13 Times the British Royal Family Broke Official Protocol

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's decision to step back from royal duty has sparked countless debates about what this fairly unprecedented break from royal protocol means. While the queen has issued an official statement saying that she and her family "are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family," she did add that "we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family."

Though the Duke and Duchess's decision to split their time between England and Canada appears to have been settled, it's likely to remain a contentious one—at least as far as the public and media are concerned—for quite some time to come. Of course, Harry and Meghan are far from the first members of the royal family who have chosen to break away from the establishment's age-old rules and conventions.

From the simple laying of a commemorative wreath to the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (not to mention a king who wasn’t even buried in England), Britain’s royal past is full of rule-breakers and convention-changers. Here are just a few of them.

1. Prince Charles represents on Remembrance Sunday // 2017

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales lays a wreath on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II during the annual Remembrance Sunday Service at The Cenotaph on November 12, 2017 in London, England
Prince Charles lays a wreath on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II during London's annual Remembrance Sunday Service on November 12, 2017.
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In November 2017, the Queen (as usual) attended the annual Remembrance Day celebrations in London. But in a break from tradition, she opted not to place a poppy wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph Memorial as part of the ceremony, and instead asked Prince Charles to present it instead. Charles has represented the Queen in this way at every Remembrance Day since.

This wasn’t the first time the Queen chose not to take an active role in these Remembrance Day celebrations (royal tours and pregnancies had on occasion prevented her in the past), but her decision not to take part in 2017 was seen as a significant break from usual protocol. There was no ulterior motive, however: At the age of 91, the Queen had reportedly decided that the long and emotional ceremony was an arduous one, and Prince Philip’s decision that year to likewise step back from royal duty also likely affected her decision.

2. Prince George’s non-royal godparents // 2013

Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge greet Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives at the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace for Prince George's christening in 2013.
Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge greet Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives at the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace for Prince George's christening in 2013.
John Stillwell - WPA Pool /Getty Images

It’s a longstanding tradition that the godparents of royal babies are selected from within the confines of the royal family itself. But in 2013, Prince William and Kate Middleton broke with that tradition by selecting just one of Prince George’s seven godparents from their royal relatives: Zara Tindall, the eldest daughter of Princess Anne and a cousin of Prince William, was one of the seven names on the list. The other six included friends of the couple, including Oliver Baker, a friend theirs from their time together at St. Andrews University.

3. Catherine's Middleton family Christmas // 2012

Prince William and his pregnant wife Catherine leave King Edward VII hospital in December 2012, where the Duchess was being treated for acute morning sickness.
Prince William and his pregnant wife Catherine leave King Edward VII hospital in December 2012, where the Duchess was being treated for acute morning sickness.
Indigo/Getty Images

Kate Middleton was suffering from such severe morning sickness during her pregnancy in 2012 that Prince William elected to go against centuries of royal traditional and spend Christmas morning with her at the Middleton family home, rather than at Sandringham Palace. The couple then rejoined the rest of the royal family on the Sandringham Estate the following day. 

While the press seemed to sympathize with Catherine's pregnancy plight, and understand why she'd want to spend private time with her family, they weren't quite as kind when Harry and Meghan announced in November 2019 that they planned to make their first Christmas with their son Archie a more private affair and spend extended time with Meghan's mother, Doria Ragland. 

4. Windsor trumps Buckingham Palace for Harry's christening // 1984

Young Prince William entertains the royal relatives and godparents who gathered at Windsor Castle on December 21, 1984 for the christening of Prince Harry.
Young Prince William entertains the royal relatives and godparents who gathered at Windsor Castle on December 21, 1984 for the christening of Prince Harry.
Lord Snowdon via Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

It’s traditional for royal christenings to take place at Buckingham Palace, but in 2013 the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge again broke from convention by arranging to have Prince George’s christening take place in the little-known Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace in London instead. They weren’t the first to break the rules, though. Back in December 1984, Prince Charles and Princess Diana had Prince Harry baptized in the chapel of Windsor Castle.

5. Prince William's history-making hospital birth // 1982

Prince Charles and Princess Diana leave the Lindo Wing of Londond's St. Mary's Hospital with baby Prince William on July 22, 1982.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana leave the Lindo Wing of London's St. Mary's Hospital with baby Prince William on July 22, 1982.
Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Remarkably, when Prince William was born in the private Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital in London in 1982, he became the first heir-apparent in British royal history to have been born in a hospital. Before then, tradition had long dictated that all royal births take place in a royal residence, and be attended by private physicians.

6. Princess Diana promises to love and honor—but not obey // 1981

Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Charles ride in a carriage after their wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral July 29, 1981 in London.
Diana, Princess of Wales and Prince Charles ride in a carriage after their wedding at London's St. Paul's Cathedral on July 29, 1981.
David Levenson/Getty Images

When the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) married the Duke of Edinburgh (then Philip Mountbatten) in 1947, questions were raised over the wording of the Church of England’s marriage vows—and, in particular, how appropriate it was for the future Queen to say that she will “love, cherish, and obey” her husband. After all, surely the Queen shouldn’t have to obey anyone? Regardless of the controversy, the Queen stuck to convention and read the established vows. But when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles in 1981, she chose not to. Obey was omitted from the ceremony wording, and Diana instead declared that she would simply “have, hold, love, and cherish” her husband. The word was likewise omitted from both Prince William and Prince Harry’s marriage ceremonies in 2011 and 2018, respectively.

7. The Queen's State Opening of Parliament day dress // 1974

The British State Opening of Parliament ceremony commencing in the House of Commons with on October 29, 1974.
The British State Opening of Parliament ceremony commencing in the House of Commons with on October 29, 1974.
Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s customary for the UK Parliament to shut down temporarily at the end of each parliamentary session (usually dictated by the calling of an election), and then be reopened by the monarch, amid much pomp and circumstance, once the new session begins. The State Opening of Parliament, as it’s known, is an elaborate affair involving full royal regalia, the sovereign’s traditional state robes, a parade of royal carriages across London, and no less than two crowns taken from the Royal Collection: The monarch wears the George IV State Diadem on their way to and from the House of Lords, but delivers their customary Speech from the throne wearing the considerably larger and more ostentatious Imperial State Crown. In February 1974, however, a snap general election was called by Prime Minister Edward Heath, and the Queen, who was in New Zealand at the time, was compelled to cut her royal visit short and attend a somewhat hastily-arranged State Opening of Parliament on March 12.

As a result, in a considerable break from tradition, the 1974 Opening was a more dressed-down affair, with the Queen wearing a day dress rather than full royal regalia; arriving at the House of Lords by car, not carriage; and delivering her speech wearing the lighter State Diadem, rather than the Imperial State Crown. She wore the same crown to the 2019 State Opening, too, although that was probably for more pragmatic reasons: the Imperial State Crown weighs more than two pounds, and the 93-year-old Queen appears to be not too keen on wearing it. “You can’t look down to read the speech,” she explained in a 2018 BBC documentary. "You have to take the speech up. Because if you did, your neck would break [and] it would fall off.”

8. Princes Charles's public school education // 1956

A general view of Hill House School near Knightsbridge in London, England.
A general view of Hill House School near Knightsbridge in London, England.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

It might seem strange today, but it was once customary for all members of the royal family not to attend any form of public education. Instead, they were taught at home by private tutors, or else in closed-door military and naval academies. Elizabeth II broke with that traditional in 1956, when she sent 8-year-old Prince Charles to Hill House School in Knightsbridge, London. After two years there, he moved to Cheam Preparatory School in Berkshire, and then on to Gordonstoun boarding school in Moray, in the far north of Scotland, in 1962. His time at Gordonstoun was apparently not a happy one, though: Charles later described the school as being like “Colditz in kilts.”

9. Queen Elizabeth II's non-political birth // 1948

The Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) at the christening of their daughter Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) in 1926.
The Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) at the christening of their daughter Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) in 1926.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

In one of the strangest royal traditions, it was once customary for the British parliament’s home secretary to attend the birth of all new members of the royal family. According to legend, this tradition was started in 1688 when rumors emerged that James II and his Queen Mary of Modena (who had suffered through a tragic series of miscarriages, stillbirths, and children who had died in infancy) tried to cover up the supposed death of their eleventh child, James Stuart, by smuggling a healthy baby into the queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan.

Regardless of how true that story may or may not be, the tradition of having a political representative on hand to ensure that nothing untoward takes place at each royal birth remained in place right through to the mid-1900s, when it was at last quietly scrapped by George VI—just in time for his daughter (now Elizabeth II) to give birth without a political representative in the room. On his birth in 1948, Prince Charles ultimately became the first member of the royal family in 250 years not to be watched over by the home secretary; the last time this tradition was enforced was in 1936.

10. King Edward VIII's abdication crisis // 1936

The Duke of Windsor and Mrs Wallis Simpson on their 1937 wedding day at France's Chateau de Conde, Monts.
The Duke of Windsor and Mrs Wallis Simpson on their 1937 wedding day at France's Chateau de Conde, Monts.
Central Press/Getty Images

When Edward VIII renounced the throne to pursue his relationship with divorcee Wallis Simpson in December 1936, he single-handedly threw the royal family, the Church of England, and the British Empire into crisis—a brief three years before the Second World War. As breaks from royal protocol go, they don’t come much bigger than that. Edward became the third monarch in English history to abdicate, but the first ever to do so voluntarily: Richard II renounced the throne and was deposed in 1399, and upon going into exile in France amid the Glorious Revolution in 1688, James II was held to have abdicated, and parliament jointly handed power over to William III and Mary II in his place.

11. Queen Victoria's royal resting place for two // 1861

The funeral of Queen Victoria, 1901 (1909). The coffin being carried into St George's Chapel, Windsor. From Harmsworth History of the World, Volume 7, by Arthur Mee, J.A. Hammerton, & A.D. Innes, M.A. (Carmelite House, London, 1909)(Photo by The Print Col
The 1901 funeral of Queen Victoria at St. George's Chapel.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

After the sudden death of her beloved Prince Albert in December 1861, Queen Victoria began to make arrangements for an entirely new resting place where both he and eventually she could be interred together. The result was the impressive Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore House in Windsor, which was completed the following year. When Victoria died in 1901 and was interred there alongside Albert, she became the first British monarch in 174 years not to be buried at either Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle.

12. King Edward VII's archbishop-free birth // 1841

Queen Victoria and her family, circa 1863.
Queen Victoria and her family, circa 1863.
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The royal birthing room was apparently a crowded place: As well as the home secretary, it was also once convention for the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend any royal birth, and provide a blessing for the newborn child the moment he or she appeared. In 1841, however, that tradition was broken when the archbishop and his retinue were held up on their journey to Buckingham Palace, and turned up too late to attend the birth of Queen Victoria’s first son, Albert Edward (later King Edward VII).

13. King George I's overseas resting place // 1727

Portrait of George I (1660-1727), the first Hanoverian King of Great Britain and Ireland. He ruled from 1714 until his death.
Portrait of George I (1660-1727), the first Hanoverian King of Great Britain and Ireland.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When the House of Hanover took control of the British throne in 1714, Britain found itself with a king who had been born in Germany; who spoke German as his first language; and who—after he died suddenly while on a visit to Germany just 13 years later—even ended up being buried there, too. King George I suffered a stroke and died while traveling past Osnabruck in 1727, and was buried in the nearby Leineschloss Palace in Leine, 150 miles west of Berlin. By not having his body repatriated to British soil, George I ultimately became the first (non-exiled) British monarch not to be buried in Britain for a staggering 528 years. Unsurprisingly, he remains to this day the last British monarch not to be buried in the British Isles.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Harry Houdini passed away more than 90 years ago, his mystique has never faded. The famed magician captured the imagination of the world with his death-defying stunts and performances, many of which still baffle modern magicians. Whether he was escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane above the streets or getting out of his famed “Chinese water torture cell” with just moments of air to spare, Houdini had a habit of leaving everyone in awe. And with performances that spectacular, it shouldn’t come as a shock that his life was just as fascinating. Read on for some interesting facts about Harry Houdini.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss.

He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some sources say that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. His last name, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

2. According to legend, He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently.

Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells (though some believe it's a myth) is that one day, when he was only about 6 months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but came out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" In those days, according to Keaton, buster meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster, and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908.

If you're not familiar with it, Houdini invented an oversized milk can that would be filled with water for his act. Once in the can, he would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, the folks at Joshua Tetley & Son, the brewers behind Tetley's beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued by his assistant, Franz Kokol.

4. Houdini probably didn't die from a sucker punch.

Houdini had long boasted of his physical prowess—and one of his claims was that he could withstand a punch from anyone. After a performance in Montreal on October 20, 1926, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true, and when Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut. Surprised by the blows, Houdini didn't have a chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix days later, which many people said was brought on by the punches. But that's not necessarily true.

Houdini had actually been suffering from appendicitis for a few days beforehand but hadn't done anything about it. In fact, he had continued to travel and do shows afterward. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized. Unfortunately, he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

5. The symbol of the Society of American Magicians is engraved on his tombstone.

Houdini was president of the Society of American Magicians when he died. And members are still invested in making sure the famed magician's gravesite at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, New York, receives routine maintenance and restoration. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish.

6. His wife, Bess, held a séance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch.

Before Harry Houdini died, he and Bess made a pact that if there was a way to do it, Harry would contact her from the beyond. They even agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was really him speaking to her and not a ghostly imposter. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up, but the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, still holds the séance every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. 

The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet in a language the two concocted for themselves. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator.

Though there's some dispute over the claim, Houdini is often recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in a powered plane on Australian soil. The flight took place on March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, which is near Melbourne. In June, 1920, it was reported that Houdini was even making plans to embark upon what would have been the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. The plans, unfortunately, never materialized.

8. Houdini could also escape from copyright restrictions.

By 1912, Houdini added another act to his routine: the escape from the infamous "Chinese water torture cell," where the magician would be lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank while his feet were locked in stocks. It was a hit with crowds, and despite the overwhelming danger, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch. In fact, he was the only one who could legally perform this death-defying act. That's because Houdini found a way to copyright the cell routine in a pretty ingenious way. Since you couldn't copyright magic tricks, he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called Houdini Upside Down! Well, you can copyright a play, and by incorporating the cell escape into the script, he was allowed to copyright the effect and would actively sue anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did.

In 1915, Houdini was buried in a pit with just dirt shoveled right on top of him for a stunt in Santa Ana, California. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but that's not exactly the easiest thing to do while covered in mounds of dirt. Finally, his hand broke the surface, and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. You can still see one of his most famous stunts.

The straitjacket escape is one of Harry Houdini's most famous acts. For this one, Houdini would be strapped into the jacket and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air, usually from a crane or off a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he would make a death-defying escape with countless onlookers below. You can still watch it below:

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