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What is “the institution”? What is “the firm”? A royals expert explains.

Here are the answers to your most burning questions about Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview.

Tabloid covers of Meghan Markle and the Queen lie scattered.
What does the royal drama mean for the future of the family?
Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images
Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s revealing interview with Oprah Winfrey has shocked the world, but for those of us who don’t have an intimate knowledge of the royal family, there might be as many questions as answers.

While it seems clear that Meghan and Harry faced racism from the British press and suffered from a lack of support from within Windsor Castle, it can be hard to sort out rules and rankings, especially as an American. What is “the royal institution?” Has Harry lost his title, and was Archie denied a royal title due to all the drama? And in their exodus, how will Meghan and Harry make money? It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Victoria Arbiter, a royals commentator based in New York, spoke with Vox to clear up all the confusion and to discuss the repercussions of the bombshell interview.

There’s a lot of confusion around terms like “the institution” and “the firm” and “the royal family.” Can you clear up the difference between those three titles? What is “the institution”?

It’s a very complex and complicated answer. “The institution” refers to the institution of monarchy — the business of monarchy — so its public role. Within the institution of monarchy, there are palace aides. There will be private secretaries that oversee the diary and the day-to-day handlings of senior members of the royal family. There is a communications team that handles the press. Within the royal household, there are people that oversee the day-to-day running of the monarchy, whether it’s those that are working in the kitchens or those responsible for winding up the Queen’s clocks — that is a job. The institution of monarchy is the big picture.

And what is “the firm”?

Now as for the firm, this is quite interesting. George VI, the Queen’s father, was the first person to have coined that phrase. What he was referring to was the family business. So historically, “the firm” has referred to senior working members of the royal family.

In the interview, Meghan jumps between saying “the institution” and “the firm.” I don’t think she is saying “the firm” in context to referencing senior members of the family. I think she’s using it in the same vein as she’s using the phrase “the institution.”

And then there’s the family?

This is where the lines become quite blurred because the queen is the head of the institution. She is the monarch and she runs the show. But at the same time, she’s Harry’s grandmother. So it’s difficult in that respect because the buck rests with her.

While Harry and Meghan were very effusive in their praise of the queen, and they reiterated multiple times how wonderful she has been, still, she’s the head of the institution of the monarchy. So in criticizing the institution, they’re essentially laying blame on the queen as well. They’re not doing it directly. And I think they would be saddened if they realized that’s how it comes across because I genuinely believe their great affection for the queen. But it’s like, if you were to criticize Apple, the blame for whatever that criticism is really does rest with the CEO. It’s similar in that respect.

So the firm is more of the upper-level royals, such as the queen, who uphold monarchy?

I don’t think Meghan was using the words “the firm” in reference to the family in this instance. It appeared that she was alternating between saying “institution” and “firm” but meaning the same thing.

The senior working members are within the institution of monarchy. But [the institution] also references all the aides that see to the day-to-day running. There were several times that Harry and Meghan said they went to the institution to complain about XYZ issues. There was one point where they did say “senior palace aide.” So the institution can represent the senior members of the working royal family, but can also represent senior members of staff that oversee the day-to-day running of the royal family and indeed the monarchy.

But historically, “the firm” has referenced senior working members of the royal family.

Meghan and Harry referenced a kind of HR system in place. What is the royal HR system like, and how similar is it to the typical HR departments that Americans in particular might imagine?

The HR department is human resources, just like at any other company. Because while Buckingham Palace is a palace, it is also the seat of the British monarchy and it is a working office. There is a human resources department because they have a responsibility to protect the staff and to make sure that everything is being done in an ethically moral fashion, just like any business.

So if an employee complains, the HR department is responsible for investigating that claim. Meghan said in the interview that she went to HR to say that she needed help, and she wasn’t getting it. Human resources, whichever member of staff it was, said, “We can’t help you because you are not a paid employee.” Which she wasn’t. She was a member of the family. But I think Meghan was sort of looking for help wherever she could find it. That was one area where the door was closed.

But the human resources department would operate just the same as any other business. It is there to protect the welfare and well-being of employees, to make sure there is no harassment and that everything is operating in a safe, acceptable, and professional fashion.

It’s interesting because it functions as a business, but it’s also an actual family. How does money work for the royals, and specifically how do Harry and Meghan make money? Do royals get salaries or any other equivalent?

This is especially complicated. How Meghan and Harry choose to make money moving forward is entirely their business. We know that they have a very lucrative deal with Netflix and Spotify. We know that Meghan has invested in a vegan coffee brand. We know that they are represented by an agency that oversees public speakers, so there’s a number of ways, but how they choose to do that is their business. They are private citizens and just like anybody else, and they now have to earn a living.

What about other members of the royal family? Does taxpayer money go toward them?

When it comes to the royal family, there is the Sovereign Grant, which is a percentage of money that’s given to the monarchy each year, and that oversees the business of the monarchy. It pays for anything related to business expenses that are incurred by the running of the British monarchy in its role as public officials. A lot of them have individual investments. We don’t know about that. That is not our business. That is money that they had through inheritances and through investments, but it is not public knowledge nor public business. But the Sovereign Grant is given to them by the government, and it is essentially taxpayer money.

The royals are not paid. They do not receive a salary. They are given the funds to run their offices and to oversee their business expenses, but they don’t get a paycheck each week. There are certain things, like any clothes, for example, that Kate buys privately, to wear in her private time, she pays for those herself. But there will be a certain amount of money that is assigned to her from Prince Charles to cover her professional wardrobe. She has to wear hats and certain outfits that are expected and are deemed appropriate for the job that she’s doing. There are business-related expenses, as there are in many professions.

So Meghan and Harry were cut off from royal security. I’m wondering how royal security works and if this is tied to that budget. Is that something royals are typically provided with?

Scotland Yard decides which royals are given taxpayer-funded security. That is determined based on the threat risk. Senior working royals are going to have a far greater threat risk than someone else. Charles, Camilla, the queen, William, Kate, and Harry and Meghan before they left, all had taxpayer-funded security.

Their security was removed, but what was not addressed [in the interview] was the fact that British taxpayers fund the police officers that are assigned to look after those royals. They were living in Canada as private individuals. They then moved to the United States. They couldn’t justify to the British taxpayers why they were still having taxpayer-funded security, even though they were living in another country and they were no longer senior working members of the royal family.

Now, Harry was right that the threat assessment risk hadn’t dropped. He was just as much a target as he was before, but the royal family answers to the British public, and the British public needs to know that they’re getting value for their money. If they found out that their taxpayer funds were going to protect two private individuals living 6,000 miles away, there would have been an outcry. So that’s why Harry and Meghan lost their taxpayer-funded security.

As for their son, Archie, and his royal title, why was he denied a royal title? How are titles granted throughout the royal family?

In 1917, George V, who is Harry’s great-great grandfather, issued the letters patent. The letters patent dictated who would have titles moving forward. It was really in an effort to streamline the monarchy so that there weren’t dozens and dozens of HRHs and princes and princesses. According to that letters patent, the children of the sovereign, the grandchildren of the sovereign in the male line, and the eldest son of the Prince of Wales would have the HRH and a title, meaning prince or princess. That was it.

In 2012, the Queen amended the letters patent to include all children of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. The reason she did that is because she had just overseen the changes in the laws to succession. Meaning, that if a daughter was born first, as the first child, she would retain her place in line, as opposed to being set aside in favor of the younger-born brother. So if the Queen did not change the rules, it would mean that if Charlotte was born first, she would be Lady Charlotte. The queen was just tying up loose ends. She was just making sure that she crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s. As it turns out, the boy was born first so it didn’t matter.

Under those rules, at this juncture, Archie would never have been born a prince or an HRH. That goes back to 1917. It has absolutely nothing to do with being born to interracial parents.

Under these same rules, once Prince Charles becomes king, his status automatically jumps up. So Archie will be a prince when Charles becomes king, based on the rules laid out in 1917. Now, as the son of a Duke, Archie does have a courtesy title. He is entitled to be known as the Earl of Dumbarton, one of Harry’s titles. He could be known by that, but Harry and Meghan chose not to do that, and for him to just be Master Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor.

But Harry is still considered a prince?

Harry is, yes, because Harry is the grandchild of the sovereign. But under the 1917 letters patent, he’s the second son of the Prince of Wales. It’s only the eldest son of the Prince of Wales whose children have titles.

Some people are wondering if the queen and Prince Philip are related. Is this just a rumor, or are they biologically related?

They’re husband and wife. They’re both descendants of Queen Victoria, but not in any weird, icky, funky fashion. They’re removed enough.