5 British royal protocols that have changed over the years: Meghan Markle married Prince Harry despite being a divorcee, and Princess Diana and Prince Philip gave historic TV interviews

British royal protocols have changed over the years, so how do they affect Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry today? Photo: AP Photo
Even before Meghan Markle became a part of the British royal family and caused worldwide frenzy, people all over the world have been fascinated by the royals and their lives. Many of us are especially curious about the rules they have to abide by, both privately and in public. And while we may have come to think of royal protocols to be immutable as they are passed from one generation to the next, here are a few that have changed over the years.

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Giving candid interviews

Sitting down with Meghan Markle alone, Oprah Winfrey asks her in the first interview teaser: “Were you silent or were you silenced?” Photo: CBS

For most of the British royals’ history, members simply did not give interviews to the media. In a time where people often use social media as their online diaries, this may be difficult to imagine, but in fact, the first real interview recorded of the royal family wasn’t until 1961, when Prince Philip spoke to the BBC.

Prince Philip waves as he is discharged from the King Edward VII hospital in central London, UK, in June 2012. Photo: EPA-EFE
Even then, the questions were quite measured and by today’s standards, considered soft. It was only with the airing of Princess Diana’s tell-all interview with Martin Bashir that some measure of leeway seemed to be afforded to members of the family – as long as nobody lets any skeletons out of the royal closet, obviously.

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Roman Catholics can marry in

In a decree in 1701, members of the royal family were not permitted to enter into marriage with Roman Catholics. The monarch of the family is the de facto head of the Church of England, which is Protestant in nature. Throughout history, this prohibition led to many disruptions in the line of succession and validities of marriage, such as that of King George IV to the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert, which wasn’t recognised.

The statue of King George IV in the Botanic Gardens in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP Archive

Fast forward to 2013, when a law was passed that came into effect in 2015, allowing a member of the royal family in the line of succession to marry a Roman Catholic. However, in keeping with the terms of church doctrine and history, it is still impossible for a Roman Catholic to ascend to the throne.

Divorced? No problem!

A 1930 portrait of American-born Wallis Simpson, wife of King Edward VIII of England who abdicated to marry her. Photo: AFP

Viewers of dramas such as The Crown and The King’s Speech will be aware of the abdication crisis that arose as a result of the King Edward VIII wanting to marry his lover, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Not only did Edward VIII receive opposition from British government members and the royal family, the Church of England also forbade the marriage.

The problem with Simpson wasn’t that she wasn’t English, but that the socialite was divorced and consequently unable to marry within the Church of England and the royal family. The stand-off between law and crown was eventually won by the former, which saw Edward VIII abdicating in favour of his brother, King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth.
Princess Margaret on the day her divorce from Lord Snowdon was announced. Photo: Getty Images

This issue cropped up again when the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, issued a statement in 1950 announcing her separation from Captain Peter Townsend. “Mindful of the church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others,” she said.

But as divorce loses its stigma over the years, Prince Charles was allowed to marry fellow divorcee Camilla, as was Prince Harry allowed to marry Meghan Markle.

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No touching

Prince William and Kate Middleton pose with LeBron James backstage at the Cleveland Cavaliers vs Brooklyn Nets game in December 2014. Photo: EPA
For the longest time, touching any member of the royal family was considered majorly taboo. However, in recent years, there have been several breaches of protocol, such as when Michelle Obama hugged the queen, or LeBron James casually putting his arm around Kate Middleton. The change has been slowly taking place over time, perhaps since Princess Diana famously broke not only royal protocols but social norms when she shook hands with HIV/Aids patients during a time when such an act was widely considered controversial.

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The line of succession

Prince William arrives with Prince George and Princess Charlotte to visit his wife, Kate Middleton, after she gave birth to her third child in 2018. Photo: Xinhua

For generations, male children took preference in the line of succession to the British throne, regardless of age. An older sister would always be passed over in favour of a younger brother.

This all officially changed in 2015 when the Succession to the Crown Act meant the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s children would be subject to the act, and the first born of their marriage, regardless of gender, would be next in line to the throne after their father, Prince William. Ultimately, though, the couple’s first child was a boy, meaning it will be a while longer until we witness the fruits of the act.

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  • The ‘no touching’ rule seems to be easing, with Michelle Obama hugging Queen Elizabeth and LeBron James putting his arm around Kate Middleton
  • Fans of Netflix’s The Crown will recall King Edward VIII abdicating to marry Wallis Simpson, and eldest daughters can now be first in line for the throne