Royal Family 'Never Complain Never Explain' Motto—Who Said it First?

The royal family's unwritten rule of "never complain, never explain" has attracted significant comment over recent years, especially in relation to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and also to Prince William and Kate Middleton following their recent tour of the Caribbean.

But where does the saying come from? Newsweek has the answer.

Not a Royal Saying At All

The motto has its origins not with a member of the royal family but with a comment made by a British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who served two terms under Queen Victoria.

Disraeli died in 1881 and the earliest attribution of the quote in full was made to him in a 1903 work by John Morley.

Disraeli's comment is thought to have been adapted from notes made by a Master of
Balliol College, Oxford, Benjamin Jowett, whose "Maxims for a Statesman" date from 1873-76.

Jowett's maxims comprise over 11 pieces of advice, including: "never quarrel, never explain, never hate, never fret, never fail" and "never tell".

Disraeli was a favorite prime minister of Queen Victoria, but she strongly disliked his rival and political opposite, William Gladstone. Since then, members of the royal family have admired both men and Disraeli's writings are included in the royal libraries.

Queen Elizabeth II Prince William
Prince William is said to be moving away from the unofficial royal family motto of "never complain never explain" following his recent tour of the Caribbean. The Queen (L) photographed in Scotland, October 2, 2021. William (R) photographed in Staffordshire June 6, 2019. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images/Anthony Devlin - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Queen Mother's Lesson

The royals in the early half of the 20th century lived in what has come to be known as the "age of deference", a period when the majority of the British public respected and deferred to them purely because of their birth. This sentiment declined dramatically after the two world wars, with Queen Elizabeth II the first monarch not to benefit from it.

The present queen's mother, known as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was reportedly a firm believer in the "never complain, never explain" motto which was learned early on in her association with the royal family.

Soon after her engagement, the Queen Mother gave an interview to a newspaper discussing her ring, the wedding, her future husband and his family. When this was published, King George V was enraged. The old monarch had fiercely stuck to the advice laid out by Walter Bagehot in his work 'The English Constitution' published in 1867 which stated:

"Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it...Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic."

The "never complain, never explain" ethos acts as an extension of this, keeping the monarchy above both human functions.

The Queen Mother learned her lesson, particularly after the abdication of Edward VIII when he married Wallis Simpson. Soon her steadfast sticking to the "never complain, never explain" motto earned her the nickname of the "Imperial Ostrich" because whenever anything difficult arose she would refuse to acknowledge or comment on it by metaphorically sticking her head in the sand.

The Queen Mother was a dominant force in the royal family and remained so until her death in 2002.

How the 90s Changed Everything

The royal family's relationship with the press became increasingly strained throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The "never complain, never explain" attitude which had served the royals well throughout the early 20th century was proving damaging, not only to the monarchy as mistruths went uncorrected, but also to individual members of the royal family's mental health, such as Princess Diana.

Diana did not wish to let her voice go unheard and so became one of the first senior members of the royal family to move away from the "never explain" model. This was first done by giving a series of interviews to author Andrew Morton for the book Diana: Her True Story in 1992 and then by giving an interview to BBC's Panorama in 1995.

Prince Charles too moved away from the motto so closely held by his mother and grandmother by giving permission for an authorized biography and television interview in which he admitted to being unfaithful to Princess Diana in 1994.

Future of the Monarchy

Following the 2021 interview of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by Oprah Winfrey, members of the royal family have found themselves faced with the call to "explain" their roles in the complaints lodged by the couple to Winfrey.

The Queen, in a statement released through Buckingham Palace, said that "recollections may vary" but it was Prince William who made the strongest response against allegations of racism made against the family by Harry and Meghan. He said to a news reporter waiting at an engagement the following day, "we are very much not a racist family." This was William's most prominent example of breaking with the family motto.

Following his Caribbean tour and the many PR disasters that occurred during it, including a poorly orchestrated photo opportunity that saw the royals posing with local children held back by a wire fence, William intends to move away from the model of "never complain, never explain," it has been reported.

It would seem that the young modernizing prince shares the opinion of his mother and his brother Harry, that the model of royal behavior that might have been appropriate over a century ago might not be beneficial to the future of the monarchy or to the mental health of his family.

For more royal news and commentary check out Newsweek's The Royal Report podcast:

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