When Meghan Markle marries Harry, the prince of Wales, on May 19, she will become the first American to be called Her Royal Highness (HRH). America’s Wallis Simpson was denied the title of HRH after King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry this two-time divorcee.
Yet, had another prince of Wales’s crush on a White House princess ended differently, the first fairy-tale Royal-American wedding could have taken place two centuries ago and crushed a familiar name beloved today.
When James Buchanan became president in 1857, New York’s Irish-American Weekly called Buchanan’s 27-year-old unmarried niece Harriet Lane a “Republican princess who presides over the social arrangements of the official residence of the president.”
Harriet proved to be such a capable White House hostess that Uncle Nunc entrusted her to arrange his presidency’s crowning event: a visit by the prince of Wales, Albert Edward, the first British royal to visit America and the White House. Called Prince Bertie by his family, this future British king was touring the United States at Buchanan’s request.
Maybe it was love at first sight when Bertie met Harriet. A reporter noticed something special when Buchanan greeted Prince Bertie at the White House threshold on Oct. 3, 1860.
“It was just such a hearty welcome as a rich old bachelor uncle would give to the nephew he intended to make his heir,” a reporter wrote, which was later printed in Royalty in the New World, a book stemming from thousands of newspaper articles covering the prince’s sensational tour. “It was not long before he [President Buchanan] introduced his niece Miss Lane to his illustrious guest, and the blush of beauty stole across her features.”
The prince soon wrote his mother that “the president and his niece Miss Lane received us very kindly on arriving. . . I thought Miss Lane a particularly nice person and very pretty.”
The prince’s crush took root the next day at the packed public reception in the East Room, where Harriet stood out among hundreds. Like today’s fascination with Markle’s fashion choices, so the Boston Evening Post also noted that Harriet’s “dress was of white muslin, looped with pink roses and small branches of wheat. Her only jewels were diamonds and pearls.”
Later in the day, Harriet accompanied Prince Bertie for a U.S. Capitol tour. Afterwards she took him to a local gymnasium “to play a game of tenpins (bowling)—of which amusement the prince is very fond,” Harriet said. They had the alley all to themselves. “Miss Lane but with little effort out rolled the prince,” the New York Herald reported.
Trying to impress her, Prince Bertie then showed his strength by swinging like a gymnast from the brass rings hanging from the ceiling. This may have led to romantic fireworks between them during the real fireworks after the grand White House dinner that night.
The crush further blossomed the next day when Prince Bertie saw the dignified way Harriet carried herself when he planted a tree at George Washington’s grave at Mount Vernon, Virginia. For the first time on U.S. soil, a British royal honored Washington, who’d secured America’s independence from King George the III, Bertie’s great-grandfather.
The attraction hit a high note after the ceremony, when Prince Bertie danced with Harriet under tunes from the Marine Band while they traveled in the steamboat Harriet Lane from Washington’s Potomac River back to the White House. President Buchanan had prohibited Harriet from hosting a dance at the White House, but allowed it on the steamboat.
Maybe Harriet’s charm and “queenly air,” as the Irish-American Weekly called it, reminded Prince Bertie of his mother, Queen Victoria, who’d approved of Harriet when she accompanied Buchanan on his sojourn to London as America’s ambassador to Great Britain.
“The great visit is over in the most charming time we had of it,” Harriet wrote a female friend soon after Prince Bertie departed for New York. “He is a charming little fellow, full of fun and joke and wonderful in the admirable manner of conducting himself upon all occasions and seemed as happy as possible here.”
Then Harriet revealed a secret. On his last night while they dined at British Ambassador Lord Lyon’s residence, Prince Bertie revealed his crush on her.
“The prince was greatly disappointed that I was not to open the ball in New York or at least that I was not to be there—he urged it both to Uncle and to me,” she wrote of his desire to see her again. “When he found out that I could not, then he and Lord Lyons insisted upon my meeting them in Philadelphia and attend the opera. The last thing they both said was an earnest request that they would see me in Philadelphia.”
What could she do? If she went on such public dates outside of Washington, people would gossip about the brewing romance, which could lead to a scandal and embarrass the president.
“And it is a thing of all others I should enjoy if it had been quite right to do it,” Harriet wrote of her interest while concluding not to go in the name of propriety. “It was such a delightful party that it would be pleasant to me again—but dignity is a sad obstacle in the way of pleasure,” she emphasized.
What would have happened if she had said yes? Would Harriet have later said yes to a dress and walked down the royal wedding aisle like Markle? Such is the mystery of history, the what ifs.
Even so, Harriet’s success in hosting the prince led to a common usage of a now-familiar term. “Here we leave him (the Prince) in the hands of our president and his charming and amiable niece, the lady of the White House and by courtesy the first lady in the land,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported.
Lane became the first White House hostess to be called first lady while serving in the position, a title first used at Dolley Madison’s funeral in 1849. The name first lady came of age because of Harriet’s diplomatic skills and arrangements for the prince of Wales.
Still, the royal crush did not go completely unnoticed. A prominent Pennsylvania journalist reflected on the prince’s visit, saying that Harriet’s “unusual charm of person and manner, with her genuine American vivacity, completely captivated the young prince of royalty.”
Prince Bertie accepted Harriet’s turn-down with grace. After the visit he sent a portrait of himself to President Buchanan as a thank you. “I venture to ask you, at the same time, to remember me kindly to Miss Lane.” In marrying a Danish princess, Prince Bertie became King Edward VII and the great, great, great grandfather of the current Prince Harry.
For her part, Harriet married Henry Johnston, a banker, years later and left her fortune to start the children’s division of Johns Hopkins Hospital. For decades, pediatricians have relied on the Harriet Lane Handbook, and now its downloadable app, to treat patients.
Had Harriet embraced the prince of Wales’s crush and become Her Royal Highness in the 1860s, would that new title have crushed the fledgling name of first lady? Likely, yes. HRH would have superseded the name of first lady associated with Harriet Lane. We owe the vogue name of first lady today to Harriet’s dignity and her sense of propriety following the prince of Wales’s visit. She chose her uncle the president over the affections of a famous suitor, leaving Markle to be the first American to be called HRH.