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The Changing Role of the British Princess

Nigel Brown
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If every girl dreams at one time of being a princess, then it must be true that a few of those dreamers have walked down the aisle of an English cathedral pinching themselves. True Royalty TV’s Meghan and Harry: The First 100 Days showed how the public is now being given two versions of princesshood: the Meghan and the Catherine, the dynamic partner in public life or supportive queen-in-waiting.

Duchess of Sussex

Over the last fifty years however, there have actually been two very different archetypes for Meghan, Catherine and the other British princesses to follow: Princess Margaret (think Samantha in Sex and the City) and Princess Anne (think the same show’s dependable professional, Miranda).

Royal Wild Child

The original royal wild child, Princess Margaret had all the privilege and none of the responsibilities of her older sister Elizabeth. Cue retreats with lovers to Mustique, embracing the Swinging Sixties and a royal role that blended with and dipped into celebrity. Margaret’s penchant for the finer things in life, not to mention the odd felon from the East End underworld still make for entertaining reimaginings on screen. It even held echoes in the life of the 1980s’ two most talked about princesses: Diana and Fergie.

Princess Margaret

A Royal Personality

The other modern pillar of princesshood is the Queen’s daughter, the Princess Royal Anne. This doesn’t mean a straight-laced hand-shaking clothes-horse. In fact, the only horses Anne is interested in are the Olympic eventing kind – remember she won BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year in 1971. A keen sportswoman who competed at the highest levels, Anne has been similarly relentless pursuing her duties as patron of over 200 organisations. Her approach has been described as: ‘Keep me busy. I’m here to work. I’m here to do good things. I’m here to meet as many people as possible.’

Princess Anne

Like her mother and grandmother, Anne is a truly impressive and indomitable woman. She even survived the shooting of her personal bodyguards when an armed man tried and failed to kidnap her outside Pall Mall. With characteristic understatement, in 1974 Princess Anne told an interviewer she had been ‘scrupulously polite’ to her would-be kidnapper as she thought it would be ‘silly to be too rude at that stage’.

“The definitive signature of the British princess has been the patronage of good causes”

Anne has always balanced the life she wanted with her duties as a princess: in 1977 she married a commoner Captain Mark Phillips, then divorced him in 1992. Their two children, unlike the Queen’s other grandchildren, hold no courtesy titles and have largely been raised outside the royal goldfish bowl.

Princesses In The Limelight

Certainly at the height of their fame, Diana and Fergie (Sarah, Duchess of York the ex-wife of the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew) continued the conflict of Margaret vs Anne inherent in all princesses. At first both seemed great PR coups for an ageing monarchy, injecting new life and character to their positions, attacking charitable causes with zeal. But the gossip and, eventual divorces and their candidness with the press about the private aspects of their public lives alienated those who saw royal wives as support staff rather than important figures in their own right.

Princess Diana

Another less well-known princess of Anne’s generation, Princess Michael of Kent – also served her role with individual flair and controversy. Never high ranking enough to stay long in the public eye and often simply known as ‘that princess with the man’s name’, like Meghan she arrived into a foreign culture as an outsider. Her real name is Marie Christine Anna Agnes Hedwig Ida von Reibnitz and she was born to a German Czech family. During the Second World War her father had been a Major in the SS.

Titles Change, Class Remains

A beauty in her youth, her marriage to the Queen’s cousin, Prince Michael (hence her new name) was her second – again as it was for Meghan and the other royal divorcee made princess by marriage, Camilla Parker-Bowles. At the time, Prince and Princess Michael’s wedding boasted the film stars and couture dresses of this year’s royal big day. Princess Michael has since stepped away from the formal title and trappings of ‘Her Royal Highness’ to be known as Katharine Kent or Katharine, Duchess of Kent.

“In personality, the Countess sits somewhere in between the individual career-woman Meghan and the demure family role Catherine plays.”

Now she mainly stays away from public life and in 1996 started a position as a music teacher at a state primary school in Kingston upon Hull. A miscarriage she suffered in the 1970s and her very honest discussion of the subject became a personal cause she has long supported, alongside national youth and music charities and being an ambassador for the Samaritans. Princesses and charity work are entirely synonymous.

Flirting With Controversy

The marriage of the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, to Sophie Rhys-Jones has to date been the least trumpeted and profiled Royal union. The pair were married in a low-key ceremony in a chapel in Windsor Castle. In personality, the Countess sits somewhere in between the individual career-woman Meghan and the demure family role Catherine plays. When she met Prince Edward she was working at Capital Radio in the PR department.

Countess of Wessex

A reluctant royal like Parker-Bowles, Sophie has seemed the most organic and natural of all the princesses thrust into the limelight and has grown into the role and even the status of fashion icon. The two controversies of her royal career to date have been telling undercover reporters salacious things about other members of the Royal Family and Tony Blair, and having a topless photo of herself sun bathing with Chris Tarrant published by The Sun just a month before her wedding.

What The Royal Future Holds

The definitive signature of the British princess has been the patronage of good causes, producing heirs and getting involved in the business of fundraising and advocacy for charities close to their hearts. At 37, Meghan might not even want children. So when the younger set of princesses – the great granddaughters of the Queen, come to marry, how will their husbands (or wives perhaps?) adjust to being a royal partner? Which princess will these young women most closely come to emulate as they go about their public duties? They will certainly have a host of amazing characters from which to choose.

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