At the beginning of this year Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, took the decision to declare independence from the rest of the House of Windsor. They sought to invent a brand new, exciting, even progressive role. The lengthy subtitle of their forthcoming biography – authorised by the Sussexes though very much not by Buckingham Palace – is Finding Freedom: Harry, Meghan, and the Making of a Modern Royal Family, which sums up their putative mission. But it also gives away a more traditional aim; for it is hardly any distance to travel from branding oneself a Modern Royal Family to claiming to be the Modern Royal Family.
For more than a century after the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (which replaced the Catholic Stuart James II with his Dutch son-in-law William of Orange), from 1688-1806, Britain possessed a monarchy in exile. This parallel dynasty was considered more and less foreign than the incumbents: English speaking, not German, yet Catholic, not Protestant. While the new regime could point to a negotiated parliamentary contract, the exiled Stuarts’ claim to their theoretical subjects’ regard was based on the easily-understood legitimacy of blood descent.
For a time this remarkable anti-institution appeared to thrive. It became the done thing for smart young men to call upon the King over the Water at St Germains or Rome while undertaking their Grand Tours; more importantly in political terms, disgraced early Georgian ministers were often quick to offer their portfolios to the “Pretender’s” interest.
Clearly the Sussexes are not seeking any alteration in the line of succession. Like the Jacobite monarchs in exile, and like the Duke’s mother, Diana, Princess of Wales (descended from two illegitimate Stuarts), they instead challenge the moral basis on which the ruling dynasty commands allegiance or affection. Where Catholicism, Toryism and hereditary legitimacy were invoked by the exiled Stuarts, the exiled Sussexes appeal to “modernity”, by which they appear to mean a ducal variant on egalitarianism: political liberalism in the American sense, regally topped with a flourishing garland of environmentalism.
The Sussexes’ supporters tend to cast both the older generation and the senior branch of their family as the cold, pragmatic puppets of a constricting system. This narrative is similar to the way in which both Jacobites and, later, revolutionaries and Romantics perceived the German cuckoos on the British thrones. The republican Shelley’s rhetoric in his irresistibly pithy poem “England in 1819” could easily have been Jacobite rhetoric of a century earlier. “Princes, the dregs of their dull race,” he calls the Prince Regent (soon to be George IV) and his brothers, not far short of implying that they have supplanted a brighter lineage.
There is much that is genuinely attractive as well as simply glamorous about the Sussexes, as with their charismatic Stuart forebears and forerunners. The story of their marriage is compelling. Their idealism appears more human, less staid, than the time-worn, to some worn-out, saga of national service embodied by the Duke’s paternal grandmother. Their treatment by sections of the press has been ugly, bordering upon hysterical. Hostile commentators have at least had to veil their obsession with the Duchess’s racial origins, whereas Hanoverian propagandists openly revelled in stirring up anti-papist alarm. Nevertheless, the political charge to much criticism of the Sussexes is strongly reminiscent of the 18th century. That age was wary of continental-style absolutism, as today’s is of globalist plutocracy and identity politics.
Like the Stuarts before them, the Sussexes are now feted by intrigued celebrities, puckish intellectuals and opportunistic politicians. Such friends can be dangerous, as the Stuarts were to discover. None of the high political scheming of the dazzling philosopher-politician Viscount Bolingbroke, or the bishop-intriguant, Francis Atterbury, took the Jacobite cause any closer to even moral victory. The declared Jacobite sympathies of some of the age’s best minds and pens – Pope, Swift, Dr Johnson – did not translate into action, made no impact upon the risings either of 1715 or 1745, and are now mostly forgotten. The ageing, alcoholic Bonnie Prince Charlie even lost his wife to the superior charms of a literary hanger-on, the Italian poet Count Vittorio Alfieri. The last serious Stuart claimant sensibly became a cardinal, then eased a tricky retirement by way of a British pension.
By fulfilling the ancestral, exciting role of the anti-establishment counter-monarchy, the Sussexes add greatly to the gaiety of historians and lay folk alike. That eclectically interesting Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy recently made her professed republicanism sound far less dour by declaring her support for “Queen Meghan”. But Harry and Meghan may do themselves fewer favours. It is a barren crown to which, in the end, this tantalising road has led before: not the tragic, conspicuous, ideal-driven martyrdom of Mary Queen of Scots or Charles I, but the banal, penurious, and anticlimactic eclipses of their once-beguiling exiled descendants.
Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman