Being a royal may seem like a cushy job, but it doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want whenever you want to. That’s if you’re a member of the British royal family, anyway. Yes, Charles, William and many others in the Windsor clan are governed by strict rules of protocol, meaning their life choices are actually surprisingly limited. They can’t even express political opinions – well, not in public, at least. But every now and again, they bend or outright break the rules. You’d have to, right?
20. Elizabeth I never married
It’s not really anyone’s business if you don’t marry or have kids, right? Well, not if you’re a queen in Tudor England. When Elizabeth I refused to wed, it horrified those around her. She couldn’t possibly make any political decisions on her own, after all – not without a man. And, of course, she had to be married to have children. Heirs were all-important – particularly male ones – as otherwise, the Tudor line would die with the queen.
Yet Elizabeth stuck to her guns. It’s suggested that she opted not to have kids because of the very real danger of dying in childbirth. She may also have turned down marriage because, well, she was the daughter of Henry VIII, and we all know how his relationships turned out. But despite any criticism she may have faced at the time, Elizabeth is now widely regarded as one of England’s greatest ever rulers. Seems like she did the right thing.
19. Queen Victoria broke protocol with her wedding dress
The white wedding dress is much more recent a concept than people realize. And as it happens, we owe its continued popularity to none other than Queen Victoria. As the monarch, she was supposed to marry Prince Albert in the bright red robes that befitted her station. Instead, the queen insisted on wearing a white gown – and, of course, she eventually got her way.
Yet while some people in Victoria’s circle were disparaging of that choice, the queen’s defiance ultimately changed the course of fashion history. After word got out about the ruler’s dress, you see, Victorian brides decided to follow suit. And even more than a century on from the queen’s death, the tradition remains the same.
18. Diana bucked the trend for royal births
These days, people are used to seeing a royal couple pose outside their favored hospital while holding their new bundle of joy. Lest we forget, though, this is actually a relatively new trend. It was Princess Diana who initially broke protocol by insisting on giving birth to William at a proper medical facility. Yes, it really wasn’t all that long ago! Prior to that moment, an heir to the throne typically took their first breaths in a ritzy royal residence.
And Diana’s not the only one to have rebelled against royal customs when it comes to babies. Meghan Markle apparently put her foot down, too, as she and Prince Harry decided not to do the bit where mother, father and newborn pose outside the hospital. Fair, considering a very public photoshoot is probably the last thing on anyone’s mind just after they’ve given birth. The world got to see the couple’s son, Archie, a few days later instead.
17. The Queen broke protocol for William
Royal weddings are packed with rules for brides and grooms to follow. And William learned this the hard way when planning his 2011 marriage to Kate Middleton. He got quite the rude awakening, in fact, when he cast his eyes over the initial guestlist. There were more than 750 people on there, and every single one was a stranger. Yikes! Luckily Granny – or, as we know her, the Queen – stepped in to help.
And when being interviewed for the 2012 documentary Elizabeth: Queen, Wife, Mother, William revealed that his grandma had given him some very good advice. Apparently, she had told him, “Get rid of [the list]. Start from your friends, and then we’ll add those we need to in due course. It’s your day.” It may be breaking protocol, but who’s going to contradict the Queen?
16. Meghan made her personal feelings known
Royals aren’t really supposed to express much in the way of opinions. After all, whenever a member of the clan speaks out on an issue, it immediately becomes big news. Keeping schtum is much less of a fuss! And yet Meghan wasn’t about to stay quiet on the issues that affected her. That was clear when the former actress talked about the #MeToo movement in 2018.
On a panel that year, Meghan said, “We’re seeing so many campaigns – #MeToo and Time’s Up. There is no better time than to really continue to shine a light on women feeling empowered and people really helping to support them.” This veered dangerously close to politics – for a royal, anyway. But as far as we know, the Queen didn’t tell her off.
15. Diana chose a normal engagement ring
Almost from the very start, Diana made it clear that she wasn’t going to fall completely in line with royal expectations. For one, after she became engaged to Charles, she selected her own ring from a catalog – meaning it was a piece any commoner could also buy if they had the money. And, reportedly, some royals were pretty disgruntled about this choice.
But while the actual marriage didn’t work out in the end, the ring is still very much in the family. Following Diana’s death, the splendid sparkler was passed to Harry, who in turn handed it to William so that he could properly propose to Kate Middleton. And it’s still on the Duchess of Cambridge’s finger to this day. Aww.
14. The Queen secretly partied in London
Back in 1945, the then-Princess Elizabeth was among the many, many people celebrating the end of World War II. But she didn’t just raise a glass behind palace doors – oh, no. Instead, the woman who would one day be queen decided to go one step further and party in the street with regular folk. So, along with her sister, Princess Margaret, Elizabeth went out in her service uniform and had a damn good time… completely incognito.
And while more than a dozen members of security were instructed to follow the princesses, that didn’t stop the pair from letting their hair down. Allegedly, the future monarch even joined a conga line that snaked its way into the posh Ritz Hotel. The whole fabulous story was turned into a movie, appropriately titled A Royal Night Out, in 2015.
13. Prince Charles tried to buy booze underage
So now we know where Harry inherited his scandal-prone nature… At the tender age of 14, Charles was caught trying to buy a cherry brandy while on a field trip in Scotland. The shocking story was all over the tabloids, too, as obviously purchasing alcohol while underage is illegal. But the Palace let Charles get away with it. Not only that, but it also covered for him!
Yes, the whole affair was denied by royal spokespeople until it became blatant that Charles had messed up. Then the Palace backtracked… only for Charles’ security detail to be given his pink slip. And the heir to the throne was reportedly angry that his own indiscretion had led to someone else being punished.
12. George IV married his mistress
Royal history is full of men who end up favoring their mistresses over their wives – or even preferring them to, you know, actually ruling. But George IV went one further than most. In 1785 the prince – as he was at the time – ended up tying the knot with his commoner mistress, a woman named Maria Fitzherbert who’d already been divorced a couple of times. And the fall-out from this was pretty scandalous.
As the prince had a whole lotta debt to his name, Parliament dangled a large sum of money in front of him. The catch? He would need to disavow Maria. And since George’s marriage wasn’t legal anyway – he hadn’t exactly gotten the permission he needed for it – he duly dropped his new bride. George and Maria still maintained a relationship for years afterward, though. Well, until he ditched her yet again. What a scoundrel!
11. Some royals actually take selfies
You won’t see many royal selfies online, that’s for sure. For a start, it would be almost impossible for a prince or princess to oblige all photo requests during one of their walkabouts. They’d be there for days! Then there’s the question of optics. Snapping a selfie may mean you have to turn your back to a member of the royal family, which doesn’t look good.
And yet, on rare occasions, the royals will actually take selfies with fans – if the commoners are properly positioned, of course! Well, Harry was seemingly happy to do so when on a royal engagement in Estonia in 2014. No prizes for guessing he’d be one to break the rule…
10. The Queen didn’t have to do this
Not so long ago, there was a rather problematic and awkward royal rule. Whenever a new member of the family was born, the British Home Secretary was supposed to be in the room. Yes, really. This practice apparently dates all the way back to the late 17th century, when Queen Mary of Modena was claimed to have tried to sneak a living baby into St. James’s Palace after having suffered a stillbirth.
As a result of this scurrilous rumor, a royal woman then had to give birth while a stuffy old politician watched. Yuck. And, believe it or not, this rule lasted until the 20th century. George VI got rid of it just before Princess Elizabeth welcomed Charles, and everyone involved was probably incredibly grateful.
9. Kate and William chose outsider godparents
Before Prince George came along, royals were expected to pick godparents from inside the royal circle. William’s six godfathers and mothers, for example, include the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra, the erstwhile King Constantine II of Greece and a lady-in-waiting. All of them had titles of varying ranks. But when it came to picking folk to potentially guide his own first-born, William went a different way.
Yes, even though George will likely be king, just one of his seven godparents possesses an aristocratic title. And – shock horror – only William’s cousin Zara Tindall is a family member. This flouting of an old rule surprised people, but clearly the royal family had decided it was okay to reject.
8. Queen Victoria’s surprising burial place
Turns out it’s even possible to break royal protocol when you’re dead. Traditionally, deceased British rulers were laid to rest at either Windsor Castle or Westminster Abbey – until Queen Victoria came along, anyway. She demanded that she be buried next to her beloved husband, Prince Albert, at Frogmore House.
To be fair, there was some precedent for this, as George I had been interred in Germany in 1727. Victoria went further, however, and actually planned out her own mausoleum. And she even arranged to be buried with some personal items. One of these was a plaster replica of one of Albert’s hands – the same article she had allegedly snuggled up to for years as she fell asleep at night. Weird, but then again who would have said no to the queen?
7. Count yourself very lucky if you get a royal autograph
Can you imagine the Queen signing autographs like a rock star? Probably not, eh? The royals aren’t supposed to go around putting their John Hancocks on things, as some unscrupulous person could use them to commit fraud. But rules are made to be broken, it seems, if you’re the heir to the throne. After all, Charles gave his autograph to a young flood victim back in 2010.
And, yes, the actual Queen herself has been known to sign items. In 1998 – and following a request from the British High Commissioner in Malaysia – both the monarch and Prince Philip scrawled their names on two Manchester United soccer balls in Kuala Lumpur. After that, the very valuable items were put on display. Let’s hope they won’t ever get into the wrong hands…
6. Henry VIII’s rule-break changed history
You probably know Henry VIII best as the guy who worked his way through six wives. Rather gruesomely, he even beheaded a couple of them. But the king also massively broke a royal rule. You see, when the Pope wouldn’t allow Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, the English ruler found a loophole. Simply put, he founded his own church – as you do.
Henry was then excommunicated by the Pope, obviously. But the king’s sly scheme ultimately worked in his favor. Not only did it allow him to marry Anne, but it also made him rich. After dissolving the monasteries up and down the land, Henry took their grounds and money for himself. And his church still exists today, with the current Queen at its head. One of British history’s biggest power moves, that one.
5. A public health mix-up
As England went back into lockdown at the end of 2020, the royal family came under fire from the media. Why? Well, at the time, the Cambridges – William, Kate, George, Charlotte and Louis – were photographed at Sandringham out for a stroll with Prince Edward, his wife and his two children. And that seemingly broke a rule everyone in the country was meant to obey. During that period, you see, no more than six people were permitted to socialize together.
But there was some wiggle room. Apparently, the two families hadn’t actually meant to meet up but had just inadvertently run into each other. And whether you believe that or not, there were no wrists slapped in the end – perhaps because scolding the royal family would be a bit awkward for the British government.
4. Prince William defied the rules to give a hug
Generally speaking, royals aren’t supposed to hug their fans – and that’s not just because Brits aren’t that touchy-feely. It’s been suggested that this rule originates from the days when kings and queens were thought to be selected by God. Back then, the normal folk would never dream of getting so close! And, of course, there are health and security concerns to consider these days, too.
But Prince William hugged a distraught woman when visiting survivors of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London. That’s one of those situations where you would just have to ignore protocol. And, famously, Michelle Obama embraced the Queen during a visit in 2009. It was quite a faux pas, but the First Lady emerged pretty much unscathed. She wasn’t sent to the Tower of London, in any case…
3. Meghan voted in a U.S. election
There isn’t actually any official rule that prohibits the British royal family from voting in a U.K. election, but we’ve yet to hear of any members of the clan doing so. That’s just as well, as it would create a political minefield no-one wants to cross. But Meghan Markle bucked the trend after she married Harry. And she could get away with it, too, as she has U.S. citizenship.
In 2020, then, it was confirmed that Meghan had indeed voted in the U.S. presidential election – marking a historic moment for the British royal family. And while it’s not known what the Queen thought of this, it’s worth noting that Meghan and her husband, Harry, had already renounced many of their royal duties by then. In fact, little could have been done to stop the Duchess of Sussex if anyone had wanted to.
2. Diana’s famous handshake
The Queen reportedly disliked Diana’s desire to work with AIDS patients. That’s according to the princess’ former bodyguard Ken Wharfe, anyway. And yet Diana pressed on regardless to break an unspoken but fairly understood rule – one that served as an example of the stigma surrounding people with HIV and AIDS at the time.
In 1987 Diana publicly shook the hand of a man who had been diagnosed with AIDS – and without gloves on. So pervasive was the idea that HIV could be transmitted by touch that this apparently stunned even the nurses at the hospital. It was a groundbreaking and arguably rather gutsy decision on the part of the princess, who is still hailed today for her action.
1. The abdication
In modern-day British history, there’s no royal rule-break bigger than Edward VIII’s abdication. The Church of England forbade the king to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson, you see, but he was determined to get his way. That meant he had to leave the throne behind – and this pivotal decision caused chaos in its wake.
What happened next? Well, Edward’s brother Albert became monarch as George VI, despite not really wanting or being prepared for the job. Then the former king – now with the title of the Duke of Windsor – set up home in France with his new wife. And apparently, all worked out fairly well for Edward. Although in Wallis’ eyes, her husband had been punished by the royal family, he still maintained a very comfortable lifestyle right up until his death in 1972.