It was the sort of question that Lady Susan Hussey will have asked of countless strangers during more than 60 years of service to the late Queen and her family: “Where are you from?”
At the age of 83, having accepted an invitation to stay on to help the new King in the newly created role of Lady of the Household, she was attending the Queen Consort’s first Buckingham Palace reception of the new era to lend an experienced hand.
As has emerged in such vivid detail, things did not go to plan. “Where are you really from?” Lady Hussey is said to have persisted, talking to the British-born campaigner Ngozi Fulani. “What part of Africa?”
Taking place during an hour-long drinks reception in the crowded, noisy picture gallery of Buckingham Palace, the conversation was later described by Ms Fulani as a “form of abuse”. Her account, published as a transcript on Twitter, has not been contested. Buckingham Palace quickly condemned the “unacceptable and deeply regrettable comments”; Lady Hussey’s resignation was accepted. It was uncharacteristically swift action from a Palace known better for its glacial, conservative approach to awkward questions.
“It’s a very regrettable situation,” said one Palace source. “There’s no doubt that unfortunate comments were made though absolutely no malice was intended.”
Nevertheless, says another, “it’s very sad all round”. For friends of Lady Hussey, a lifelong courtier so trusted that she accompanied the late Queen to Prince Philip’s funeral and was in the room when she was introduced to the Sussexes’ daughter Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor, it seems a dismal end to an otherwise unblemished career.
Fewer than 24 hours earlier, it had been business as usual. Lady Hussey, alongside her fellow Ladies of the Household and six new “Queen’s Companions”, set out to hobnob at the Queen Consort’s first big reception of the new reign. Tasked with making guests feel at ease, they made a bee-line for anyone appearing to feel out of place in the hopes of making them welcome and quizzing them on their stories in case they needed to brief their royal host.
On Tuesday afternoon, over the course of a relatively long conversation – between five and 12 minutes, depending on who you ask – Lady Hussey is said to have “interrogated” Ms Fulani on her background. Lady Hussey, for her part, is said to have known the conversation had not gone particularly well, but did not realise the extent of offence caused.
She went on to mingle with more of the 300 guests at the reception, while Ms Fulani went on to have a chat with Queen Camilla, who thanked her for her “important” work campaigning against domestic violence. Aides did not realise anything was amiss. The talk afterwards was of the buzzing atmosphere of a busy and – by Palace standards – informal reception full of notable women celebrating their work, and a powerful speech by Queen Camilla.
However, at 7.25am the next day, a social media bombshell landed. Ms Fulani’s charity Sistah Space, which provides specialist support for women of African and Caribbean heritage affected by abuse, posted a note describing her “mixed feelings” following the reception, and an account of a “member of staff” touching her hair to read her name badge. It included an alleged transcript of a conversation that quickly caused outrage.
“I think it is essential to acknowledge that trauma has occurred and being invited and then insulted has caused much damage,” Ms Fulani said.
By mid-morning, Lady Hussey, unbeknownst to her, was going viral. Bombarded by requests from the press, the Palace set in motion a chain of events which led to the King and Queen Consort, who were made “aware” of what had happened and options to deal with it.
The business end was dealt with by senior aides, understood to mean private secretaries Sir Clive Alderton and Sir Edward Young. To borrow a pithy phrase from Queen Elizabeth II in very different circumstances, recollections at this point vary.
Lady Hussey is said to have offered her resignation quickly and gracefully, without contesting the substance of the allegations against her. Royal sources emphasised that the decision was voluntary; and the picture of an 83-year-old woman being presented with her metaphorical P45 from an unpaid, honorary position is said to be wildly wide of the mark.
“It was another act of great service and loyalty that Lady Hussey volunteered to take this difficult decision in the way that she did,” said one Palace source last night.
“Lady Hussey is 100 per cent being looked after,” added a friend. “She is being personally supported in reflection of her age and loyal service. It has been hugely distressing for all concerned and I know the Palace is grateful for the way that she has dealt with this very upsetting situation. She continues to be helped by the unwavering support of her family.”
Another, also speaking anonymously, is less diplomatic. “It’s tragic that the Palace has no other options than folding in this sort of situation,” they said. “Everyone loves Susan – she has never been racist in her life and this is how she has been treated. She’s been thrown under a bus.”
Lady Hussey is the youngest daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave, the sister of former Conservative health secretary William Waldegrave and wife of Marmaduke Hussey, the former chairman of the BBC board of governors. After more than 60 years’ service, she was one of the most senior ladies-in-waiting and the Queen’s closest companion, accompanying her on many royal tours and answering official letters. She was one of the 20 staff in “HMS Bubble”, looking after the Queen and Prince Philip during lockdown. Her long service earned her the honours of Dame Commander and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. Her daughter, Lady Katherine Brooke, is now one of the Queen Consort’s six new “companions”.
Yet Palace insiders are unequivocal that action needed to be taken against Lady Hussey. No matter the personal affection and respect for her, or how distressing the circumstances, they had to act swiftly and decisively.
The longer they waited, the thinking goes, the graver the risk of accusations of complacency – not least in a post-Duke and Duchess of Sussex world in which anonymous members of the Royal family had already been accused of racism.
Lady Hussey’s future, however, is not set in stone. For those at the centre of what was immediately called “another Palace race row”, there is more nuance than the rage of social media allows.
Ms Fulani, a widely respected campaigner in her field, has made clear that she would prefer for lessons to be learned for the Palace as a whole rather than one woman resigning and moving on.
Those who have worked with Lady Hussey over the years see a way for her to stay in Palace life, albeit in a different position. An unedifying back and forth has played out in public, the Palace insisting it had “reached out” to Ms Fulani through charity contacts, while she told a series of broadcasters she had heard nothing.
“We are making every endeavour to contact her and hope to hear back,” a royal source had said. “Equally, we respect that she might not feel able to have that conversation yet and we hope to have dialogue directly, when she is ready.”
Eventually, in the afternoon, they connected, with hopes for a sit-down chat in the future, where Lady Hussey hopes to apologise in person.
“We hope we can orchestrate a situation where everyone gets around a table and has open dialogue and that lessons are learned in a spirit of co-operation,” said a royal source.
If it goes well, it is said, Lady Hussey may remain in the fold – her six decades of experience in the royal household not entirely lost to her colleagues, even if her public-facing role is over.
Elsewhere at the Palace, The Telegraph is told, senior leaders have been reminded of diversity policies in no uncertain terms, with instructions to convey expectations to their teams. Further training will be provided to anyone who feels they need it, an insider said.
“The problem is, the Palace is trying to solve a problem without entirely getting it,” one critic observes. “They are making their engagements more diverse, genuinely and in good faith. But it’s no good inviting more black and minority ethnic people to the Palace if they don’t feel welcome when they get there.”
And of course, it all plays out just as the Royal family is under the glare of a spotlight like never before. The Prince and Princess of Wales are in Boston, forgiven for thinking their overseas trips are now cursed by scandals largely outside of their control.
The Sussexes are busy launching their Netflix grenade, bound to touch on their hated “institution” over the course of six painful episodes.
As Peter Hunt, former BBC royal correspondent and now regular critic of the institution, puts it: “Charles and William’s problem is that the focus is already shifting from the actions of one woman to broader questions about whether Buckingham Palace is institutionally racist.”
The coming days will show how much damage the scandal has done to the Palace and the new reign of King Charles. Campaigners will hope for progress – the appointment of that long-promised “diversity tsar”, and a workforce that better represents the UK population.
Those who sympathise with an older lady out of her depth in what biographer William Shawcross calls a “remorseless, cruel blame culture in which desensitised keyboard warriors lash out with impunity at others who are defenceless” will hope for compassion.
A view of one royal insider? “It’s perfectly possible to have both.”