Queen Elizabeth II always wears bright outfits, complete with matching hats and dresses, but not because they are fashionable. “I have to be seen to be believed,” she once said. Those colourful outfits are a regal uniform, designed to make her instantly recognizable as she goes about her duties.
That need to be seen doing a job she’s had for 68 years is at the core of the monarchy, the very existence of which depends on the goodwill of the people. That’s why the Queen has made 23 official tours (including one while she was a princess) of Canada. (“We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves,” snapped her husband, Prince Philip, during one such trip in the 1970s.)
Until a few months ago, there were 15 British royals—the monarch and 14 of her relations—undertaking official full-time duties, which are recorded for posterity in the Court Circular, a record that dates back to 1803. Some are those closest to the throne, such as Prince Charles, while others are trusted relations chosen by the Queen, including several of her cousins. Last year, this group did nearly 3,500 engagements, everything from headline-generating events such as the Queen opening Parliament and William and Kate’s official visit to Pakistan to more prosaic ones such as Princess Anne’s trips to correctional facilities in her role as patron of a prison charity or the Duke of Gloucester unveiling a plaque to a Victoria Cross winner. The working Windsors range in rank from the Queen, 93, who undertook nearly 300 engagements, to her 83-year-old cousin, Princess Alexandra of Kent, who completed 58 and is 53rd in line of succession to the throne.
Prince Charles has made no secret of his plan to streamline the Firm—the name that his grandfather, King George VI, gave to the family business—when he inherits his mother’s throne. He believes that the focus should be on the monarch, the heir and the heir’s immediate family, while the rest of the extended Windsor clan can earn their own livings. A foretaste of the Charles’s minimalist monarchy was on display in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. Instead of the Queen being surrounded by scores of relations on Buckingham Palace’s balcony, only Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry appeared with her. (Philip was in hospital).
The Prince of Wales’s plan suffered a blow on Jan. 18, when Buckingham Palace announced a deal by which Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are to stop royal duties in order to “start building a happy and peaceful new life,” as the public message stated. “Harry has been such a big player in the House of Windsor, I don’t think anyone considered him not being there,” says Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine. “If I were the Prince of Wales, I’d be wondering how the heck I’d manage doing everything with so few people. It is clearly a very big problem.”
As they reorganize to deal with the loss of two charismatic, popular 30-somethings, royal officials will soon have no choice but to do a “radical rethink of how things are done,” says Little. That includes scaling back how often royals are seen opening hospitals, visiting charities, wearing tiaras and tails for state dinners as well as myriad other royal events.
The current group of working royals was always going to shrink at some point. The Queen’s cousins are all expected to retire from full-time duties in the next few years. Indeed, by August, when Princess Anne becomes a septuagenarian, only four full-time royals will be under 70: Prince William, 37, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, 38, plus the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, and his wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who are both 55. (In November, Prince Andrew, 60, announced he was stepping back “from public duties for the foreseeable future” in the aftermath of his calamitous interview regarding his friendship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.)
When Prince Charles is king, his siblings—who are among the busiest royals—are expected to gradually reduce their workloads. The result was supposed to be a monarchy centred on just three couples—Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, and Harry and Meghan. Now, with one-third of that group resigning, the monarchy rests on just four key figures, at least for the next two decades until William and Kate’s children are old enough to take part of the load.
This “slim model” of monarchies originated in Europe, where customized versions are growing in favour. Perhaps the oldest is in the Netherlands, where Queen Beatrix (who reigned from 1980 to 2013) and now her son, King Willem-Alexander, have kept the group of working royals tightly focused on the monarch and his or her children. The rest of the family hold jobs but can undertake some official engagements of the monarchy as needed, explains Wim Dehandschutter, royal journalist at Het Nieuwsblad, a newspaper in Belgium. So, while King Willem-Alexander and his wife, Queen Máxima, undertake the lion’s share of duties, they are occasionally supported by the king’s brother, Constantijn, and sister-in-law, Laurentien, though the second couple doesn’t receive public funds for royal duties.
After King Philippe acceded to the Belgian throne in 2013, he limited the “prince/ss” titles to his own future grandchildren. The need for exclusivity was in part because Philippe felt the titles were “in danger of losing value” as the royal family gradually expanded, says Dehandschutter. Last year, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden went even further, streamlining the next generation of Sweden’s royal house by taking “HRH” (His/Her Royal Highness) styles away from the offspring of his younger children after facing criticism about the potential financial cost of his expanding family. (Even British royals have forsaken once-expected titles in recent years. In particular, Edward and Sophie decided not to use the “HRH Prince/ss” titles that their children are entitled to as grandchildren of the monarch, as they are so far down the line of succession that they would never be expected to undertake full-time royal duties.)
The Belgian example also illustrates one of the biggest advantages to a slim monarchical model, which is that reducing the number of royals who represent the throne in turn reduces the likelihood of scandals. Because every family, royal or not, contains at least one controversy magnet. While Prince Andrew has repeatedly sullied the royal reputation in Britain, his doppelganger across the English Channel, Prince Laurent of Belgium, is the poster boy for entitled royal petulance. On last year’s Belgian National Day, King Philippe’s brother largely ignored the two-hour parade, taking a phone from his uniform to make calls and send texts. He yawned ostentatiously and sat when other dignitaries stood, all while his embarrassed wife, Claire, tried to curb his antics and the rest of the family glared at him, as if wishing he could be thrown under the feet of those marching troops. It’s one of the latest in a succession of scandals that have destroyed his reputation as a popular if eccentric underdog of the royal family.
Modern financial considerations are also part of the rationale for trimming the number of royals representing their nations at public events. In the past, monarchs had far more financial leeway to support their relations, sometimes setting them up in comfort in palaces, castles and on vast family estates. Today, royal fortunes don’t go as far as they used to. Most monarchies get government stipends that are examined by politicians and the public, which means they have to prove they are fiscally responsible, and that in turn means fewer royals working. “Value for money” is a common refrain whenever royal budgets are debated.
But Europe’s trim monarchical model comes with some serious drawbacks for the House of Windsor. Because, while the continent’s monarchies focus on their national needs, Queen Elizabeth II is head of state not only of the United Kingdom but also 15 other nations around the world, including Canada. In addition, she heads the 54-member-state Commonwealth organization. The links between the Windsors and those nations are renewed and reinforced by royal tours. That’s why Elizabeth II has travelled so extensively in Canada during her reign, especially for big events such as cutting the giant national birthday cake for Canada’s Centennial or signing the Constitution on a cold, rainy day on Parliament Hill in 1982.
Some tours were filled with huge cheering crowds, while others were more controversial—during a 1964 visit, booing nationalists turned their backs to her in Quebec. “I’m not just a fairweather friend, and I’m glad to be here at this sensitive time,” she said during a 1990 visit, shortly after the Meech Lake Accord collapsed amid separatist calls for another independence referendum.
As the Queen ages, her schedule has slowly constricted—her last visit to Canada was in 2010. The gap has been filled by the next-most senior working royal couples—Charles and Camilla and William and Kate—who have done five high-profile official tours here since then. The most recent was in 2017 for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Demands on those two couples will only grow, especially now that Harry and Meghan aren’t available.
During the Middle Ages, people believed a touch from a king could cure disease. Now, the soft power of monarchs includes the ability to sway opinions and curry favours of world leaders. The Queen charmed President Donald Trump and his family during a succession of visits at royal residences in 2018 and 2019, all designed to reinforce for the U.K.’s much-needed trade and political relations with the economic powerhouse. The day before Harry met his family at Sandringham House to negotiate his exit from the family business, his father landed in Oman with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to attend the condolence ceremony for Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a valued military and political ally in the Persian Gulf.
And there are often events when a group of royals is needed, such as when William and Kate hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace for the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit in January. They were joined by three other senior royals, including Princes Anne, Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex. They mingled with heads of state and governments, who were in London to promote investment ties.
The reduction of working royals could start a Darwinian competition among charities that rely on them to raise their profiles and boost fundraising. For instance, the Queen is patron of some 500 charities in Britain alone. In 2012, the Charities Aid Foundation estimated that she helped them raise more than $2 billion. The Prince’s Trust, which Prince Charles founded in 1976, has helped nearly a million young people continue their education and start businesses. That costs more than $100 million a year, for which the heir to the throne holds endless rounds of fundraising dinners and events.
On a more existential level, the House of Windsor has no margin for error for a crisis-free transition of power. While the Waleses and Cambridges are healthy, active couples, any illnesses could leave the royals scrambling. Given that the Windsors between No. 3 and No. 10 in line of succession are either children or non-working royals, there are no obvious replacements for such senior members. There’s been speculation that Andrew’s daughters, Princess Beatrice (No. 9) and Princess Eugenie (No. 10), both of whom have private-sector careers, will be drafted as replacements for Harry and Meghan, but Joe Little is doubtful: “Had there been any proposition of that happening, it would have happened by now.”
This isn’t the first time such a bottleneck has occurred. In August 1954, Princess Alexandra of Kent, then 17 years old and ninth in line to the throne, undertook her first official solo engagement. She plunged into a life of royal duty because her cousin, Queen Elizabeth II, had few other people to call on: Aside from the monarch’s volatile sister, Princess Margaret, 24, there were no other young royal women of their generation. Back then, the Queen and her husband, Philip, were young royals with demanding schedules to match. This time, as Little explains, “When Charles and Camilla come to throne, they are doing it as septuagenarians or octogenarians. They are less active than they used to be.”
Right now, William and Kate undertake a combined tally of around 340 engagements a year, less than half the workload of Charles and Camilla. Their reduced schedule is done with the Queen’s blessing; she didn’t have that luxury when she came to the throne at 25. Now that family bliss will likely be cut short as they assume more and more high-profile duties.
For all the specific concerns regarding its implementation, adopting the European monarchical trend is likely an inevitable change for the most famous royal family in the world, which has always survived by adapting to the inevitable changes in society. So while Queen Elizabeth II was educated at home and has never given a media interview, her grandchildren openly talk about their mental health problems. The paths taken by the next generation of British royals—especially Prince George, six, and his younger siblings, Charlotte and Louis—will likely look more like those of their European counterparts.
“King Willem-Alexander, King Philippe and [Sweden’s] Crown Princess Victoria are products of the democratization process of the monarchies,” explains Wim Dehandschutter. “As children, they didn’t have home education, they went to ‘normal’ schools. As adolescents, they were also allowed to follow their heart in their choice of partners. No more arranged marriages, but marriages from real love. They can express themselves more freely, so they give interviews about their personal issues. And their siblings can find their own jobs and earn their own money.”
Like all things royal, that evolution has a moniker: the “Marmite theory of monarchy,” named by Robin Janvrin, one of the Queen’s former private secretaries. While the red, yellow and green label on the jar of quintessentially British food spread looks like it has never changed, its design has been incrementally tweaked over the decades. In the same way, the monarchy of today looks nothing like it did a half-century ago because of many, almost imperceptible changes. Harry and Meghan’s decision may necessitate a rethink of exactly how Charles’s slim-line plans are rolled out, but roll out they will. The monarchy, like that Marmite label, is destined to adapt.