It’s tough to be king these days; you even have to pay your child support. If you’re Albert II of Monaco. Technically he’s a prince, but since he’s a monarch, we’ll just say king. At any rate, I know almost nothing about this man except that he’s pretty loaded (He owns a good piece of Monaco) and he has trouble keeping his heirs legitimate. (That’s a kingly burn.)
I find this interesting not because of this last piece (all kings have a pretty tough time keeping their pants on) but because of the result of it. Albert II is short for Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre Grimaldi: like most royals, he has a slew of names, likely all with historical significance. The last name (but not his last name, per se), Grimaldi, was the house that ruled Monaco (and Genoa) in the twelfth century.
How does all this connect? Glad you asked. Albert has a pair of legitimate offspring, and he also has a few other children. One of the latter daughters was given “Grimaldi” as a surname. This surname may have had something to do with subsequent child support requests, but it’s also an interesting liminal marker between the royal and the usual. Thus, while giving a child a last name—often this makes some sense as per the usual naming conventions of our time, it’s odd if you consider the child to be royal offspring.
Obviously her illegitimacy is a barrier to ruling in Monaco, but even without that, the fact of having a last name at all is its own barrier, oddly enough. The closest thing to a last name Albert or any royal has is the House or Line he belongs to. In that sense, Albert of the House Grimaldi (or something like that) could be a “last name” of a sort, but really his last name is (Prince of) Monaco. Royals don’t have last names, because they don’t need them. They are already identified automatically so there’s no need to distinguish their first names from anyone else’s. That is, unless they are pushed outside of their monarchical state and become something else: a civilian, citizen, or even a subject—of themselves, or at least of their own Houses, presumably.
This kind of problem shows up in other royal places: for instance, when Princes William and Harry of England joined their nation’s military. Military forms, like all bureaucracy, are made to standardize. Forms don’t take no for an answer. Thus, when two royal princes attempt to enlist, they still have to fill out the “surname” portion of the papers. Both of them adopted the “last name” Wales for the purpose of military service. Again, this mostly makes sense—they are the sons of Charles, Prince of Wales, so their last name might as well be Wales. Still, they might have also gone by “Windsor,” as this is their Royal House. Having “Wales” stitched across the front of their fatigues has an interesting effect: it identities the men with their nation and land. Surreally, Wales defends Wales; Royal England fights for Royal England, so to speak.
Of course, the monarchy is complicated today. Albert II’s parentage was a royal mix: his parentage combines Hollywood royalty (his mother was Grace Kelly) and traditional royalty (Prince Rainier III sired him). William and Harry’s mother Diana was noble and later became Hollywood royalty. Now Royals have to write in their last names, too, just like the rest of us, whether on military applications or for child support forms. “Sir, you’re going to have to fill all the boxes, for me.” “Certainly, but I don’t have a last name.” “You do now.” Kings have to take a number at the DMV.
Monarchs are simply a link to the past. They remind us of a time when there were few enough people around that last names were optional. When a king and his country were inseparable. Now our kings are citizens, not gods on earth. They have to follow a law that is great than themselves. Still, they have their ancestry, their direct connection to the old world, and that’s not a small thing. Royal institutions are living ruins: they are castles slowly disintegrating, long after they’ve gone out of use and become just another tourist site. But let’s not give them last names, and let’s not pass their names out, either. Let them have one last royal distinction. I don’t want to see Mr. George Wales in line at the soup kitchen. At least let him be Poor Prince George.