Ruthless or reasonable? The Queen’s ban on Meghan and Harry’s use of ‘royal’

OPINION:

Sandringham, the Queen’s 8094ha Norfolk estate, might be a truly vast Georgian pile but in some circles it’s considered one of the Windsors’ more ghastly outposts.

(The Queen’s aunt Princess Alice is reported to have once asked her, “Shall I burn the house down for you? I’m quite ready to. Would you mind?” Her Majesty apparently replied: “I am not sure whether I should mind.”)

Which is perhaps fitting that on January 13 this year, it was the setting for one of the uglier episodes of modern royal history.

That Monday was the day of the so-called Sandringham Summit, which brought together the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry in the wake of Harry and wife Meghan Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell announcement days earlier that they wanted out of working royal life.

In the hours, weeks and months since then purported details about the showdown have trickled out into the press: Prince Philip left the “big house” and returned to Wood Farm, his cottage on the Sandringham Estate before Harry arrived; Harry arrived hours early and had a private lunch with the Queen beforehand and that there was speculation “William was so furious with his younger brother that he would not be able to endure the hypocrisy of smiling at him over lunch”.

Now, Battle of Brothers, a new biography by esteemed royal biographer Robert Lacey has painted a far more biting picture of what was going on inside the palace walls on that Monday and during the course of subsequent negotiations.

When 2020 dawned, Harry and Meghan were far, far away from London, coming to the end of their six-week sabbatical in Canada. For weeks they had remained undetected by the press before news broke that the Sussexes were holed up in a $20 million waterfront mansion on Vancouver Island. Cue the expected paparazzi madness.

By this point in time, Harry and Meghan had made both the Queen and Charles aware that, after a tumultuous year, the couple were looking for some sort of change to their official roles. However, when Harry pressed Her Majesty’s team for a date, they offered up January 29.

According to Lacey, when the Sussexes landed back in London on January 6 they were “seething”.

Another biography, Finding Freedom, has also claimed that such was their frustration with the proposed lengthy wait, they even considered driving straight from the airport to Sandringham to talk to the nonagenarian monarch.

Interestingly, Lacey reports that by this point the couple had already started to think about the logistics of their departure, including who would bankroll their new life.

He writes that at this stage: “Their US managers had been confident that both of the couple could command substantial fees from talking engagements in the States and Canada. Agent Nick Collins was even then negotiating contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per appearance.”

Fast forward to January 8, a day indelibly marked in royal history.

There are various tellings of quite why Harry and Meghan pulled the pin on their sensational announcement so precipitously. In Lacey’s telling, in the lead-up, they were concerned about the media getting wind of their plans, a worry that was reinforced when on January 8 The Sun published a story on their front page with the headline “We’re Orf Again” about the fact they would only stay briefly in Britain.

That evening at 6.30pm, London time, Harry and Meghan pressed the button and told the world they wanted out of being full-time working members of the royal family.

The news rocked the palace.

Both Lacey and Freedom’s authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand have reported that the breathtaking news took the royal family by surprise. In Brothers, Lacey writes the move left the Queen and Philip “devastated” while Scobie and Durand say the move “blindsided” Her Majesty.

Five days later, Her Majesty convened the now infamous “Sandringham Summit” and after a 90-minute family discussion, the die was cast. Harry and Meghan would quit entirely as working members of the royal family.

That afternoon, Buckingham Palace put out two statements, one which outlined the Sussexes’ “divorce” deal including that the couple “can no longer formally represent The Queen” and another a highly unusual, personal missive from the Queen in which she eschewed the traditional use of titles, saying: “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved members of my family. I recognise the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life.”

What is interesting in Brothers is that Lacey reports that for four days afterwards, representatives of the various royal parties were behind closed doors hammering out the cold, hard, practical details of the Sussexes’ exit.

Of the Duke and Duchess, Lacey quotes a senior palace source familiar with the negotiations as saying “it was like dealing with a hard-nosed Hollywood lawyer”.

“They totally misplayed the negotiations, but then so did the palace. The tragedy was that the Queen’s broader objective was actually to bring everyone back together, not to split them apart.”

In the wash-up, the couple would be given their freedom, however, they would have to forfeit their right to use their styling as His/Her Royal Highness and the Duke would step down from his honorary military roles.

Of the January manoeuvring, Lacey writes: “On the face of it, Rachel Zane’s [Meghan’s] tough tactics had backfired disastrously. The Sussexes could still call themselves ‘Duke and Duchess’ if they chose and they had the right to go on living in Canada as they were at that date – but not much more.

“Small wonder that when Harry was offered the possibility of a review of the whole arrangement after 12 months, his first impulse was to refuse. He wanted no more to do with the royal family.”

The following month, on February 18, the Queen delivered another blow, ruling the errant duo could not use the Sussex Royal brand. Per Lacey: “It was also said by those in the know that the couple’s erratic and impulsive behaviour for the past year had not inclined Queen Elizabeth II to entrust the Sussexes with the use of the word ‘royal’ any time soon.”

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Lacey has said of the move: “At the end of the day we saw a ruthlessness from the Queen over her absolute refusal to allow the Sussexes to use the word royal.”

What is interesting here is that this image of Her Majesty as a hard-nosed negotiator stands in contrast to her public persona as a vividly hued, inscrutable matriarch, hat firmly in place, Launer handbag nestled in the crook of her arm.

Here’s the thing: To judge solely on pictures of her and her TV broadcasts, she comes across as a kind of benign magisterial presence. That is, hardly a fearsome, unyielding opponent.

Which is why on some level, it’s hard to reconcile that impression with that of an unyielding, steely opponent.

And that, in turn, goes to the very heart of the existential dilemma that she has faced throughout her 68-year reign and which in the years to come Charles and William will also have to juggle. That is, having to decide when she walks into a room to make a hard decision whether she is there as a mother, grandmother or great-grandmother or is there as the head of a billion-dollar outfit with a global brand footprint.

To be the sovereign is to be a CEO of sorts, ultimately responsible for the survival and longevity of an institution whose history can be traced back to the 9th century. That stewardship clearly requires her to put duty ahead of personal feelings.

Looking at the Queen’s decision to deny Harry and Meghan the opportunity to brand themselves as royal, it could be interpreted as having a punitive edge to it, a cutting public punishment for daring to trounce the status quo and to go their own way.

However, I would disagree.

Look at Her Majesty’s life and time and again she has put her obligation to protect the Crown ahead of her family. In 1952, she refused to give her sister Princess Margaret permission to marry the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend.

After her coronation in 1953, the new Queen made the decision to head off on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth, despite the fact it meant leaving her young son and daughter in the UK.

Looking back at the Queen and the way that she and the palace have handled the Sussex imbroglio, what is apparent is that she is willing to make the hard calls when they are needed. Her great-grandchildren might call her Gan Gan and she might look like a kindly nanna whose handbag is full of mints but this is a woman who understands innately that she has a job to do, no matter the emotional sacrifice required.

Thus far it would seem that losing the ability to style themselves as royal has not impinged Harry and Meghan’s money-making potential. In September, it was revealed they had inked a “megawatt” deal with Netflix to produce content for the streaming giant, a move alleged to be worth up to $130 million.

On a personal level, it is hard not to wonder whether no longer being able to use the Sussex Royal moniker might have hurt the couple.

On Thursday, the landing page for Harry and Meghan’s new charity, Archewell, was unveiled, revealing a neutral palette and vaguely pretentious tone, with the expectation they will fully debut their new US-based charitable venture next year.

Nine months on from the Sandringham Summit, it’s fair to say that ultimately nobody won. Sans their HRHs and “royal” imprimatur, they are ploughing on with building their US brand, one high-profile Zoom conversation after another.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the palace has lost not only their two most dynamic and charismatic stars but also the extra hands that would have been incredibly useful during the pandemic.

However, if there is one clear lesson that has emerged over the course of 2020, it is this: Don’t mess with Her Majesty.

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