OPINION - Harry and Meghan learn the hard way that grace and favour means just that
Marie Antoinette had the “Petit Trianon” at Versailles as her go-to escape, Tolstoy had Yasnaya Polyana in the Russian countryside and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had the 10-bedroom Frogmore Cottage on the Windsor Estate. At least they did have it. The couple, who fled the courtly environment for Canada in a door-slamming “Megxit” and have since made their home in LA, will be required to vacate the property gifted to them by the Queen after their marriage in 2018.
The King is cleaning house in more ways than one as his coronation in May beckons. Prince Andrew has, we gather, been offered the residence, because a cut to his royal grant leaves him unable to pay for the upkeep of a larger Crown Estate property. Entanglements with Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell ended Andrew’s days as a core working royal and Frogmore is beginning to look awkwardly like the sheltered housing arrangement for difficult royal relatives.
One thing is certain from the volley of royal HiMAR launches against alienated members of “the Firm” — the King is resetting the unwritten rules of his job and is prepared to take risks to do so. Treating the cottage as an asset that is his to dispose of is correct in terms of its formal status as part of the Crown Estate. But royal residency rules tend to be made up as they go along.
The estranged couple will be offered the chance to use an apartment in Buckingham Palace, which sounds not too shabby but is the residence least enjoyed by the royals (acreages of worn carpet and “zero atmos”, according to one former employee).
In this case, the timing of the move and the relatively short notice make something else clear to the Montecito exiles. Henceforth, they are welcome to attend the coronation as family members, but no one will mind if they don’t, nor how volubly angry they may get about it on US networks or streaming services. Neither will there be an olive branch by means of inviting the Sussexes’ children to have a formal role.
The betting is that they will attend, however fractured the relationship, for fear of A-list FOMO.
Had the King wished to be emollient, he could have left the house-swapping until after May, but he has chosen not to. The coronation will mark the beginning of a new era for the fractious royals as well as for the nation. Remember that this domestic contretemps-by-proxy came in the same week the King rolled out the carpet at Windsor for Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President, creating leverage for Rishi Sunak to get his Northern Ireland Protocol remedy across the line, and adding “Windsor agreement” to its heft. Given that it is opposed by many Unionists (and Boris Johnson as part of a Tory rump of hold-outs) and that the consultation period had not even started when the tea was poured, this was an intervention to make something big and valuable happen as fast as possible.
It was also a departure from the “one step back” from direct involvement in live issues that the late Queen would have favoured. Charles has lost time to make up for. Discussing the design for new coins for the Royal Mint he was, I hear, “determined that the image should reflect his age and experience”.
Downsides do abound, though, to bringing reckoning to the boil where close family are concerned. However annoying the Sussexes are and however unsympathetic a character Prince Andrew might be, they can never wholly be cut adrift because the monarchy is based on the structures of family, however inconvenient or flawed.
The Frogmore move is undoubtedly Charles’s fury over the pasting Harry and Meghan have given the royal family in their Netflix j’accuse. Revenge in this case is consumed via repossession, (which leaves open whether the couple can claim back part or whole of the £2 million-plus refurbishment they undertook — a further casus belli).
It leaves us wondering whether the King could have waited longer to make clear that his son and daughter-in-law had delighted Frogmore long enough. A spokesperson’s story that the couple considered it their “forever home in the UK” sits oddly with the alienation they described experiencing in their time there and during rare visits since.
But the message from the big house at Windsor to the bijou, eco-painted one is clear — grace-and-favour residence means just that. Out of grace equals out of favour. And that means out.
Anne McElvoy is executive editor at Politico