The story is a familiar one. Prince Harry finds a girlfriend. He tries unsuccessfully to hide said girlfriend from public view, and so begins a cat and mouse game that ends with his frustration boiling over and the woman in question running for the hills.

Such has been the swell of interest in his latest romance, with 35-year-old American TV actress and divorcee Meghan Markle, whom he has been seeing since June, that in November Harry, 32, issued a furious statement about her alleged harassment.

But while the Prince could be forgiven for feeling unfairly scrutinised, he is in good company. In fact, the young royal and his American girlfriend are the latest in a long line of aristocratic transatlantic liaisons to have caught the imagination of the British public.

The obvious attachment that springs to mind is the one whose shadow loomed large over the Royal family for generations; King Edward VIII's incendiary romance with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.


But their relationship came towards the end of the biggest American invasion of the British aristocracy that the country had ever seen. By that point, women - many from wealthy US families - had been crossing the pond in search of eligible gentlemen to marry for more than 50 years.

Deemed nouveau riche by New York society and shunned from the homes of influential society matrons, they saw a British title as the best means of acquiring respectability. The trickle of heiresses quickly became a flood, giving rise to a phenomenon that changed the shape of the upper classes and cemented the true "special relationship".

The grandes dames of the upper classes may have grumbled about the manners of American invaders and sneered at their lack of social pedigree, but privately they feared for their daughters, who were destined for spinsterhood if they could not make a suitable marriage by the age of 30.

Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, was one of the first of these American buccaneers. She bemoaned the attitudes of an English society that deemed her exotic and unrefined, while ignoring her many talents.

But she also understood that while the daughters of the aristocracy remained in the nursery, poorly educated and closeted from the outside world until they were flung into society on their debut, the daughters of ambitious American industrialists were well travelled, educated to the highest standards and accomplished.

Of course, these "dollar princesses" didn't just have the vitality to charm future husbands - they had money to save the family seat, and lots of it.

Prince Harry, competing with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in a relay for charity Heads Together, is taking pains to keep his relationship with Meghan Markle from public eye. Photo / AP
Prince Harry, competing with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in a relay for charity Heads Together, is taking pains to keep his relationship with Meghan Markle from public eye. Photo / AP

The upper classes were under intense financial pressure amid a shift in power from a rural economy to the burgeoning cities, whose rapid growth was being driven by the industrial revolution.

Still, in the boom times the biggest advocate of the transatlantic marriage was another so-called party prince, Queen Victoria's eldest son Bertie, later King Edward VII.

He championed Americans as much for their ability to have a good time as their dollars, embracing the first clutch of buccaneers in the 1870s, including Jennie Churchill and her compatriot Consuelo Yznaga, later the Duchess of Manchester.

Despite this royal seal of approval, heiresses still encountered snobbery and prejudice in their new home and needed a steely resolve to rise above it. Harper's Bazaar wrote in 1905 that any newcomer "had to be trebly armed in indifference to the inspired scandal and abuse that will instantly centre on her" and should expect "a good many seasons of relentless opposition".

Over a century later, Prince Harry and his American consort will undoubtedly face more scrutiny yet. They might be wise to take note.