Why 'being a princess' is no longer the fairytale job description it once was
The reaction to Princess Eugenie's wedding - 'Who's paying?' - is proof the days of public indulgence towards the cost of younger royals are long gone. By Emily Hourican
News of an engagement is always exciting, and a royal one usually even more so, but the announcement that Princess Eugenie is to marry fiance Jack Brooksbank came with baggage to be disposed of first: 'Who's paying?' was the immediate, faintly hostile response, and only after that was sorted out (the families are, but taxpayers are providing the security) did thoughts turn to the more usual giddy speculations around dress, bridesmaids and what embarrassing things Fergie might do to delight us all (she has already tweeted the following: '"A total embrace of goodness and joy. We love Jack and I am so excited to have a son, a brother and a best friend. Eugenie is one of the finest people I know and so together it will be pure harmony"). Meanwhile, Brooksbank's 91-year-old grandmother told one newspaper "I never thought he would get married to a royal. He's a charming boy and all that but not the most intelligent and I would never have thought this would happen."
To anyone given to gauging 'the mood of the people' (and presumably this is a large part of what it means to be royal; staying one step ahead of 'the mood', in case 'the people' suddenly decide they want rid of you), it must be very obvious that there has been a steady but definite shift in attitude towards the ever-increasing bevy of minor royals.
Being 'a princess' isn't, any more, the kind of dazzling fairytale job description it was. In fact, the concept of an adult princess who will never progress to being Queen is problematic. Ask any six-year-old what a 'princess' is, and you begin to realise that there is no grown-up incarnation of these mythical creatures. Instead, as they grow up and old, they tend to become increasingly cringeworthy and irrelevant.
Princess Margaret understood this, largely because she lived it, morphing during her long life from public darling - in her youth, especially during her affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend, Margaret was adored and obsessed over, and even more beset by paparazzi than Princess Diana - to caricature and figure of fun.
In fact, you could argue that Margaret's entire personality and career were shaped by her proximity to the throne, without her ever being within proper touching distance. Close, always, but never any cigar, was pretty much Margaret's life from the age of six, when her father became King George VI.
Then, when she was 22, he died and Elizabeth became Queen, opening between the two sisters a gulf that was only to get wider. As writer Selina Hastings put it: "At each royal birth, the new Order of Succession appeared in The Times, Margaret's position moving from second to third to fourth with monotonous regularity, like a game of Snakes and Ladders, all snake and no ladder."
From childhood, she was 'the naughty one'; the one various courtiers apparently longed to slap. Overlooked, not taught constitutional history, the one who was never first (except with her father, who adored her: "Lilibet is my pride," he said, "Margaret is my joy"), she lacked any kind of substance, except that which she invented for herself. For her 50th birthday, Princess Margaret was given a gold-embroidered dress from India by friends, which she poignantly acknowledged by saying "I've always longed to have a dress like that. It's what a real princess would wear ..."
No wonder she grew up obsessed with protocol, something she used as a weapon. Margaret rejoiced openly in the fact that she was HRH The Princess Margaret, and not just HRH Princess Margaret (yes, the 'the' mattered. To her anyway). And no matter that her friends were the successful artists and more bohemian aristocrats - Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Noel Coward - still, she insisted on playing the princess. No one was allowed to leave before Princess Margaret, no one could sit down in her presence, no one could eat once she had finished (and the princess ate notoriously little, and fast, meaning dinners with her were a hideous kind of race in which fellow diners had to gobble as much food as they could in a few minutes, before the royal hand came up to wave her plate away, and by extension all of theirs).
All her life she was defined by who she was not, rather than who she was, her royal allowance paid over in return for the official engagements she made little secret of despising. Finally, in middle age, she became a kind of "nightclub burlesque of her sister" (in the words of Craig Brown, in his brilliant new book Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret). And, throughout, she was well aware of the peculiar negative definition of her role, apparently telling Gore Vidal 'it was inevitable; when there are two sisters and one is the Queen who must be the source of honour and all that is good while the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister'.
That was Margaret, the 'evil' sister. Worse, the increasingly useless sister, once her proximity to the throne had been usurped. What is interesting is that, for all her status obsession, she didn't ask that her own children, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, be granted royal titles. Clearly, she understood the poisoned aspect of that chalice.
In fact, Prince Andrew is unusual among his siblings in that his daughters are princesses. Edward's two children are not, neither are the son and daughter of Princess Anne. Charles' children are, but then, Charles' children are directly in line to the throne, rather than ever more distant hangers-on.
Presumably, in requesting royal titles (he has also requested earldoms for their husbands, once they marry), Prince Andrew hoped to provide careers and incomes for his daughters from the Sovereign Grant, that pot of money from which royalty are paid for fulfilling their public duties. In fact, in 2016, Andrew asked the Queen if indeed Beatrice and Eugenie might be remunerated in this fashion, and was apparently annoyed that the answer was no. In 2011, he was reportedly furious that their 24-hour protection had been revoked because, at £500,000 a year, it was deemed too expensive.
Instead, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have been obliged to get actual jobs (albeit jobs that allow plenty of time for holidays), with Eugenie working as associate director of Hauser & Wirth art gallery and Beatrice working for a New York-based computer software company.
In refusing Andrew's request, the Queen, apparently guided by Prince Charles, showed a clever grasp of public mood. This mood being 'enough already' to the idea of endless junior and minor royals living off the taxpayer in return for opening schools and community centres. Not only is the idea that the royal family contains a smattering of useless parasites as well as productive members thoroughly ingrained now but, equally, the notion of respecting those who do not work for a living is increasingly dated.
When even the children of the mega-rich are at pains to point out how busy they are, how committed to their careers (see Ivanka Trump, Ella Woodward), the idea of smiling fondly at someone who cuts ribbons for a living, in between trips to Verbier and the Caribbean, is long gone.
Charles, with the same survival instinct that is so well-honed in his mother, is apparently keen on a streamlined monarchy based on "the Magnificent Seven", meaning the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Obviously, he is going to have to extend this, certainly when Prince George and Princess Charlotte are old enough to join the royal hub, and possibly before that, in order to accommodate Meghan Markle, but given the passage of time and the inevitability of vacancies at the top of the tree, he should be able to manage to keep a core group of roughly seven, and a ruthless refusal to include more and more junior off-shoots.
Because, of course, the royal family, like everything, is in a constant state of flux. As that royal balcony becomes more and more crowded - the Queen's four children have now, between them, eight children, and five grandchildren - those at the edges get shoved off.
Young royals lose their glamour as they slip down the lists and are eclipsed by newcomers (right now, Louise, daughter of Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, is 14, and beginning to emerge as a contender for left-over public attention), and by the time Prince George comes to the throne, Beatrice and Eugenie will no longer be grandchildren of the monarch, but simply first cousins once removed. If Andrew is annoyed that Eugenie and Beatrice have been denied a share of the Sovereign Grant and wants someone to blame, he probably need look no further than his ex-wife, their mother, Sarah Ferguson. No one has done more than Fergie to chip away at the previously tolerant public perception of royals as some kind of dear little pets, to be maintained at personal cost to British taxpayers, because of the highly favourable, if nebulous, analysis of their worth in terms of tourism and national pride.
After their separation in 1992, Fergie lurched from crisis to crisis, many of them financial, dragging Andrew's good name with her. At one stage her debts exceeded £4.5m, and as well as legitimate (if often ineffectual) ways of paying these off, including her role as ambassador for US Weight Watchers, a series of children's books and a food blender, she has also touted access to Andrew in return for money (and was famously caught doing so by the News of the World), as well as allegedly bringing him into the orbit of billionaire convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was reported to have offered Andrew a loan to settle Fergie's debts. The source of her many woes, Fergie has intimated, was the lousy divorce settlement she received from the royal family. Instead of fighting for what she needed, Fergie chose "friendship with the boss", as she put it, opting to maintain good relations with the royals at her own expense. She then further lost out by splitting what she did get with her mother, and contributing to the upkeep of her mother's ranch and polo farm in Argentina. "I think I've been a huge over-trusting idiotic stupid woman," she once said to Oprah, who all but nodded in agreement.
Fergie's extravagance and various public humiliations were instrumental in alerting taxpayers to their own role in maintaining the monarchy, and the climate now is one of watchful caution. So watchful that even Harry, long a kind of indulged public darling, risks turning into Princess Margaret. Once Prince George and Princess Charlotte are old enough to do a spot of ribbon-cutting and Champagne cracking, Harry's role - unless he has considerably solidified it by then - will dwindle away.
Such goodwill as there is, is largely held together by the Queen herself, famously thrifty. For as long as she reigns, the British people are willing to accept that there are benefits to their royal family that are worth paying for. But as with so many of the old ways, once the Queen is gone, that too will be up for renegotiation, and a far more sceptical and parsimonious climate is likely.