Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If you’ve ever pondered the merits of going into business with your husband’s grandmother, the events of the last week may have given you pause.
On Wednesday, Buckingham Palace announced that it was launching an investigation into accusations that Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, bullied three employees within the royal household. The move came after The Times in the UK published a report citing sources that said Meghan drove two assistants out of her Kensington Palace household and undermined the confidence of a third staff member. Buckingham Palace said it was “very concerned” about the claims, made public just a few days ahead of the broadcast of Meghan and Prince Harry’s much-anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday — and just after a clip was released of Meghan telling Oprah that “The Firm” was “perpetuating falsehoods” against her.
After the investigation was announced, Meghan’s spokesman said the duchess was “saddened by this latest attack on her character,” and a spokesperson for the Sussexes dismissed the Times report as “a calculated smear campaign.”
Though full details of the allegations against Meghan are as yet unknown, the palace’s eagerness to respond to them stands in stark contrast to its previous reactions to other controversies, most notably the substantially more serious complaints against the Queen’s third child, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. These statements have been minimal, and resolutely supportive of the prince — not to mention an illuminating insight into the values the family seems to hold most dear.
Andrew stepped down from royal duties in November 2019, after his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein became a national embarrassment. Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers, has said she was forced to have sex with the prince three times, including one occasion when she was underage (Andrew denies having any kind of relationship). His retreat as a working royal followed a disastrous BBC interview the same month, during which Prince Andrew described his friendship with Epstein, including the prince’s inviting Epstein with his girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell to Sandringham and Windsor, and staying with him at his house in New York after Epstein’s release from prison in 2009 (and after Epstein had pleaded guilty to solicitation of prostitution with a minor). Andrew said in the interview that he still didn’t regret his friendship with Epstein, even in light of the deluge of new allegations and evidence.
After a video of the prince inside Epstein’s New York house in 2010 was published by the Daily Mail in 2019, the palace gave a short response, saying that “the Duke of York has been appalled by the recent reports of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged crimes.”
The prince was also for many years friends with Maxwell, who is currently in jail and awaiting trial for sex trafficking charges (to which she has pleaded not guilty) in New York. In July 2020, it was reported by the UK-based Daily Telegraph that in 2002, Maxwell had apparently sat on the Queen’s throne during a private tour of Buckingham Palace organized by the Duke of York. As CNN reported at the time, Buckingham Palace declined to comment on the photograph, as did a spokesperson for Prince Andrew. Asked by the BBC whether Maxwell would speak about the duke as part of the ongoing investigation into Epstein, former investment banker Laura Goldman, a friend of Maxwell’s, said: “She has always told me she would never, ever say anything about him.”
Andrew’s connection with alleged sex traffickers and allegations that he was involved in their crimes are far from the only marks against his name. At the end of November 2019, the Mail On Sunday reported that while the Duke of York was serving as Britain’s trade envoy, a taxpayer-funded position, he allegedly used official trips to promote a private bank. The palace’s vague response outlined the prince’s duties in the role, concluding that it “was to promote Britain and British interests overseas, not the interests of individuals.” The Prince stood back from the position in 2010, after his friendship with Epstein came to light — but did not step back from his broader royal duties until 2019, after his dire BBC interview.
There was no public indication that the prince had been forced out — he was allowed to retire in what was described as “a personal decision,” taken following discussions with the Queen and Prince Charles.
Though the controversy surrounding Prince Andrew has been incredibly serious, the palace has yet to release any statement which undermines his position as a supported member of the family. Everything is calculated to minimize embarrassment — famously a priority for his mother, the Queen.
A consistent theme of royal faux pas, until the recent rift with the Sussexes, is that of a muted response from both the head of the family, and the royal households — always brief, and calculated to diminish the story. When Prince Harry was snapped dressed as a Nazi at a party in 2005, Clarence House, the London home of his father the Prince of Wales, issued a swift apology on his behalf.
Now, apparently no longer enjoying the stalwart support of his family, and perhaps feeling the effects amidst the current media storm, Harry drew a comparison with the past experience of his mother, Princess Diana, in a clip from the Oprah interview released this week. “I’m just really relieved and happy to be sitting here … with my wife by my side,” he says. “Because I can’t believe what it must have been like for her going through this process by herself, all those years ago.” It’s not the first time the prince has made a connection between the treatment of Meghan and Diana — particularly in terms of the media’s hounding of his mother prior to her death.
Queen Elizabeth herself, still a popular public figure, has likely remained so in part due to her taciturn approach to public relations over the years — which, with the notable exception of her much-disparaged silence following Princess Diana’s death, has rarely steered her awry. Though a public servant, and an annual recipient of the taxpayer-funded sovereign grant — valued at $107.1 million (£82.2 million) in 2019, she has only ever given one sit-down interview in her 69-year reign.
The values considered most dear by the Queen and the palace consistently appear to be loyalty, and a willingness to toe the royal line. In an uncomfortable exchange in late February after the palace stripped Prince Harry of his military titles, the palace said it was “not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.” Harry served in the armed forces for 10 years, including two tours to Afghanistan — credits apparently less valuable than that of “senior royal.” The Sussexes responded swiftly to the palace, with their own statement saying: “We can all live a life of service.”
The sense that unwavering dedication to the crown is the only proper course for anyone connected to the royal family is amplified by the British media, which tends to over-egg the population’s fervor for the royals. When Meghan released a photograph announcing her second pregnancy, there was a broadly positive response, but she was also greeted with some cruel backlash in light of her recent abscondence. The gibes apparently disregarded the need of a woman irrevocably in the public eye, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, to control the narrative around her own pregnancy.
On Sunday, the Sussexes’ full interview with Oprah will air, and doubtless generate many more headlines — and questions — on the theme of their credibility or otherwise. While many of these may be valid, they should be substantially less interesting to the institution the couple has left behind than the questions surrounding the senior royal still nestled in its bosom. As long as Prince Andrew enjoys the unwavering protection of the palace, its forays into the alleged past behavior of Meghan Markle will continue to ring hollow.