What are the differences between the Royal Family, ‘the firm’ and ‘the institution’?

"So, there's the family, and then there's the people that are running the institution... those are two separate things,” Meghan Markle told Oprah Winfrey in an interview watched by 11.1m people on ITV on Monday night.

Meghan went on to claim "the firm" has been "perpetuating falsehoods" about the Sussexes.

So what are the differences between the Royal Family and - as Meghan describes it - the people running the institution. Who runs the institution? And what is "the firm"?

The Sussexes were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in March this year, where the couple took aim at media coverage of them. Credit: Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions

The institution

“The institution” means the institution of the monarchy and the Royal Family and the business they conduct.The monarchy works in a similar way to a public body or government department, with similar structures and processes.

The Queen is the head of the institution but, as with many organisations, there is a wide array of departments and staff-members too: palace aides and advisers that manage the daily affairs of the royal family, private secretaries that organise the diaries of senior royals, communications teams that manage media-related business, maintenance staff, kitchen staff and of course, there is the now infamous HR department.

When Meghan referred to “the institution” it seems like she was referring to those staff-members who determine the press, PR, and day-to-day agendas of the royals.

The Duchess of Sussex expressed frustration at staff, claiming they:

  • Failed to contact media to deny negative stories about her which she claims were false

  • Controlled her movements by taking her keys, passport and driving license and refusing her permission to go to lunch with friends

  • Refused her help for her mental health problems. Meghan alleges HR said they were unable to help as she was not a paid member of staff

In response to the claims made by the Sussexes in their interview, a statement from Buckingham Palace on behalf of the Queen said: "The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years  have been for Harry and Meghan...

"Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members."

The royal family ahead of Harry and Meghan’s departure as senior royals last year Credit: Phil Harris/Daily Mirror/PA

The firm

In the 2010 film The King’s Speech, George VI - played by Colin Firth - says: “We’re not a family, we’re a firm”.

The Queen’s father is thought to be the first person to use “the firm” to describe the royal family and the business of monarchy.

“The firm” generally refers to senior royals as well as the staff that work for them. 

However, in the Oprah interview, Meghan refers to both “the institution” and “the firm”.

Royal commentator Victoria Arbiter thinks Meghan was using these terms interchangeably.

Arbiter believes that when Meghan mentioned “the firm” and “the institution”, she was referring to the staff that run palace affairs, rather than royal family members.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle married in 2018 at St. George's Chapel Credit: Chris Jackson/PA

Additionally, the Queen is said to have appointed a “Firm of Eight” - eight senior royals who she selected to represent the Windsors going forward. 

The Firm of Eight includes: the Queen, Prince William, Kate Middleton, Prince Charles and Camilla, Prince Edward and Sophie, and Princess Anne.

Who runs the monarchy? The non-royals who run the royal family

Senior royals rely on their own teams of private secretaries who manage their day-to-day affairs. This includes everything from PRs and PAs to pot-washers and IT technicians. 

Each senior royal has their own team based around their household (eg. Clarence House for Charles and Camilla or Kensington Palace for the Cambridge). There is famous rivalry between the staff of the different senior royals, with fallouts resulting from teams being fiercely loyal to their royal.

Some of the key players during the Sussexes' time as senior royals include:

Jason Knauf, former communications secretary to the Sussexes and the Cambridges. Mr Knauf reportedly advised Meghan to write the letter to her father that has become the centre of a privacy trial after it was published by the Mail on Sunday. 

Jason Knauf Credit: PA

Mr Knauf is also believed to have reported Meghan’s alleged bullying of staff.

It is reported Mr Knauf complained about Meghan’s alleged treatment of three female staff-members, two of whom he claims Meghan drove out of the royal household.

Mr Knauf now works solely for the Cambridges.

Samantha Carruthers is the former head of HR for the Cambridges and Prince Charles and Camilla.

Ms Carruthers was the first person Mr Knauf took the bullying complaints to.

She is said to have agreed with Mr Knauf that the situation was “very serious”. She left the job after less than a year and now works for a bereavement charity.

Away from the Sussexes, other senior staff running royal households behind the scenes include:

Sir Edward Young, the Queen’s private secretary and the most senior member of the Queen’s staff. He is the most senior point of contact between the Queen and the outside world.

His predecessor was reported to have a salary of £146,000 a year.

The Queen also has nine ladies-in-waiting who assist the monarch in her daily affairs.

Sir Michael Stevens, the Keeper of the Privy Purse, responsible for the financial management of the Queen’s household.

Sir Michael manages the Sovereign Grant - the money the Queen receives from the government each year. The Sovereign Grant for 2020/21 was £85.9 million. The Keeper reportedly earns £180,000 a year.

Senior royals 

In January last year, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they would be stepping back as senior royals. But what is a senior royal?

The term has never been officially defined, but it generally refers to the Queen and those high up in the line of succession as well as their spouses. Senior royals are full-time working members of the royal family.

The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Camilla, and Prince William and Kate are all considered the senior royals. 

The Queen, Prince Charles, Camilla, Prince William and Kate are considered senior royals Credit: PA

Who calls the shots and who is to blame?

Meghan was clear to stress that she and the Queen have always got on well and she has no issues with the Queen. 

However the Duchess of Sussex also claimed a member of the royal family said they had “concerns” over her son Archie’s skin colour.

Interviewer Oprah Winfrey later confirmed it was not the Queen or Duke of Edinburgh who had made the comment.

Meghan also took issue that Archie would not be made a prince. She says this means her son isn’t entitled to security. 

However, Archie is not a prince due to one of the many historic conventions and rules that govern the way the royal family is run and the decisions that are implemented by their staff. 

Rules set out more than 100 years ago by George V state that only the grandchildren of the monarch are entitled to prince and princess status - Archie is a great-grandchild. This is perhaps one reason why Meghan isn’t focusing anger at the Queen.

A young Archie with his parents Credit: Toby Melville/PA

The royal family has about 2,000 engagements in a normal year, entertaining around 70,000 guests.

The royals also head their own trusts and charities.

While the royals have some freedom to pursue their own interests and causes - Prince Harry notably set up the Invictus Games for injured soldiers - it is the staff who manage the diaries and help allocate these public duties and engagements to working members of the royal family.