With Harry and Meghan departing from the lineup of “working” royals—those who make appearances and perform various tasks on behalf of Queen Elizabeth—once again the Windsors are negotiating the intricacies of a piece of royal protocol that is simultaneously very fiddly and very crucial: who gets an “HRH,” the title of His or Her Royal Highness, which is the next step down from the Queen herself (known as Her Majesty). It means very little outside palace walls, but the HRH has been hotly contested in the great internal royal conflicts of the 20th century, and it’s one of the many ways the monarchy telegraphs its pecking order.
The HRH title took off in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Dr. Jonathan Spangler, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Back when Europe was still run by royals, maintaining a clear dynastic pecking order was a matter of life and death importance. The title was a way to distinguish between the varsity-level royals who really mattered and their nothing-ass cousins, preventing wars of succession from popping off. “In the 17th century, ancient ruling families such as the Bourbons in France or the Habsburgs in Spain needed to consolidate their positions at the top of the hierarchy as smaller states began to assert their own independence and status,” explained Spangler. The heads of larger states needed something assert their still-senior rank. Hence Prince Albert of Monaco, in contrast to the senior Windsors, is a mere “Serene Highness.” Dukes that aren’t royal dukes are simply Your Grace.
By the end of World War I, of course, most of those status-obsessed dynasties had been wiped off the board entirely. But the HRH remained important for the Windsors over the course of the 20th century—in no small part because it was a vehicle for the dynasty’s domestic dramas. Like so much else to do with the royals of the United Kingdom, the HRH title is not a hard-and-fast legal term. It’s grounded in custom but basically negotiable, based on any individual’s particular situation and standing with the sovereign: “HRH, though it has no constitutional meaning and no statutory basis, does denote a direct family connection to the Crown,” explained Tina Brown in her excellent The Diana Chronicles. “It is awarded or withdrawn purely at the will of the Monarch.” Mostly the HRH is reserved for working royals, but it also extends to family members like Andrew’s daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie. It confers a plum spot in the aristocratic hierarchy; it means other women are expected to curtsy to you, for instance.
Which brings us to the two most controversial Windsor women of the 20th century: Wallis Simpson and Princess Diana.
There was no playbook for Edward VIII’s abdication and marriage to Wallis Simpson, because it was a completely unprecedented situation, one that makes Harry and Meghan bailing out for Canada seem comparatively small potatoes. The Windsors and the government had to hash out lots of details, down to creating a title, Duke of Windsor, for Edward out of nowhere (usually the royals cycle in titles they already have laying around on an as-needed basis). One of the biggest questions was whether Wallis Simpson would be accorded the respect of the title “Her Royal Highness.” Typically a wife gets to use her husband’s title, and Edward did retain his HRH. However, in reality the answer was: over the Queen Mother’s dead body. Queen Elizabeth’s mother (also named Elizabeth) personally lobbied to make sure that Wallis never got the HRH, ever, under any circumstances. It’s not even on Simpson’s gravestone at Frogmore.
When her children’s marriages started dissolving, Queen Elizabeth stuck to the playbook established by her father: If you aren’t a current member of the reigning royal family, you don’t get the HRH. “As she did in so much, she would have been conscious of precedent and of following her father’s example,” wrote Sarah Bradford in her biography of Princess Diana. Once Andrew and Sarah Ferguson divorced, she lost the HRH immediately. Edward and Wallis were deliberately marginalized, both out of straight-up animosity and the need to clear the decks of the old king to shore up the new one. Fergie, too, was such a disreputable figure thanks to the infamous tabloid photos of her “financial advisor” sucking her toes on St. Tropez (after her separation but before her divorce) that the Windsors just simply cut her loose.
But Diana was a slightly different situation. Even once Charles and Diana divorced, Diana would still be the mother of the future king. At the same time, there was no way of knowing what she’d do in the future, what sort of controversial or even simply too-hot-for-royals work, whether commercial or philanthropic, she’d get into.
The specific discussions around Diana’s HRH are fairly murky. Both Bradford and Brown suggest that though Diana didn’t seem to care about keeping her title in initial discussions, she then backtracked, eventually leaking that she’d wanted to keep the HRH but the palace was resisting. The Queen’s press secretary proceeded to refute the claim publicly. It was just one of many messy moments that played out in the press over the course of the long Windsor breakup. Ultimately Diana embarked upon her new life retaining the title Princess of Wales, but without the HRH. Apparently upon her death Buckingham Palace discussed restoring it posthumously, but the Spencers decided it would have been against her wishes. The title was another signal of the standing of Charles’ next spouse. It was also a big deal and an early sign of Camilla’s rehabilitation that when she and Charles finally married, though she would be styled Duchess of Cornwall instead Princess of Wales, Camilla would get the coveted HRH.
As it currently stands, Harry and Meghan will retain their HRHs, but they won’t actually be using them—though they probably weren’t given the option, to draw the line between working and non-working royals. Of course, nobody in America really cares whether Harry and Meghan are called HRH, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, or anything else—a prince is a prince, and anybody who marries a prince becomes a princess. But it’s a clear sign that Buckingham Palace wasn’t willing to go for a half in, half out compromise. Harry and Meghan are still members of the family, but they’re no longer members of the Firm.
Meanwhile, guess who still has the coveted letters, despite an abrupt forced retirement from the ranks of senior royals? That’s right: Prince Andrew, who accompanied his mother to church on January 19.