This Is Court Intrigue in Real-Time

In Depth
This Is Court Intrigue in Real-Time

On March 7, CBS will premiere what’s likely to be a marquee television event of the year: Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Sussexes, Harry and Meghan, about their lives, causes, and—most sensationally—the chain of events that saw them bail on their lives as working royals in favor of Santa Barbara. CBS has already begun rolling out dramatic promo clips, with Oprah clearly setting the stakes: “I just want to make it clear to everybody, there is no subject that is off-limits.” It goes without saying that the royal mothership is concerned about what the couple might say. And now, just days before the primetime special is scheduled to air, the Times of London has published a story alleging that Meghan was accused of “bullying” by Kensington Palace aides.

For generations, the Windsors have successfully positioned themselves as a “royal family,” emphasis on the cozy second half of that phrase. But right now the whole institution is reverting to centuries-old patterns, and the entire world is watching Tudor-level court intrigue unfold in real-time, on a global stage, at the speed of Twitter. There are multiple players here: Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Kensington Palace, and the Sussexes’ new American-based operation, staffed with the modern descendants of the secret-trading courtiers who surrounded Henry VIII. The knives are out—with major reputational stakes for the parties involved, and the monarchy itself.

The relationship between Meghan and the largely conservative British press started off rocky and never quite recovered; Harry had his own ugly history with the tabloids, tied into the trauma of his mother’s death and marked with genuinely invasive maneuvers like the News of the World’s phone-hacking operation. By 2018, there was a steady drumbeat of stories that cast Meghan as difficult, demanding, and generally high-maintenance. A report in the (notoriously racist) Sun alleged that, “MEGHAN MADE KATE CRY Meghan Markle ‘left Kate Middleton in tears’ over her strict demands for Princess Charlotte’s bridesmaid’s dress.” (Tatler later said it was a fight over whether the bridesmaids would have to wear tights on a hot day, with Meghan saying no and Kate advocating for protocol; Kate denied the Tatler story.)

Other stories focused on Meghan’s relationship with her staff at Kensington Palace. Sun reporter Dan Wootton alleged that Kate reprimanded Meghan over how she spoke to Kate’s staff, and a Daily Mail called her “Hurricane Meghan” while remarking upon her tendency to send 5 a.m. emails. There was close coverage of staff departures from Harry and Meghan’s office. Eventually, as has been well covered, the Sussexes decided to leave their positions as working royals and the United Kingdom entirely, embarking upon a new life as high-profile philanthropists and thought-leaders, commencing a new stage of their lives with their Oprah sit-down.

Then—on March 3, at 10 p.m. London time—the Times of London dropped not one, but three stories about Meghan’s time within the Palace. There were two big allegations in the package: one, that Meghan “faced a bullying complaint made by one of her closest advisers during her time at Kensington Palace” and generally terrorized her staff; the other, that she wore a pair of elaborate diamond chandelier earrings received as a wedding gift from Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, just three weeks after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which he is said to have approved (though that wasn’t firmly established at the time). The Times isn’t a tabloid, but a respected broadsheet and traditionally an establishment voice, though it, too, is part of the sprawling, conservative Murdoch empire. And so these new accusations hold special weight, even though they really coalesced longstanding rumors into a big scoop, with news of the actual complaint itself.

The Times devoted two pieces to the allegations about the atmosphere in Meghan’s office. “Staff were bullied, according to sources, and some reduced to tears. One said they were humiliated by her on a number of occasions,” the Times alleges. The paper claims their sources came to them “because they felt that only a partial version had emerged of Meghan’s two years as a working member of the royal family and they wished to tell their side, concerned about how such matters are handled by the palace.”

The big piece of information in the story is that in October 2018, the Times reports, aide Jason Knauf, who was the couple’s communications secretary at the time, wrote an email to Simon Case (who was then William’s private secretary and is now a cabinet secretary for Boris Johnson) alleging bullying: “I am very concerned that the Duchess was able to bully two PAs out of the household in the past year. The treatment of X* was totally unacceptable,” he wrote, adding, “The Duchess seems intent on always having someone in her sights. She is bullying Y and seeking to undermine her confidence. We have had report after report from people who have witnessed unacceptable behaviour towards Y.” The complaint was forwarded to HR, but a source told Omid Scobie at Harper’s Bazaar that, “When it became known to [the two individuals], they each asked for the matter to be rescinded and for it to not become an official complaint.”

The Sussexes’ spokesperson issued firm denials to the allegations in the Times piece, saying Meghan was “saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself and is deeply committed to supporting those who have experienced pain and trauma.” Their lawyers (presumably when contacted for comment before the publication of the piece) told the Times the paper was “being used by Buckingham Palace to peddle a wholly false narrative.”

Bullying is a nuclear allegation against a woman who has championed the cause of mental health and built her brand on kindness and justice. But the Times piece is also long on effects and short on details about what, precisely, Meghan is said to have done to upset her staffers. It is also important to note the very long history of white people seeing just about any criticism from Black women as aggressive or “bullying.” A “close friend of the duchess” told Scobie: “I hate to say it, but find me a woman of color in a senior position who has not been accused of being too angry, too scary, too whatever in the workplace. It’s sad that it’s happening, but I’m not surprised.” It’s also worth mentioning that while Harry’s name pops up again and again in the story, it’s Meghan in the headline.

The case of the earrings is even murkier. It’s difficult to believe that Meghan would have worn them without somebody else weighing in. At the time, she reportedly told staff to simply say they were “borrowed”; her lawyers told the Times she meant borrowed from the Crown, which technically owns such gifts, and that she was unaware at the time of Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death. As this Twitter thread by an expert in court jewelry points out, we don’t know who decided she would wear the earrings.

One popular response has been to suggest that “The Palace” is behind this information hitting the Times now, in this detail, just days before Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah. But it’s important to remember that “The Palace” is a bit of a misnomer—there are in fact multiple royal offices, and while they’re all connected, they each have their own subtle set of interests and priorities. The Windsors present themselves in public as just another family, but they often operate a firm with individual branch offices that sometimes work together and sometimes scrape against one another ineffectively. There are three big outfits: Buckingham Palace, which is the Queen’s office; Clarence House, which is Prince Charles’s office; and Kensington Palace, which was the joint operation for both princes and their wives until they split, and now is Will and Kate’s operation.

Hence: the ancient art of courtly intrigue. As far back as William the Conquerer, monarchs have been surrounded by a halo of courtiers, advisors, heirs, spares, relatives, wives, mistresses, and in-laws, all of them with their own unique set of hopes, fears, problems, and priorities. There have always been clusters of advisors who thought they knew best what should happen and were willing to maneuver events in their preferred direction—as well as a fair few people with, quite simply, an eye to the main chance.

It’s been clear for some time that Harry and Meghan came into conflict with courtiers and advisors. In Meghan’s case, that was clearly tied up with the fact that she was an “outsider” with insufficient deference. In a New Yorker piece about their split from the Firm, Camilla Tominey, the longtime royal reporter for the conservative Telegraph, told Rebecca Mead that, “It’s a bit like ‘Downton Abbey’—there’s a hierarchy of staff who have been at Buckingham Palace for years and years, to serve Queen and country. And, therefore, for Harry and Meghan to be making demands, there was a bit of below-stairs chatter, particularly with the Duchess, that was ‘Well, hang on a minute, who do you think you are?’” Doing press for his book, Battle of Brothers, Robert Lacey told the Times: “There was personal animosity in the palace towards Meghan — and the feeling is mutual,” adding, “There was somebody in the palace — and I can’t name them — who hated Meghan. There is no love lost there.”

One important piece of context is that we are seeing the results of a power vacuum at the very top of the Crown hierarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is still steadily carrying out her duties, but she is, after all, nearly 95 years old. Her irascible husband stepped back from his role as behind-the-scenes family enforcer in 2017. And as Robert Lacey recounts in Battle of Brothers, shortly before Meghan arrived on the scene in 2017, Charles and Andrew teamed up for a “backstairs coup” to push out their mother’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt. Geidt oversaw all the various factions that are reduced in the public eye to “The Palace,” and he’s commonly credited with being somebody who could and would deliver harsh medicine to anybody within the family who needed it.

Multiple commenters have suggested that internal conflict has boiled over since he left, without Geidt there to smooth things over. (He came back in 2019 as the Queen’s “Permanent Lord in Waiting,” but his successor remains in place as her private secretary.) Tom Bradby, a royal journalist historically friendly with both brothers, told People: “The atmosphere has been fractious within the family ever since those close to Prince Charles pushed out the Queen’s long-standing and well-regarded private secretary Sir Christopher Geidt two years ago,” adding that, “Central authority weakened, the rest of the family increasingly doing their own thing,” and “There have been many battles within the family since then.” And an unnamed source told the Times in January 2020: “There’s no discipline. Everything leaks and then everyone engages in swearing and shouting and blames each other.”

In short, it sounds like “The Palace” en masse isn’t united enough to order a cheese pizza. Instead, there’s disorder, which leads to factions and even possibly individuals going their own way.

The fact is, somebody talked to the Times. Buckingham Palace has denied that they had anything to do with the story in the Times; the paper didn’t identify its sources, but traditionally Buckingham Palace—i.e., the Queen’s operation—is tight-lipped, preferring to smother any controversy. And one source who spoke to the Times actually complained about their inaction: “Senior people in the household, Buckingham Palace and Clarence House, knew that they had a situation where members of staff, particularly young women, were being bullied to the point of tears,” this source told the Times. “The institution just protected Meghan constantly.” Meanwhile, an unnamed source, identified only as “an aide,” spoke to Katie Nicholl at Vanity Fair and compared the conflict to ugly public battles between Charles and Diana that played out through the media and did so much damage to the monarchy in the early 1990s (emphasis mine):

This is being turned into a PR battle that’s being played out in the press like the War of the Waleses. It seems unlikely there would be this level of detail without it being sanctioned by someone at the palace. It’s a dangerous tactic because it’s essentially declaring war on Harry and Meghan.

The wording of the Times piece—which doesn’t identify its sources by name—says that “Royal aides have hit back at the Duchess of Sussex.” It’s worth pointing out that the man who wrote the email at the center of the story, Jason Knauf, is still working for Will and Kate as a senior advisor, running their charity, the Royal Foundation. When Will and Harry split their joint household operations, Knauf went with the Cambridges. Richard Kay, a longtime, well-sourced royal correspondent for the Daily Mail, calls this the biggest royal crisis since the Abdication and had this to say: “Just who leaked Mr Knauf’s 2018 email to The Times scarcely matters. Its very existence suggests an escalation in the fraught relationship between William and Harry,” pointing to “Mr Knauf’s current job as the Duke of Cambridge’s right-hand man.”

Kay also wrote that, while Buckingham Palace firmly denied having anything to do with the leaks, “All the same, some courtiers are privately describing developments as ‘the Crown getting its revenge in first.’” But revenge is a tricky business, and its fallout is unpredictable. In the wake of the story, Buckingham Palace released a statement affirming its commitment to a workplace without bullying and promising an investigation into the claims. Are they going to investigate every royal who has ever screamed at an underling? They probably should, but if so, they’ll be pretty busy. (Sophie, Countess of Wessex, was once photographed hollering at her bodyguard on a public street.) Nor is a big stink about close ties to the Saudis likely to do the rest of the family any big favors, or the British government, for that matter—to say nothing of the history behind the crown jewels themselves, and the rest of the royals’ loot.

Harry and Meghan are playing very high-stakes poker by doing the Oprah interview—but so is everyone else by responding. The War of the Waleses was immensely damaging to the monarchy’s public image, and the timing for this fight is, if anything, even worse. It was the nostalgia-inducing fact of the Queen’s sheer longevity and Will and Kate’s popularity as a photogenic young couple that rescued the Windsors in the first place. But the Queen is 95, and this controversy is creeping closer and closer to the squeaky-clean public image of Will and Kate, who will rule over a Britain that is more diverse than ever. The queen, traditionally, has put out fires by smothering them, because she knows perfectly well that the fires you feed all too often escape your control.

It’s only going to get wilder from here, though. Late Wednesday night, CBS released another preview of the interview, in which Meghan told Oprah, “I don’t know how they could expect that after all of this time we would still just be silent if there is an active role that The Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us.” She’s not just referring to men in grey suits anymore, and by referencing “The Firm” directly, she’s very close to speaking specifically about members of the family themselves. It’ll only get more dramatic—and dangerous—from here.

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