In episode seven of The Crown season four, Princess Margaret starts screaming at her mother on a beach in Scotland. She’s sick of it all: the family’s secrets, her dropping place in the line of succession, and transitively, her growing irrelevance as a public royal figure. “If you’re not first in line, if you’re an individual character with individual needs,” she says, “you’ll be spat out or hidden away.”
It’s an imagined conversation between two characters in a show that’s historical fiction. But when Helena Bonham Carter utters the lines, it’s hard not to think that perhaps Crown creator Peter Morgan wrote it with a real-life figure in mind: Prince Harry.
Nine months earlier, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left the monarchy in an abrupt move that took the world, and even their own family, by surprise. Their official reasoning was, as they wrote on Instagram, for “space to focus on the next chapter.” The press reported more personal motivations: a desire for more privacy, exhaustion from the negative tabloid reports. But also another factor that was intrinsic and unfixable: their apparent sidelining. They felt senior family members’ initiatives—William and Kate’s, Charles and Camilla’s— were prioritized over theirs. They may have wielded megawatt star power, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the inevitable: William and Charles one day would be kings ordained with divine power. Harry, as sixth in line to the throne, would not.
The royal family is, yes, a family. But it’s also a business—one that Forbes estimates makes £1.8 billion for the UK economy per year. Their money-making model is one of crowns, castles, pomp and circumstance, and most of all, the concept of the monarchy itself: that, among us mere mortals, there are those with a birthright to serve as custodians of a country’s history and morals. The Crown’s plotlines show that personal-professional dichotomy season after season: Princess Margaret can’t marry Peter Townsend not because the Queen doesn’t like him, but because she’s the head of the Church of England, which doesn’t approve of divorcés. Queen Elizabeth can’t share her opinions about the Commonwealth with Margaret Thatcher because as an unelected head of state, she’s not allowed to politically pressure Prime Ministers. And despite skills, experience, or even vested interest, there’s only one monarch born into the job.
In that same Scotland-beach episode, Morgan shows an apoplectic Margaret, once second-in-line to the throne, learning that due to the 1937 Regency Act, the family no longer needs her to perform any official duties on the Queen’s behalf. Instead, newly 21-year-old Prince Edward will handle it. In episode eight, Morgan hammers that point home by having the same fate befall the also once-second-in-line Prince Andrew: After Andrew complains that his royal wedding isn’t getting enough press in the papers, Charles retorts to his younger brother: “You can hardly blame the newspapers for wanting to write about something other than the wedding of a fringe member of the family who’ll never be king.” Andrew’s face is overcome with both shock and resignation. Episodes earlier, his mother told him that, upon his marriage, he’d become Duke of York. Andrew blurted out his subconscious, secret desire—“Didn’t the previous two Dukes of York also both become King?” But, with the arrival of Prince William and Harry, Josh O’Connor’s Charles is right: It’s too improbable to even be called a pipe dream. Andrew is now fourth in line after the birth of William and Harry. And as Charles points out, “By the time William’s had children, and his children have had children…”
The second-in-line to the throne is, perhaps, the most agonizing position in the royal family. As a child of the ruling couple, you have a youth where you’re treated with utmost importance. When you come of age, you’re still a high-ranking royal executing vital state duties. (Princess Margaret, for example, visited President Lyndon B. Johnson at The White House on behalf of the United Kingdom.) But once your firstborn sibling’s children grow older, they bump you down in the line of succession, and your relevance goes along with it. There’s only so many important jobs in the business to go around. As historian Robert Lacey, a consultant for The Crown and author of Battle of Brothers, summed up: “They start off in the public eye as playmates, as co-stars with the heir. And what’s their destiny? To be pushed down the line of succession as babies come along, marriages come along.”
This phenomenon, it’s important to note, has occurred in monarchies for thousands of years, as anyone who’s studied the slightest bit of European history is likely aware. However, there’s a difference between reading it in a textbook, and watching it acted out on your screen. And it’s hard not to make the jump to, “Wait, do our real-life royals feel the same way?”
Harry, by all accounts, was aware of his position from a young age. Lacey recalled on Good Morning America that, at age 4, Prince Harry told a nanny that he didn’t have to behave because “I’m not going to be king.” But that didn’t mean he completely grasped the inherited, unmovable nature of it all: there’s a story that, as a small child, a panicked Prince William once said he didn’t want to be king. “If you don’t want the job I’ll have it,” Harry reportedly volunteered. In season three, The Crown dramatizes a flashback to a young Princess Elizabeth and Margaret. Elizabeth, daunted with the premise of her future, begins to buckle under the pressure. Margaret begs to take her place—only to be promptly, and strictly, shut down by the palace courtiers. The scene is fictionalized, but the concept is not.
In 2017, Harry, at the height of his popularity, did an interview with Newsweek. They highlighted his charity work, his empathetic demeanor with children, his natural warmth as a public figure. Yet even then, Harry acknowledged the slow march to his monarchial fate: ”I feel there is just a smallish window when people are interested in me before [William’s children] take over, and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
As negative press reports and rumors besieged Harry and Meghan months before their departure, one wonders if Harry, too, had his Margaret and Andrew moment. When he realized that, although his time was not fully up—George, Charlotte, and Louis are still young children—one day, it would be. That, amid all this drama, being in the family business with an impending demotion wasn’t worth it. It’s the classic problem of the spare to the heir: “The British royal system can be very cruel, and it’s particularly cruel to the spare,” Lacey explains. “There was trouble with Margaret. There was trouble with Andrew. Now we have the same thing with Harry.” And perhaps one day, years from now, we’ll be watching an acclaimed actor recreate our modern-day spare’s story and sadness.