The tabloids had a field day back in 2005 when a 20-year-old Prince Harry showed up at a costume party wearing a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband: “Mein Fury: Charles Rages At Nazi Harry,” blared England’s The Sun. “Royal Nazi: Prince Harry in swastika shock,” the New York Post trumpeted.
The prince with a rebel streak apologized, saying in a statement that he was “very sorry if I caused any offense or embarrassment to anyone. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize.”
Fast-forward 13 years to last Saturday at Prince Harry’s culturally groundbreaking wedding to American biracial actress Meghan Markle. Much was made of a London gospel choir singing a soulful version of the Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller classic “Stand By Me”; the rousing sermon, in the cadences of the black church, by the African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, in which he cited Martin Luther King and the slave trade; and the civil rights anthem “This Little Light of Mine,” which the choir sang as the couple left St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
But in a ceremony in which almost every touch seemed to carry a heavy symbolic weight, much less was made of Prince Harry’s new title — the Duke of Sussex. The original (and only other) Duke of Sussex, it turns out, was an anti-slavery crusader who championed the rights of Jews. Prince Augustus Frederick, the ninth child of King George III, lived from 1773-1843, just a few years into England’s Victorian era.
According to the Royal Collection Trust, the Duke of Sussex, a bit of a rebel himself, “became estranged from his father and the court because of his liberal political views. He supported the abolition of the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, [and] the removal of civil restrictions on Jews and dissenters.”
In 1833, during a Parliamentary debate about whether Jews should obtain full civil and political rights (Roman Catholics had just been granted some of those rights), the Duke of Sussex, “a constant friend to the Jews,” according to Isidore Singer and Cyrus Adler’s 1912 “The Jewish Encyclopedia,” took up the fight. He presented a petition in favor of the bill signed by 1,000 distinguished citizens of Westminster.
Seven years later, the young Queen Victoria asked the duke, her favorite uncle, to give her away at her wedding; it was during her reign that (male) Jews finally obtained full civil rights.
Prince Harry’s use of the title Duke of Sussex is likely to give the original duke’s interfaith work a boost.
“I doubt if many people are aware of the Duke of Sussex’s efforts over anti-Semitism,” British author and royal commentator Angela Levin, author of the just-published “Harry: Conversations with the Prince,” told The Jewish Week by email. “But they now may because Harry has the title.”
Todd Endelman, emeritus professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, who has written extensively about British Jewish history, isn’t reading too much cultural or political significance into the choice of title.
“I would be very surprised” if Prince Harry is aware of his namesake’s liberal leanings or progressive record, or if the Queen was making a political statement by making her grandson the Duke of Sussex, Endelman told The Jewish Week. “I doubt that she knows very much about … relatively liberal proclivities … of the early 18th-century Duke of Sussex. She took a title that had not been used before.”
Along with his progressive leanings, the original Duke of Sussex, historians say, was also an avid collector of bibles, amassing more than 1,000 of them. One was referred to as “Tanakh: The so-called Duke of Sussex Bible,” according to the British Library; the Spanish Hebrew illuminated manuscript, which dates from the mid-14th century and was written in Catalonia, Spain, made use of a technique known as micrography, “using minute Hebrew script to create geometric patterns and animate forms,” according to the British Library.
As for Prince Harry’s swastika armband, CNN International reporter Christiane Amanpour, in a 2014 interview, asked Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of England, about Harry’s being sent to see him for counseling and Holocaust education.
“Prince Harry was absolutely beside himself with remorse and regret, because he just didn’t know,” Rabbi Sacks said. “Now obviously, that says something about his education, and I did go to his school to give the kids a lesson in what actually happened. But the young princes are very special people. The royal family have been magnificent in their relations not only with the Jewish people, but with all the faith communities in a very multifaith nation. And I don’t think anyone does interfaith relations better than the royals. And Harry is terrific.”
Perhaps by taking the name of Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry has signaled that he has plans to continue in his path of teshuva, or repentance, for his past deeds, and activism and celebration for Britain’s growing interfaith and multicultural identity.