Who better to ask about the road before Meghan Markle than an American who married into the British aristocracy herself?
Julie Montagu is a yoga teacher and mother of four from Illinois. But if you’re a fan of the Bravo cinematic universe, you’ll recognize her name from the reality tv show Ladies of London, because she is also Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, married to Viscount Hinchingbrooke, who will become the Earl of Sandwich when his father dies. (His ancestor sponsored the journeys of Captain James Cook, who named the “Sandwich Islands” after him—which is Hawaii.) They manage Mapperton, the family’s Jacobean manor home in Dorset, and she appears on the reality TV show Ladies of London.
Montagu is one of the experts guiding us mere commoners through Harry and Meghan’s wedding as a royal correspondent. She’ll be reporting for the BBC in the run-up to and on the big day; this Sunday, May 13, at 9 p.m., she appears in the Smithsonian Channel’s special Million Dollar American Princesses: Meghan Markle. Here, Montagu shares her insights on what Meghan can expect, because I certainly would never decline the opportunity to ask about whether her husband’s bank card really says “Viscount Hinchingbrooke.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
JEZEBEL: It’s amazing to me, the sheer military-level scale the press presence at Windsor is going to be. It’s going to be like D-Day.
Julie Montagu: I know. The day before the wedding, I’m on a thing called BBC Breakfast, which is one of our big breakfast shows, I guess similar to GMA or the Today Show, and I need to basically report live from Windsor. So the [BBC is] like, we can put you up in the Holiday Inn the night before because there’s like no space left... or we can get you a car at 4am. Because I’m reporting live all throughout the morning. I’m like, give me the car. I’m fine with that. I’ll sleep in the car.
I think it’s going to be quite tight security. Then I’m heading down really early on Saturday morning to cover the whole thing. It’s super exciting.
I can’t believe how busy it is.
I know, and I feel like it’s all of a sudden really started to kick off. I was here a couple of weeks ago, doing some other work, and I just didn’t feel like people were into it. They weren’t really talking about it. And now I feel like everybody here, since I’ve been in New York, is talking about it, which is exciting.
To get into the idea of Meghan being an American marrying into this world, and you were an American marrying into this world. Do you get different types of questions from American media outlets versus British media outlets?
Yes. Totally. I guess there’s some similarities. But the British questions are more the lines of: being an American, what was it like for you coming into this country and then marrying into British aristocracy, and did you have to conform to anything, and things like that. What were the formalities? I still get those questions asked by the Americans, but they’re much more detailed. They’re like, who is she going to have to curtsy to? What’s her life really going to be like? Whereas when you’re in Britain, you kind of know what her life is going to be like. She’s not going to be able to go out to the shops and go to Topshop and hang out there. The British won’t ask me those questions because they already know, where the Americans don’t know. That’s okay, because they don’t live there.
One of the things that hard for me to imagine as an American—I have a lot of trouble imagining what it’s like to live in Kensington Palace. As an American, what’s it like being in these spaces that are elite and hundreds of years old? How do you make yourself comfortable in an English stately home, for instance?
That’s a good question. For anybody really growing up in England and who is British, I think for them, they’ve grown up learning about this history, from basically the time they went to school, age four. The royal family and British aristocracy has been a part of their education, because it’s what shapes the history of the U.K. Whereas for me, being an outsider, an American coming into what I’d married into and what Meghan’s going to be marrying into, it’s definitely, definitely more fascinating to me. So I’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, this chair is 400 years old!” Or, I’m really, really fascinated by not only English history, but I’m fascinated by the history of the family that I married into. Whereas for other people in England, it’s really not that fascinating. They’ve grown up with it. It’s just something that they’ve always known.
So I think even for Meghan, and this is where I’m sure she’s really feeling it, walking around and living on the grounds of Kensington Palace is quite extraordinary. Whereas to everybody else who lives there, it’s like, this is normal. We get tours coming in, there are people coming in all the time to look at the different rooms and furniture. Whereas I think as an American we’re still in such awe of it, because, you know, we really grew up in a country that’s only been around really, technically, since 1776. It pales in comparison with the rich, deep history that England has to offer. So for me, in my own world living in England, I’m still fascinated by the history—and there’s a lot of it. And growing up in America, we weren’t educated on really anything to do with England, apart from the Pilgrims coming over and the Revolutionary War, and that was it. We were much more educated on, obviously, our own American history.
So I think she’s going to find it incredibly fascinating, but it’s a lot of stuff to learn.
I know the royal family is sort of its own pocket universe. But how important are etiquette and protocol, really? I think there’s this sense of these ironclad rules that come out of a book or that experts somewhere are handing down. Do people actually, really have to live by that?
Well, there’s definitely some formalities and rules that she will—yes, definitely. She is going to have to curtsy. She’s curtsying already, we’ve already seen that. She is going to have to, in some respects, I guess, dress the part. But, again, having said that, she does kind of break the rules on dressing the part, which I quite like. Everybody in England’s like, oh my gosh, she’s not wearing stockings. As Americans, we’d call that pantyhose. And I just think that’s great. There’s really no rules on all the sudden she has to wear pantyhose, and so she’s opting not to wear them, which is great. She wore ripped jeans to the Invictus Games. You would never see Kate Middleton wearing a pair of ripped jeans.
So I think Meghan is definitely going to stick to her American ways, but there are the formal rules that you do have to abide by, and she will definitely have to abide by.
And living in Kensington Palace, I really can’t speak to that so much, but it’s very, very confined and contained and it’s like its own little village. She’s going to have to get used to not being able to walk out in her Birkenstocks or whatever and heading to the local shop to go and get her green juice. That will change for her, because obviously you’ve got the paparazzi.
When you’ve entered this world, how do you learn the things you need to know? The order of precedence and curtsying and the who does what when. Do you learn it from a book? Do you get a tutor? How do you go through the process of getting the knowledge?
I don’t know how she’s preparing for it, but she will definitely have to do a lot of preparation. I was lucky enough that I had my husband’s sister. My sister-in-law really has taken the time to, I guess if you want call it, teach me about table settings and the different silver pots and what they were used for and about this collection that the Montagu family has of these wonderful great linen damask—we would think that they were grand tablecloths, but they were used back in the day when you would shut down your house and you would go on holiday or whatever and you would cover up all the furniture and the beds and everything with these wonderful, wonderful pieces of cloth that we would think were completely grand today. And for them, they were just old dust cloths. But looking at that, you know, the workmanship that went into that to create what we would today call a dust cloth, to cover the furniture and to keep it safe. So my sister-in-law has really helped me, and obviously my husband has, as well.
For me, I think the biggest learning curve was really understanding the history of the family that I was marrying into, so that when people asked me, I was knowledgeable about it and understood how far back this family goes and the significance around this family. For her, that will be the Windsors. Well, obviously, even beyond the Windsors, because they changed their name a hundred years ago. She’s going to have to know all of that history for sure.
For me its the history that’s probably been the most fascinating, but there’s other things—table settings and how to eat with a fork and a knife, what cups to use, what plates to use. You warm your plates. You have a whole different sort of oven called the aga. And that’s not just a aristocracy thing. That is just an English thing to do.
I was going to ask—are there any specific things that you just have always had trouble acclimating to?
I think I’ve had trouble acclimating to the weather.
That’s what I thought of when you mentioned the Birkenstocks!
Exactly, she’s going to have to hang up her Birkenstocks and get herself a nice pair of wellies, that’s for sure.
Especially her coming from LA, I’m not kidding you—at least I came from Chicago, so I was used to very cold, grey winter days. And as much as I love London—and I can’t think of anywhere else really to live, I love it so much, but the weather—living in New York, you’re like, oh, it’s raining, because you’re used to having at least sunny blue sky days most of the time. Whereas in England, we’re used to having grey rainy days most of the time, so when it’s a sunny day we’re like, oh my gosh it’s a sunny day! And I think that is something to be said. It takes time getting used to the English grey weather.
And if they decide to have children, her children will have English accents. All four of my kids have totally English accents and even to this day, having lived in London for 20 years, when I have them on the telephone, sometimes, I’m not even kidding you, I’m like, I don’t understand what you’re saying, can you please say that the American way?
It’s little things like that. And even different words. It took me a year to figure out—a year!— what the word “con-trah-versy” meant. I didn’t want to be like, excuse me, what does that word mean? It took me a year to figure out it was controversy.
Of course she’s marrying into the royal family, but let’s take a step back. She’s moving to a totally different country and even though technically they speak the same language, it’s a totally different culture. It’s driving on the other side of the road, it’s looking on the other side of the road when you want to cross. I think people are forgetting that it’s not just her marrying into the royal family. She’s moving into an entirely different country and at the same time marrying into the royal family. It’s a double whammy.
I am wondering, is there anything in particular that when you go back to America and talk to Americans, is there anything that they just don’t get? That just totally throws them for a loop?
Yeah, but then I can be sympathetic to them, because I remember not getting it either. I think it’s really just what Americans don’t—and I didn’t understand it either, I was very naive because we just don’t learn it—is the hierarchy of what makes a duke and a duchess, what makes an earl and a countess, what makes a viscount and viscountess, and really explaining how all of these titles work and where they came from and the history behind them and why are some people called “your ladyship” or why are some people called “your royal highness” or why are some people called “your grace.” But it would take me an hour to go through that. It’s understanding where the titles come from, who can give the titles, and in a sense what’s the history behind them.
I remember when I first moved to England, I really only saw it in one sense. Princess Diana was like the only person that existed and then obviously Prince Harry and Prince William and the Queen. I didn’t know about any other dukes, duchesses, earls, nothing like that. I didn’t know that they still existed. So I think for Americans it’s the same thing, because we don’t learn about it in our history books. Nobody learned about the Earl of Sandwich in their history book. Unless you’re a real American history buff and you want to know about the history, only then would you understand the history of behind the Earl of Sandwich. Other than that, people just think he invented the sandwich. And they think like I did—oh, that still exists?
So it’s that naivety. But even Meghan said in her first interview, she was naive. I was naive. We don’t have the same knowledge that people in the U.K. have, because we’re not brought up with the same history, because why would we? We’re brought up with the history around our own country.
It’s so fascinating to me, it’s this whole universe of who goes what when where with what name and where you put the—I really struggle to lock the knowledge into my brain.
Yeah, I know, me too. Trust me! I still struggle.
I have one last question: does your husband’s bank card really say his title on it?
Yes. So does mine now. Mine now says “Viscountess Hinchingbrooke.” And I know how to pronounce it now.
That’s amazing! I would have never thought about what goes on a viscount’s debit card.
I know. And it has to be like that. So her credit cards won’t say—well, obviously they’re not going to say Meghan Markle anymore. They’re going to say whatever title she’s given. I can’t remember what they’re floating around, maybe Duchess of Sussex. And that will be on her credit card.
I was thinking I really wouldn’t want the job of being a royal duchess, but maybe if I could have a Neiman Marcus credit card that said “duchess”...
I know, right? Wouldn’t that be nice? The best of both worlds. And you should just whip it out whenever you need to, which would be perfect.