought for her right to vote and won?
But while she may have been ahead of her time, she was technically past the sell-by date for ascendance to the throne.
Photo by Ryan Johns on Unsplash
When her daughter — my mother — was born, my grandmother treated her like the princess she was, dressing her in the latest styles, giving her a good education and preparing her for life as a future (secret) Queen. What she couldn’t do, though, was count on my mother to go along with the plan. My mother is, in fact, famous for not going along with anybody’s plan. Oh, she loved beautifully designed clothes, enjoyed the more social aspects of school, had great manners and lots of high-energy charm and was very popular with her peers, but she was primarily interested in being free. She wanted to travel the world, meet people — she wanted to live, in other words. Even if her title was unknown to the world and for all practical purposes imaginary, it was a weight she didn’t need. So when her parents paid for a summer trip to Europe after her sophomore year at college (a common practice at the time), they didn’t know that via political connections made at the Canadian university she was attending, she had managed to wrangle an appointment with the Secretary to the Queen of England in order to settle the matter once and for all. The story goes that HRM herself showed up to the meeting, which was held in offices at Buckingham Palace, and that they chatted briefly about the unusual historical arrangement over tea and scones. My mother had brought along the by now crumbling documents which the Queen looked over carefully. Together they signed a new document, prepared in advance of the rendezvous, stating that nobody from my family could ever again lay claim to the title of Queen (or King) of New England nor partake of any previously promised benefits that might have gone along with said title. The old documents were notarized by both the Secretary and the Queen, and witnessed by a legal representative, then returned to my mother as a keepsake. My mother, always in a hurry and never particularly impressed by celebrity, curtsied a quick goodbye to her tea companions and exited the palace grounds to join her impatiently waiting girlfriend for the beginning of their European summer adventure (another story entirely!).
The notarized papers made it home in one piece at the end of the summer, moving from place to place with my mother in a hulking, vintage steamer trunk until she married my father. They spent the years that followed in that same trunk, in the cluttered attic of the Colonial-era house I grew up in.
When I was still a young girl, and not as curious about details as I am now, my mother eventually told me the story of how the Queen of New England came to be — and how her story ended. She told me that I should probably keep this information to myself — nobody would believe me, anyway. With this intriguing tale floating in my imagination, I played the usual princess dress-up games that many children do and as I outgrew them, this unusual family history gradually faded from my memory. After all, I had missed my chance to be a future Queen, so the buck stopped there. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was pregnant with my first child, that I thought about it again. I questioned my mother about the story’s validity, and about the souvenir documents, curious to see them myself if it was true. She sighed and told me that the trunk was still there, having made the move from my childhood home to my parents’ new one in Vermont in the early ’90s. It was still filled with antique clothing and random artifacts from her family’s past (I’ve seen it and looked through it). But sadly, those historic papers seem to have mysteriously vanished into thin air.