OPINION - Harry and Meghan have been taught a harsh lesson about grace-and-favour Frogmore Cottage
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 Sussexes had the ten-bedroom rustic haven of 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 bequeathed after their marriage by the Queen in 2018.
King Charles is cleaning house in more ways than one as his coronation in May beckons. Prince Andrew has, we gather, been offered the residence, as a cut to his royal grant leaves him unable to pay for the upkeep of a larger Crown Estate property. Entanglements with Jeffery Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell have ended Andrew’s life as a core working royal and the Frogmore address 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” – namely that the new King is resetting the unwritten rules of his job description and that he is prepared to take substantial risks to do so. Treating the (very large) cottage merely as an asset which is his to dispose of is true 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.
In this case, the sequencing of the move and relatively short notice make something else clear to the two Montecito exiles. Henceforth, they are welcome to attend the coronation as family members, but no one will much mind if they don’t, nor indeed 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. Someone else’s adorable, closer to Camilla, will adorn the day.
Had the King wished to be emollient, he could have left the house-swapping part of the job till after May, but he has chosen not to. The coronation will mark the beginning of a new era in the fractious Windsor tribe as well as the nation’s fortunes. Remember that this domestic contretemps-by-proxy comes in the week when he rolled out the carpet-and-tea 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 the “Windsor agreement” to its heft. Given that it is opposed by many Unionists (and now also 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 a targeted intervention to make something big and valuable happen as fast as possible. It was also departure from the “one step back” gradualism from direct involvement in live issues that the late Queen would have favoured.
A man over 70, Charles feels he has lost time to make up for. Discussing the design for new coinage for the Royal Mint, he was, I hear, “determined that the image should reflect his age and experience ” and the resulting Caesar-style profile reflects that sternly.
Downsides do abound though to bringing reckoning to the boil where close family are concerned, because however annoying the Sussexes are (which is plenty) and however unsympathetic a character Prince Andrew might be (also plenty), the family can never wholly be cut adrift because the monarchy is based on the structures of family, however inconvenient or flawed these prove.
The Frogmore context is undoubtedly Charles’s fury over the pasting Harry and Meghan have given the royal family, notably Queen Camilla in their multi-part 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 over £2million refurbishment they undertook – a further casus belli). It leaves us wondering whether Charles could have waited longer to make clear that his son and wife had delighted Frogmore long enough. A spokesperson’s story that they considered it their “forever home in the UK” (apart from sounding like something from a home improvement show) sits oddly with the alienation they described in their time there and rare visits since. But the message from the big house at Windsor to the more bijoux, eco-painted one is loud and very clear – grace-and favour residence means precisely that. Out of grace equals out of favour. And that means out.
Anne McElvoy is executive editor at Politico