Courting disaster: how royalty deals with family feuds and pesky emotions
Colourful, excitable characters have always struggled to fit into the family - just consider Edward VIII and Diana
As Tolstoy famously opined: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a jolt to consider that the British royal family are actually just like us – unhappy in their own way.
We want to buy into the archetypal myth of the fairy tale: that the palaces, privilege and pomp lend themselves to living happily ever after. The new documentary The Royal Family at War debunks this myth: navigating the marriage break-up between Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales in 1996; revisiting the abdication crisis of 1936, when Edward VIII renounced the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, and the current rumoured feud between the duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex.
Members of the royal family may marry for love – “whatever ‘in love’ means”, as Charles questioned in his engagement interview to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 – but history and tradition regularly conspire against them. Monarchy depends on continuity, conformity and the cult of the court. Familial conflict is not part of the regal code. The big business of The Firm requires that it operate as a diplomatic, rational machine.
What is not tolerated, far less understood, is emotion. Those who heed the unspoken creed – duty over emotion – fare well.
Last week, unflappable Kate, who undertook a rare public engagement with the queen, fully cemented her position as a fail-safe support to the monarch. Smiling and relaxed, her sunny self-assuredness must have been a balm to courtiers prickly over rumours of her rift with Meghan. The news that the queen allegedly vetoed the Sussexes’ plan to set up a separate court and be “entirely independent” underlines the essence of a constitutional monarchy. This is an institutional structure to support the monarch, which doesn’t allow for that kind of rogue independence.
The fact that William and Harry are splitting courts, as Meghan and Harry move from Kensington Palace to Frogmore Cottage next month, is unsettling enough with its potential for further rifts and rivalry. History shows that the more colourful, excitable characters in the royal family who try to steer their own course tend not to reign triumphant. Consider the fates of Edward VIII, Princess Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York: all anathema to the British old school, stiff upper lip modus operandi.
Which makes me anxious for Meghan and Harry.
The sixth in line to the throne is clearly more volatile and openly expressive than his elder brother, while Meghan has the double impediment of being not just emotional but an outsider. Worse, an American outsider. Like her predecessor, American divorcee Wallis Simpson, of whom her friend, Nicky Haslam, said: “To be an American was against her then, almost more than the divorce.” Her gushingly demonstrative nature, penning positive affirmations on bananas and describing the feeling of her baby moving as the “embryonic kick of feminism”, must be raising eyebrows sky high in court.
Hopefully, after the unfortunate loss of three palace aides, Meghan is now astute to the fact that it is the courtiers who hold real sway. The Men in Grey, as Diana called them, have successfully ensured the survival of the House of Windsor. As Queen Mary’s biographer, James Pope Hennessy, warned: “It is courtiers who make royalty frightened and frightening.” They maintain control by undermining power with gossip and setting up rivalry between courts. Clarence House took on Kensington Palace during Charles and Diana’s acrimonious divorce in 1996. As early as in 1932, Edward’s equerry, John Aird, railed against the courtiers who were briefing King George V against his son, lamenting: “All the nasty gossip, which is very wrong of them and does no good.”
At the time of the abdication, Wallis Simpson had realised that the courtiers wield tremendous influence, writing: “I became obsessed with the notion that a calculated and organised effort to discredit and destroy me had been set afoot.” She was right.
The mantra for an effective monarchy may be duty over emotion, but sadly, this is antithetical to harmonious family life. As Edward VIII said of his childhood: “Christmas at Sandringham was Dickens in a Cartier setting.” He considered his upbringing to be devoid of emotion; his mother, Queen Mary, could never understand nor forgive him for what she saw as the greatest dereliction of his duty when he abdicated. She wrote to her son in July 1938: “All my life I have put my Country before anything else, and I simply cannot change now.”
The queen has followed suit and is a brilliant monarch, though fallible mother. Like the savvy duchesses of Cornwall and Cambridge, she has never openly bleated about her position, nor given friends the green light to mutter to the media. Camilla, a true blue blood, has kept her feelings tightly and admirably to herself. From being a reviled figure at the time of the Wales’s divorce in 1996, who could have been crushed by the avalanche of opprobrium, she has become the nation’s favourite grandmother, proving herself to be the mainstay of Prince Charles’s happiness and an ideal consort.
Having written books about two controversial royal women, Diana and Wallis Simpson, it is clear to me that emotion is the enemy of monarchical longevity. Drawing attention to fragility is viewed as nauseating weakness, while openly addressing conflict is simply bad manners. Diana became the victim of her emotional life. Ill-equipped to cope with her outbursts, such as confronting Camilla at a party at Annabel Goldsmith’s about her affair with Charles, the palace found her irrational and difficult to deal with. The same could be said of Edward VIII. His obsessive and pushy tendencies regularly undid whatever minuscule steps had been made towards familial rapprochement. “If you gave the Duke of Windsor an inch, he took a mile,” says royal biographer Hugo Vickers. “He could be hugely whiny, especially to Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.”
If only the Duke of Windsor had been as patient and strategic as Camilla has been. I believe that eventually he could have returned to live in Britain with his duchess, which he longed for. In terms of true grit of character, Wallis understood – and ironically had the requisite inner discipline to survive – court life. She developed an implacable facade to conceal the extent of her suffering. Unlike her husband, she predicted that the conflict with the royal family was unlikely to abate. During World War 2, she wrote: “We had two wars to deal with – the big and still leisurely war – in which everybody was caught up, and the little cold war with the Palace, in which no quarter was given.”
And never was.
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