The Windsors’ Year of Utter Royal Chaos

Even life in a palace was no guarantee of a smooth ride in 2021--just ask the Windsors.

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The Windsors’ Year of Utter Royal Chaos

Despite Queen Elizabeth’s cheerful red ensemble and the Christmas tree glittering in the backdrop, the mood of her annual speech to the nation was a bit somber this year—keeping with the broader mood as Omicron swept over the world. Delivered as Elizabeth herself hunkered down at Windsor after canceling her traditional celebrations at Sandringham, as well as the family lunch at Buckingham Palace, the speech opened with a series of archival photos of Elizabeth with her husband, who died in April, and the sentiment: “Although it’s a time of great happiness and good cheer for many, Christmas can be hard for those who’ve lost loved ones.” She went on to add that she had been comforted by the remembrances of Philip; “Life, of course, consists of final partings as well as first meetings, and as much as I and my family miss him, I know he would want us to enjoy Christmas.”

The speech echoed with sadness—appropriately, considering the last two years. It’s certainly been a rough patch for the Windsors. Not so long ago, in the early 2010s, they were riding high on the glamorous fairy-tale wedding of Will and Kate, erasing whatever lingering taste the scandals of the 1990s left in the mouth. Even the once-controversial relationship of Charles and Camilla had acquired a certain golden glow of late-life romance. Now, the Windsors’ problems seem to multiply every day: Hollywood is making bank off the meltdown of Charles’ marriage to Diana, and the Sussexes have put an ocean and a continent between themselves and the rest of the family. Most seriously of all, Elizabeth’s son Prince Andrew is now locked in an ugly, highly public legal battle with Virginia Roberts Guiffre, who alleges that Jeffrey Epstein coerced her into non-consensual sex with Andrew when she was 17. As the institution faces its greatest test in decades—the handoff between Elizabeth and Charles—their house is in absolute disarray at the worst possible time.

The Queen’s pre-2021 problems

The Windsors were already on shaky ground heading into 2021. Harry and Meghan had very publicly broken with the family business, decamping for California and a different sort of public presence; The Crown had entered the Diana years, reopening the old reputational wound that was the catastrophic meltdown of the Wales marriage. And then, of course, there was the Prince Andrew problem. The royal well and truly disgraced himself with his performance in the infamous November 2019 Newsnight interview, and his mere existence had already become a tricky problem for the palace.

But the problems intensified over the last year, and the details became more public than ever. Harry and Meghan sat down with Oprah Winfrey in April and demolished any possibility that the Sussexes would simply start fresh, quietly doing their own thing in Santa Barbara. The allegations in the interview were absolutely nuclear for the current image of the monarchy, which strives to balance grandeur and reliability and to at least appear modern and inclusive. It’s not exactly a secret that the British monarchy was, historically, deeply implicated in racism and imperialism, but the idea that Meghan had been marginalized within the palace made that truth, which hides in plain sight, concrete and personal.

Prince Andrew’s toxic reputation

Meanwhile, Prince Andrew’s situation has deteriorated even further. In August accuser Virginia Roberts Guiffre filed suit against him under New York’s Child Victims Act; Andrew’s legal team responded by seemingly dodging the summons at every turn. That may have been sound legal strategy—I’m not a lawyer—but it chipped away even further at what was left of his public reputation. The royals have distanced themselves from Andrew, but they haven’t managed to isolate themselves from the damage, either. There was little mention of Andrew in the criminal trial of his friend Ghislaine Maxwell, who was found guilty on five of the six charges brought against her just this week, but prosecutors did release a photo of Jeffrey Epstein and Maxwell cuddling at the Queen’s log cabin in Balmoral. The image was widely circulated in the press with a matching picture of the Queen herself, sitting in the same spot.

Andrew’s association with Maxwell and Epstein has involved the Crown in a story that is downright horrifying, and everything he’s done has seemed to make matters worse for himself and his family’s reputation. One “seasoned royal expert” called Andrew a “busted flush” and told the Daily Mail:Andrew’s handling of this whole affair, coupled with his car crash Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis, have made him into a toxic brand for the rest of the Royal Family.” And Guiffre’s lawsuit is far, far from over; it’s only going to get uglier if the case goes to trial in New York, as is scheduled for sometime between September and December 2022.

The Queen’s resilience through the years

Amid all the turmoil, the Windsors have proved remarkably resilient over the course of their history. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth delivered another speech, to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne. Instead of striking a purely celebratory note, however, she made reference to the multiple crises that struck her family: Princess Anne got divorced, Charles and Diana separated, Fergie appeared on the cover of a tabloid getting her toes nibbled by a man who was not her husband, and Windsor Castle was engulfed in a massive fire. “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” Elizabeth said somewhat dryly, adding that it had been described as an “annus horribilis.” She went on to note the importance of scrutiny on institutions, including her own, before adding: “that scrutiny… can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humour and understanding.” It was interpreted, essentially, as an admission that it had been an absolutely mortifying year for the monarchy and a plea for a little bit of patience. It probably helped that around the same time, she offered to start paying taxes.

Ultimately, they turned it around. Or rather, to a very real degree, she turned it around, with the help of William and Kate’s 2011 wedding. As the Guardian—not exactly a bunch of monarchists—put it in 2012, when Elizabeth celebrated her diamond jubilee marking 60 years on the throne: “Having expertly helmed a creaking HMS Monarchy past reefs of controversy and through squalls of public anger over 60 dutiful years, the Queen can take pleasure in the knowledge that, for the moment at least, she has steered it to safer anchorage in calmer waters.”

And so it was Prince Philip’s death in April that really hammered home the stakes of all this latest turmoil, and the particular dangers this moment brings for the family. His death after more than seventy years of marriage was a reminder of the hulking elephant in the palace: Elizabeth won’t live forever, and then the Windsors are really going to be in trouble. Queen Elizabeth II is a popular and beloved figure who has ruled for so long that her name is synonymous with the institution of the British monarchy. Her presence is a huge part of what keeps the whole show running. Her role as matriarch casts the Windsors as a royal family—a frequently dysfunctional one, sure, but still a family. She makes their narrative work, and when she’s gone, her shoes will be virtually impossible to fill.

Charles lacks charisma and mystique, and he can’t step into the fairy tale paterfamilias role, either. His first marriage broke down in horrifically public fashion, and the ghost of Diana is virtually impossible for him to defeat. Now, his relationship with his younger son appears to be in absolute shambles.

The monarchy post-2021

More and more, the future of the monarchy relies on the good names of the Cambridges, William and Catherine. The two are working harder than ever to brand themselves as the approachable but still regal future of the institution. William recently made an appearance on Apple Fitness+ to tout the importance of the walk, which is almost the most stolidly British thing imaginable; meanwhile, Kate is digging deeper and deeper into her profoundly conservative personal image as future queen, hosting a Christmas concert wearing a bright smile and a cheerful red sweater with her trademark shiny hair in rare form. Meanwhile, US Weekly tells the world about the “beautiful bracelet” William got her for Christmas. It also makes the stakes extremely high for everything they do. Even the faintest hint of rumors about either one of them—but especially William—will hang around like a bad stink.

But the British monarchy has faced plenty of challenges before—plagues, rebellious barons, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army, the Spanish, the French, Edward VIII’s love life, the Blitz, and the upheavals that swept away so many of the thrones of Europe. A combination of savviness by monarchs themselves or their advisors, sheer ruthlessness, and good, old-fashioned luck has always seen them through. For better or for worse, right or wrong, love them or hate them, more often than not, the palace wins. Don’t count them out yet.

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