Ok, let’s have another conversation about the royal workload. Honestly, it’s been a minute. This was a hot topic pre-Sussexit, and though I’ve acknowledged here and there the impact of the Sussexes and The Duke of York stepping down (or being forced down, in the latter’s case), we haven’t dug in a long while and certainly not since King Charles’s accession.
This is perhaps particularly relevant lately given that at major royal events we are now seeing an emphasis placed on “working royals,” as opposed to the line of succession. For any beginners reading this, that means members of the Royal Family who carry out engagements on the sovereign’s behalf.
Right now, there are 12 working royals, including the sovereign. They are:
- King Charles III
- Queen Camilla
- The Prince of Wales (William)
- The Princess of Wales (Catherine)
- The Princess Royal (Anne)
- Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence (Anne’s husband, accompanies engagements)
- The Duke of Edinburgh (Edward)
- The Duchess of Edinburgh (Sophie)
- The Duke of Gloucester (Richard, the king’s cousin)
- The Duchess of Gloucester (Birgitte, Richard’s wife)
- The Duke of Kent (Edward, the king’s cousin)
- Princess Alexandra (the king’s cousin)
There are a few names missing from this list. The obvious ones are The Duke and Duchess of Sussex and The Duke of York. The less obvious ones are The Duke of Kent’s younger brother, Prince Michael of Kent, and his wife, Princess Michael – both retired in in 2022 before Queen Elizabeth’s death. The Duke of Kent’s wife, Katharine, stepped down from royal duties in 2002 and only occasionally attends major events as a member of the family.
So, those 12 names are today’s crew. We have two members of the “Greatest Generation,” six Baby Boomers, two Gen-Xers (Edward and Sophie), and two Millennials (William and Catherine). It’s an older group and it’s prompted considerable commentary that any expectation for glamour or star-power rests entirely on William and Catherine, and that in another few years, as older royals pass away or retire, the entire workload can’t be carried on.
As such, there’s been increasing conversation from royal-watchers that the Royal Family should call on the King’s nieces and nephews to become working royals – specifically, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie and Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor.
Before we delve into that, let’s go back briefly to the reign of King George V (1910 – 1936), Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, because a lot of precedents for today’s Royal Family operates were in fact set by him. Four years into his reign, George found himself in World War I, with the UK at war against Germany, a nation with whom the British Royal Family had centuries of familial ties. As such, the BRF had to re-brand.
In 1917 they stopped being the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and became the House of Windsor. Historically, British royals had predominantly married a lot of German princes and princesses because they were also protestant. With German marriages off the table, George opened up his own children’s ability to marry within England’s nobility (not unheard of before his reign, but less common).
And finally, and most relevant to our purposes, he established who was royal. This was because, due to the foreign marriages of any number of increasingly minor relations, there was a plethora of men and women with royal blood and foreign titles. As such, it needed to be defined who was actually British royalty.
Bear in mind one more important detail, too: Families used to be larger. A significant reason why George found himself in the predicament he did when it came to a wealth of royal, titled relations is because of the sheer quantity of cousins, nieces, and nephews he had. George’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, had nine children, eight of whom had children, and four of whom were sons whose offspring resided in England for significant quantities of time.
George himself had four sons and a daughter who reached adulthood. By the end of World War I, all five were either young adults or adolescents and, with marriages and children usually happening earlier in life, it was hardly a tall order to streamline the Royal Family without worrying about a dearth of royals.
What he established was that all children of the monarch are royal. All grandchildren descended of a monarch’s sons are royal. The grandchildren descended from a daughter are not, as they will take the surname and status of their father. The only great-grandchild of a monarch who would be considered royal would be the eldest son of the eldest son – in other words, the boy who would be king someday.
As reigns ended and new ones began, younger generations would be elevated – for example, what we just saw with Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet. Older royals, however, would never lose their status – so, George V’s sisters would always be princesses because they were daughters and then sisters of a monarch, even if that monarch had died.
To George V, born in 1865, this template would have indicated a strong army of working royals. Even more, this template was meant to streamline the Royal Family to preserve its continuity. World War I saw the abolition of several European monarchies. It wasn’t out of the question that Britain could be next if their Royal Family was seen as useless, foreign, or too expensive. King Charles faces a not dissimilar predicament today.
Now, if George V’s template had been left untouched, and without adding in anyone who has stepped down or retired, then Beatrice and Eugenie would be working royals, and Louise and her younger brother, James, Earl of Wessex, would join the fray after they completed their educations and/or any military service they chose to do.
But there’s a reason why the template has been set aside, even if not officially. And that’s because while it’s all well and good to want younger blood, time isn’t frozen, and so if you bring on four more people because they’re more fun to see in the newspapers now, you have to imagine how they’ll seem by the time Prince George is king. They would look somewhat like Princess Alexandra, born during the reign of George VI – a highly respectable and hard-working woman who most of the general public has never heard of.
The Dukes of Gloucester and Kent and Alexandra are the Beatrice, Eugenie, and Louise of their day. And the first three are often held up as examples of why the BRF isn’t always terribly effective. Yes, they all carry out engagements – they do it dutifully and they do it well. What they don’t do is generate any interest from the media or public. Charities with whom they work benefit from having a royal patron, but for all practical purposes, that could be achieved by just the name of anyone else because the actual visit (aka the engagement) isn’t doing a significant amount in the grand scheme of royal business.
So, then there’s the argument that you could bring some of these more minor royals on for a few years and then retire them. Well, no. That would make it extremely difficult for them to find any meaningful work after their royal career had ended. First, they wouldn’t have any real work experience and second, whatever work they did would be seen as them or their employer profiting off their title. And finally, third, whatever profile they had from their royal work may well necessitate ongoing security costs and the need to remain protected within the enclave of royal property. That’s an investment that adds up.
Setting aside the very timely example of how the Sussexes function, Beatrice and Eugenie, who were never officially working royals, were frequently accused of this in their 20s and it was a very real and difficult problem for both them and the BRF to manage. The headlines weren’t kind and the optics weren’t good.
The “when” of the template being set aside is also an important factor, because it happened after Beatrice and Eugenie were born, but before Louise and James were. Specifically, those conversations really kicked into gear in the late 1990s after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the dissolution of three of Queen Elizabeth’s children’s marriages. The Royal Family wasn’t popular, Queen Elizabeth had been harshly criticized, and her offspring were seen as an assortment of rude, out-of-touch, and somewhat useless individuals.
So, if you were looking at the Windsors in the late 90s, you would have seen that Charles was deeply unpopular and in a committed relationship with his one-time affair partner. Anne didn’t receive much attention at all, but if you were to delve into her situation then you would easily find out that her first marriage was riddled with infidelity and ended because her relationship with her second husband had already begun (and came to light). Andrew looked buffoonish in public and his ex-wife was a walking PR nightmare who had already written a tell-all. And Edward was seen as a quitter who had never inspired much public interest.
Ok, so, the sovereign’s offspring hadn’t panned out well – let’s move on to the grandchildren. At this point, there were six. Anne’s children didn’t really count because they weren’t royal – and she and her ex-husband had chosen to eschew even a noble title. Andrew’s children, Beatrice and Eugenie, were still in grade school, and if we’re sticking with harsh truths – their parents didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence they would turn out well-adjusted. Charles’s children, on the other hand, were the only certainties based purely on their father’s status and William’s future as king.
Finally, if you looked past the children and grandchildren you would have seen that Queen Elizabeth’s cousins generated no more real interest then than they do today. The only other two royals who were still in the mix were The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister. They still had fans and their high status generated continued public interest.
Now calculate that Tony Blair is the Prime Minister with a Labour government and there’s a recession going on.
If you were Charles – or a coterie of similarly-aged courtiers behind him – you wouldn’t be wholly wrong in thinking, if we’re going to perpetuate the Royal Family then we need to invest in fewer royals and make sure this doesn’t happen again. Because more people means more wild cards – divorces, questionable financial situations, or just bad apples.
And if you’re another member of the Royal Family, you wouldn’t be wrong to take a few lessons from the tabloid frenzy of the Wales marriage and, to a lesser extent, the York marriage. Not only did the media’s presence become a factor in the relationships themselves, but they created security considerations and facilitated a higher-than-comfortable level of visibility for the young children involved.
As such, you end up with Edward and Sophie making the decision – or agreeing to a decision – in which their children, despite being grandchildren of a monarch via a son, forgo the title of prince and princess because there is no longer an expectation that Louise and James will one day take be working royals. Therefore, to ensure they have an easier time of it in school and in the workforce, they aren’t weighed down with titles that could prove problematic.
And you end up with Andrew, whose children were born in 1988 and 1990 feeling rather like the rug was pulled out from under him, because at the time of Beatrice and Eugenie’s births there was that expectation.
Had Sussexit not happened, what we would see today is a focus on six core players – Charles, Camilla, William, Catherine, Harry, and Meghan – with Anne, Edward, and Sophie supporting, and the expectation that the Gloucesters, Kent, and Alexandra would soon be retiring. Timothy is a bit of an anomaly here in that his workload is based on accompanying Anne, but he is listed in the court circular and included in “working royal” photo-calls, so I’ve included him. In the background, George would be raised with the expectation that he follow a similar path to that of William. Charlotte and Louis will, at the very least, have the option of building a royal career similar to those of Anne and Edward.
And I think what we can safely assume at this point is that Charles’s preference was that Archie and Lilibet follow a similar trajectory to that of Louise and James. Harry and Meghan, for whatever reason, have opted to follow the York model – the children are fully titled, but will need to navigate that as private citizens (and in the U.S. to boot). Somewhere along the way there was a clear breakdown in communication, as we saw during the Oprah interview – their titles were conflated with security (two separate issues) and tied to their heritage (no).
So, what does all of this mean in terms of today’s reality? There’s a hefty workload that’s being balanced by 12 royals and only four of them have significant brand recognition and only eight of whom are “senior royals” in the sense that they are closely related to the King. While we have seen some re-distribution over the last couple years – and the last several months – of patronages and work, it hasn’t been as dramatic as we might once have expected.
William, as far as we can see, is not being expected to immediately fill the very large shoes left by Charles in the role of Prince of Wales. Not only does he have his own separate charitable foundation with Catherine, he has three young children, and is also having to take on the management of the duchy of Cornwall. Nevertheless, there is a public expectation that we will see more of William and Catherine than we previously did – not only at engagements for their own patronages, but more “bread and butter” royal engagements in which they’re representing the King, and more international visits.
So far, that hasn’t really happened. Indeed, from the end of March until the end of April, we didn’t see the couple at all, save an appearance at Easter. In years past, a workload gap around this time was explained as a necessity due to their children’s school breaks. Presumably, something similar happened this year, too. But that may not fly anymore. In an ideal scenario, William would be carrying the second or third highest workload, with Catherine right behind him. We don’t know what the numbers will look by December, but it would be a strategic misstep for the Waleses to continue trailing the King’s siblings.
Now, the age of the Wales children is a very real consideration – which we should be mindful of when watching this situation, and of which the Palace should be considerate. Even so, with all three children in school, it should be doable to up the number of local engagements during school hours.
The other x-factor that we don’t know at this point is the extent to which the Waleses and other royals have been held back as the King’s household focused on preparing for the coronation and planning the future. This may well have happened without it necessarily indicating anything is amiss. But again, with the coronation now behind us, it’s going to be incredibly important that we see a steady, positive, and visible coterie of recognizable royals out and about.
The final twist here is that William – and Harry before him when they were a joint household – has been pretty straightforward about having a different approach to royal work than previous generations. Not that he means to take on less work, but that he believes in quality over quantity. It’s a sentiment not shared by older royals – namely, Anne. I want to dig into this further and cover how Catherine’s Early Years campaign update went a few months ago, but this is already very long, so I’m going to put a pin in it today. Will circle back for Part II.