The first test of a royal romance

LONDON • What did the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 lay the basis for? Who or what is Vindolanda? Where is the National Horseracing Museum? Name two habits that may start a fight with your neighbour in Britain.

These and other rather esoteric questions are what Meghan Markle, the American actress recently engaged to Prince Harry, Queen Elizabeth II's grandson and the fifth in line to the throne, will have to master to become a British citizen.

Most Britons, even a prime minister, find them almost impossible to answer.

Markle, who was raised in Los Angeles, plans to seek British citizenship after she marries Prince Harry, Kensington Palace confirmed. It is a lengthy process that culminates in a torturous citizenship test that costs about US$65 (S$87) and is typically flunked by one-third to half of the applicants.

The announcement prompted some British news outlets to pounce on her apparent ignorance of "Britishisms" on a television show last year.

"She managed only to get a measly four out of 15 questions about Britain right," The Mirror, a tabloid, said disapprovingly, adding that she did not know the British word for "sidewalk" and committed a cultural faux pas by venturing that Vegemite was more popular than Marmite. (The word is "pavement", and Marmite, a yeasty paste spread for bread, is a national treasure. Vegemite is the Australian equivalent.)

The exam Markle will take is known officially as the Life In The UK Test and it is required for anyone settling in the country or seeking to become a citizen (and, therefore, a subject of the queen).

Before taking the test, applicants must have been living continuously in Britain for at least five years and must pay an application fee of about £1,200 (S$2,175).

Takers of the exam have 45 minutes to answer 24 multiple-choice questions about British traditions, customs and history, all of which are based on information in an official handbook published by the Home Office.

Apart from Markle, there has been a spike of interest in the exam as debates over identity have mushroomed after Britain voted last year to withdraw from the European Union, a process known as Brexit.

In the 18 months since the critical vote, there has been much soul-searching across the island about what it means to be British. The questions on the citizenship test, many Britons say, do not go far toward settling the issue.

In addition, they say, the quiz is unfairly difficult, an assertion that was borne out in a scattershot survey of Britons one recent afternoon that found many struggling to answer sample questions correctly.

"A what?" Mr Peter York, a prominent social commentator, exclaimed. "What is the Vindolanda? Is that a real question?" he asked, perplexed. "That's extraordinary."

Mr York, who blithely describes himself as an English "purebred" ("no Welsh, Scottish or Irish components in me"), found the questions unsettling. "I don't think I'd be a British citizen," he said. "If they can keep me out, they can keep anybody out." (The answer: Vindolanda was a Roman fort just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England. Mr York also got the question about the Statute of Rhuddlan wrong; it led to the annexation of Wales to England.)

Mr York said he preferred that foreigners study Alan Bennett, the prolific playwright; John Cleese, the comedian famed for the Monty Python series; and the punk band the Sex Pistols.

Ms Gemma Page, 26, said British identity "comes more from ideas like tea and fish and chips". Her husband, Liam, said British identity "isn't a matter of how much you know".

Britain "is a mongrel country", he said. "Take tea and fish and chips. Tea comes from India and chips from Ireland. The only thing we can claim is the fish and that's because we're surrounded by water. Being British is the values you hold. We try to be tolerant. We have free speech."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'The first test of a royal romance'. Print Edition | Subscribe