Some Thoughts On The Sussexes’ Interview With Oprah

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sat down for an interview with Oprah that was broadcast yesterday. Much of the media’s attention has focused on the Duke’s allegation that an unnamed member of the Royal Family[1] made racist remarks, but the Duchess’s comments about Archie’s lack of a title and her admission that she didn’t research the Royal Family ahead of her marriage deserve some comment.  

It’s not surprising that the Sussexes’s children won’t be princes or princesses. Under George V’s Letters Patent of November 30, 1917 and the Queen’s Letters Patent of December 31, 2012, the titular dignity of prince/princess and the style of ‘Royal Highness’ are restricted to:

  • the Sovereign’s children;
  • the children of the Sovereign’s sons; and
  • the children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales.[2]

The Queen could have changed the rules to allow the children of the Duke and Duchess to be princes/princesses and HRHs, but that would go against the trend of reducing the number of people with those titles. Before 1917, a far wider group of people held princely status, which is why there were Germans who were technically ‘Princes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ (e.g., the Duke of Brunswick who lost his princely title as a result of the Titles Deprivation Act 1917). It’s worth remembering that the Sussexes’ children are unlikely to inherit the throne. At the moment, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is seventh in the line of succession, and he’s only going to descend further. The Duchess of Sussex seems to have wanted him to enjoy a princely title because it would enable him to receive security, but it’s fair to ask whether the taxpayer should foot the bill to protect someone who isn’t at the top of the line of succession. The Duke of York’s daughters lost their taxpayer-funded security for that very reason. By the same token, it’s hard to see why the Duke and Duchess should receive taxpayer-funded security when they no longer wish to be working members of the Royal Family.[3]  

The Duchess’s apparent confusion over the title of prince is easier to understand when you realize that she didn’t research the Royal Family ahead of time. It was a startling admission, and one wonders if more foreknowledge wouldn’t have made things at least a little bit less stressful for her. Perhaps she assumed that her experience as a celebrity would equip her for life in the Royal Family, but Americans have a hard time understanding the Monarchy because we don’t really have anything like it over here.

Despite how the Royal Family is portrayed in the US, they’re not mere celebrities. Their life comes with all sorts of perks, but they must also follow a myriad of rules, both explicit and implicit. It would be hard for any outsider to adjust to, but it would be particularly difficult for an American celebrity accustomed to doing or saying whatever she pleases. And if you don’t understand the rationale behind the rules, they’ll seem all the more burdensome.

Current members of the Royal Family grew up with these rules, so it must be hard for them to grasp an outsider’s confusion. But I suspect that the following generations will bring change to the institution. The Monarchy often seems timeless, but it’s more protean than people realize. Victoria would probably find the court of Elizabeth II shockingly informal. In Victoria’s day, she was accompanied by a Lord and a Groom in Waiting at Privy Councils, and Ministers of the Crown were in attendance throughout her stay at Balmoral. Those customs have now withered away.[4] As the more byzantine rules continue to disappear, The Firm will seem less and less alien to newcomers.

There are lessons to be learned from the Sussexes’ predicament. Perhaps there needs to be some form of formal onboarding/premarital counseling for new members of the Royal Family, especially if they come from a vastly different background.[5] It’s also reasonable to ask whether the Palace needs to embrace a more flexible approach to royal life. If someone truly doesn’t want to be a working member of the Royal Family for whatever reason, it’s better for everyone if they can formally leave The Firm with dignity. Right now, the Duke and Duchess are in an awkward position. Despite stepping back as working royals, they still have their titles, and the Duke and Archie remain in the line of succession. There’s no easy solution to this problem,[6] so it may be time to let people voluntarily sever those ties.

[1] The Duke refused to name the individual, though he apparently said it wasn’t the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh.

[2] Under George V’s Letters Patent, those honorifics were restricted to the eldest son of the Prince of Wales’ eldest son, but the Queen’s Letters Patent broadened it to include all the eldest son’s children.

[3] Whether the Royal Family should pay for their security is a separate matter, but similar principles apply.

[4] Though the Prime Minister does of course spend a weekend at Balmoral.

[5] Admittedly, I struggle to think of what this might look like. Simply tossing a copy of Bagehot at them won’t be enough!

[6] While the Queen could theoretically remove the titular dignity of prince and the style of ‘Royal Highness,’ only an Act of Parliament could remove the Dukedom of Sussex. Removing the Duke and his children from the line of succession would require the unanimous agreement of all 16 Commonwealth Realms.

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2 Responses to Some Thoughts On The Sussexes’ Interview With Oprah

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    What is interesting is that while Meghan experienced problems with ‘the firm’, Kate Middleton does not appear to have. Perhaps it was the extended period between William and Kate first coming together at St Andrews and their marriage in 2011 that enabled her to get used to the Royal Family and its unwritten rules at a time when there was little publicity about her. In contrast, Meghan’s relationship with Harry was largely conducted in the full glare of publicity.

    • jasonloch says:

      I think you’re onto something. Both the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Cornwall joined The Firm after extended courtships, whereas Diana, Princess of Wales, Sarah, Duchess of York, and the Duchess of Sussex all joined the Royal Family relatively quickly. It may not be a coincidence that the former appear to have adjusted to royal life without too much difficulty, while the latter found it far more difficult to acclimate.

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