Dusting off a glut of minor royals
It’s been widely reported that the King, long before he succeeded to the throne, wanted to preside over a “slimmed down” monarchy. The ambition being not just to cut down on the cost of supporting members of the family who have no real likelihood of succeeding, but also in some degree to remove them from public gaze.
In recent years, the number of people presented to our view on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on great occasions has dropped sharply. After a royal jubilee, we used to spend hours poring over photos in Hello! magazine, trying to work out whether that was Lady Nicholas Windsor or the Countess of Ulster. Those days are over, alas.
Partly this must be put down to the bad odour hanging around some members of the family. Scrolling the internet after the Queen died it was clear people found it amazing that the Duke of York had been let out and allowed to mourn his mother in public; more wild speculation had it that Prince Harry and his wife were in disgrace for “doing a Crawfie” and blabbing to American TV. Were they likely to be relegated to the back row of the cathedral?
But most of the royals are perfectly blameless. Talk of slimming down had preceded most of the recent bad behaviour by Charles’ close family. His real reason for wanting to cut down the numbers of HRH titles, the figures on the balcony, and the ladies who are permitted to borrow an imperial tiara now and again, must be a simple one. The Crown emits human “product” that distributors find a market for. If nobody wants to buy your product, it creates a glut. Some other use has to be found for it.
And there is no doubt that, by historical standards, the Queen left a considerable excess of descendants. When her father died, he left behind exactly four direct descendants – the first monarch for a very long time, perhaps ever, not to be predeceased by any children or grandchildren. George V, her grandfather, left ten at his death. Edward VII, her great-grandfather, left thirteen. Going back much further, George III produced some fifteen children, of whom eleven were still alive at his death in 1820 but only three grandchildren were deemed legitimate – they ultimately became Queen Victoria, the King of Hanover and the Duke of Cambridge. In this case, the market for royalty was much in excess of what the family had managed to supply – lose one and the other two grandchildren would have had to double up, running both Hanover and Britain, like an Uber driver who works for Deliveroo after 6pm.
Nowadays the Line of Succession, like the toilet in a Brighton nightclub, makes no distinction of gender
By contrast, when the Queen died, she left 24 direct descendants, ranging from the new face on the currency to a Master Lucas Tindall, the only son of Mrs Michael Tindall, who is the daughter of the Princess Royal and hence 23rd in line to the throne. (If he’d been born before 2013 he’d have been two places higher, but nowadays the Line of Succession, like the toilet in a Brighton nightclub, makes no distinction of gender, so he comes after his two sisters). If you put them all in one room, that would be quite a crowd; nine of them, too, have husbands or wives to include in the public acknowledgement of royalty. One, Jack Brooksbank, husband of Princess Eugenie, used to be a tequila ambassador; their son is called August, as if in acknowledgement of a quality they lack.
A lot of the people who used to appear on the balcony at those great state occasions weren’t direct descendants of Queen Elizabeth, but her cousins. George V’s ten descendants have multiplied and now number 84, including six who have very sensibly removed themselves from the remote possibility of becoming King or Queen by converting to Roman Catholicism. Sixty-four of them came to the Queen’s funeral, defeating even Hello!’s powers of identification, and Hello! magazine can identify the Crown Prince of Denmark or Queen Jetsun of Bhutan at the drop of a hat. Even I started to think there were too many, and I once got overexcited at seeing one of Lady Sarah Chatto’s sons at a party. What to do with them all?
The last time such a large number of royalty were out roaming the world like pigeons was at the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. She was survived by nearly 80 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But this was at a time when there were royal houses all over Europe eager to acquire a new member, from Russia (Alix of Hesse) and Prussia, soon Germany (the Princess Royal) to Sweden and Spain. New countries like Romania needed a little glamour to zhuzh up their rapidly promoted Hohenzollern prince (Marie of Edinburgh). There were also very large numbers of tiny German principalities that could mop up an English princess (Hesse) or send over a new princess of their own (tiny Waldeck-Pyrmont, just a thousand square kilometres). It was a very lively market.
All that has gone. What has replaced it is what lies in wait for all of us: the world of work. The late Queen was quite indulgent about helping out her children and cousins with payments from the Duchy of Lancaster, via the Privy Purse, for minor royal duties; she also allocated suitable houses, not always at market price. That generosity seems likely to be tightened up. In the past, royals have been made to give up their careers for the sake of royal duty; Edward and Sophie Wessex initially tried to keep their careers in media and PR, but had to withdraw. The Duke of Gloucester was actually beginning a career as an architect at Hunt Thompson in the early 1970s – not a lightweight job since they were busy designing social housing in the East End at the time. When his elder brother, the heir, was killed, Prince Richard had to become a full-time royal even before he succeeded to the dukedom.
The reverse is now more likely: that full-time royals will to be told to give up practising their royal wave and get a job. But what is the equivalent of the Victorian marriage market? Where is the demand for people of this sort? Looking down the list, one thing is quite clear. Walter Bagehot said that a princely marriage was “a brilliant edition of a universal fact”; he might have said the same about a royal funeral, but not about a princely job. About the most professionally successful blood descendant I could find works for an NGO and is not, on the surface, very impressive.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have tried their hand at media careers, but done little more than moan about their own treatment, which is not a sustainable business. The York daughters do have jobs: Eugenie is a director of an art gallery and Beatrice is a vice president of strategic partnerships at a software company – networking, perhaps? Their husbands are property developers – Eugenie’s after quite an interesting CV of working in clubs, wine wholesaling and that tequila ambassadorship. One of the Princess Royal’s children, both very popular, works in events management; the other is busy with horses and married to another brand ambassador.
Venturing down the line, more substance starts to appear. Lord Snowdon’s furniture company, David Linley, makes beautiful stuff, and does very well at the stratospherically-priced end of the market. His sister, Sarah Armstrong-Jones, is a good painter, married to an ex-actor; one of their sons has been taken up by that other traditional absorber of royalty, the military. The Duke of Gloucester’s son, the Earl of Ulster, has the air of seriousness, working for an international NGO after a military career; he is married, too, to a very distinguished medical professional. The Duchess of Kent has, with some difficulty, carved out a career as a music teacher, and her children are more solidly intellectual than most of their relations. The Countess of St Andrews is a proper Cambridge academic, and their son has a reasonable outdoor-clothing business. Lord Frederick Windsor is a banker at Morgan Chase, and they don’t keep people on just for the look of things.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have tried their hand at media careers, but done little more than moan about their own treatment
It’s perfectly clear there’s a gap here. At a lowish level of royalty, such as the ones even Hello! might take a moment to identify, it’s possible to do a job, or simply mince around in the outer reaches of the industries of general fabulosity. (“In 2018, Lady Amelia released a collaboration with Penelope Chilvers for a line of shoes, and modelled for the line in a video campaign in Spain.”) As you go up the list, the august-sounding vice-presidencies and patronages start to multiply, as does mention of the industries who find it quite a pull to be able to say to a punter: “Oh, I’m sure Lady X Windsor will be there tonight, she loves us.” Is that going to be enough? Will the market for royal glamour come close to matching the market in 1901 for a diplomatic commitment in the form of a princess in a wedding dress arriving in Bucharest?
Perhaps. There’s no doubt royalty still exerts an immense and irrational allure over all sorts of people. Round the corner from where I live in London, a succession of proud plaques has been affixed to the wall of a house to record the extraordinary fact that on three occasions in the last twenty years, Princess Alexandra did the gracious honour of attending one of their street parties. I don’t think, even now, anyone would do that about a Kardashian, who’d probably be paid to turn up, anyway. But in a slimmed-down world, the time may be coming where they have to live on that allure; perhaps even to charge for its supply. Monetization of charm, paradoxically, would be the quickest way to make it evaporate entirely. Let’s watch and see.
Philip Hensher’s most recent novel is “A Small Revolution in Germany”. His new novel, “To Battersea Park”, comes out from 4th Estate in 2023