When Lord Ivar Mountbatten made the recent decision to come out as gay in the British media, he was identified as “the Queen’s cousin,” which is a somewhat economically truthful version of the real situation—he is actually the queen’s third cousin once removed.
To put that in context, under a conservative model where a family has two to three children, one would have 190 third cousins, according to the DNA blog 23andme.com. If you include “removed” cousins—those in a different generation from yourself; i.e., your parents’ or children’s cousins—that number would be likely to at least double or triple.
So why did Mountbatten make the move to come out? Well, he did get to plug his business running the family home—Bridwell Park, a Grade I-listed mansion near the village of Uffculme in Devon—as a wedding and events venue, but that wasn’t so much a reason for the interview as a faint silver lining.
He came out in such a public manner primarily because his distant connection to the royal family and his surname meant, as the Mail on Sunday coyly put it, that “other media were making inquiries into [his] domestic life,” so he decided to put the facts out there himself.
His unwillingness to discuss the issue further was made clear in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast declining a follow-up interview: “All that needs to be said has been said,” it read.
It is a sign of the growing maturity of opinion in the United Kingdom that few newspapers could get terribly worked up about the news that a distant relative of the queen was gay, but the saga did highlight the perils inherent in the business of being a minor royal.
One thinks of Pippa Middleton, who, this week, finally gave what the Mail described as her first “full” interview—if an interview with the future queen’s sister in which she doesn’t talk about her sister can be considered full, that is.
Pippa noted—and her apparent irritation has some justification, most right-minded people would agree—that she receives no protection or assistance from the gigantic royal security operation despite the fact that the public clearly sees her as being as much a member of the royal family as, say, Prince Edward’s daughter Louise.
“I have had a few years of being in the public eye and I have developed something of a thick skin…managing it all on my own has been quite hard,” Pippa said. “I have quite a lot thrown at me, such as being followed by people hiding behind cars and jumping out with cameras. It can be unnerving.”
Of her work—both her professional and charity endeavors—she said, “People seem to think I must have lots of support helping me but I don’t, it’s just me.”
Minor royals and ex-royals—consider here the jobbing Sarah Ferguson—consistently find themselves financially cut off by the royal establishment. But, unable or unwilling to take any kind of normal job, when the loot runs low they are forced to try and drum up a bit of cash by writing a book or newspaper column, making a TV show or, er, stripping (Kate Middleton’s second cousin once removed is a burlesque dancer). For doing so, they are first interviewed by the media and then ritually tarred and feathered by the same papers for having committed the unpardonable sin of attempting to trade off the finest of family names.
Occasionally, a minor royal hits the magic formula and makes it work.
David Linley encapsulates the minor royal’s dilemma well. Although his mother was a princess, in the United Kingdom royal titles and styles are passed only from the father, so he has no royal title. (Indeed, he only holds the title Viscount Linley as a courtesy bestowed on the eldest son and heir apparent of the Earl of Snowdon, a title created for his father when he married Margaret.)
But Linley is generally regarded as among the finest modern cabinet makers working today.
Zara has neatly maximized her royal connections to secure sponsorship from various exclusive brands such as Land Rover, but her excellent skills as a horsewoman—she made the U.K. Olympic team in 2012—provide a marvelous cover.
As Snowdon, Linley, and Tindall have all proved, minor royals can certainly be a positive force in the life of the nation. Maybe we should regard them in the same way T.S. Eliot regarded minor poets in relation to more famous ones.
In his essay “What is Minor Poetry?” Eliot wrote that he was concerned to “dispel any derogatory association connected with the term minor poetry” and to banish the idea that minor poets were somehow “less worthwhile” to read than major ones.
While the contemplation of the lives of some minor royals may have us wondering what is the point of their public existence, others have proved able to inspire as much, or more, confidence than many of their more highly privileged (third) cousins.