I once told an English friend that I was no longer going to answer if my kids yelled "Mommmmmy!" I would make them call me "honorable mother," instead. This was neither true nor a very good joke, but my friend snapped to attention.
I feel like I am qualified to talk about this because, a few years ago, I became a viscountess myself — and nobody noticed.
"You're not an Hon. I'm an Hon," she said with reproach. According to the arcane rules of British nobility, she does indeed have the right to be called "The Honourable Jane Doe," as she is the daughter of a viscount. (Names have been changed to protect the English.)
I'm an American, though, and was thinking about Japanese honorifics (san and sama), not British ones. And whatever tradition I was pretending to borrow from, I never expected such a strong, almost offended, response. Its seriousness and immediateness made it clear that titles are no laughing matter on the other side of the pond.
Emotions must run even hotter when a really exalted style of address is in play — say, for example, "His Royal Highness." Accordingly, perhaps no move underscores more emphatically the breakup between Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — and the danger to the monarchy it poses — then the rescinding of their regal nomenclature. The queen allowed them to "retain" but not "use" the word "Royal" as they had hoped. Her grandson made his own request last week, while on his final round of duties as a senior member of the royal family, that those who address him drop the "Prince" thing and just call him Harry.
The rupture in relations began on Jan. 8, when Harry and Meghan announced that they would "step back" as working royals but would try to "carve out a progressive new role" within the monarchy. This did not go over well with Granny, and a strange passive-aggressive battle ensued, conducted through palace statements and over Instagram and the couple's webpage. The upshot, at least for now, is that the wayward couple are just plain out — there is no "stepping back" from the monarchy and no "progressive role" within it.
Harry will always be part of the royal family by birth, yet he and Meghan have been demoted, in some sense, into the "mere" aristocracy. No one involved seems to know exactly what the implications are going forward, but it is clear that Harry may not call himself "His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex"; he'll be "His Grace the Duke of Sussex" or, as he seems to prefer, plain old Harry.
The repercussions are clearer on the business front. The duke and duchess cannot use the word "Royal" in their branding. In preparation for their new "progressive" roles, they applied to trademark "Sussex Royal" to use for goods and services from counseling to consulting to T-shirts. Whatever their intentions were with this move, the queen nixed it.
"Royal," and associated terms such as "queen" or "majesty," are legally "sensitive words" in Britain. They imply that the royal family has endorsed a product or a company or at least that it does not object to the association. Fortnum & Mason, for example, may legally make Royal Blend tea because King Edward VII enjoyed it in 1902, and the department store has two "royal warrants" that indicate the monarchy's continuing favor. You cannot set up a counter and begin business as a "bank" if you are not, legally, a bank; likewise, it seems, you cannot trademark "Royal" if you are, in fact, not quite royal anymore.
But the brouhaha over who gets to use "royal" has implications beyond the Sussexes' need to rebrand; it raises questions about the future of the British monarchy itself.
In the past, the role of English kings and queens was clear and their power far-reaching. They were in charge, with few constraints: They could order rivals' heads cut off, start a new religion, execute people for not following the new religion, invade France, etc.
The queen's powers and prerogatives today are rather more limited. By default, she owns all the mute swans in England's open waters (unless they have beak markings that prove they belong to someone else) and all the mute dolphins along the coasts. She doesn't need a driver's license or a passport and is not required to pay taxes, though she decided to start doing it voluntarily in 1992. She is still the titular head of state, but Parliament does the actual governing under the polite fiction that she has delegated her power to her ministers. The queen retains the ability to dissolve Parliament and install new prime ministers, but even this she does only when told to.
Today, the monarchy's most important role is to be a highly visible incarnation of ancient inequalities. Bizarrely, people around the world seem to find this charming. Even Americans, whose founding document declares that "all men are created equal," love the family whose very existence argues, "No, you peon, we most certainly are not." Almost 30 million of us watched Harry and Meghan's wedding; in surveys, 82 percent of us have a favorable view of Elizabeth.
Royalty is even more popular in Britain, where 7 in 10 people consider themselves to be "monarchists" who support the royal family's continued existence. Yet there are ominous signs. Commonwealth citizens mostly support Elizabeth, by far the most popular royal, but increasingly think it might be time to ditch the monarchy when she dies. A quarter of British 18- to 24-year-olds would abolish the monarchy now.
The English peerage (the lesser hierarchy of dukes, marquesses, earls and so on) is already on its final legs. Peers lost the last of their special privileges and duties in 1999, when most were kicked out of the House of Lords. Titles, of course, still have cachet, but they accrued it long ago, when they had a direct connection to power and money. Now that connection has been severed, and the glamour is slowly evaporating.
I feel like I am qualified to talk about this because, a few years ago, I became a viscountess myself — and nobody noticed. I didn't legally change my name, and I don't introduce myself as "The Right Honourable," so how would anyone know? If I had a lot more money or lived on an ancient estate in Cornwall rather than in a condo in Somerville, Massachusetts, perhaps people would pay attention. But as it is, I don't even get mail addressed "Dear Lady."
For me to get people to recognize my title, I would have to work at it, like my friend The Honourable Jane Doe. I would have to police the way people address me and insist on whatever other social privileges I believe I'm owed. (For the record, I was an Hon when my friend objected; I had just forgotten.)
Today, the monarchy's most important role is to be a highly visible incarnation of ancient inequalities. Bizarrely, people around the world seem to find this charming.
If this can happen to the peerage, it can happen to the royal family. The queen now presides not by divine right but subject to her subjects' goodwill. She has devoted her life to preserving the monarchy and carrying out the rather diminished duties her position entails. She has been dignified, resistant to change, an unimpeachable representative of the great British past and of an institution whose heyday was centuries ago. But there's little more than that she can do.
When confronted with Harry and Meghan's desire to work less and be more "progressive," she apparently believed that giving them free rein was less likely to strengthen support for the royal family than it was to trigger a dangerous backlash as they traded on their status for money and, who knows, started the royal equivalent of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop.
For nearly 70 years, Elizabeth has performed the heck out of the role she was born into, striving always to make the word "royal" mean something. Who are any of us to disagree if she decides to protect it and rescind Harry and Meghan's fanciest titles? She is the queen, after all. Vivat regina!