How the royals’ toughest year in decades has shaped the crown’s future

London: As millions around the world tune in to the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, they will be waiting to hear which elegant turn of phrase she finds to sum up the royal rollercoaster that has been 2021. It may be almost impossible to match the exquisite “annus horribilis” with which she wrapped up 1992’s record lows, but no one doubts Her Majesty will find a way.

Traditionally, the speech is broadcast on the BBC at 3pm on Christmas Day in the UK (2am Boxing Day AEDT). This year, there is so much that could be said.

The Christmas message is pre-recorded on December 23. The photograph on the desk is of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, taken in 2007 at Broadlands, Hampshire, to mark their diamond wedding anniversary.Credit:Getty

From the Sussexes’ generous sharing of their truth with Oprah to the Duke of York’s excruciating involvement in a sex abuse trial and the death of her beloved Prince Philip, there have been more low points over the past 12 months than even someone as stoic as Her Majesty might care to remember.

Yet still, somehow, she finishes the year at her most popular in a decade.

The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall have gone up in public opinion throughout the year, according to the polls, while Prince William and Kate are still soaring high. How, in a year when they must have felt battered on all sides, have they endured? Three generations: the current and future monarchy, laid out for decades to come.

“Unity forged in adversity,” says one who knows the family well. Or perhaps, as no one working at the palace is daft enough to agree with: united by common enemies?

If 1992 – “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure” – saw a devastating Windsor fire, a then-controversial run of separations and divorce, and the bombshell Andrew Morton book on Diana, then 2021 also brought its fair share of drama.

The Oprah moment

It started in March, with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex launching a grenade back to Britain in the shape of their Oprah interview. The Royal family left them to fend for themselves, they said. Kate made me cry, claimed the Duchess. There were “concerns and conversations about how dark” Archie’s skin might be. And the quietly devastating, from Meghan: “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.”

News of the Duke of Edinburgh, in hospital and nearing the end of his life at the age of 99, did not halt the onslaught.

Having already declared he felt “really let down by [his] father”, who had stopped taking his calls, Prince Harry went on to give a series of candid interviews. Having therapy on air to overcome his past trauma, he spoke of the “genetic pain” and life as a royal as “a mix between The Truman Show and living in a zoo”. Later in the year, the announcement of his autobiography coming in 2022 promised his unvarnished truth about his years growing up in Britain before fleeing to California with his new family to find financial freedom.

Even the birth of the second Sussex baby, a little girl in June, was marred by a muddle over her name, Lilibet Diana. She was named in the Queen’s honour, said Harry and Meghan. The Queen – whose childhood nickname of Lilibet was used by Prince Philip, her parents and her closest friends – was not asked but told, sources replied.

Prince Harry and Meghan released a Christmas card featuring son Archie and the first public photo of their daughter, Lilibet.Credit:Alexi Lubomirski/Archewell Foundation

The duchess won her case against the Mail on Sunday twice, but more was aired about her relationship with the royal family than anyone would have wished. Her in-laws were “constantly berating” her husband over why they hadn’t put a stop to Thomas Markle’s misbehaviour, she said in text messages revealed in the case paperwork. “They fundamentally don’t understand.”

Scandals and sadness

And so it went on. The Prince of Wales was embroiled in an embarrassing cash-for-honours story, which saw his one-time closest aide resign from his charity after coordinating with fixers over an honour for a Saudi billionaire donor – without the Prince’s knowledge, of course. Barbados removed the Queen as head of state in what was seen as the first of a domino effect for the Commonwealth realms over the coming years. In May, the Queen’s new five-month-old puppy Fergus died, just as she was finding her feet again after the loss of the duke.

Prince Andrew has said he “unequivocally denies” the allegations against him. Credit:AP

Most seriously, the ghost of the Duke of York’s decades-long association with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein finally reached crunch point, with his accuser Virginia Giuffre serving legal papers and former friend Ghislaine Maxwell in court.

“That was the moment,” says a palace source, that led to the family working in consultation. The Duke was encouraged to step back from his public duties. “That was really the beginning of the formulation of what you could call a Queen, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cambridge alliance.”

And major decisions about anything affecting the future of the monarch now include Prince Charles and Prince William, where they once would have gone to the Queen alone.

The private secretaries of Kensington Palace, representing William and Kate, are involved in the big institutional meetings in a way they were not several years ago, and each generation is having input into decisions they will one day live with once the Queen is no longer with them.

“What it’s proved is that when it comes to the big issues, they all think alike,” says a different palace source, of recent challenges. “You couldn’t get a bit of paper between them. Therefore, there is this continuity: they understand what’s important and what isn’t. When push comes to shove, can you be half a member of the Royal family or not? No you can’t. They’re rock solid on that. You’ve got to go out and be seen – they all agree on that.”

A third added: “The Queen is still very much the boss. I see it almost like a chairman, COO, CEO roles. She sets the values and makes the ultimate decision, [the Prince of Wales] advises and enforces, and [the Duke of Cambridge] provides further advice and support.

“They all have different strengths. They all have, very usefully, different perspectives as well.

“It helps, when you’re taking decisions that people will have different views about, if you’ve got multi-generational apparatus for trying to get to the right answer. The consequence of that of course is that it brings father and son closer together, and all three ultimately closer together because they’re doing more all together.”

Family pride

The result has been some of the brightest moments of the year. The public warmth has been unmistakable. In the once icy seas of emotionally stunted filial relationships has come gushing praise. “I am very proud of my son, William,” said Charles, ahead of his Earthshot Prize to help save the environment.

“It is a source of great pride to me that the leading role my husband played in encouraging people to protect our fragile planet, lives on through the work of our eldest son Charles and his eldest son William,” the Queen told COP26 in her official address. “I could not be more proud of them.”

Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, laugh as the Queen prepares to cut a cake with a sword at ‘The Big Lunch ’initiative, during the G7 summit in June.Credit:AP

In June, the ladies of the family – the Queen, Duchess of Cornwall and Duchess of Cambridge – giggled their way through their first joint engagement in nearly a decade, as Her Majesty cut a cake with an ornamental sword. And who can forget the great return for British cinema, which saw Prince Charles, Camilla, William and Kate team up on the red carpet for the glittering James Bond premiere?

In the tough moments, too, there has been unity. Statements which would once have been drafted and issued by Buckingham Palace alone are largely agreed by aides across all three households and – for the most important – the royals themselves.

From left, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince Charles, on the red carpet for the premiere of the James Bond film No Time to Die. Credit:Getty

“Everyone realised that stories about households fighting is just a distraction from the far more important things going on in the world,” a palace insider says. “The family focus has been on that, looking outwards.”

When the Queen said “recollections may vary” over the Sussexes’s most shocking claims of racism, it would have been with Prince Charles and Prince William’s approval. When Prince Harry had to forgo his military patronages against his will at the end of his trial year living the American dream, the working Royal family were regretful but firm that the line between the monarchy and making money must be clear. The recent row with the BBC, which infuriated aides with the Princes, saw a rare joint statement from all three palace press secretaries representing their bosses.

Some of this, of course, has been for practical reasons. While private and press secretaries once had to arrange a formal meeting in the diary, or telephone through a switchboard to put pen to paper, they now fire WhatsApp messages to one another day and night. The technological leap of the pandemic made it suddenly possible for the Queen to simply videocall her two heirs for a chat at the same time, should she wish to. With Prince Charles and Prince William now doing investitures for the Queen at Windsor Castle rather than Buckingham Palace, they can pop in for a cup of tea and a chat in the private apartments close by.

There is not, several sources said, a great reimagination of the Prince of Wales’s personal relationship with his son. While much closer than they were a decade ago, it is unwise to imagine any huge emotional outpouring between them. Rather, there has been a concerted effort to support each other’s work publicly, uniting in their causes and messaging. Prince William, one canny royal observer pointed out, has steered well clear of the cash-for-honours stories involving his father’s charity, keenly aware of the risk of being tarred with the same brush.

Prince Harry, left, and Prince William at the unveiling of a statue they commissioned of their mother, Princess Diana, on what would have been her 60th birthday, July 1, 2021. Credit:AP

Above all, sources say, the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William are agreed on the purpose of the head of nation: to unify, to provide stability, to celebrate the achievements of others and support their service. Increasingly this year, they have also been embracing what lesser mortals might describe simply as the fun side of the job.

The happiness business

Lord Charteris, the Queen’s former private secretary, once described the Royal family as being in “the happiness business”, spreading a little cheer where it is in short supply. In the sometimes very dark days of 2021, this objective has come into its own.

Little has topped Her Majesty’s rather unexpected visit to the cobbles of Coronation Street in July, where she walked out to meet a cast of old favourites to the soap’s theme tune.

For others, it was a letter that brought joy. In October, when she must already have been feeling somewhat unwell, the Queen elegantly turned down an Oldie of the Year Award, claiming “you are only as old as you feel” and she therefore did not qualify.

The day the Queen went to Coronation Street, to meet actors in the long-running soap, on July 8, 2021. Credit:AP

Prince William, too, has embraced the lighter side of life, after the serious work of his Earthshot Prize. Recent interviews have heard him share his headbanging music taste, answer quickfire questions about his Christmas plans from children, and delight in talking about his three children’s cheeky antics at home.

For keen observers of the British monarchy, the loyal public has rallied in protective support of a Queen enduring a terrible time, even before she was laid low with a mystery illness which left her undergoing tests in hospital.

“She has lost her husband of 73 years, she has endured the public fallout of family matters, and all against the backdrop of the pandemic,” said Emily Nash, royal editor at Hello! magazine, “and yet she has remained as steadfast as ever with her family rallying around her.

“Certainly, after seeing her sitting alone at Prince Philip’s funeral, there was a huge outpouring of sympathy and support for her, particularly from people who had gone through similar experiences themselves during Covid-19.”

The photo of the Queen sitting alone in St George’s Chapel ahead of the funeral of Prince Philip touched many who had attended funerals under COVID restrictions. Credit:AP

The future

The Sussexes will continue to plough their furrows with Netflix and Spotify, serving up books and interviews and – hopefully for all involved – finding quiet contentment in their new riches and healthy family. Their mission to activate “compassion in action” and “uplight and unite communities” continues through their non-profit, Archewell. The civil suit against the Duke of York will see justice done in one way or another. Hopes of a full return to public life are vanishingly small, despite the plans for his rehabilitation dreamt up during his imposed isolation at Royal Lodge.

The Queen, when she is fully recovered and back in the public eye, will be joined at all times by a member of her family, both for companionship and to step in should she have to make a last-minute decision to stay at home.

“It has definitely been a turbulent year for the family and the institution more broadly,” says a source. “Some of that has brought some of the family closer together. The Queen is untouchable and will always be untouchable now. It’s been a hard year and everyone will do everything they can to support and serve her.”

As the Queen recovers her strength after illness, she has much to look forward to. That affection from the public and that unmatched thrill of seeing her in real life will be made plain next year, as she reaches her 70th year on the throne – a feat unmatched in British history.

Every detail of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations has been planned with the Queen’s taste and comfort in mind. An all-singing, all-dancing pageant, a horse show designed around her love of all things equine, a concert, the street parties, the tree-planting and the flag-waving: it will be pomp and pageantry of the like this worn-down nation has forgotten can exist. And she will never stand alone.

The Telegraph, London

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