On Wednesday, January 8, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, shocked the world—and their relatives—with an announcement made on their official Instagram account. They were going to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent.” News agencies and social media picked up the story minutes after it broke, as shock gave way to a series of important questions: What do they define as “stepping back?” What will their new status be? What does this mean for the future of the British monarchy as an institution?
Before there can be any discussion of these questions, however, it is necessary to understand why the Sussexes’ announcement has caused such a stir and the historical precedents—or lack thereof—for this situation.
As the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and the second child of the heir to the throne—Charles, the Prince of Wales—Harry was always going to be a central figure of the royal family. This means that he carries out official duties on behalf of the Crown, represents his grandmother at ceremonial functions, patronizes various charities, holds honourary military appointments, and is paid out of the Sovereign Grant (the parliamentary fund that pays members of the royal family who carry out official duties). Upon wedding Meghan in May 2018, Harry was also granted the titles Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton, and Baron Kilkeel. This made Harry a royal duke, reinforcing his status as a de facto senior member of the royal family, as dukedoms are traditionally given to the monarch’s sons and grandsons upon their marriage. Once Charles ascends the throne, Harry will be the son of the king of Great Britain.
As a hereditary institution, the British monarchy functions on the basis of historical precedent for responding to most situations; royal weddings, coronations, and funerals are planned based on how these ceremonies were handled in the past. In Harry and Meghan’s case, though, there is no precedent in the monarchy’s history for a senior member of the royal family to separate themselves from the institution. Even when the King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry American Wallis Simpson, he went into exile abroad, was titled the “Duke of Windsor,” and given an annual allowance (see Morton).
Some commentators have been trying to compare the Sussex situation to this Abdication Crisis. This is inaccurate, at best.
Divorce in 1936 was still highly controversial; the Church of England did not recognize divorced persons at this time. As king and therefore head of the Church of England, for Edward VIII to marry the twice-divorced Simpson ran against accepted social values of the time.
Moreover, Edward VIII was not the grandson, or even the son, of the king. He was not in line for the throne. He was already on it. He had not yet had his coronation—the religious ceremony at Westminster Abbey when the crown is placed on the monarch’s head and they swear oaths of loyalty to God and the people. As captain of the proverbial ship, he was steering it on a course that threatened to sink it.
It is unfair to compare Harry’s decision as the grandson of the current monarch who is not even in the top five in line for the throne to that of Edward VIII’s king-turned-duke abdication.
An examination of the monarchy’s more distant history with its royal dukes yields even fewer comparisons helpful in understanding Harry and Meghan’s situation.
Queen Victoria’s five uncles—the Prince of Wales (future King George IV), and the dukes of Clarence (the future King William IV), Cumberland, Sussex, and Cambridge—had amassed tens of millions of pounds in debt, fathered numerous illegitimate children, and were considered some of the most unpopular princes in Britain since the early 1800s. Despite their many indiscretions, they were neither stripped of their dukedoms nor removed from the line of throne succession. Perhaps the most hated man in early nineteenth-century Britain, the Duke of Cumberland, even succeeded as king of Hanover in 1837 (See Gill).
Let’s recall, too, that monarchies and their large royal families were the normative political system in nineteenth-century Europe. Until the early twentieth century, France, San Marino, and Switzerland were the only European republics.
This historical context is important for understanding how and why it has taken the royal family several weeks to find a workable solution, providing the Sussexes some peace of mind without undermining the monarchy as an institution. On January 18, Buckingham Palace announced that Harry and Meghan would no longer be carrying out official duties on the Queen’s behalf, that they would not be paid from the Sovereign Grant, and that they would repay the £2.4 million in public funds that were spent on refurbishing their UK home. “Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the Commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding,” Harry remarked on January 19. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.” This announcement also mentioned that the couple would cease to use their royal titles. The statement, importantly, says that the Sussexes “will not use their HRH titles.” They will not lose their titles. Doing so would require either an order-in-council from the Queen or an act of Parliament. According to the Daily Mail, the couple will refer to themselves as Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex; this has not been confirmed by other sources, but it may change in the coming days. It should also be noted that neither Harry nor their son, Archie, has been removed from the line of succession to the throne. There is no indication, at present, that this will happen.
A significant feature of this story that has been somewhat overlooked in this story is the role of the media in contributing to this unprecedented and historical situation. In a speech at a private charity function on January 19, Harry described the press as “a powerful force,” outlining his hope that, “one day our own collective support for each other can be more powerful [than media pressures] because this is so much bigger than us.”With the rise of consumer-centered media and photojournalism in the twentieth century, the British monarchy’s relationship with the press has had its ups and downs. This relationship reached its lowest low in 1997 with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when her car crashed in Paris trying to avoid the paparazzi. History risks repeating itself as the invasions of privacy, scathing—and factually questionable—editorials, and constant press scrutiny prompts Diana’s younger son to take this unprecedented step to preserve the well-being of his family. In 2019, Harry released an official statement condemning the British media’s harsh treatment of him and Meghan: “There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly fake and malicious, and though we have continued to put on a brave face – as so many of you can relate to – I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been.”
There can be no mistaking the fact that one of the major factors behind the Sussexes unprecedented decision has been this struggle with the media. Most people, put in the Sussexes’ position, would likely feel the same way; Harry has described it as a move to “step my family back from all I have ever known, to take a step forward into what I hope can be a more peaceful life.” Even if the couple’s initial announcement seemed controversial, their motives are highly relatable.
It is this relatability—this human element—that is often being left out of the conversation. News outlets and commentators are focusing in on the difficult and important questions of constitutional procedure and the future of the monarchy, but too few seem to be acknowledging that, at the centre of this unfolding drama, are two newlyweds, their infant son, and their attempts to walk the increasingly narrow tightrope of being part of the most famous dynasty in the world while trying to find their own if somewhat unorthodox role within the monarchy under the eye of the increasingly expanding and unforgiving watch of the 24-hour news and social media cycle.
Justin Vovk is a SSHRC doctoral fellow in the Department of History at McMaster University. His research focuses on the use of royal rituals and ceremonies in the creation of different kinds of identity in early modern Britain and Austria. He is also a contributing writer to the European Royal History Journal.
Gill, Gillian. We Two: Victoria and Albert—Rulers, Partners, Rivals. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.
Morton, Andrew. 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.