As the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Harry and Meghan) welcome their firstborn son on May 6, “royally obsessed” superfans in the United States are striving to keep many time-honored royal traditions alive, despite the 4, 417 miles and the North Atlantic Ocean that separates us. Such traditions are ways for communities or folk groups to mark the significance of specific events by repeatedly reliving them. Without tradition, very little would be marked as important and subsequently repeated or passed down.
The British royal family is an ancient institution that dates back to 802 CE, and thus is continually passing down its traditions. Although they are now merely figureheads, members of the royal family still possess much influence over British society and are generally beloved by their people. While presiding over some 3,000 organizations, the royal family acts as a model for family life. Tara Emrani, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health, believes that we are drawn to the royal family because they are at once “relatable and enviable.” For instance, after Prince Harry’s engagement was announced, the then Meghan Markle revealed that he had proposed in a very normal way—in fact, while she and Harry were roasting chicken.
My great-grandparents (on my mother’s side), Mabel and Renwick, were both English. In the mid-twentieth century, they moved to the United States and settled in Cumberland, Maryland. Members of our extended family from the United Kingdom would visit Mabel and Renwick—and later their descendants—as a rite of passage for their twenty-first birthdays. Coming from an exotic land, they made quite the impression on us Yanks.
However, my own interest in the British royal family began before meeting any of my distant cousins. I remember listening to books on tape about Arthurian legend while in elementary school, taking a class in middle school on knights and ladies, and later poring over The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Kings and Queens of Britain. I believe all of this led to my current passion and interest in the modern royal family. I woke up at 4 a.m. to watch Catherine Middleton marry Prince William in 2011. I avidly read Majesty (a monthly magazine that details the lives of the British royal family), and I also follow relevant pages on social media and other news outlets.
I am not alone. Fans of the British monarchy come in all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. Some, known as superfans, go all out to maintain their passion and collect so much royal memorabilia that their houses become cluttered shrines to “the firm.” Others, such as Donna Werner, a superfan from Connecticut, has traveled to the United Kingdom five times in the last forty-five years to take part in various royal celebrations. She camped outside Windsor Castle in her princess tent for three days prior to Prince Harry’s wedding in May 2018, and bestowed royalty-inspired middle names on her children: Elizabeth for her daughter and Spencer (Diana, Princess of Wales’s family name) for her son.
One of my Smithsonian Folklife colleagues, Claudia Telliho, became an Anglophile in her early twenties, and was particularly taken with Diana, Princess of Wales. In 2011, Claudia hosted a full English breakfast to celebrate the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton.
“I served eggs, bacon, tomatoes, beans on toast, and tea, and we had a small group of six at my house,” she recalls. “We all wore hats, because that’s what you do on these occasions.”
In preparation for the party, Claudia decorated the house with books on Diana and various decorations that she has collected on her travels. Indeed, Claudia takes a far different approach to her display of royal memorabilia than most fans. Instead of cramming her house with objects for everyone to see, she stores her memorabilia in one or two locations in her house and then takes care to display only those objects appropriate to the occasion on her fireplace.
Which brings us back to the question: what accounts for this type of American fascination with the British royal family and its traditions? Arianna Chernock, a history professor at Boston University, believes it “stems from our shared paths and this sense that Americans were part of this narrative, part of this story.” In other words, she thinks it is our similarities that attract us to the British royal family.
However, I am inclined to think that our differences play a more formative role. Entertainment value, historical connection, solidarity, and romanticized notions of royalty all help explain the American fascination. Firstly, many Americans experience the British royal family as a kind of highly entertaining soap opera. Much like a teenager who desires what they cannot have, our fascination with the royal family is simply due to the fact that we see them as exotic and different and are attracted to their unusual lifestyle.
Americans are particularly invested in the well-being of Princes William and Harry after watching their mournful procession behind their mother’s coffin at her funeral in 1997, which could help explain our country’s recent fascination. Finally, the highly influential Walt Disney Company has consistently romanticized royalty in its cinematic productions and its theme parks—meaning that Americans who grew up watching Snow White or marveling at Cinderella’s Castle are understandably instilled with a heightened sense of fascination and idealization of monarchy.
Accordingly, with the birth of the first son of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex today, many American fans will wish they could converge on Buckingham Palace to witness the centuries-old tradition of setting up an easel with an official notice of the child’s birth, or line the streets surrounding Windsor in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the new family on its way home. After all, it’s tradition.
M. Isobel Taylorch is assistant to the deputy director and to the chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and formerly an intern with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She prides herself on having followed all three of the Duchess of Cambridge’s births, most recently witnessing (from her phone while on a Metrobus) Prince Louis’s presentation to the world.