LONDON—Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has long wanted a slim-line British monarchy. His vision is slowly turning to reality in an unexpected way.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are the latest senior royals to leave as full-time working members of the monarchy, following a public showdown with Buckingham Palace over their roles within the family.
Their departure, coming just over a year after the Prince Andrew, Prince Charles’s younger brother, stepped down from front-line royal duties amid a scandal, leaves Britain’s monarchy with about 12 full-time working royals.
Given the expense of supporting the royal family, “really it should be about six,” said David McClure, an author and expert on royal finances.
Prince Charles is heading efforts to prune the family members who enjoy financial support from the palace, but the difficulties in managing the exit of Prince Harry—who is now pursuing a number of commercial ventures in the U.S. with Ms. Markle—illustrate how hard that will be.
Indeed, a large cast of royals who leave full-time duties expose the palace to the risk that such figures will exploit their regal connections for profit, possibly undermining the monarchy’s image—and alienating British taxpayers who foot ballooning security and other costs.
Palace officials say that Prince Charles wants a monarchy built around his immediate direct heirs and their consorts. Working out what to do with other members is unclear.
Progress on streamlining the family has been hampered by the 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth. The monarch has proved reticent to reducing the number of working royals in recent years, royal watchers say. An exception was Prince Andrew, who stood down as a senior royal in 2019 after a scandal over his past friendship with convicted sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, retired from public duties in 2017.
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An extended web of family members continue to represent the Queen at official functions. She personally bankrolls a cast of lesser royals from her private wealth. Expenditure on royal duties and maintaining various palaces has soared in recent years, almost doubling to nearly £70 million—$97.4 million— since 2013, in part due to the costs of renovating Buckingham Palace. The lavish 2018 wedding of the Sussexes cost Thames Valley Police £3.4 million, around two-thirds of which was reimbursed by the U.K. government.
During their interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave a hint of what they wanted as they stepped back from palace life.
“There is senior members of the family, and then there are non-senior members. And we said, specifically, “We’re stepping back from senior roles to be just like several—I mean, I can think of so many right now who are all, they’re royal highnesses, prince or princess, duke or duchess—who earn a living, live on palace grounds, can support the Queen if and when called upon,” said Ms. Markle during the interview.
The House of Windsor was embarrassed by the last attempt to put in place what officials call a “flexi-monarchy” with famous royals allowed to both represent the monarchy and make money.
In the 1990s, the Queen gave her permission for Prince Edward to launch his own TV production company, Ardent Productions Ltd. His wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, meanwhile ran a public relations company. The Countess had to step down in 2001as chair of her PR firm after being recorded making critical remarks about members of the royal family. Ardent Productions later shut down. Prince Edward is now a full-time working royal funded in large part by his mother.
Such experiences have haunted the monarchy over the years, making courtiers nervous about such arrangements, said Judith Rowbotham, a constitutional expert. “You can forgive a member of your family but it is still a sack-able offense within an institution,” she said.
But as the Duchess of Sussex pointed out to Ms. Winfrey, some of the British royal family’s younger members have had some success in carving out a niche for themselves. The two daughters of Prince Andrew have both forged independent careers, though their royal background does present them a distinct advantage in English society.
Princess Beatrice, 32 years old, the oldest daughter of Prince Andrew and his former wife, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, works at U.S. data and software company Afiniti, where she is known as Beatrice York and is vice president for developing strategic partnerships. She married a property developer in a private ceremony last year.
Her sister, Princess Eugenie, 30, is a director at the Hauser & Wirth art gallery in London and goes by Eugenie York in her professional life. She previously worked at online auction company Paddle8 in New York.
Princess Eugenie married in 2018 in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle. Leaders of the leftist Labour Party and antimonarchy groups questioned the scale of the event, which required a large security operation. Though the wedding itself was paid for by the bride’s family, local police sought £850,000 from the government to help cover the cost of securing the wedding, and was subsequently granted £612,000.
Both sisters are known as “Her Royal Highness” because their titles are inherited from their father and have worked with various charities and sometimes represent the royal family.
The situation differs for other grandchildren of the Queen. For instance, Zara Tindall isn’t considered a princess. Her status comes from the female line of succession, in her case, through her mother, Princess Anne, the second child and only daughter of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. An equestrian, she competed at the 2012 Olympics in London and is married to former English national rugby team player Mike Tindall, with whom she has two children.
Like her cousins, Ms. Tindall, who is 39, promotes various charitable causes, once attending a celebrity poker tournament to benefit a cancer charity.
The Duke of Gloucester, tends to keep a lower profile and, as the queen’s cousin, is the most senior royal who isn’t a direct descendant of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI.
Born Prince Richard, he is currently known as His Royal Highness, the Duke of Gloucester. The duke, now 76, studied architecture and worked at a firm in London for several years before his elder brother died in a plane crash, leaving him to assume royal duties on behalf of the queen and attend to his father’s estates.
Like other members of the royal families, the duke lends his support to various charitable foundations and architectural associations. In 2013, he represented Queen Elizabeth at the inauguration of Pope Francis.
Other extended members of the family continue to represent the Queen while not receiving taxpayer funds. Prince Michael of Kent runs a consultancy while being 49th in line to the throne and holds several honorary military titles.
Prince Harry and Meghan won’t get that privilege. Last month they were stripped of all patronages and honorary military titles. Officials concluded that the couple were too high profile to be both in and out of the monarchy.
But in the end being trimmed is no bad thing, said Mr. McClure, as being a working royal “turns people crazy.”
Prince Harry himself said his life is now far improved. “My father and my brother, they are trapped. They don’t get to leave. And I have huge compassion for that,” he told Ms. Winfrey.
—James Hookway contributed to this article.
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