How generations of royal women have broken down boundaries

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Hannah Keegan
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On the eve of the most modern royal wedding yet, Stylist looks at how the monarchy has changed shape.

Meghan Markle is just like us. No, bear with us. “Little girls dream of being princesses,” she wrote on her lifestyle blog, The Tig, in 2014. “I, for one, was all about She-Ra: Princess Of Power.” She-Ra, star of the 1985 animated TV series, is a superhero princess with a magic sword. She has glossy hair, a gold tiara and a social conscience. Markle may not yet have the tiara, but the hair and ethics are already firmly in place.

“Grown women seem to retain this childhood fantasy,” she continued. “Just look at the pomp and circumstance surrounding the royal wedding and endless conversation about Princess Kate.” 

Written while she filmed season four of Suits, the TV series that established her as an actor (we like to think it was bashed out on a laptop between takes), it shows how she viewed the gilded cage of royalty. Like the rest of us – with an odd fascination.

Now she’s entering that cage herself. Except this time it feels different. Markle is a refreshingly unusual royal bride. Older than Harry (by three years; 36 to his 33). She’s divorced (she was married to film producer Trevor Engelson; the couple split in 2013). Markle is biracial (her mother is African- American, her father is white). An actor. Even – shock, horror! – an American. 

She’s a very modern woman, used to earning her own money and speaking out about her beliefs (she’s held posts as a UN Women’s advocate and ambassador for charity World Vision). On paper, she’s as much of an anomaly for the royal family as she is a catch.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if Prince Harry would marry a woman with Markle’s background, I would have said no way,” says Lisa Ryan, senior writer at New York Magazine and co-host of the podcast Royally Obsessed, which offers a pop-culture take on the royals from an American perspective. 

“But friends of mine who have never really cared about the royal family have this renewed interest, because somebody who perhaps looks like them, or sounds like them, or has a similar background is joining them.”

Markle is a refreshingly unusual royal bride

The First Act 

Markle’s life was very normal. Born to Doria Ragland and Thomas Markle, she grew up in the tree-lined neighbourhood of View Park-Windsor Hills in Los Angeles.

“By the time she was born,” says Andrew Morton, author of Meghan: A Hollywood Princess, “her two half-siblings (on her dad’s side) were already grown up and she didn’t see much of them, so she’s always regarded herself as an only child.” 

Despite her perceived pre-Harry stardom, things only really got off the ground when Markle landed the role of paralegal Rachel Zane in Suits in 2011. The programme premiered to 4.6 million viewers, propelling Markle from the life of a hustling actor to that of a celebrity.

She was introduced to Harry, Morton tells me, by a mutual acquaintance at Wimbledon on a publicity day in 2016 by her minder, a long-time skiing partner of William and Harry. Harry has since said she “tripped and fell” into his life.

Pre-Harry, Markle had focused on boosting her profile, but was also passionate about using that profile for good. “What surprised me most about Markle,” says Morton, “is that from an early age, she was an activist, organising protests in school against the first Gulf War, writing to corporations about sexist advertising. The Markle paradox is that she’s joined a family where hierarchy takes precedence over this.”

Princess Margaret was known for her love of smoking, drinking and partying

“One of the big questions,” says royal historian Sarah Gristwood, “is to what degree the monarchy will mould Meghan, and to what degree Meghan will mould the monarchy. In the past she has tweeted about political things like Brexit, which, presumably, won’t be acceptable now. But in the same sense, she’s getting a stronger platform for less overtly political causes.”

The royals have to choose where they put their energy carefully. “They are forbidden from getting political because the Queen is Head of State, which means she is required to be neutral,” explains royal expert Victoria Arbiter.

“The minute you cross the Rubicon from being a celebrity to being a public figure who is funded by the taxpayer, you change who you are,” says Warren Johnson, global CEO of PR agency W Communications. 

Making a statement isn’t impossible though. “It can be done,” says Arbiter, “but in a very clever way. Prince Charles is very outspoken about climate control and plastic waste in the oceans. That can easily be seen as a political topic, but he comes at it in such a way that it’s about fundraising, education Markle is going to have to learn how to do that. She and Harry have already talked about wanting to put gender equality and gay rights at the front of their agenda.” 

The royals have to choose where they put their energy carefully

Modern Family 

Meghan and Harry’s favoured causes mirror the concerns and values of other people their age. Similarly, there’s Harry, William and Kate’s work with mental health organisations. Last year, Harry famously appeared on journalist Bryony Gordon’s Mad World podcast to discuss his experience of poor mental health after his mother’s death, and the work he’s doing to shape public understanding.

“Afterwards, we saw a 38% increase in calls to our Infoline,” says Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind. “The profile and reach they have supports the work we’re already doing to tackle stigma at a national level.”

By taking on issues too taboo for older royals, the trio, now joined by Markle, are rebranding the monarchy from a cold, antiquated institution to an approachable force for good. 

“They’re humanising the royal family,” adds Johnson. The two couples are also increasing the appeal of the royal family among people unlikely to buy a souvenir tea towel: nearly 25% of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK say the upcoming wedding has inspired them to find out more about the royals, according to Mintel.

Changing the royal family’s image is a slow process. Markle is marrying into an institution with centuries of tradition behind it. Queen Elizabeth II has seen more change during her reign than nearly any other monarch. She is Britain’s longest-serving monarch (previously Queen Victoria, who reigned for 64 years) and, having sat on the throne since 1952, has reigned during a period of unprecedented social change. 

Remember how, too, the Queen came to power. In a melodrama played out on hit Netflix show The Crown, her uncle, Edward VIII abdicated suddenly to marry the divorced American Wallis Simpson, leaving a young Elizabeth’s father – George VI – to step in. 

“When you think that the Queen’s grandson can now marry an American divorcee with everyone’s blessing, it shows how times have changed,” says Gristwood.

The Queen agrees. Addressing parliament on her Golden Jubilee in 2002, she said, “Change is a constant: managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future.” 

Princess Anne had a no-nonsense approach to royal life

And the Queen certainly has overseen change, moving with the times – but at her own reserved pace. Back in the early Fifties, the Queen refused her sister, Princess Margaret, permission to marry a divorced man, Peter Townsend. It would have looked like tacit approval of divorce and out of step with attitudes of the time. But by 1978, Princess Margaret became the first senior royal to divorce, ending her marriage to Lord Snowdon. By 1996, Prince Charles, heir to the throne, had divorced, with the Queen’s consent.

The Queen changed tradition again when Princess Diana died in 1997. The flag that flies above royal buildings when the Queen is in residence is the Royal Standard, which represents the monarchy, not the Union Jack, which represents the UK. The Royal Standard never flies at half-mast, as the monarchy is continuous. But during Diana’s funeral, the Queen allowed the Union Jack to fly at half mast over Buckingham Palace, as a symbol of the mourning of the people.

And in 2015, new rules on succession came into force removing male bias, meaning Princess Charlotte is now fourth in line to throne ahead of Louis.

Significant constitutional change must come from the Queen, but other women in the family have found ways to shift perceptions of the royal family that, in the long term, may be more powerful.

There’s the way they socialise: Princess Margaret was a key part of Swinging London in the Sixties, mixing with artists and musicians in places where alcohol and drugs were very much part of the scene. Her rebellion against the protocol and stuffiness usually assumed by her family spoke volumes. Similarly, Princess Beatrice adapted to a more hipster student lifestyle when she started at Goldsmiths College in London in 2008.

Royal women, in their portrayal of motherhood, have also broken down boundaries. Princess Diana’s public informality, desperately hugging her sons and riding log flumes (1994), has led to Kate now breaking with tradition by taking pictures of her own children, like every other mother with a smartphone, as opposed to official royal portraiture. Before her, Princess Anne, 13th in line to the throne, chose not to accept royal titles for her children Peter and Zara. She wanted them to have a life free of royal duties and live as normally as possible.

Royal women have been instrumental in modernising the image of the royal family

British Values 

These shifts sound small to us, but they are step changes that have made them stay relevant. During the Queen’s reign we have seen huge changes. Humanity has made it to the moon and invented the internet. We’ve legalised homosexuality and gay marriage. The world as a whole is much less formal than it was in 1952. 

“The problem,” says journalist Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish), “is that they represent a set of values we claim to not be about. Britain claims to be a country that represents equal opportunity and social mobility. The royal family represents inherited wealth and privilege. It’s difficult to reconcile them in a modern society other than the fact they play this role of tradition and pageantry.”

Hilary Mantel, writing in The Guardian, noted that “royal people exist in a mystical realm, apart from utility, and by virtue of our unexamined and irrational needs”. Markle’s story of American actor-turned-British-duchess will likely become a myth in the public imagination, there for us to draw on when in need of a source of national magic. 

Princess Diana’s ability to connect with the public earned her the legacy of “the people’s princess”

But when I ask Gristwood what, in the 21st century, they’re supposed to represent, she falters. “I suppose,” she says, “they serve as a symbol of modified change and continuity. They are meant to reflect us back to ourselves.”

“At this moment in Britain,” Hirsch says, “there is a debate about what kind of country we are and what we stand for.” On the day of the royal wedding, Harry and Meghan, whether they intend to or not, will become a symbolic image of modern Britain projected to the wider world.

“The real test for the royal family is whether they can accommodate the kind of woman most of us aspire to be,” Hirsch says, “and then, most importantly, let her thrive.”

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

Images: Getty / Rex Features