When Prince William and Prince Harry went to school, they were known by the surname Wales. Decades later, when Prince George started at his London private school St Thomas’ of Battersea in 2017, one of the questions about his enrolment was what surname he would carry. The answer – Cambridge. Ask Princess Beatrice to sign her name and you would probably see her include her family name of York.
And yet, this is all despite the fact that since 1960, the royal family’s official surname has been Mountbatten-Windsor. See, when it comes to the royal family, surnames are by no means a simple thing.
Today, another member of the royal family and their use of surname, is raising eyebrows in the form of Meghan Duchess of Sussex. Overnight the 38-year-old delivered an address as part of the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up conference, joining the likes of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in delivering an upbeat, empowering message to 40,000 young women around the world.
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What was noteworthy about her appearance was the name associated with it.
For days beforehand, official social media posts from Girl Up had been promoting her appearance styling her as Meghan Markle Duchess of Sussex.
Did you spot it? Markle.
This is not a typo or some enthusiastic intern with sparse knowledge of royal naming protocols just slapping whatever title they fancy on marketing material. This type of thing would have had to be approved by each of the A-list speakers’ teams beforehand.
A quick royal recap: While Meghan, like her sister-in-law Kate Duchess of Cambridge, is still widely, colloquially called by her maiden name, when both women married into the royal family they gave those surnames up. Meghan’s official name after tying the knot was Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex. If she wanted to she could also have either used Mountbatten-Windsor, the royal family’s official surname, or Sussex or should she need to sign anything, simply ‘Meghan’ given members of the royal family rarely use surnames.
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With one not-so-simple word, I think we might have just gotten a peek at Meghan’s plans for the future in which she will fuse her own personal identity and her royal identity to create some sort of hybrid brand unlike anything the world – or the palace – has ever seen before.
Interestingly, the only other royally adjacent person to regularly fuse their title and maiden name is Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. She and Diana, Princess of Wales were also both given commas in their titles after their divorces.
What is fascinating here is that while she might have reinserted the ‘Markle’ back into her name, she is clearly intent on also retaining her styling as a duchess, a title she could choose not to use should she want to.
The overall impression is, having emancipated herself from the rigidity of royal life, of wanting to re-establish her selfhood while also still enjoying the reflected lustre of her royal title. I’m not sure if this is an inherently contradictory, cockeyed position or a branding masterstroke par excellence. Only time will tell.
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The inclusion of her surname was far from the only interesting semiotics of Meghan’s nearly nine-minute speech. Wedged in between her impressive, thrilling message of empowerment were several lines that came across as a far-from-subtle rebuke of the royal family.
Take this one for example.
“Women have always historically gotten a lot of, ‘Well, that isn’t how it’s done’ or ‘Yeah, that’s an idea, but let’s do this instead.’ But when do we hear that as women? We hear that in the moments we challenge the norms,” the royal told the audience from the $30 million Beverly Hills mansion where she is currently staying.
If there was one common thread throughout Meghan’s 19-month stint as a working member of the royal family it was her regular defiance of tradition and intent to forge her own path, irrespective of protocol or the status quo. She closed her own car door, eschewed skin-coloured hose, ditched hats, crossed her legs, allegedly sent 5am emails to staffers, guest-edited Vogue, hugged children with glee abandon, enjoyed a star-studded New York baby shower, went to Wimbledon and sat in a curious sea of empty seats, and wore a $4,100 Gucci frock to pose for a portrait taken at Smart Works, a charity of which she is a patron and which donates clothes to disadvantaged women.
Her approach to nearly every aspect of her royal working life stood in direct opposition to the status quo and even in the face of tweedy harrumphing she stayed the course.
Later in her speech, Meghan made this point: “There will always be negative voices and sometimes those voices can appear to be outsized, and sometimes they can appear to be painfully loud. You can and will use your own voices to drown out the noise. Because that’s what it is — just noise.”
“Negative voices’’ are something that Meghan has had to contend with since the day in 2016 that news broke that she was dating Prince Harry. However, despite her protestations about ‘drowning out noise’ the argument could be made that it is something that she herself has struggled to do in her own life. Documents filed as part of her lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday for allegedly breaching her privacy, claim she felt “unprotected by the Institution” of the monarchy and was not allowed to defend herself.
Then, towards the end of her speech, Meghan, wearing a simple blue dress, her hair the epitome of California cool, she told the audience: “The hardest part — and it was the hardest part for me — is to chase your convictions with action.”
If there was ever an event that personified putting ‘convictions into action’ it was she and husband Harry’s decision to quit as working members of the royal family. This year, they turned their backs on the 1000-year-old institution of the monarchy (in a professional capacity anyway, they are still very much part of the Queen’s family) to build a life that is, as every good Los Angeleno likes to proselytise about, all about authenticity and in line with their personal values.
It has now been more than six months since Harry and Meghan decided that they wanted out as senior members of the royal family and set in motion the seismically-charged Megxit. The spread of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic fallout has laid waste to many assumptions about what their new lives would look like. However, with Meghan’s speech today, I think we have gotten an insight into what lies ahead for not only the couple but the house of Windsor.
In short, no matter where the Sussexes go and what they do, they (Meghan especially) will continue to eclipse the royal family in terms of publicity and public interest.
Consider this. Hours before Meghan delivered her address, her sister-in-law Kate Duchess of Cambridge was appearing on Good Morning Britain in one of her very, very few TV interviews to discuss the launch of one the biggest endeavours of her royal career, an early childhood learning project in conjunction with the BBC called Tiny Happy People.
This was a landmark moment for Kate as she continues to step increasingly into the spotlight to push her agenda around early childhood support and development. Yet despite all the key elements for what should have been a PR slam dunk – the Emilia Wickstead dress! The gleaming new, blonde-ish hairdo! Cute kids! – it was and is Meghan’s speech that is dominating social media.
(Heck, Meghan not only eclipsed Kate’s launch but also Michelle Obama’s comments at Girl Up and the newly released video of the Queen giggling with the captain of the Jamaican bobsleigh team.)
And therein lies the rub if you happen to be a) an HRH or b) a royal courtier right now. Accidentally, we have had two highly significant royal events happening nearly simultaneously and there is one very clear winner when it comes to public interest.
The key takeaway here is not that matter how much good work that Kate (and William and Charles and Camilla) get up to in the near future, they face having their message drowned out if Harry and Meghan should be doing anything publicly around the same time.
In short, the palace just can’t win the publicity war if they go up against the Sussexes, coincidentally or otherwise. Royal work such as stolidly visiting garden centres or opening regional sports centres is doomed to perpetually come second when and if they go up against the Sussexes and their patent brand of highly personal and unexpected public engagements.
And the unexpected is one thing we are guaranteed to see when it comes to what Harry and Meghan, to wit, her decision to use both her maiden name in conjunction with her royal title today. The deployment of that one word – Markle – has given us not so much a clue as a flashing red pointer to what comes next: Uncowed by royal rigidity, she and Harry’s defiance of tradition and belief in their own instincts is only going to grow.
Whether you agree with the Sussexes potentially rebellious path or not, one thing is for sure. It is going to be electrifying to watch.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
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