The wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle is Saturday, May 19, and royal fever is running hot. A Harry-and-Meghan-themed pop-up bar opened in Washington on May 4, and Georgetown Cupcake is selling lemon-elderflower treats all month in honor of the couple’s wedding cake. If U.S. television ratings for the nuptials of Harry’s brother (about 23 million viewers) and parents (17 million) are any guide, millions of Americans will wake up early to watch Markle’s transition from television actress to real-life royalty. For all the U.S. interest, though, the British crown remains surrounded by misconceptions.
Two generations ago, royal love affairs with divorced persons sparked crises. Only in 2002 did the Church of England — of which the sovereign is supreme governor — allow divorced people to remarry. (By then, as divorce grew more common in Britain, three of the queen’s four children had divorced.) In 2005, the (divorced) heir to the throne married a divorcee. This helped smooth the path for Harry and Markle, who is divorced. “The House of Windsor is tearing up the rule-book and bringing itself into the 21st century,” wrote one royal biographer.
Meanwhile, the rules of succession were updated a few years ago to end male precedence over female heirs. The change made history in April when newborn Prince Louis did not supercede his older sister, Princess Charlotte, in line to the throne.
The ancient institution is modernizing — but that doesn’t make it modern. It remains the world’s most iconic example of hereditary aristocracy (sitting atop a class- and race-conscious society), a system long since discarded in most liberal and democratic nations. And eliminating gender bias in the succession to the throne merely reflects 20th-century norms, not 21st-century progressivism. Another problem, as a New York Times op-ed put it, is whether “more people of color will come to feel they have a stake in the country’s most old-fashioned institution” — Markle’s biracial background notwithstanding. Author Anita Sethi wrote last month that Prince Charles had remarked in conversation that she, a woman of color, didn’t “look like” someone from Manchester.
How-rich-are-the-royals stories are routine. Yes, they are wealthy. A Reader’s Digest write-up pegged the net worth of Prince George, 4, at $3.6 billion and 3-year-old Princess Charlotte at $5 billion. A business consultancy’s report concluded last year that their net worth is about $88 billion. The astronomical sum includes the combined value of assets such as Buckingham Palace, the crown jewel collection and the Windsor “brand” that attracts tourists to Britain each year.
The queen has a personal fortune of about $425 million, Bloomberg estimated in 2015. The monarch did not make the 2017 Sunday Times list of Britain’s 300 richest people. She personally owns Balmoral Castle in Scotland and Sandringham House in Norfolk, England. But official residences such as Windsor Castle are not her private property. They’re part of the Crown Estate, a system formalized in 1760 under which King George III signed crown lands and assets over to the government in exchange for a salary. The queen couldn’t sell Buckingham Palace, and she is not wholly responsible for its upkeep . Similarly, while the royals have personal jewelry, the regalia worn at coronations and state occasions such as the opening of Parliament passes from monarch to monarch.
When the couple became engaged in 2005, Clarence House (Charles’s residence) announced, “It is intended that Mrs Parker Bowles should use the title the Princess Consort when the prince accedes to the throne.” The couple sought to minimize negative reactions from Princess Diana fans and others offended by their long-running affair, which Diana publicly blamed for the failure of her marriage to Charles. So Camilla became known as the Duchess of Cornwall, eschewing Diana’s title, Princess of Wales.
Yet while polls suggest that many Britons oppose the idea of Camilla as queen, Queen Elizabeth II signaled her approval in 2016 by adding her to the Privy Council, a senior group of advisers to the sovereign. The language about Camilla becoming princess consort has been removed from the Clarence House website , and articles and biographies of Charles and Camilla have suggested that Charles intends for his wife to be queen.
Some magazine and newspaper articles argue that any offspring of Harry and Markle “could be both President of the United States and heirs to the British throne,” pointing to a 2016 Harvard Law Review analysis of the term “natural-born citizen” by former U.S. solicitors general Neal Katyal and Paul Clement. Markle plans to become a British citizen, Kensington Palace has said, though it’s not known whether she intends to retain her U.S. citizenship. Children of Americans, including those with dual citizenship, have U.S. citizen status at birth.
But without an exemption from Congress, any child of the couple who is in line for the British throne would run afoul of the foreign emoluments clause: Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution says that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” So even if a future daughter broke with the royal tradition of steering clear of politics, she would need to renounce the throne — or get special permission from Congress to maintain her claim. It’s hard to imagine a candidate winning an election without first having pledged exclusive allegiance to the United States.
To some, royal coverage is more than merely annoying. After the royal engagement was announced last year, Sonny Bunch argued in The Washington Post that “Americans rightfully and violently overthrew our tea-sipping stamp-taxing overlords in large part so that we should not have to genuflect in front of the altar of royal bloodlines.” CNN’s Moni Basu recently wrote about struggling to understand American interest in the wedding: “They are not, after all, our kings or queens, princes and princesses. . . . We gave blood to be free of the British monarchy.”
A lot has changed since 1776. The powers that Britain’s monarchs once wielded have largely shifted to Parliament. It might officially be Her Majesty’s military, but the queen doesn’t order forces into battle. When she opens a session of Parliament, the queen reads a speech written by the elected government. Taxes are collected in her name, but the legislature sets rates. Britain has evolved from an empire of colonies to membership in a Commonwealth of allied governments.
Meanwhile, American interest in the royals is nothing new. Queen Elizabeth II, 92, first made the cover of Time magazine at age 3 in 1929. A fascination with the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe or charity work does not threaten U.S. citizenship or governance. And that’s partly why so many enjoy it. For Americans, following royal characters has none of the complications of politics or responsibility for the monarchy’s costs. Some see the royals as a real-life fairy tale; others see them as a long-running soap opera. For some in a celebrity-obsessed culture, princes and princesses are simply a higher caste.
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the crown updated the rules of succession. The crown supported the update, but the rules were changed by the legislatures in several nations of the Commonwealth.]