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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.