Elizabeth, Diana, Kate, Meghan: All eyes are on the royal women

‘Kings are just inherently less interesting than queens’

The coronation of King Charles last May was the first coronation most Canadians would have witnessed in their lifetime. But the air of excitement that surrounded the event was not quite the same as would have been around Elizabeth II’s ascent to the throne, way back in 1953 — an occasion still remembered, by those who did bear witness to it, as a moment fixed in time, definitive and epochal. But why, in Canada as elsewhere, did the response seem so muted?

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales

On the short drive back to the castle, the family found a mass of mourning Britons who must have gathered early to pay their respects — leaving flowers, stuffed animals and so on. The family almost certainly wanted nothing more than to grieve in private. But they chose to stop, to commune with the wailing crowd. “Acknowledgement should be made,” Harry explained. They were witnessing the first expression of public sorrow. They felt a duty to honour it.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip view the floral tributes to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, at Buckingham Palace, on Sept. 5, 1997.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip view the floral tributes to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, at Buckingham Palace, on Sept. 5, 1997.Photo by The Associated Press/Pool

And indeed, the country expected them to honour it — to mourn alongside them, to mount an unmistakable display of solidarity, to meet them at their level. Which simply wasn’t the Royal Family’s M.O. — not now, and not ever.

As word of Diana’s death spread around the country, flags everywhere began their ceremonial descent, flying at half-mast in the late princess’s honour. Or rather, almost everywhere — not at Buckingham Palace. This was seized upon and taken as an affront. The palace’s official position was that it just wasn’t customary: Firstly, the flag at Buckingham is raised only when the Queen herself is in residence, which at the time she was not (having been on a tour of Scotland); and second, the flag at Buckingham never flies at half-mast, even for the death of the monarch. An institution for whom rules and traditions are everything, the palace was committed to maintaining them despite immense public pressure.

In a way, the palace was comfortable being on the wrong side of public opinion: the monarchy was meant to operate above and beyond mere popular concerns, and it didn’t matter in the slightest to the Royal Family whether their decisions were sympathetic to the average Briton, whose sympathies were mercurial anyway. But this was not a simple case of the family being out of step with the mood of the nation. There was a deeper, more meaningful fissure, and the palace was not yet aware of it.

“As in all matters royal, we are dealing here not with pros and cons, with arguments and counterarguments; we are dealing with signs and symbols, with fever and magic,” Martin Amis wrote about the palace’s refusal to fly the flag at half-mast in his book The Rub of Time. “To the Queen, the flag (or its absence) was an emblem of her non-negotiable inheritance. To her subjects, the flag was an emblem — a display — of grief; and a display of grief was what they were demanding.” It wasn’t simply that the English felt that flying the flag at half-mast was right. It was that the palace’s decision not to seemed so wrong.

The English press, no friend to Diana in her lifetime, became her champion in death. They excoriated the Queen both for the flag and for her silence. “Where Is Our Queen?” one such headline ran. “Where Is Her Flag?” As the days passed, and as Diana’s funeral loomed, the pressure became overwhelming. Eventually, the Queen had to change her policy — if not for love of Diana, then out of a dim instinct for self-preservation.

Down the flag came, the flag that had not been lowered after the death of George VI, that had never before been a vehicle for the expression of popular emotion. The Queen and Prince Philip came together to Diana’s funeral where, owing to the climate suggested by the news media leading up to the event, they expected a frosty reception. Their return from Scotland the afternoon before the funeral “provided a moment of special anxiety,” as Robert Lacey recounted in his book Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II. “Would the waiting crowds boo,” they wondered, “or angrily pelt the royal couple with flowers?” Ordinarily they would not have risked such embarrassment, chiefly by refusing to interface with the public at all. Their choice was significant.

“The decision that the Queen and her husband would stop and get out of their car when they arrived home at Buckingham Palace,” Lacey wrote, “reflected a new royal awareness of the importance of how things looked… It would clearly be a disaster if the royal limousine swept imperiously through the palace gates, ignoring the piled-up tributes of the people… So the car drew to a halt and the Queen got out with her husband to inspect the cellophane-wrapped bundles by which the palace railings had been engulfed and oddly softened.” It was a show of fellow-feeling, of royal sympathy. She appreciated their efforts to grieve with the family, and the people welcomed her effort to play along.

It’s now plainly obvious to everyone that the palace was unprepared for the outpouring of grief provoked by the death of the princess — for its intensity and volume, and for its effects on the day-to-day business of the monarchy. A source close to the Royal Family, in Deborah and Gerald Strober’s The Monarchy: An Oral Biography of Elizabeth II, described witnessing an “outburst of emotion” that was “inexplicable.” Nor was this only limited to England. “The Canadian media made every bit as large a play about it, covered it as intensely, and as continuously: CBC had nothing else the night the news broke,” the Strobers wrote. “It was there, just as in America and everywhere in the world. It was a phenomenon.”

If the outsized affection felt for Diana transformed her death into a tragedy of world historical proportions, the undercurrent of suspicion that met the Royal Family — that they never truly loved Diana and were perhaps glad to be rid of her — had threatened to cause irreparable harm to the palace’s popular image, a crisis narrowly averted with the decision to grieve outwardly in a manner the public could understand and accept happily. Whatever doubt remained was extinguished entirely at the funeral itself, when a people in mourning observed Prince Philip walking alongside his grandson, Prince William, as part of the procession that followed the coffin. Devastation and composure: one had to respect both their pain and their mastery at keeping that stiff upper lip.

Prince Philip, Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk in Diana’s funeral procession in 1997.
Prince Philip, Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk in Diana’s funeral procession in 1997.Photo by JEFF J MITCHELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The palace doubtless regarded this situation as a crisis it weathered and ultimately bypassed. But it does seem in retrospect like a symbolic turning point in the history and legacy of a Royal Family that had weathered many worse crises over the centuries with less drastic effect. The rise of Diana in the popular imagination and, as both a consequence and byproduct of that popularity, the fallout from her death represented a clear shift in not only palace relations, but in how we think about the royals.

Diana the commoner, the everywoman, stood in stark contrast to Queen Elizabeth the royal-born, the monarch by birth right. And these two women — these two poles — came to define the Royal Family at the turn of the millennium. And, though they are both no longer with us, they still define how we think about the monarchy today. Their legacy continues in the form not of Charles and Camilla (tainted as she is by circumstance, and less popular in the role of Queen as a result), but in the form of the next presumptive queen to come: Catherine, another ordinary woman thrust into the royal spotlight, another object of endless fascination toward whom we can direct our obsessive energies.

King Charles ‘has been the villain’

On Dec. 22, 2023, the Daily Mail published a puff piece that blithely reported news of decidedly minor interest: the Prince and Princess of Wales “will make a high-profile visit to Rome in the spring as part of a European charm offensive.” Although, the paper clarified, “Kensington Palace has not officially announced the trip,” the paper “can reveal that talks are under way at the highest level and a date has been ‘pencilled in.’” The date of the trip had been set, tentatively, for some time in March.

Catherine, Prince William, Prince Harry and Meghan view floral tributes at Windsor Castle to the late Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 10, 2022.
Catherine, Prince William, Prince Harry and Meghan view floral tributes at Windsor Castle to the late Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 10, 2022.Photo by KIRSTY O’CONNOR/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

This didn’t make much of an impression until, on Jan. 17, Kensington Palace released a statement to the effect that, “Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales was admitted to hospital yesterday for planned abdominal surgery.” The rest of the statement seemed as though designed expressly not to cause alarm: the Princess “appreciates the interest this statement will generate,” but also that “the surgery was successful,” and therefore nothing to seriously worry about. The Princess hopes that people will respect her privacy in this matter. She’ll remain in hospital a few more days, then head home to continue her recovery.

Oh, and “she is unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter.”

That raised a few eyebrows. If this was indeed a “planned” surgery, one severe enough to keep her away from public duties for months, why had the Prince and Princess elected to go to Italy in March? And if the surgery was not planned — if the trip to Italy had been set for March in earnest and then disrupted by the sudden need for medical intervention — was the supposed abdominal condition from which the Princess was suffering worse than the palace was suggesting? Besides which, the Princess had not been seen much recently — not since the Royal Family’s traditional walk from Sandringham to St. Mary Magdalene Church on Christmas Day. That alone might not have seemed odd. But now, who was to say?

Meanwhile, King Charles, having announced his prostate cancer, is admitted to the London Clinic for treatment. Although his arrival isn’t photographed, there are copious photos of the Queen’s visits to her husband. When the King leaves the hospital on Jan. 29, he poses for a photograph with his wife, smiling and waving to the cameras and onlookers who have gathered to wish him well. On the very same day, it is announced by the palace that the Princess “has returned home to Windsor to continue her recovery from surgery” — but no one, apparently, saw her leave.

It’s here that the conspiracies begin to accelerate. Kate still hasn’t been seen. It’s suggested that she is in a coma (or worse). On Feb. 21, Kate’s sister, Pippa, is seen with her family on holiday in the Caribbean, which leads some people to believe that things with Kate couldn’t be all that bad; on Feb 27, William cancels his planned appearance at the memorial service of his godfather, citing “a personal matter,” which leads everyone to believe that things with Kate are much, much worse. Speculation runs rampant and, unusually, the palace deigns to respond: “We were very clear from the outset that the Princess of Wales was out until after Easter and Kensington Palace would only be providing updates when something was significant,” a spokesperson for the palace declared. “That guidance stands.”

People familiar with palace intrigue were quick to point out that the palace is not in the habit of issuing corrections or addressing rumours of any kind. Far from quelling doubt about Kate’s health, these bland statements had exactly the opposite effect, embellishing speculation with what was beginning to seem like damning, if still circumstantial, evidence. By addressing the rumours, the palace was deeming them worth addressing. That was enough to fuel the conspiratorial fires further still.

Nevertheless, the palace’s messaging continued along these lines. “If William has read any of this stuff, it will only make him more determined to stick to his guns and keep his wife out of the limelight while she recovers,” an apparent “Wales’s friend” and so-called palace insider told the Daily Beast’s Tom Sykes at the end of February, as questions continued to circulate and gain traction in the mainstream press. But as the longtime royal reporter for BuzzFeed explained, “Friends of members of the Royal Family don’t normally talk to reporters unless they’re given permission by somebody (or they wouldn’t stay friends).” So even this seemingly casual item was evidently planted — but to what end?

The Associated Press issued a rare “kill notice” advising that the photo be removed from any news outlets due to what it described as “an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand.” Others quickly found other problems. “The image has a range of clear visual inconsistencies that suggest it was doctored,” the New York Times reported shortly after the kill notice was issued. “A part of a sleeve on Charlotte’s cardigan is missing, a zipper on Catherine’s jacket and her hair is misaligned, and a pattern in her hair seems clearly artificial.” These mistakes suggested either a great deal of “manipulation,” in the words of the Associated Press, or outright fabrication, which led many to believe that Kate was either incapable of posing for such a photograph or did not appear, physically, like herself.

It isn’t difficult to parse the intention behind this photograph: releasing a candid, on social media rather than to the press, was meant to clear up any doubts about Kate’s whereabouts and health, because surely if she could post a photo with her kids on Mother’s Day, nothing could be very wrong. But releasing such a heavily doctored photo proved worse than if the palace hadn’t released anything at all. Was the palace attempting to manipulate the situation — that it, or that Kate, had something to hide? Why else would you put out a fake picture?

A sampling of British front pages on March 23, dominated by stories about the Princess of Wales’s cancer diagnosis.
A sampling of British front pages on March 23, dominated by stories about the Princess of Wales’s cancer diagnosis.Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

It came as a shock to the people who’d followed this story so carefully, too, despite the now all-too-obvious signs that something had been wrong — of the many theories laid out for weeks and months, this was among the most terrible. How much better it would have been had this been just a misunderstanding after all. The secret plastic surgeries, the nose job gone wrong: cruel though these conspiracies now sounded, knowing the reality, they would have been infinitely preferable to the truth.

But the PR blunders of the previous two months were not absolved by the admission that the Princess was in a health crisis. The palace could have revealed this information to the interested public in a million different ways. It chose, effectively, the worst possible one. Why did the palace pursue this dubious path? It relates, strangely enough, back to Diana, whose own relationship with the press and with the truth, with private revelations snatched away and made public without her consent, was woven deeply into the fabric of her life as a royal. It’s no secret that Diana’s fatal crash was precipitated by the paparazzi who had been cruelly hounding her car, compelling the driver to head into that fateful tunnel at more than twice the speed limit. And it’s not insignificant that the involvement of the British tabloid media in this accident would shape how her sons, Harry and William, saw the function of the press and the palace’s relationship to it forever.

Diana’s death instilled in her sons a powerful animosity toward paparazzi, and even toward the more legitimate organs of the press. In Harry this manifested, eventually, in the decision to step away from his duties and whisk his wife away from the world of flash bulbs and probing microphones. Meghan Markle’s complex relationship with the press — their interest in her, her antipathy towards them, and the wildly enduring maelstrom created by the tension between the two — has many parallels with the tabloid turmoil that engulfed Diana, and what happened to Diana naturally looms large over Harry and Meghan’s decision to reject that life out of hand.

William and Kate stayed the course, but not without certain protections of their own. Diana is the reason that William and Kate maintain an Instagram page: it wrests control, the tinniest sliver of it, back from the press and into their hands, allowing them to show what they want, to cultivate an image for themselves. They were willing to offer a part of themselves up for consumption, as they knew they must.

Social media must have seemed, to this family, like a lifeline. William and Harry “grew up vowing not to take part in what they viewed as a pathological relationship between the Royal Family and the press, one in which they were the abused partners,” the English journalist Mark Landler wrote. “The rise of social media gave this younger generation of royals a way to bypass the tabloids they reviled, with popular platforms like Instagram and Twitter, where they could post carefully curated news and images of themselves, unmediated by the London papers or the lurking paparazzi.” Instead of being hounded, the royals could post.

Meghan Markle and Catherine, then the Duchess of Cambridge, in happier times in 2018.
Meghan Markle and Catherine, then the Duchess of Cambridge, in happier times in 2018.Photo by CHRIS JACKSON/AFP/Getty Images

It is the women on whom these pressures are exerted the most forcefully. Kate and Meghan are near-constant tabloid fodder and have been virtually the entire time they have been involved with Harry and William. And as with Diana, interest in Kate and Meghan stems at least in part from their status as outsiders, which has made them both more relatable and oddly removed from the cloistered society to which they now belong.

But if there was one positive consequence of these events it was to remind us, and to remind the palace, that people still care about the Princess of Wales, and care passionately — to obsess over her well-being and whereabouts for months on end, and to scrutinize her every photograph and statement for evidence, and finally to grieve about her diagnosis and what it might mean for the future of her health. This is not something to be taken for granted. These are the very passions that have fuelled the monarchy throughout its long reign in England, that have kept interest in the royals alive for so long. It may not have been the kindest expression of interest, prying like that, but it shows how much we all still care.

Public favour varied through her reign but on the whole it was clear that Queen Elizabeth II was deeply, even universally, beloved. Her longevity arguably allowed the monarchy to endure despite changes in public perception and the shifting political landscape of the 20th century and into the 21st, bringing sheer consistency to bear on an institution that might not have easily weathered change. It hasn’t been the same for Charles. We know him, we grew up with him. But do we love him?

Diana, Princess of Wales, attends a christening at Sandringham in 1990.
The legacy of Diana, Princess of Wales, shown after attending a christening at Sandringham Church in 1990, continues to loom over the Royal Family.Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

In the figure of Kate we can see a future for the monarchy, not as merely the wife but as the Queen. She has the capacity to be loved by the nation that imbued Elizabeth with the power of a true leader, as well as the ability to weather the kinds of public scrutiny and hardships she will face as the leader to come. More subtly, even subconsciously, Catherine the Queen would seem in some sense to fulfil the dream of Princess Diana had she survived that fateful night in August, and had things turned out differently (so differently!) with Charles.

It will not come as a surprise that people continue to celebrate Diana’s life, even in death — her legacy lives on and looms over the Royal Family, and probably always will. But in the figure of Kate at least, if not Charles (or William), there may be a chance for the royals to enjoy a sort of do-over, to appreciate one of the royal women in the right way, without risk of taking things too far. And there may be an opportunity, too, for the palace to soften its stance around rules and traditions and make room for the passion it needs to sustain itself.

Diana is gone. Elizabeth is gone. Meghan has stepped away from her duties. Perhaps in Kate, the legacy of these women can live on for a new generation.

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