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Robert Lacey, the distinguished author and royal historian, sighed down the phone from London as he pondered the mire into which the feud between Prince Harry and his brother Prince William has driven royal relations.
Did he think there is any hope of the rift ever being healed?
Lacey replied, somewhat mournfully: “I used to be optimistic of some sort of reconciliation. I am less so now. I am actually coming to feel that it actually suits William and Kate quite well to have Harry and Meghan off the territory. You know it’s the old, ‘This town is too small for both of us’ syndrome. William and Kate are determinedly stepping into the void that Harry has left.”
It’s a particularly devastating verdict coming from an expert with the credibility and seriousness of Lacey, author of what looks set to be a definitive new tome on the relationship between Harry and William; Battle of Brothers: William and Harry—The Inside Story of a Family in Tumult.
Lacey has a long and storied career writing about the royals.
His book, Majesty, for example, has become a standard reference work for students of the British monarchy and his expertise has been recognized by the makers of the hit Netflix series The Crown, on which he is the official historical consultant, and he has also written books accompanying the series (Lacey said he could not comment on anything to do with The Crown).
His has always been a careful, measured, and accurate voice. Lacey has maintained an enviable reputation for credibility as opposed to many royal writers who churn out one sensational claim after another.
Reading his book and talking to him, you can’t help feeling that he has unearthed an absolutely essential new truth in the narrative of the Windsor family’s latest collapse; that, for all the easy assumptions made by the media and the public that the two brothers enjoyed a rock-solid bond as teenagers and young men owing to the tragic circumstances of their mother’s death, the truth of their younger lives is rather more complex.
Lacey says: “I spoke to their nanny, and she said that William was actually a rumbustious little boy and Harry was quiet and reflective and sucking his thumb. Then, as they discovered their future roles in life, they switched characters.
“By the teenage years, Harry’s coming to realize the syndrome: ‘Who’s the king of the castle? And who’s the dirty rascal?’
“Charles allowed them to create a discotheque in the basement of his home, Highgrove, and although it was called ‘Club H,’ it was very much William’s work. William was the elder brother, it was William who set up the party lifestyle and had all the drink and the wild life there with his friends.
“Harry, two and a bit years younger, was of course drawn into that.”
Lacey goes into this dynamic in great detail in the book, and even reveals an astonishing story that William was with Harry when he chose his notorious fancy dress outfit featuring a Nazi swastika.
“At the end of the process, it was Harry who came out the dirty rascal and William was smelling of roses. Harry really resented the stereotyping and does to this day. I think that lies right at the heart of the resentment,” Lacey says.
Underpinning the stereotyping, Lacey argues, is the structural inequality of the primogeniture system of kingship, whereby the eldest child gets all the power and the glory and subsequent children have no official role, making do instead on whatever crumbs their elder sibling brushes from the table.
The palace, Lacey argues, has never managed to figure out what to do with its spare heirs: “The fact is, Harry is the third spare that’s come to grief in the reign of Elizabeth II, after Princess Margaret and Prince Andrew. They start off their lives as children as co-stars with the heir, and it’s all downhill from that point onwards. And the British royal family hasn’t found a way of meeting that problem.”
The “harsh logic” of the situation, said Lacey, is that being a second or third son, your eventual redundancy is baked in to the structure of the monarchy, and while attempts were made to sugar that pill for Harry and Meghan, by doling out jobs and tours, ultimately they were left in no doubt of their unimportance, their irrelevance to the line of succession.
Lacey tells me, for example, that he finds it “absolutely astonishing” that photos of the Sussexes were not prominently displayed on the royal desk for the 2019 Christmas broadcast. “They were there the year before. But in 2019, the Queen could not even bring herself to say their name. The word Sussex never crossed her lips in her Christmas broadcast. She couldn’t even bring herself to say Archie’s name. She just referred to the arrival of her “eighth great-grandchild,” and moved on.
“They’re victims of many things, these boys, but certainly Harry is a victim of the royal system,” said Lacey.
So why then did the rift only manifest with the arrival of Meghan Markle on the scene?
“Everything was going well with the magic threesome of William and Kate and Harry, with Harry playing the subordinate backup role, and then along comes Meghan,” said Lacey. “She made Harry realize the reality of this subordinate role. Then they become the royal superstars, the royal rock stars, and the Fab Four rapidly disintegrates under the pressure of the competition for celebrity and attention and affection that Harry and Meghan create.
“William’s possible jealousy has never been voiced, but Ken Wharfe (Diana’s personal protection officer), for example, told me he always got the feeling that William had a jealousy of the lovable rogue affection that Harry generated.”
Lacey also points out that it is Harry, who has been the one, at least publicly, to offer an olive branch.
“I thought it was interesting that when Harry effectively disclosed the feud to (ITV broadcaster) Tom Bradby he followed it up, almost immediately, by saying: ‘But look, we’re brothers, we’ll always be brothers. And we’re certainly on different paths at the moment, but I’ll always be there for him, as I know he’ll always be there for me.’ I’m not aware of William ever publicly saying anything like that.”
So what was Meghan’s role in this, then?
“Meghan is sometimes seen as to the royal family what Yoko Ono was to the Beatles. But Harry has gone to great lengths to reject the term ‘Megxit’ as a title for what happened. He insists that he took the decision. But I don’t think anybody can dispute that Meghan at least crystallized the ideas and the discontents that he already had.
“She has really transformed Harry. I mean, whatever you think of the pair of them, sitting there speaking to the world about global issues of sustainability or social justice, it’s definitely not the dunce, bottom-of-the-class Harry, any longer, and I think this is another aspect that has discomforted his elder brother.”
Lacey thinks that the birth of Archie, and how Harry and Meghan wanted to bring him up, “was another moment of crystallization. Just after Archie was born, they brought him to meet Jane Goodall. They put Archie into the arms of the great anthropologist, and she sensed immediately that the little boy wanted to go back to his mother. So she handed him back but as she does so, she takes his hand and gives the royal wave and says, ‘Well he’s going to have to do a lot of this when he’s growing up’, and quick as a flash, Harry comes in and says, ‘No, he’s not growing up like that.’
“His unhappiness with the situation was sort of roiling around his instincts, and his unhappiness with it was reflected in the ups and downs of his pre-Meghan life, but there was a sense of purpose and decisiveness that came after his meeting with Meghan and the birth of Archie.”
So how bad for the royal family is the collapse of the relationship with Meghan and Harry?
“Very bad,” said Lacey. “They’ve effectively expelled two mixed race individuals. So I don’t think it’s surprising that, Barbados is saying, ‘Thank you very much, we don’t want a white Head of State anymore,’ and Jamaica looks to be going the same way.
“The Windsors so far have not been able to do ‘Woke’, and when I’ve said that, I get floods of emails from people who say, ‘Woke is finished.’ Well, I don’t agree. I do not think Woke is finished. I think Woke is the gospel of the rising generation and this couple articulated it and will go on articulating it. Harry and Meghan are united in programs of self-realization—and to hell with any blood institution that gets in the way.”
Lacey’s admiration for Harry and Meghan is not, it should be made clear, unconditional. He thinks they have made plenty of mistakes and calls them on them. See, for example, their sense of victimization.
“There’s no doubt that both Meghan and Harry have this Achilles heel of self-pity. The remarks that Meghan made at the end of the African tour rang so falsely. For her to be complaining about her own problems of how to fit into palace life in the midst of such deprivation, which they are supposed to be there addressing, showed a tin ear.
“I thought it was interesting that Meghan actually addressed this issue in a recent interview [with Teenager Therapy]. She didn’t quite apologize but she seemed to acknowledge that she’d said the wrong thing in Africa, and that she was exhausted from being a new mom. She was prepared to admit it. I think that was an encouraging sign.”
Lacey is in little doubt that 2021 is going to be a challenging year for Harry, Meghan and the royal family.
Item No. 1, of course, is Meghan’s court case against the publishers of the Mail on Sunday due to start on Jan. 11.
“Meghan has actually lost the first two rounds and she’s fired her first barrister,” Lacey noted, “She’s still with the same firm but she’s moved onto someone else.”
Lacey also points up two further dates next year when the eyes of the world will be on William and Harry.
“There is, God willing, Prince Philip’s 100th birthday in June and then an engagement to which they’re committed on July the 1st, to stand together and unveil their mother’s statue on what would have been her 60th birthday. What the world will require then is some honest explanation of what their relationship is. It will no longer be good enough to put on an act of apparently superficial contact. I mean either there will have to be some sort of reconciliation that people accept and believe in, or a civilized acknowledgement of the break.”
A full review of whether or not Meghan and Harry are judged to have abided by the terms of their departure agreement is due to occur in March. It’s a pivotal moment that could set the course of the royal family for the next decade.
“The people who will judge the success of the arrangement are the Queen, Charles and William. There’s no mention of Harry even being involved in that,” said Lacey. “So the royal family have a decision to make; are Harry and Meghan in or out? If they’re out they then become ex-royals and to be an ex-royal puts them in the same category then as the Windsors (the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson)—except unlike the Windsors, they’re not going to shut up.
“The Duke of Windsor did shut up. He produced his memoirs and went into quiet oblivion. This couple are not going quietly. They will not shut up. They are not going away.”