The Actress and the Prince

In Depth
The Actress and the Prince
Nell Gwyn, Meghan Markle, and Lillie Langtry Image:Getty

Archie Mountbatten Windsor, great-grandson to the Queen of the United Kingdom, nearly dove off his mother’s lap while she was reading, in pursuit of a different board book—then threw that preferred choice to the floor. Meghan briefly locked amused eyes with his father, who was laughing behind the camera. The video was both public commemoration of Archie’s first birthday and fundraising appeal for coronavirus relief on behalf of British charity Save the Children UK. But while most saw a cute video of a mother and squirmy baby, chick-lit writer Emily Giffin saw something different.

“Unmaternal” and “phony,” Giffin wrote in an exchange she shared on Instagram for nearly 90,0000 followers. This perception of Meghan as fake has long lurked in the ugliest coverage—an idea that’s intimately connected to the fact that prior to marrying a Windsor, she was an actress. Piers Morgan called her a social climber and once snidely remarked on Twitter, “Once an actress…”; the Daily Mail suggested that she had an entire scheme to work her way into the universe of posh Brits: “Meghan’s mission to be Made In Chelsea: Thought hooking Harry was a happy coincidence? Her PR advisers and C-list friends reveal it all began with plans to bag a Brit… and to star in a posh TV reality show.”

The actress is low class, socially predatory, and fundamentally false

The narrative is clear and existed hundreds of years before Meghan: The actress is low class, socially predatory, and fundamentally false. Meghan’s offense, according to this logic, is two-fold: She’s an actress who actually bagged the prince. Princes aren’t supposed to marry actresses—just dally with them. And rather than simply thank her lucky stars, she has the nerve to want anything else at all.

The association between princes and actresses goes back to the arrival of women on the British stage in the 1660s. Previously, all roles were played by men, but when Charles II arrived on the throne—the “Restoration” of the monarchy, after decades of Puritan rule—he permitted the return of sanctioned theater and decreed that all women’s parts had to be played by women. While it was legal for these women to appear on stage, it certainly wasn’t uncontroversial; the act of a woman putting herself onstage, in public display, for money, meant she was morally suspect, both false and sexually available in a way that was intimately intertwined. Acting and sex work were the rare means of moneymaking and advancement for women; often, actresses came from the working class, putting them in the category of women who weren’t entitled to any sort of protection or “respectable” treatment.

You can see how this played out in the case of 17th-century actress Nell Gwyn, who got her start selling oranges in the theater before taking the stage as a comedic actress and ultimately becoming the most famous of Charles II’s many mistresses and popular with the public. (She once famously defused a near-riot by informing the angry crowd that she wasn’t the king’s other, Catholic mistress—she was, she informed them, “the Protestant whore,” a witticism that was a big hit with her audience.) But while Charles’s aristocratic women got titles, only his children with Nell did, and she was never accepted at court.

Edward VII, too, loved an actress; he was briefly associated with Sarah Bernhardt, though it’s not clear if they ever actually had an affair. Perhaps even more famous was his relationship with actress and socialite Lillie Langtry, whose press-driven rise to fame would be familiar to the Kardashians. Langtry was as much famous for the ubiquity of her face as her skill on the stage. But Bertie came to some grief through his association with, when the 19th century equivalent of today’s tabloids, a society paper called Town Talk, reported that Langtry’s husband was divorcing her and naming the Prince of Wales as corespondent. These claims were then dragged into a libel suit. As Jane Ridley recounts in her biography of Edward, “Day after day throughout October 1879, The Times had printed column inches repeating the paper’s allegations against the Prince of Wales. (Though it was but one of several scandals for the hard-partying Prince of Wales.)

There is a deep, abiding connection between royals and theater

But there was more to the connection between royal men and actresses than simple desire to take beautiful, charismatic women as mistresses. For all that critics point to Meghan’s supposed fakeness, there is a deep, abiding connection between royals and theater—not just because of their long tradition of patronage, but because royalty is theater. What is royalty but a series of well-rehearsed performances? Queen Elizabeth II has spent her life putting on a colorful costume, setting her face in a smile, and waving and shaking hands in a series of highly staged, highly scripted engagements. What is the red-and tassel-bedecked balcony at Buckingham Palace, if not a proscenium?


The Stuarts were known for their court masques, elaborate and lavish theatrical events combining music, dance, and acting that demonstrated the majesty of the monarchy. Women participated in these masques, including Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I; this was controversial, but considered fundamentally different from public performance for just anybody. Among members of the dynasty, Charles II was no slouch in using theatrical techniques to buttress his power. Having been restored to his throne after 20 years of a Puritan rule, he knew it was important that he project the might of his crown through art and image; after his father lost his head, it was a matter of life-or-death to act convincingly like a king.

Theatricality, too, has shaped the modern presentation of monarchy via Edward VII. He didn’t simply chase actresses; he was enthralled by the costume of military uniforms and punctilious about formality and protocol, correcting anyone who made the mistake of underdressing in his presence. He’s a big part of the reason why we picture the modern royals riding around in magnificent carriages. When his mother Victoria died, after decades of reluctance to do things like open Parliament, Edward really threw his back into spectacular ceremonies full of gilt and jewels and luxurious robes, “reviving” tradition in a way that was really reinventing the monarchy for the modern age when it had less formal power. “Bertie embraced state ceremonial with the expertise of a man whose experience of foreign courts, especially those of Germany and Russia, was unequalled,” argues his biographer Ridley. “Not for nothing had he whiled away so many evenings on theatergoing.”

Even now, the royals perform, but frequently they perform normalcy and relatability. The decision by Kensington Palace to post charmingly casual pictures of George, Charlotte, and Louis shot by Kate is a deliberate one that is not made lightly. Their public presentation walks a careful line between majesty and earthliness. A picture of Prince Louis smearing paint all over his face contrasted Pinterest-perfect rainbow hands captioned “Instagram Vs Reality” is a way to balance out the ermine robes. The chatty evocation of domestic chaos is drawn from real life, but it’s no less performance, and follows in the footsteps of Queen Victoria’s canny use of domesticity to bolster her power. And yet, Meghan is the one who comes in for criticism as “phony.”

Kate, for all that she’s just as much a commoner as Meghan, has been able to slide into the edifice of monarchy much easier. She’s white, for one thing, and from a wealthy background, while Meghan has been subject to racist headlines about how she’s “(almost) straight outta Compton” and extensive coverage of her messy family, the clear implication being their unsuitability. But, perhaps equally important, Kate isn’t seen as a professional. She had marks against her in the beginning, when she was known as “Waity Katy” and there were remarks about how her mother had once been a stewardess.

But Kate has outlasted her critics by acting naturally, playing the role of a woman who isn’t playing a role—the woman who asks nothing, the woman who doesn’t try to advance herself. It’s extremely telling who between the two of them is seen to act, and who isn’t. Meghan, after all, as she plans her next steps in Los Angeles, is fairly transparent about the fact that she’s in the celebrity business.

This post originally had Henrietta Maria as wife of Charles II rather than Charles I; it’s been corrected.

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