Meghan Markle broke two unwritten rules on Monday when she showed up to watch a tennis match with Prince Harry, her boyfriend of just over a year.
The first was showing up at all. Typically, a working royal goes solo at official public events until, at the very least, an engagement is confirmed by the palace. While past girlfriends have attended the occasional polo match or graduation ceremony on the sidelines, this was something quite different.
Second, Markle strode into view of the cameras with her hand firmly clasped in the prince’s as they made their way to their courtside seats. Hand-holding and other public displays of affection remain rare in the House of Windsor, which experts believe is due to a precedent set long ago by the Queen and Prince Philip.
Neither one of these minor breaks from tradition will bring down the Royal Family as we know it. But they are the latest in a series of strong signals that Meghan and Harry — now widely considered to be on the verge of an engagement — don’t intend to play by the royal rulebook.
“Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been so open about the fact that they are dating, and have spoken about their relationship in this way,” noted Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.
“(They) are conducting this relationship on their own terms.”
Flouting the rules
Much of the rule-breaking has seemingly been intentional. Harry famously dubbed Markle his “girlfriend” in an official press release last year while pleading for privacy. That, in itself, was unprecedented.
READ MORE: Attention intensifies around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at Invictus Games
Markle, meanwhile, continued to have an active social media presence and personal lifestyle website, the Tig, until several months into her relationship with the fifth (soon to be sixth) in line to the throne. That arguably made sense, given her career as a high-profile actress in legal drama Suits.
She has also eschewed much of the British upper-class etiquette (like not crossing your legs at the knee, for instance) that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, followed to the letter for years prior to her engagement.
Sartorially, Markle has stayed true to her usual style, mixing casual clothes like Monday’s white blouse, flats and ripped jeans with more form-fitting evening wear. There hasn’t been a fascinator in sight.
But it was Markle’s willingness to grant a wide-ranging interview to Vanity Fair this summer — and to address her relationship with Harry directly in that interview — that really drew gasps from royal watchers both in Britain and abroad.
Given that the piece was likely approved by the prince, there was even some speculation that such a public declaration would weaken the couple’s future requests to be left alone.
“In the past, when royal girlfriends did speak to the press, generally that didn’t bode well for the relationship,” said Harris, who has studied royal couples dating back hundreds of years.
“An example would be Prince Charles briefly dating Diana’s elder sister, Lady Sarah Spencer, who did talk about dating Prince Charles with the press. If the relationship wasn’t already over, that immediately put a stop to things.”
Chatty half-siblings and a divorce
In addition to the intentional rule-breaking, there are circumstances beyond Markle’s control, like her American birth and a handful of very outspoken estranged family members on her father’s side, that have raised eyebrows.
“Having embarrassing relatives, that is nothing new … that dates back to Anne Boleyn when Henry VIII was considering marrying her,” said Harris, laughing.
“There’s certainly Americans who’ve married into the aristocracy, but in terms of the Royal Family, the famous example is Wallis Simpson, who was considered an unsuitable queen by the standards of 1936 as she was twice divorced. But social mores change over time.”
WATCH: Royal baby number three expected
Some of the most outdated royal rules had already been breached by William and Catherine, noted Harris. The then-Kate Middleton came from a middle-class family and there was no expectation that she be a virgin, for example. The couple even shares the occasional side hug in public.
“They dated for a long time before they became engaged if we compared to Charles and Diana for instance,” Harris said. “They lived together in university, and then after they were married they took their time starting a family as well, whereas Prince William was born within a year of Charles and Diana getting married.”
READ MORE: Prince Harry sneaks Meghan Markle into Pippa Middleton wedding reception
The Royal Family seems to have responded favourably to Markle, Harris added, a clear signal that her past divorce and mixed-race American heritage are not the deal-breakers they would have been just a few decades ago (for the moment, Harry still needs his grandmother’s permission to marry).
“Prince Harry is being given a lot of latitude to conduct this relationship on his own terms,” Harris said.
“The Queen has reigned over a period of tremendous social and cultural change, and has been quite open to changing with the times.”
The couple has made concessions, however. Markle shut down her website a few months ago, and there are reports she is considering a move to London.
If an engagement is announced, Harris predicted, her acting career may come to an abrupt end as she gets set to take on the official duties and travel associated with her new status. At that point, she may need to toe the line in a more obvious way.
“We’re seeing a streamlining of the Royal Family,” Harris said.
“Whoever Prince Harry marries is going to be expected to take up a great deal of philanthropy — which Meghan already has an interest in — and public engagements, especially as the Queen and Prince Philip are growing older.”