What Harry and Meghan can learn from Princess Anne’s family and quiet example – Jayne Dowle

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I’VE finally got around to watching the Julian Fellowes film Downton Abbey. It’s an instructive couple of hours for anyone baffled by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex versus the rest of the Royal Family soap opera.

Dame Maggie Smith, playing the elderly Dowager Countess of Grantham, sums it up perfectly when she says that whilst her generation was different from that of her own parents, and her grand-daughter’s generation will be different again, some things remain – namely grand houses and respect for the order of things.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their visit to Cape Town last year.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their visit to Cape Town last year.

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And so it is with the Royal Family. Curious as to the provenance of Princess Mary, the daughter of George V, who appears in the film (played by Kate Phillips) as the wife of Viscount Lascelles of Harewood, I did a bit of research.

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If you’re buying into the theory that the current Royal Family is outdated and anachronistic, you should take a look at 1927 when the film is set. In those days it was virtually unheard of for a royal to marry someone who wasn’t also royal. Princess Mary’s match with Lascelles was considered almost beyond the pale, because the Yorkshire landowner was a mere aristocrat.

Autumn and Peter Phillips at Royal Ascot last year.

Autumn and Peter Phillips at Royal Ascot last year.

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It was however, a pragmatic union; after the First World War and the subsequent overturning of the old order across Europe and Russia, there simply weren’t enough princes to go round.

That said, even 50-odd years later, when the Prince of Wales chose to marry Diana Spencer, the daughter of an Earl, in 1981, eyebrows were still being raised at the fact that he hadn’t hunted down an actual real-life fairytale princess to keep it – literally – in the family.

Nothing like a bit of historical context to remind us just how far the Royal Family has come in terms of adjusting its remit when it comes to marriage.

Princess Anne's daughter Zara is married to Yorkshire-born Mike Tindall, the former rugby union international.

Princess Anne's daughter Zara is married to Yorkshire-born Mike Tindall, the former rugby union international.

It might have been useful for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to think about this before they embarked upon their mission to prove a point.

And what point might this be? That Meghan wasn’t accepted because she wasn’t ‘the right sort’? Sorry, but until I see incontrovertible evidence, I just don’t buy that.

Until their divisive decision to up sticks to Canada, all the evidence was pointing to the kind of general evolution the Dowager talks about.

Why didn’t they open their eyes and look around them? Today’s Royal Family is stuffed full of people from less-than regal backgrounds – their sister-in-law Kate Middleton, the daughter of a Leeds dynasty of lawyers and aeroplane crew for a start.

It might surprise Meghan to learn that she’s not the only beautiful transatlantic one-time actress to marry one of Her Majesty’s grandsons.

Autumn Kelly, who happens to be Canadian of Irish extraction, came with an interesting family background involving parental divorce and half-siblings, appeared in various TV series and films, and has been married to Peter Philips, son of the Princess Royal, since 2008.

And, of course, his sister Zara married a bluff Yorkshireman with a broken nose; Otley-born Mike Tindall, a former England rugby player. If Meghan and Harry were looking for a model of ‘working Royals’ who make their own choices and way in the world, here it is. Peter is a businessman and Zara an equestrian who also earns money through a raft of sponsorship deals.

The children of the Princess Royal have proved that it is perfectly possible to respect their Royal birthright, their grandmother and illustrious heritage, marry whom they choose, work and bring up their own children without fuss and drama.

They had a good role model, admittedly. The Princess Royal herself married not one, but two ‘commoners’ – Captain Mark Phillips, whom she divorced, and then her second husband, former naval officer Tim Laurence.

Very boldly for the time – Peter was born in 1977, Zara four years later – she made it quite clear that her children would not be styled HRH, Prince or Princess, but would grow up as ordinary citizens.

Mike Tindall is on record as calling her a ‘legend’. She is certainly one of the hardest-working royals – she’s involved with 300 charities in the UK and overseas, including serving as patron of Save the Children.

And this week, the Princess Royal, who will be 70 in August, received an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen to recognise a lifetime of charity work – from her sister-in-law, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who is the university’s chancellor.

Camilla, who knows a painful thing or two about cracking the Royal mould herself, joked there would be ‘no talk of rivalry’ as she presented the honour. A sense of humour, tolerance and a healthy dose of ‘live and let live’. If only Harry and Meghan had looked to their family for support and ideas instead of fighting them, the outcome could have been so different.