Here in the U.S., there is an intense fascination with the British royal family — but there’s plenty of criticism as well. One of the most persistent criticisms of the royal family in recent years is their reticence to change, and their staunch adherence to tradition. The New York Times notes that even in the days after Princess Diana’s death in 1997, “…the palace — preoccupied by protocol, precedent and duty — maintained a frozen silence…For a handful of deluded days after her death, they clung obstinately to their principles of remoteness and privacy behind the gates of their Scottish castle, while popular anger grew.”
Despite this long-standing reluctance to embrace change and modernity, there have been royal rebels in every recent generation. In earlier years, those acts of rebellion came with an immense negative impact that rippled through the royal family for decades. And, as it turns out, many members of the royal family have had some less-than-traditional inclinations buried beneath the layers of royal protocol and duty.
Edward VIII — born in 1894 and christened Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (which was later changed to Windsor) — was already seen as an unconventional heir to the throne when he was a young man. “The Prince’s genuine friendliness, which allowed him to mingle with people, combined with a somewhat shy, almost wistful manner, convinced those who saw him that he would be a popular monarch,” wrote The New York Times in Windsor’s 1972 obituary. He became king after the death of his father, King George V, in January 1936, but only spent 11 months in the role before abdicating the throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite who had become infertile following complications from an abortion, according to Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor, by Charles Higham.
Due to royal rules surrounding marriage, Windsor was not allowed to marry a divorcée: “the King, as the head of the Church of England, would be violating the church’s doctrines against divorce,” noted to The New York Times. Instead, he decided to abdicate, saying in a nationally-broadcast radio address that “…you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.” It was a bombshell that rattled the royal family for decades.
Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, also ran into trouble surrounding the royal marriage rules. Margaret fell in love with Peter Townsend, a war hero who worked in the palace. Townsend was, however, a commoner — and a divorcé. “Their mutual fondness became public at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, when photographs showed…[Townsend] and the Princess beaming at each other and laughing,” wrote The New York Times. The romance “captured the public’s imagination,” but because Margaret was third in line for the throne, she was forbidden from marrying a divorcé.
“Queen Elizabeth was required to give permission for the marriage under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772,” according to the BBC magazine, “and under pressure from the government and the Church of England…she refused. Instead Margaret and Townsend were told to wait two years until she was 25 and able, under the Act, to choose for herself.”
When the two years were up, the two still wished to marry, but Elizabeth again denied them permission. While history is divided over what happened next — according to popular legend, Elizabeth was resolute, but the BBC reported that documents in the British National Archives indicate that Elizabeth was working with Parliament to amend the Act — Margaret and Townsend announced, in 1955, that they had ended their relationship. Margaret and Townsend both eventually married other people, but Margaret, according to The New York Times, “is believed to have always considered…Townsend to be the great love of her life.”
For many reasons, Princess Diana was a royal maverick: her capacity for empathy and warmth, her hands-on parenting approach, and her determination to shed light on taboo subjects set her apart from other members of the royal family. According to The New Yorker, her difficult childhood “left Diana with an ability to see and to empathize with pain…[t]he Windsors are stiff and awkward, and are quick to pull rank. Diana was none of these things.”
Whereas many royals kept their distance from taboo issues such as AIDS and mental health, Diana openly discussed her challenges, and she “shattered protocol when she gave an unsanctioned interview to the BBC and opened up about her marriage, depression, and struggle with bulimia,” notes Vogue.
She also worked on AIDS issues in the 1980s — which, given the panic about the AIDS epidemic at the time, was no small achievement. She became the patron of the UK’s National AIDS Trust, and in 1987, she helped open the UK’s first HIV/AIDS unit, which cared exclusively for infected patients, at the London Middlesex Hospital. Even more notably, she was in direct contact with a patient in the AIDS unit at a time when the panic surrounding the virus was intense. “In front of the world’s media, Princess Diana shook the hand of a man suffering with the illness. She did so without gloves, publicly challenging the notion that HIV/Aids was passed from person to person by touch,” notes the BBC.
Charles reportedly loves being outdoors in the countryside, which is just the slightest bit incongruent with the luxury of life as a monarch. “Paradoxes dot the life of a man who moves in rarified circles but is most at ease in the countryside, where he spends hours weeding and tending to hedges. If he hadn’t been born into the royal family, ‘he would have been a farmer,'” the author of a recent Prince Charles biography, Sally Bedell Smith, told the Wall Street Journal.
Charles has also broken tradition by being outspoken on matters of public policy, especially those surrounding environmental conservation, sustainability, and climate change. “It is baffling, I must say, that in our modern world we have such blind trust in science and technology that we all accept what science tells us about everything — until, that is, it comes to climate science,” he said during the inaugural awards ceremony for the Prince of Wales Young Sustainability Entrepreneur Prize.
Recently the Queen has passed more duties and activities to Charles, and while he is “unlikely to step aside in favor of Prince William, his reign would depart in some respects from his mother’s,” notes the Wall Street Journal. “‘He speaks differently, he’s more comfortable speaking off the cuff and he’s more inclined to show his emotions obviously publicly than the Queen is,’ [Smith] says. He also is willing to reveal an informal streak and ‘wear silly hats that the Queen would never have worn, or virtual-reality glasses.'”