Whatever happens at Sandringham today in the crisis meeting aimed at resolving the future role of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, there is no doubt the past 12 months have been some of the most traumatic in recent memory for the royals.
A year ago this week, Buckingham Palace announced 97-year-old Prince Philip had smashed his car into another vehicle carrying a nine-month-old baby, breaking a woman’s wrist.
The following months haven’t been much better.
Whether it’s the controversial ties between Prince Andrew and convicted paedophile Jeffery Epstein followed by the fallout from Andrew’s disastrous BBC interview; or the apparent brotherly rift between the Sussexes and Cambridges that culminated in the royal houses splitting up their joint charity, the royal family finished 2019 embattled and under enormous scrutiny.
A new start...?
The release of a new portrait earlier this month of the Queen with the next three heirs to the throne was meant to mark a small but significant moment.
Standing on the steps of the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace and smiling proudly for the camera, the 93-year-old monarch and Princes Charles, William and George appear confident and happy. One body language expert has even suggested that the Queen’s wide smile and upright posture indicates that she will be going nowhere in terms of retirement.
Taken by Ranald Mackechnie, the portrait was published by the Palace to mark the start of a new decade. But the photograph was a clear attempt to signify something else - that the royal family is standing together and putting a very difficult year behind them.
The Queen herself acknowledged in her Christmas speech that 2019 had been less than a smooth ride for the royal family and in fact, had been ‘rather bumpy’. The biggest ‘bump’ was undoubtedly created by her second son, Prince Andrew whose arrogance and carefree lifestyle finally caught up with him when details of his friendship with convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein were exposed. After the disastrous Newsnight interview, in which Andrew denied having sex with a 17-year-old girl who claims she was trafficked by Epstein, the monarch was forced to step in and withdraw the Prince from Royal duties before he did the Monarchy permanent damage.
But there were other ‘bumps’ too. Prince Philip faced a police investigation over a car crash which injured two women, Prince Harry admitted to tensions with his older brother William and through no fault of her own, the Queen’s role came in for uncomfortable political scrutiny with her sanctioning of the prorogation of parliament at the request of PM Boris Johnson, only for it to be later over-turned.
As bad as 1992?
It is inevitable that some observers are likening the turmoil to 1997, and the aftermath of Diana, Princess of Wales’ tragic death, when many felt the Queen’s response was distant, unsympathetic and out of tune with that of the grieving nation.
Comparisons have also been drawn with the disastrous events that befell the Royal Family in 1992, which was arguably the most damaging to the Monarchy in recent times. That year saw the marital breakdowns of the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York, plus Princess Anne’s divorce and the devastating fire at Windsor Castle.
Joe Little, editor of Majesty magazine, says that at the time it was like ‘the whole Royal world seemed to be disintegrating’. The Queen herself reflected the wider sense of uncertainty and trepidation about the future in her Christmas message of that year, famously describing 1992 as her ‘annus horribilis’.
But royal commentators are quick to dismiss such comparisons. They say the royals have survived much darker days and the strength and continuity of the monarchy will endure.
‘I really don’t think you can compare 2019 to a year like 1992,’ says royal expert Dicky Arbiter. ‘In that year you had the breakdown of two marriages, the divorce of a third, the fire at Windsor castle, the explosive Andrew Morton book about Diana as well as Fergie having her toes sucked.
‘But when it comes to 2019, I’m not terribly sure what people even mean when they say this is a crisis for the Royal Family. One individual (Prince Andrew) has not chosen his friends wisely and is wanting to be questioned by the FBI in the Epstein saga, but one individual does not put the monarchy in crisis. Prince Philip had a car crash, but people have car crashes all the time and Harry and Meghan have been criticised for preaching about climate change while flying on a private jet.
‘But the royal family has weathered storms since the beginning of time. It weathered the abdication crisis in 1936. It weathered the fact it had a German name (Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) during the First World War and George V had to change it to Windsor. There have been ups and downs every year and I think we’re simply more in tune to the problems of this year because it’s current.’
‘The royal family has a remarkable capacity for survival and the odd incident does not mean the family or the monarchy is in crisis.’
A royal split
Whether Harry and Meghan’s dramatic decision to change their roles within the family will have a significant impact on the stability of the royals is difficult to judge at the moment.
In one respect, the couple’s attempts to withdraw from royal seniority suggests they may seek a ‘quieter life’. But this will in large part be determined by how they plan to become, as stated in their remarkable announcement, financially independent. If this means they take on roles with a significant public profile, then it could backfire. Quite how they plan to become independent has yet to be fully fleshed out as well.
But the couple’s choice of seemingly excluding key royals including the Queen - who was reportedly disappointed by the way Harry and Meghan made the announcement - and Charles from how they made their decision public betrays faultlines and cracks that suggest 2020 is going to be no easier than 2019.