Ditching traditions: The ways the Royal Family has changed in the last 100 years

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Prince Harry speaks out about decision to step away from royal duties
Prince Harry broke his silence and directly addressed his and his wife Meghan Markle's decision to step back from the Royal Family in a speech delivered Sunday at a charity event in the U.K – Jan 20, 2020

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s break from the Royal Family may be seen as flouting tradition and protocols — but they aren’t the only ones who’ve abandoned certain monarchical practices.   

In the last few decades, members of the British Royal Family have phased out some customs and traditions that no longer meshed with the image the family wants to portray, or simply wouldn’t be seen as acceptable anymore, said Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and author based in Toronto. 

Social and political factors that have shifted the world since Queen Elizabeth II took the throne have also changed the practices the family engages with, said Harris.

“The Queen’s reigned over a period of tremendous political, social and cultural change, and that has an impact on her family,” she said. 

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The presentation of debutantes

One of the starkest traditions that the Queen axed early on in her reign was the practice of presenting debutantes, which is the symbolic launch of young women into society to mark the end of girlhood, explained Harris. 

“This was a ceremony that symbolized the social hierarchy in many ways,” she said, adding that debutantes had to be presented by someone who had been a debutante before, as it was meant for higher-class women. 

July 1958 was the last time hundreds of women would gather for the debutante ceremony, called Queen Charlotte’s Ball, after the wife of George III. The first ball was hosted in 1780 for Charlotte’s birthday and involved debutantes curtsying to her, reported The Telegraph.

Members of the Royal Family in the 1950s criticized the debutante ball, with Prince Philip calling it “bloody daft,” according to The Guardian.

“There was a sense that this ceremony was dated,” said Harris. “There’s been a trend over the course of Queen Elizabeth II of a wider cross-section of people being recognized for their achievements, rather than social class being the main reason why someone might be presented at court.”

Debutantes at Buckingham Palace pictured on March 21, 1958. (Photo by McLellan/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

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Fiona MacCarthy, who was among the last 400 girls to be presented at Buckingham Palace in 1958, wrote in The Telegraph in 2008 that the tradition ended at the heels of the Suez crisis in 1956, which saw Britain’s ruling classes lose their sense of power and influence as the country’s imperial influences dwindled.

Palace advisors told the Queen that continuing the tradition wouldn’t be beneficial for the Royal Family’s image, as it was facing criticism that it was out of touch by presenting debutantes, explained MacCarthy. 

Another aspect of the ball that Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, took issue with was a corrupted process in which debutantes were picked, said Harris.

“There were cases of women who had noble titles, but not very much money, accepting payments to present a young woman at court as debutante,” she said. “Just anyone was getting in… and (it) had moved away from what it had intended to be.”

The ceremony was also considered a precursor to marriage, which became more outdated as more debutantes had their eyes on university instead of starting a family after the ball, explained Harris. 

Strict rules on who to marry

Up until the First World War, it was always expected that members of the British Royal Family would marry royalty, said Harris. One hundred years later, marrying outside of even a noble class has occurred, indicating younger royals have more exposure to different kinds of people than previous generations, she explains.

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“There’s been this wider expansion in various European royal houses in terms of the definition of the royal spouse, whereas… a century ago, there was a very small group of people who were considered suitable,” she said. 

Harris gives the example of Edward the seventh, son of Queen Victoria, who had to pick between seven Protestant princesses who were considered his only options for marriage. 

The marriage between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, as well as Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton along with Meghan and Harry’s union, are considered a break from hundreds of years of royals marrying other royals. 

“Royalty are now having experiences that are similar to people from a variety of social backgrounds,” explained Harris.

Meeting at university, dating and taking their time to start a family were decisions William and Kate made that are relatable, she said. 

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The Church of England became more lax in allowing people who were previously divorced to remarry, influencing the Royal Family’s ability to do so, she added. 

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Recent changes to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 have also removed barriers to marriage for Royal Family members. 

Prior to 2013, the law required that all family members needed consent from the Queen to marry. Now, only the six people closest in line to the throne need to ask for permission. That means members like Princess Beatrice of York and her sister Eugenie, who was married in 2018, don’t need permission. 

A royal education within the home

How those in line to the throne are educated has changed with the generations as well. The Queen was educated at home and gained much of her training by shadowing her father, said Harris. 

“Prince Philip, however, had attended school,” she said, noting that his positive experiences at Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland led him to enroll Charles there. 

“The change was the idea of heirs to the throne going to school,” she said. “This seems to have been Prince Philip’s initiative with the Queen’s agreement as well that their children should… experience childhood away from the press.”

The biggest change comes with the education of young Prince George and Princess Charlotte, as they are attending the same school, Thomas’s Battersea preparatory school located near Kensington Palace, according to the BBC.

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Going to a school that’s not single-gendered is a big change directly related to the rules around succession becoming gender-neutral, said Harris.

In 2013, the Succession to the Crown Act was implemented so that the eldest child becomes next in line to the throne, regardless of their sex. 

“It makes sense that we’re seeing both male and female royal children having a similar education when the expectations for them are now similar,” she said. 

Hiding from the public 

The accessibility of the British monarchy has been a consistent thread through the Queen’s reign, with changes made and traditions abandoned to better suit the public’s needs, said Mariel Grant, a history professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

The 1960s brought social and political changes driven by the baby boomers that added increased pressure on the family to connect more with their subjects, she said. 

“The whole thing in the 1960s… was this notion of promoting a more classless society and a more open and democratic society,” she said.

The Queen began engaging in “walkabouts” to address this, starting officially in the early 1970s, said Grant.

“It’s a walk when the Queen goes somewhere… and then it’s announced it’s part of the program afterwards that she will walk outside and she will talk to members of the public,” she said. 

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The first walkabout of Elizabeth’s was one led by her parents in Ottawa in 1939, when they unveiled the National War Memorial and spent 30 minutes afterwards engaging with veterans in person, according to the book Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family.  

Thirty years after that appearance in Ottawa, she started to frequently meet with the public after events, said Grant. 

Prior to this, royalty would “wave at people in the crowd… but they didn’t normally come out and just talk to ordinary people,” she said. “The walkabouts, that’s one of the major changes, this notion of being accessible to ordinary people.”


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