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What Is the Firm? Origins of the Royal Family’s Nickname
When Josh O’Connor joined the cast of The Crown in 2018, he said he was thrilled to be joining “The Firm.” Meghan Markle used the same insider term to describe the British royal family while speaking to Oprah in a trailer for their upcoming interview on March 7. But whereas O’Connor’s usage of the phrase was tongue-in-cheek, Markle spoke as someone who has encountered “The Firm” head-on.
In a preview for the special, the Duchess of Sussex tells Oprah, “I don’t know how they could expect that after all this time, we would still just be silent if there is an active role that The Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us.”
While it sounds like a shadow organization found in an action movie, “The Firm” is really a nickname for one of the most public, and simultaneously private, families in the world. And there’s a deliberate reason why Meghan used “The Firm” instead of, say, the Windsors or the royal family.
Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese
“Meghan was once party to the secretive operation of the monarchy; but now she is firmly on the outside, and I think her phrase is suggestive of how she and Harry have been cut off and excluded,” Edward Owens, royal historian and author of the 2018 book The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media, and the British Public, tells OprahMag.com, while acknowledging it was the couple’s decision to leave.
When uttered by someone who was once in “The Firm” but no longer, the nickname lacks the wry warmth of when it’s used by an insider. In Owne’s opinion, “Meghan’s words capture the impersonal nature of this PR operation: the monarchy have demonstrated a real ruthlessness in ensuring their survival over the last one hundred years as well as the survival of their wealth and privilege,” he says.
Here’s what you need to know about this multi-layered nickname.
Why is the royal family called “The Firm?”
Legend has it that Prince Philip came up with the phrase when he, like Meghan, married into the House of Windsor. In a description of her 2005 book, The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor, journalist Penny Junor writes, “Prince Philip calls it ‘The Firm,’ and all the royal executives and their powerful associates are supposed to make every effort to avoid even a hint of scandal that could diminish the reputation of the family business.”
The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor by Peggy Junor
However, the origins of the phrase date back even farther. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father who ruled from 1936 to 1952, was thought to have said, “British royals are ‘not a family, we’re a firm,'” per the New York Times. While playing King George VI in the 2010 movie The King’s Speech, Colin Firth repeated that very line.
The decades-old term is self-aware, acknowledging that the family’s business interests are inherently tied up in its reputation—and that reputation is valuable. The royal family, after all, is big business. In 2020, the queen’s net worth was reportedly £350m, or roughly $461 million USD, per the Sunday Times Rich List. Forbes estimates the value of the monarchy is worth billions.
“Like modern businesses, the monarchy has a very specific public relations strategy and its internal workings are kept extremely secret,” Owens says.
As a result, “The Firm” also refers to the individuals outside of the royal family that work to keep the Windsor name pristine. “The inner sanctum of the court is populated by royal officials who are extremely tight lipped and extremely loyal to their royal employers,” Owens says. “They have historically been referred to as the ‘men in gray suits,’ but this is to do them a disservice. They’re in fact highly competent media and PR strategists and they are a key part of ‘The Firm’ as well.
Essentially, think of “The Firm” as Windsors’s PR branch and fixers. All those scenes that take place in the palace press office in The Crown? That’s a sliver of “The Firm” at work.
“The Firm” represents an evolution in the royal family’s PR strategy.
The royal family didn’t always operate as, well, a firm. Owens’s book investigates how the palace’s public relations strategy changed between 1932-1953 (coinciding with King George VI’s rule). “Beginning with King George V’s first Christmas broadcast, Buckingham Palace worked with the Church of England and the media to initiate a new phase in the House of Windsor’s approach to publicity,” an excerpt reads.
The Family Firm by Edward Owens
The book argues that the public’s relationship to the monarchy transformed during this era. “The monarchy’s deliberate elevation of a more informal and vulnerable family-centered image strengthened the emotional connections that members of the public forged with the royals, and that the tightening of these bonds had a unifying effect on national life in the unstable years during and on either side of the Second World War.”
Ultimately, the media strategy restored public confidence in the crown following the abdication of King Edward VIII. And so, “The Firm” was born—which Owens calls “one of the most successful self-perpetuating elite institutions to have lasted to the present day.”
The queen also relies on her “Firm of Eight.”
Here’s where things get complicated. “The Firm,” as we know, is a nickname for the Windsors. The “Firm of Eight” is the inner circle within “The Firm” chosen to represent the royal family publicly.
The Firm of Eight is a newly formed group, introduced in December 2020 via an official photoshoot posted on the palace’s Instagram page. Members include the Queen; Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and his wife Sophie; Kate Middleton and Prince William; Prince Charles and Camilla; and Princess Anne.
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Notably, Prince Philip, who retired from public office in 2017, is not among the Firm of Eight. Neither are Harry and Meghan. And since they are no longer part of “The Firm,” they can finally talk about it.
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As a culture editor at Oprah Daily, Elena covers the latest in books, movies, TV, pop culture, and the ever-expanding world of streaming.
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