Harry's latest antics hardly surprising behavior for a royal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The most surprising aspect of last week's revelations of scandalous behavior by Britain's Prince Harry is that anyone finds it surprising.

Of course it verges on idiocy for a member of the ruling family of the island that withstood Hitler virtually alone 65 years ago - and then helped liberate the camps responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews - to think a swastika armband was appropriate wear for what the English call a fancy dress party.

Then again, it verges on idiocy for the royals to attend a party with the theme of "native and colonial." It's hard to imagine an upside in coming up with a costume for that one.

But verging on idiocy has long been the strong suit of royal families. The difference is that now it makes the newspapers.

"It is unbelievable to me that this can happen at a party where 250 people were and no one said, 'Hey Harry, that might not be a good idea,'" says Stephanie Barczewski, a British historian at Clemson University.

Though the children of Princess Diana - virtually deified after her 1997 death despite her own problematic behavior - have been given something of a pass by the royal scandalmongers, Harry has had a few missteps, cultivating something of a bad-boy-let's-party image, probably because he has constantly endured comparisons to his older, taller, more dashing, more Diana-like brother, William. But until now, Harry's black eyes were easily dismissed as youthful indiscretions.

"This is one of the worst breaches of taste," Barczewski says of the Nazi costume. "Just appalling. There is no good explanation for it."

The only explanation is the obvious one: Of course these royals misbehave. They are raised in virtual isolation. They have a lot of money. People pay them extreme deference. And they have virtually nothing to do. They are like Hollywood stars - whose misbehavior is never considered a surprise - except they don't even have to bother to make a movie or two every year.

"In a certain context, the British royal family does seem out of touch and not from this world," Barczewski says. "I think, maybe, surrounded by other British upper class at a private party, they thought the same rules that apply to the rest of the world don't apply to them."

And that's with the current generation getting an upbringing that is much closer to normal than that of their ancestors. Before the baby-boomer royals, the parents of royal children were generally paired off for political reasons. They did their royal duty and produced the requisite heir, but then had little to do with their offspring, handing them over to the household staff for upbringing.

Education was by tutors, away from the hoi polloi. The fact that Harry and his elder brother William went to Eton - which is not to be mistaken for an underfunded Baltimore City public school - was seen as a sign that their father, Prince Charles, was trying to give them an upbringing closer to normal.

Charles' 1981 marriage to Diana was seen as a similar move toward normalcy at the time, though no one knew the weirdness that was to come as they acted out their personal limitations in a whirlwind of a celebrity-obsessed media.

But it was certainly different from the marriage of Harry's grandmother - the current Queen Elizabeth - to a prince of Greece and Denmark, two countries that rarely make the same sentence. Harry's grandfather, Prince Philip, was of Danish descent on his father's side. On his mother's side, Prince Philip's blood is - drumroll, please - German.

His mother was a Battenberg, a name that was rife among British royalty until World War I, when Germans were, understandably, not too popular in Britain. The Battenbergs changed their name to Mountbatten and retained their privileges. When Philip joined the crew on the island side of the English channel, he went with the Mountbatten name, too.

German blood runs through the current royal family. Until World War I, the House of Windsor was known as House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Its family tree is entwined with those of most of Europe's monarchs.

This points out another aspect of royalty - they are incredibly inbred. For generations, the need to keep royal blood "pure" meant that they could marry only one another.

So they scoured Europe in search of appropriate mates from such a small gene pool that Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth are both great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria. If England were, say, a small town in Appalachia, that would be all that was needed to explain the odd behavior of various members of the family.

But give Harry a break. After all, he didn't invent divorce to get rid of one wife, behead two more and refuse to consummate the marriage to another because she was not as pretty as her portrait, as Henry VIII did in the 16th century.

Nor did Harry leave the throne as his country was about to fight a war for its very survival because he wanted to marry a saucy Baltimore divorcee, as his great-great uncle Edward VIII did in 1936 when he hooked up with Wallis Simpson.

Nor did he, as George IV did while still the Prince of Wales in 1795, dump a secret wife to marry a crazed German princess, Caroline, in a deal that cleared his debts, and then spend most of his honeymoon drunk and in the arms of his mistress.

George IV came from a line of feuding King Georges, including his feeble-minded father, George III who, among other things, managed to lose those American colonies.

The ones that have managed to do just fine without a royal family, thank you.

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