Last week, for instance, after negotiations ended with Buckingham Palace, it was decided that the couple would be “dropping” their HRH (His or Her Royal Highness) titles. On closer inspection, though, they aren’t actually being stripped of their titles — they’re just agreeing not to use them.
If this is confusing to you, you’re not alone: even royal aides were reportedly confused. HuffPost Canada reached out to Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, for more information.
What do HRH titles mean?
Basically, it gives you elite status that isn’t granted to everyone in the Royal Family. The concept was introduced by King George V in 1917 to limit the number of royals who had high status within the Royal Family.
“In Queen Victoria’s reign, the title was much more extensive,” Harris told HuffPost Canada. Basically, even distant relatives of the monarch received special privileges. But during the First World War, George V was particularly concerned about his German relatives holding a formal status within the British Royal Family.
As history buffs might know, this was also the era when George V changed the name of the British branch of Germanic-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the House of Windsor.
“George was making wholesale changes, not just to royal titles, but to the name of the royal house, and was looking carefully at who would be associated with the British Royal Family going forward,” Harris said. “So the title of HRH is a clear sign of bring a prominent member of the Royal Family.”
Members of the Royal Family without the HRH distinction have to bow or curtsy to the ones that do.
Who gets to be referred to as HRH?
Nowadays, the title is automatically granted to the children and male line grandchildren of the monarch, although it used to be withheld from granddaughters.
But not everyone who’s entitled to the status uses it. The children of the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, have the right to the HRH title, but Edward and his wife Sophie decided they didn’t want their children to have royal titles. Rather than being raised as prince and princess, their children are styled like the children of an Earl — they’re known as Lady Louise and James the Viscount Severn.
Katharine, the wife of the Queen’s cousin Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, was granted the title when she got married. But she wanted an independent life, choosing to work as a music teacher, so she stepped back from royal duties and stopped using the title.
Has anyone been formally stripped of the HRH title before?
Yes. Non-royals who marry into the family and then get divorced are formally stripped of their HRH privileges. That’s what happened to Diana, Princess of Wales after her divorce from Prince Charles. (At the time, The New York Times wrote that the Queen was reportedly willing to let Diana keep her title, but Charles insisted that she lose it.)
Sarah Ferguson also gave up her HRH status, and became simply the Duchess of York, after her divorce from Prince Andrew.
What’s changing in Harry and Meghan’s titles?
They will no longer use their HRH titles. Harry was born HRH, since he’s one of the Queen’s grandchildren through her male heirs. Meghan became HRH when she married Harry in 2018.
Until a few weeks ago, they were referred to as were His Royal Highness Harry, Duke of Sussex and Her Royal Highness Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. From now on, they’ll be Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
And if you were wondering, Harry is still a prince.
Why are Harry and Meghan keeping the titles but not using them?
The palace hasn’t explicitly stated the reason for this change, but Harris thinks it likely has to do with setting a precedent.
“I think if there was a process in which they were stripped of their titles, that would invite scrutiny of the rest of the Royal Family,” she said. “There are His or Her Royal Highnesses among the extended Royal Family who do not undertake duties on behalf of the Queen.”
Prince Andrew, for instance, stepped back from royal duties in the fall, after controversy arose from his connection to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But he still has HRH titles. So do his daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, who are not working royals.
If Harry and Meghan were to give up those titles, it would likely raise questions about why these other members are allowed to keep them, Harris said.
What’s going to happen to other people’s HRH titles?
There’s been a lot of speculation that when Prince Charles ascends to the throne after his mother’s death, he may take away some of his family members’ HRH titles.
“The Queen has always had a rather inclusive view of the Royal Family,” Harris said. “If you look at the balcony during Trooping the Colour, you see the Queen’s whole extended family: her cousins and their children and grandchildren, and all her children and grandchildren.”
“Prince Charles’ approach will likely focus on a much smaller number of working members of the Royal Family.”
This would be in line what many modern European monarchies are doing, Harris said. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden recently stripped five of his seven grandchildren of their royal titles, leaving only his two direct heirs.
“There’s a broader European trend towards reducing the number of people who have these titles, and thereby reducing some of the public scrutiny received by junior members of the Royal Family.”
Harris thinks it’s likely that Prince Charles will pursue that route.
“This will likely be the last generation where we see royal cousins representing the monarch,” she said. “Going forward it’s going to be a much smaller number of senior members of the Royal Family.”
So, what does this mean for Sussex Royal?
Patents were filed to trademark “Sussex Royal” in June, and ownership transferred to Harry and Meghan in December. But if they’ve agreed to no longer use their royal titles, can they still refer to themselves that way?
Maybe, Harris said — but they might face some pushback.
“Certainly there are cases of members of the Royal Family getting trademarks in the context or raising money for their charities,” she said. But “the challenge that will come for Harry and Meghan ... is if they’re seen as monetizing the role for their own financial gain instead of for their charities.”
Other members of the Royal Family — even junior members — have been criticized for seemingly using their royal connections for profit, she said.
When Princess Anne’s son Peter Phillips married Montrealer Autumn Kelly, they sold the photos to Hello magazine. Peter doesn’t have the HRH title since he’s not a descendent from the male line, and is a private citizen, with a job in sports management. But still, it “attracted some controversy over whether it was appropriate for the queen’s grandson to do that,” Harris said.
Princess Beatrice, too, faced criticism when she marketed herself as a for-profit speaker at corporate events in 2016.
It’s likely that Meghan and Harry would face similar ire, Harris said, especially given how much media scrutiny is on them right now.
“For their public image, the focus would need to be on their charities going forward.”
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