The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) have been open about the intrusion upon their privacy which followed the announcement of their relationship, as chronicled by a new documentary. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris argue that a lack of privacy is a common problem across European monarchies and reducing the size of the royal family might allow more of its members to escape their ‘gilded cage’.
Robert Hazell appeared in Episode 1 of the Netflix documentary, in an interview drawing on our book The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy (now available in paperback with a 30% discount for readers of this blog: use the code RMMD30). That was a comparative study of the other monarchies in Western Europe, as well as the UK: Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. It showed that monarchy makes extraordinary demands not just of the monarch, but of other close members of the royal family, whose lives are restricted from the moment of their birth.
The first and biggest restriction is that all royals suffer from constant intrusion of the press into their private lives. The worst cases come from the UK, where intense competition in the tabloid press has led to extraordinary invasions of their privacy. These range from Camillagate, when the People published a transcript of a late night conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in 1993; to illegal hacking of the phones of staff to Prince William; to paparazzi using dangerous tactics to get photos of the two-year old Prince George.
But harassment of the royals in pursuit of stories about their private lives is not confined to the UK. In the Netherlands, gossip magazines have published unauthorised photos of Princess Amalia, nine-year old daughter of the country’s Crown Prince, in a breakdown of a media code intended to allow the young royals to lead as normal a life as possible. Despite court cases in several countries, it has proved impossible to protect the royals from constant intrusion by the press. Princess Caroline von Hannover has even taken cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that ‘photos appearing in the tabloid press are often taken in a climate of continual harassment which induces in the person concerned a very strong sense of intrusion into their private life or even of persecution’ (von Hannover v Germany, 2004). Even if the press in one country are restrained, other countries may not follow suit: in 2012 topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge which were turned down by British papers were published in France, Denmark and Sweden. And even if legal action is successful, it takes years to obtain a judgment: the topless photos were judged an invasion of privacy by the French courts, but it took five years for the Duchess to obtain a judgment and damages.
Second, there is a symbiosis between monarchy and the media which makes it difficult for royals to criticise the press. If they do so, they risk getting a bad press; and monarchy depends on the press to publicise what it does and to maintain popular support. The Queen famously said, ‘To be seen is to be believed’, and to be seen the British royal family conduct some 2,000–3,000 engagements a year. To maximise publicity for those engagements, the Palace tries to co-ordinate the activities of different members of the royal family so that they do not compete or clash. Royal communications teams have become increasingly professional, and they try to co-operate with the press corps to ensure a steady stream of royal news stories, and a steady stream of positive stories.
The media do not always co-operate in return; and do not simply accept the line they are fed. The royals can also be subject to probing scrutiny: alongside all the fawning coverage and glossy pictures, there is more serious investigative journalism which keeps all the monarchies on their toes. It scrutinises their expenditure, their staffing, their use of helicopters, their fundraising and their choice of friends. The media also commission regular opinion polls in all the European monarchies, asking if people are satisfied with the monarch’s performance; is the royal family paid too much; who are your favourite royals; should the monarch abdicate; should the country become a republic? Support for the monarchy remains high in all countries, with polls regularly showing that between 60 and 80% of the people wish to retain the monarchy – ratings which politicians would die for.
Third, privacy and freedom from press intrusion is not the only freedom which the rest of us take for granted, but the royals lack. They also lack free choice of career; freedom to marry whom they like; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; and freedom to travel. Take free choice of career. In all European monarchies the heir and others close in the line of succession cannot choose a profession or pursue a business career, lest they be accused of exploiting their position for commercial gain. Minor royals are less constrained, and some do pursue a business career; but there is a grey area about what is acceptable and what is not. Princess Märtha Louise of Norway and Prince Edward in the UK have been accused of using their royal connections for commercial gain, as have several spouses of minor royals. In the Netherlands, members of the royal family and their spouses cannot take a job without first seeking government approval. To escape these restrictions to pursue a wider career, they would need to step out of the line of succession and shed their royal connections. In practice very few royals have done so.
Fourth, the harsh reality is that younger sons are spares who are ultimately dispensable from a hereditary monarchy: it is only those in direct line of succession who count. As spares they are subject to the same personal restrictions as the immediate heirs, without either the prospect of succession or the freedom to develop truly independent careers of their own. Other European monarchies (encouraged by parsimonious governments and legislatures) have learned to keep the core team as small as possible. It can be just four people – in Norway and Spain it is the King and Queen, the Crown Prince (in Spain, the Crown Princess) and their spouse. In 2019, the King of Sweden removed five grandchildren from the royal house, under parliamentary pressure to reduce its size and its cost. In 2022, Queen Margrethe of Denmark followed suit, stripping four grandchildren of their royal titles. They are the children of her younger son Prince Joachim, and the decision caused a serious rift in the royal family; but the Palace said it would enable the children ‘to be able to shape their own lives, without being limited by the special considerations and duties that a formal affiliation with the Royal House of Denmark involves’.
Fifth, the UK is also following suit in slimming down the monarchy, partly by accident, partly by design. King Charles is said to want a smaller, streamlined monarchy, of perhaps just half a dozen people: King Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Princess Anne, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie. Until 2020 the team was much larger, with 15 royals who carried out public engagements. It has since shrunk with the departure of Harry and Meghan, and Prince Andrew, and now the death of the Queen. It will soon shrink further with the eventual retirement of the older royals who still undertake some public engagements (the Duke of Kent (80), Princess Alexandra (85), the Duke (78) and Duchess (76) of Gloucester). But with a smaller team the royal family will be able to fulfil far fewer engagements and accept fewer royal patronages. Gone will be the days when the royal family carried out almost 4000 visits a year. That will require careful management of public expectations, not just in the UK but in the other countries around the world where Charles is now King.
The King’s plans to reduce – ‘streamline’ – the monarchy have wider implications. The Queen presided over the empire’s modification into the Commonwealth: a quarter of whose states – the realms – retain the British monarch as head of state. The King’s vision implies a further programme of change, toward a more domesticated, less international monarchy. With fewer working royals it will not be possible to service the remaining 14 realms as in the past: the Queen’s platinum jubilee is likely to be the last occasion when almost all the realms received a royal visit.
Greater domestication could have implications for the careers and lifestyles of royal family members. Hitherto there would have been siblings and aunts and uncles supporting royal functions in the UK and abroad. In future they could be expected to develop independent careers of their own: like Princess Margaret’s children, although still members of the royal family, they could flourish as private citizens. Such a possibility would need to be explained before they reached an age when they had become so attached to a privileged life of service that it would be painful to renounce. In due course, some formal steps might be necessary, for example to change the 1917 rules for assuming the title of His/Her Royal Highness.
A final comment on Harry and Meghan is this. The Netflix documentary conveys the impression that they have been uniquely victimised. But this post has shown that the difficulties they faced are shared by all the royal families of Europe. It is monarchy which is unique, in the extraordinary demands which it makes of close members of the royal family. The public tend to think that royals lead very privileged lives, in glittering palaces with lots of servants. But in truth it is a gilded cage, and because the benefits monarchy brings to parliamentary democracy can involve a high personal price, it is understandable if sometimes the more junior royals might want to escape. In a blog written in 2020 we said about the departure of Harry and Meghan:
…it should be possible for minor royals to opt out of the gilded cage if they find the restrictions too great. But opting out would need to be total: giving up not just their public duties but their public funding, their royal titles, their security – trying as far as possible to become private people. It would not be easy to undergo such a complete change of lifestyle. And it may not prove possible.
We leave viewers of the Netflix series to judge to what extent it has proved possible; and we have included that 2020 blogpost in the list of further reading below.
Robert and Bob’s book about monarchies in western Europe, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy is now available in paperback with a 30% discount for readers of this blog (discount code RMMD30).
About the authors
Dr Bob Morris is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, and has for some time led its work on Monarchy, and Church and State. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy.
The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared (Hart Publishing, 2020: discount code RMMD30).
The Coronation of Charles III (October 2022)
Swearing in the New King: The Accession and Coronation Oaths (October 2022)
Future Challenges for the Monarchy (December 2022)
Reforming the Prerogative (December 2022)
Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Sandringham settlement (25 January 20120)
The role of monarchy in modern democracy (September 2020)
Demise of the Crown: what happens next? (September 2022)
The Accession and Coronation of King Charles III (October 2022)