Her favorite gold stag brooch and redoubtable headscarf were the Queen’s sartorial signal that she was on holiday. On Tuesday, she and Prince Philip were photographed arriving at Balmoral for a near two-month stay at their summer-getaway Scottish castle where—given the royal family’s year thus far—one could quite understand if the couple got inside and dead-bolted the door, pausing briefly to give a hearty one-fingered salute to the outside world.
They will, it is reported, be visited by family members observing social distancing measures. Since March, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh—94 and 99 years old, respectively—have been sequestered at Windsor Castle during the COVID-19 crisis, attended by a coterie of servants and aides. Prince Charles, who contracted and survived the coronavirus himself, has spoken about how difficult it was not to be able to be around family.
The circus of royal drama has not stopped during the pandemic, but rather—as extracts from Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand’s Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family have shown—become more granular and perhaps painful.
There was no official comment from Buckingham Palace as revelations tumbled forth about the fractured relationships between Prince Harry and Prince William, the myriad slights that Harry and Meghan have allegedly felt, and the clear resentment Harry feels in how he was treated by the royal family and its aides as his and Meghan’s departure from their roles was negotiated.
It cannot have been nice for the Queen to learn that Harry felt this negotiation was akin to “a firing squad.”
But the Queen has an uncanny knack—or an excellent army of proxy whisperers—for coming out smelling not quite as appallingly as everyone else. One of the most memorable tableaux, reported in the book, sees her and Harry reportedly sit down for a one-on-one traditional British Sunday lunch, with the Queen promising Harry that any time he and Meghan wanted to, they could return to the royal family.
“As they tucked into a roast lunch, the Queen made it clear to Harry that she would always support him in whatever he decided to do,” the extract in The Times of London read.
The drama sketched in the book is not intense because of slamming doors and ultimatums, but because—whether you believe it or not—it paints a picture of simmering resentments and antagonism that feel long-lasting and potentially damaging.
Some may dismiss Harry and Meghan as whining, but they feel that they have not been treated respectfully. They are annoyed that the royal family and royal machine didn’t understand and harness their popularity. They are understandably irritated that their different way of working, social activism, and operating within the world were not seen as a boon and to-be-embraced part of royal evolution, rather than something difficult and without a place.
The Queen and Prince Philip know this, and may likely feel regret as well as irritation at having such familial and administrative dysfunction laid out on public display. Harry and Meghan, never not quick to criticize anything they perceive as media wrongdoing and falsehood, have not said a word attacking the book, which seems to outline their many grievances with astonishing in-the-room intimacy.
At the time of Harry and Meghan’s announcement and then negotiation to leave the royal family, events spun out of such control that the Queen personally brought all the parties together to hammer out the deal. It says something of her practical, as well as symbolic, power that the Queen’s intervention was necessary.
She had to act with similar public visibility in regards to Prince Andrew, who according to the American authorities has not cooperated with investigators looking into allegations that he had sex with Virginia Roberts Giuffre when she was 17 and into his relationship with the disgraced dead pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who allegedly trafficked Giuffre to the prince.
Following Andrew’s disastrous non-accounting, arrogant-sounding interview with BBC’s Newsnight, the Queen removed him from public life. He wasn’t even present in his daughter Beatrice’s wedding photographs.
The Queen and Philip have known good and bad years of royal life, and good and negative press coverage. But in their advancing years, it is instructive to see how present and at the royal forefront they remain, and how much power the Queen still wields. Her coronavirus message to Britain was pitch-perfect. After the dramatic reverberations of the Harry and Meghan biography, the Queen (with trusty comic sidekick Princess Anne) provided some light relief as Anne instructed her in the art of Zoom.
Prince Charles, himself 71, is still very much an heir-in-waiting. The Queen remains visibly and determinedly at the royal tiller, and excellent at public relations.
Wishing Meghan a happy birthday this week via the royal family’s Instagram account—as did William and Kate and Prince Charles and Camilla—could be read as both a kind and heartfelt gesture and also a wider message to the world that, in the crazy world of vituperative royal in-fighting, all bridges are far from burned. The Queen’s choice of image—her and Meghan on a visit to Chester in 2018—said it all.
As the Queen and Philip settle into Balmoral life, solitude and peace is theirs; this part of Scotland is a haven of rugged wildness, and Balmoral has been the royals’ Scottish hideaway since it was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852. But the dramas Elizabeth has left behind will likely not stay dormant until October.
Meghan this week both won part of her case—that her friends should not be named at this stage of her court battle with Associated Newspapers—but was also, along with the media group, reprimanded by the judge in the case for spinning their cases in the media. She and Harry have other lawsuits against the media in train—notably over alleged drone photographs of their son Archie.
“The 19th*’s commitment to reporting and storytelling that lifts up those who are too often underrepresented in the media has never been more important,” Meghan said in a statement to Glamour. “I’m looking forward to asking the co-founder what it means to build a media outlet with gender equity, diversity, and community at its core.”
As for Andrew and Epstein, while Andrew’s lawyers and the American authorities remain at a now-familiar stalemate over his contribution to the investigation, what Ghislaine Maxwell will or won’t say about him remains unknown.
At the moment, the Queen and duke are enjoying a controversy-free start to their summer holiday. Will their children and grandchildren help keep it that way, or will the Queen’s peace be shattered in the idyll she cherishes quite literally as away from it all?