Why the royal family is sometimes called ‘the firm’ and ‘the institution,’ and the difference between them

Royal Family
Members of the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch a fly-past of aircraft by the Royal Air Force, in London on June 8, 2019. Neil Mockford/Getty Images
  • Meghan Markle and Prince Harry discussed “the firm” and “the institution” during an interview with Oprah.
  • The royal institution includes people involved with the royal family and their duties.
  • Inside the institution is the firm, senior working members of the royal family tasked with protecting reputation.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, discussed the royal family, the royal institution, and the royal firm at-length during a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.

While slang like “the institution” and “the firm” may have felt unfamiliar to some of the American audience, the nicknames have been used for decades to describe the British royal family, its various members’ duties, and the staff that supports the family business.

The British royal family are a family unit and a business

A family tree of the royal family.
A family tree of the royal family. Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Today’s royal family starts with Queen Elizabeth II and follows a hierarchy based on the line of succession.

The royal family originated with King George V, a grandson of Queen Victoria, who became the first monarch from Britain’s House of Windsor in 1910. The King and his wife, Mary of Teck, had six children, including George VI, who became the king in 1937.

King George VI’s descendants are slated to inherit the throne for the foreseeable future and include some of the most famous members of the royal family, like the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince Harry.

The British royal family, while a group of people closely related to the Queen, has also been described as Britain’s “longest-running family firm,” or a family business.

The business side is often associated with the royal institution, or the institution of the monarchy.

Hundreds of people including staff make up the royal institution, or ‘the institution’ as Markle and Harry referred to it

As Insider previously reported, Markle told Winfrey that the royal family and the people “that are running the institution” were “two separate things.”

“It’s hard for people to distinguish the two,” Markle said, since “… it’s a family business.”

“It’s important to be able to compartmentalize that, because the Queen, for example, has always been wonderful to me,” she said.

Looking at the big picture, the royal institution refers to the institution of the monarchy.

The institution is filled with hundreds of people working different roles. At the top is the Queen, but the royal institution also includes everyone from the palace aides to the communications team.

“Within the royal household, there are people who oversee the day-to-day running of the monarchy, whether it’s those who are working in the kitchens or those responsible for winding up the Queen’s clocks – that is a job,” Victoria Arbiter, a royals commentator, told Vox.

During the interview, Markle and Harry detailed several dealings with the royal institution. As Insider previously reported, Markle said she went to senior people in the institution and sent emails “begging for help” when she had suicidal thoughts after she joined the royal family.

“I remember this conversation like it was yesterday because they said, ‘My heart goes out to you because I see how bad it is, but there’s nothing we can do to protect you because you’re not a paid employee of the institution,”‘ Markle said of a conversation she had with “human resources.”

Within the royal institution is the firm, which is primarily concerned with keeping up appearances, experts say.

The firm is the arm of the family business that manages the family’s reputation

Prince Harry Meghan Markle Oprah
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry discussed ‘The Firm’ in their interview with Oprah Winfrey. Getty Images

The origins of the firm date back to the 1900s with King George VI. According to The New York Times, the King, who ruled from 1936 to 1952, once said that the British royals are “not a family, we’re a firm.”

Prince Philip helped establish the phrase when he married into the House of Windsor in 1947.

Journalist Penny Junor wrote in her book, “The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor,” that “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 phrase directly refers to those working to keep the royal family’s reputation strong, who are the senior working members both inside and outside the family involved with communications and PR.

Markle and Harry both referenced the firm during their interview with Winfrey.

“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,” Markle said.

She also said the firm told her she couldn’t do certain things like lunch with friends publicly because of how it would appear to the public, and that “… there’s an obsession with how things look.”

Edward Owens, royal historian and author of the 2018 book “The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media, and the British Public,” said Markle’s use of the term was intentional and solidified Markle’s role as an outsider.

“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,” Owens told OprahMag.com.

While Harry noted that the Queen is “head of the firm,” he also said that, sadly, the “people around” her sometimes give her “really bad” advice.

While the Queen is thought to use the term in private, according to Newsweek, it’s highly unlikely that the Queen – and the entire royal family – would use the term publicly. The family characterizes itself as a “service” not a brand or a business.

Inside the firm is an even smaller inner circle, known as the firm of eight.

The inner circle in the firm is called the firm of eight

The firm of eight is a newly formed inner circle that started in December.

The group, which is composed of royals, has been chosen to publicly represent the family. The members include the Queen; Prince Edward and his wife Sophie; Kate Middleton and Prince William; Prince Charles and Camilla; and Princess Anne.

A post shared by Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@kensingtonroyal)

Prince Philip is not part of the inner circle since he retired from royal duties. While Harry and Markle are still part of the royal family, they are not part of the firm of eight.

Buckingham Palace didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.