How Do You Fire a Royal?

In Depth
How Do You Fire a Royal?

Prince Andrew has “stepped back” from public duties, in the wake of a disastrous interview in which he failed to convincingly answer questions about his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. What exactly that means is still unclear; the word “unprecedented” is being used. But while there’s no script here—a prince is born, not hired—the British royal family has always been very good at surveying their various options and cobbling together a solution that protects the crown. And the history of the United Kingdom is littered with princely brothers who were inconvenient, dangerous, or just plain losers, who required handling.

Once upon a time, of course, the crown could simply disappear, execute, or outright murder a problematic royal. The most obvious motive was dynastic legitimacy—if a royal needed to kill a potential rival in order to bolster his or her claim to the throne. That’s why rumors have swirled for centuries that Richard III had his nephews, the famous two princes in the Tower of London, murdered—because their deaths were awfully convenient for his place on the family tree and looked to him like a way to tidy the mess of the Wars of the Roses. (It didn’t work, and the Tudors ultimately got control in the end, despite a rather tenuous claim to the throne.) You could die for less if you were a king’s annoying adult brother and he ran out of patience: The princes’ other uncle, George, Duke of Clarence, was executed by their father for his scheming and weaseling around during the Wars of the Roses—supposedly, he was drowned in a jar of wine, at his own request.

If not murder, then a royal could strongly encourage a potential rival to stay out of sight, or else. Under her Catholic sister Mary’s reign, when she could have easily found herself at the head of a Protestant uprising, Elizabeth I survived by keeping her head down. Even then she had to do some time in the Tower herself. Sometimes, a potentially troublesome heir would obligingly up and die: Prince Eddy, grandson of Queen Victoria and heir apparent to the philandering Bertie, was a disappointment to his family on the basis of his “lethargy” even before rumors circulated London that he’d been implicated in the Cleveland Street scandal, around an upscale brothel for gay men. But then he died from a case of the flu that turned into pneumonia, putting Elizabeth II’s grandfather on the throne, instead.

Even as recently as the turn of the 20th century, being an embarrassment to the British crown could be a matter of life and death. There was a window of time where the government of the United Kingdom likely could have rescued the Romanovs, even going so far as to offer to take them off Russian hands in the early days of the revolution. But George V’s private secretary Lord Stamfordham was concerned about how it would play with the restive public in an age of revolution to host his cousin—to whom he bore a very close resemblance—and the rest of his family and talked George V into revoking their offer of asylum. One of the reasons Nicholas II met the firing squad that night in Siberia is that the Windsors ultimately watch their own backs.

It hasn’t always been as dramatic as the Romanovs or the Tower, though. The youngest of George V’s children, a boy named John—Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle—was basically tucked away out of sight at Sandringham until he died at 13, because he suffered from epilepsy. It was in keeping with the practices of the time, and he was kept in comfort, but the Windsors were likely also concerned about how it would reflect on the family image; according to the Telegraph, on trips to London to visit his doctors, the blinds of the car were pulled down lest he have a seizure where anybody could see him.

But the best example of how to deal with Andrew is one that’s already drawing comparisons: Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and the abdication crisis. Almost the moment Edward delivered his speech abdicating, he was hustled out of the United Kingdom to the continent and given a made-up title, the Duke of Windsor. (She was never made an HRH.) The couple were essentially exiled, stashed in the Bahamas during the war and then back to the continent afterward. They were kept there by the fact that Edward couldn’t take his kingly riches with him, which were tied up tightly with the throne itself. The government consequently held the purse strings—and he was not welcome back.

But Andrew falls into an even fuzzier area than Edward, a former king stepping down for a woman quite cozy with prominent Nazis. Even though Edward was never technically coronated—which is the step that really makes a sovereign, not simply the death of his predecessor—he absolutely had to be removed from the picture, to protect the legitimacy of George VI. The path was clear; a king absolutely cannot have another king knocking around, potentially questioning your decisions and attracting all sorts of scheming adventurers. The stakes were even higher in the context of World War II; Edward was potentially destabilizing not just for the monarchy, but the wartime government. Andrew isn’t so high stakes that he requires immediate exile. But he’s also in very deep trouble that cannot be worked into the ever-shifting romance of the royals—bailing on your throne to be with your true love is a lot easier to sell as a fairy tale than “actually, I don’t sweat.”

People in the palace are still saying that Andrew will join the rest of the Windsors on big occasions that traditionally revolve around a mass family appearance. “Royal sources have said Andrew will still appear on the balcony on big occasions, such as Trooping, and go to church at Sandringham on Christmas day with the rest of the family,” said Richard Palmer, who covers the family for the Daily Express, on Twitter. Whether that’s actually true depends on how the next few weeks unfold, but it would be understandable if Charles is having some longing thoughts about the nearest wine barrel.

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