One apparent certainty about the House of Mountbatten-Windsor is that, just when one thinks it is damaged beyond repair, it simply keeps calm and carries on. Remember the late summer of 1997, when the hysteria after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, put even the Queen in the doghouse—in the estimation of the public, whipped up by an irresponsible British tabloid press that for a few days itself surrendered any vestige of reason. Yet, before too long, all was normal again. Then, in 2005, the British tabloid press confidently predicted that that same public would be so outraged by the decision of the Prince of Wales to marry Mrs. Camilla Parker-Bowles, his mistress of many years and the perceived wrecker of his marriage, that the Prince’s position would become untenable. Nothing of the kind occurred. Indeed Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has, by her very visible attitude of being a thoroughly good sort, inserted herself comfortably into the affections of many Britons, often to their surprise.
Next to the political charlatans, the Mountbatten-Windsors have seemed dutiful, honest, and recognizably normal.
Three other factors have helped stabilize the royal house since Diana’s death. The first, and by far the most important, is the steady and soothing presence of Queen Elizabeth II at the head of what her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, calls “the firm.” The second is the massive unpopularity (verging upon loathing) in recent years of the British political class. Next to the political charlatans, the Mountbatten-Windsors have seemed dutiful, honest, and recognizably normal. The third is an extensive period of good behavior, or absence of scandal, that has left the tabloids—who rely on royal dirt to give much-needed boosts to their flagging circulations—with little to stir the public up.
Now, however, an alarming conjunction of events threatens to bring a serious cloud over the Mountbatten-Windsors. Having allowed them a short honeymoon period, the media has turned its unforgiving scrutiny on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—Prince Harry and his American actress wife, Meghan Markle. Over the last few months, as a welcome distraction from Britain’s Brexit difficulties, story after story—some plausibly true, some palpably false—has appeared about the Sussexes and their (or more particularly her) supposed misconduct of royal life. With little apparent understanding of the rudiments of public relations, the couple (recently augmented by their son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor) has given occasional aid to the campaign to tease, abuse, and denigrate them.
For example: an entirely unnecessary announcement that they would have no more than two children as part of their desire to save the planet was interpreted as sanctimonious, attention-seeking grandstanding. Within days, tales of the Sussexes’ carbon-guzzling jaunts by private jet—apparently four in eleven days—reached the press. They were mocked not just for hypocrisy, but for swanking. Her Majesty the Queen has for the most part done away with the Royal Train, for instance, and now often travels first class with her staff and detectives on a scheduled rail service. The jet incident followed allegations that the Sussexes—who receive public funds from the Sovereign Grant—have been willing to take the perks of royalty while refusing to fulfill all royalty’s duties. The Duchess went to the Wimbledon tennis championships and caused affronts by having her security man ask others in the crowd not to take photographs of her: something unprecedented for British royalty when appearing in a public place. When their baby was born, they strictly controlled any photographs of him and refused to disclose the names of his godparents. The deal with members of the British public is this: they pay for a royal family on the grounds that it is public property, for the people to enjoy and share in. There is a growing feeling that the Sussexes are not honoring that particular deal.
Then there were stories of a note issued to neighbors of the Sussexes—who have moved into Frogmore Cottage in Windsor Home Park—telling them not to approach the couple if they saw them in the park and setting out other absurd rules of behavior. The incident was blamed on an “overly protective” official, but there has been speculation about what pressure had been put on the official to issue a document of any sort. The press has tried the usual gambit of seeking to divide the family, pointing out how lacking in hauteur the Duchess of Cambridge—the Sussexes’ sister-in-law and the future Queen—is by comparison. The Duchess of Cambridge, the press reported, took one of her children on a scheduled British Airways flight rather than demand a private aircraft. Depending on what one believes, the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex are either thick as thieves, texting each other constantly, or can hardly stand the sight of each other. Similarly, their husbands—best friends until Meghan Markle came along—are said to have fallen out, with the Duke of Cambridge, as a future head of “the firm,” supposedly concerned by the behavior of his younger brother and his American wife and the effect it might have on the monarchy. And it is said that the Duke of Sussex is so thin-skinned that any perceived slight to his wife sends him off the deep end. Given the zeal with which the Sussexes protect their privacy, how one is expected to work out whether any of this is true is baffling.
Prince Harry, as he was before his grandmother conferred his dukedom upon him, was perhaps the most popular member of the royal family. Perceptions of him have changed since he married, because the nature of his rapport with the public has changed.
Prince Harry, as he was before his grandmother conferred his dukedom upon him, was perhaps the most popular member of the royal family. He had fought in Afghanistan, at his own insistence, and continues to do exceptional work for disabled ex-servicemen. He was not, however, considered senior officer material, and so he left the Army in 2015 in the rank of captain (he has, since his retirement, been promoted to major). Perceptions of him have changed since he married, because the nature of his rapport with the public has changed. Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, made some off-color remarks in Australia in August about how the Duke’s popularity had sunk because of the politically correct causes, notably climate change, that his wife has caused him to embrace. An attempt by the media to provoke outrage at the remarks failed. This was not least because the public felt Mr. Farage was right, a perception that ought to have set alarms ringing at the Court of St James’s.
According to courtiers, the royal family has gone to lengths to try to make the American princess feel comfortable. The Queen, especially, has made strenuous efforts to take her into the family’s bosom, as have the Duchess’s in-laws. It was revealed, however, long after the Sussexes’ wedding, that there had been a tiff between the Queen and her grandson over what grade of tiara his bride could wear at the ceremony; Her Majesty, understanding precedence and protocol better than anyone in the land, held firm.
There has been a high turnover of staff in the Sussexes’ establishment: according to the tabloids, three nannies in a month. A veteran courtier observed that, having seen the Duchess at close quarters for the last eighteen months, he would be surprised if problems did not begin to multiply. She is said to loathe the English weather and hanker for California, where it is believed she will lobby to spend time. The court shudders at such a prospect. It would take young Archie (technically the Earl of Dumbarton, but another of his parents’ foibles is that they choose not to use his courtesy title) out of the influence of the royal family and the court for periods during his upbringing, time spent at which is regarded as necessary training. It would also create an interesting financial situation. The Duke could hardly remain a beneficiary of the Sovereign Grant if he were often domiciled abroad and not performing the duties for which such funding is a compensation. His father, with the wealth of the Duchy of Cornwall at his disposal, could make him an allowance, or the Duchess could resume a well-remunerated acting career, which, to say the least, would be an unusual step for a granddaughter-in-law of the Queen of England. These suppositions are fantastical and so the pessimism of courtiers about the Duchess’s future intentions may be exaggerated, or just downright wrong, and simply reflect their cultural inability to adapt to such an outsider joining “the firm.”
The misdemeanors, real or imagined, of the Sussexes usually would be neither here nor there; for several reasons, however, these are increasingly not usual times. The foreign media have lubriciously reported allegations that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, was over-friendly with the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, whose husband’s Norfolk seat, Houghton Hall, is near the Cambridges’ home on the Queen’s Sandringham estate. The British media, facing strict libel laws, have largely stuck to innuendo, saying the Duchess (who enjoys considerable public regard in Britain) has barred Lady Cholmondeley from any social events she arranges and does not wish to meet her elsewhere.
More toxic, and less disputed, is the association of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York—second son of the Queen and uncle to the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex—with the late Jeffrey Epstein. The Duke of York is a mildly tragic figure. Now in his sixtieth year, the high point of his life was his courageous service in the Royal Navy as a helicopter pilot in the Falklands War of 1982. He served until 2001, when he retired in the rank of commander, having been promoted several times. His marriage, to Sarah Ferguson, was over in 1996 after ten years, having entertained Britain’s tabloid readers for too much of that time. He does not enjoy great popularity, and it is widely believed he would have been better off staying in the Navy. He has struggled to find a role since he left the service, regularly being criticized in the media for freeloading (attracting the sobriquet “Air Miles Andy”) and for having unsuitable friends, the latter perhaps encouraged by the fact that he has never remarried. Friends did not come much more unsuitable than Epstein; a photograph shows the Duke peering from inside Epstein’s New York mansion around a half-opened door. Another shows him with Virginia Giuffre—who says Andrew raped her—and Epstein’s former associate and lover, Ghislaine Maxwell. Further, a woman named Johanna Sjoberg alleges that the Duke groped her at Epstein’s house in 2001, an allegation the Duke strongly denies. Even if everything else is untrue, the Duke’s association with Epstein is especially unhelpful to “the firm.”
All these difficulties come at a time when, unavoidably, a change of management is coming closer. The royal family functions as smoothly as it does because of the presence, guidance, and example of the Queen. Though remarkably fit and active, she is in her ninety-fourth year.
All these difficulties come at a time when, unavoidably, a change of management is coming closer. Though remarkably fit and active, the Queen is in her ninety-fourth year. (But her mother did die at 101, vigorous almost to the end.) The Duke of Edinburgh is ninety-eight, only having given up driving earlier this year after a minor road accident in which he was temporarily dazzled by the low winter sun. He has retired from public life and lives quietly, mainly in Norfolk; he, too, is in astounding health for one of his age. Courtiers fear the effect his death would have on the Queen, but these are inevitabilities that must be addressed before long.
The royal family functions as smoothly as it does because of the presence, guidance, and example of the Queen. Such is the regard in which she is held, and such is her expertise as a head of state, that when she leaves the scene it will, whatever the other circumstances, destabilize an institution that survives only by consent. The monarchy is no more degenerate than in the past—indeed it is far better behaved than in the era of the Prince Regent, or when Edward VII was Prince of Wales, or when some of George V’s sons were playing the field. What has changed is the arrival of universal and entirely undeferential media. For that reason, should the end of the Queen’s reign to come during a period of family turbulence, the institution could wobble badly.
That is not to insult the capabilities of the Prince of Wales, whose own popularity has improved since his second marriage, despite confident predictions that the opposite would occur. The Queen’s eventual departure will trigger a period of national uncertainty and introspection. It is essential in the time that remains that her family, whether born to the purple or having married into it, understand the fragility of the monarchy, and how they can either destabilize it further or prove it can outlast even the most admired and beloved of sovereigns.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 2, on page 34
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