Itt’s the world’s most famous and, some might argue, dysfunctional family: Britain’s House of Windsor exudes wealth, glamor and a remarkable penchant for backstabbing that has beguiled us regular folk for decades.
From the acrimonious split between Charles and Diana, the sordid relationship between Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite son Prince Andrew and convicted pedophile Jeffery Epstein, to accusation of racism from Meghan and Harry—Britain’s Royals can’t help courting the controversy they’re so desperate to avoid.
Tina Brown, former editor-in chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair The New YorkerPublies The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, Through years of research, interviews and discussions with close royal sources, this book sheds light on the secretive clan.
Brown discussed her book with TIME and the next steps for the Royal Family. This interview was edited to be more concise and clear.
You book will be divided into chapters about different royals. Which story was the most challenging to gain access?
As I was writing it, the Meghan and Harry story was growing rapidly. And that went through bursts of people really willing to talk but then you’d have periods where everybody was in full lockdown. In a weird way, I think they were the most challenging.
Was there a surprise that you found in the writing of this book?
It’s amazing how difficult it can be to fit into that system. You know it’s a gilded cage, you know that there’s all these constrictions. But by the end of it, I just felt like I’d been trapped in a mothballed cupboard with people banging on the door trying to get out. The second shock was how awful the media was for Harry and William. How deeply phone hacking, spying, stalking, and other forms of surveillance impacted their lives and how heartless and brutal the press was.
You write that “there was probably never a more dangerous candidate than Diana to unwittingly enter a loveless marriage.” Could her union with Charles ever have worked?
I think it could have worked if she’d met him when she was 29 and had a life and had some knowledge of life. She was only a child from a turbulent, riven background. The only way you can survive inside the monarchy is if you have a family background that is so secure that it’s going to be like a Praetorian guard around you, and somehow protect you from not only the scrutiny of the world, but also from the royal system. That kind of family is what Camilla Middleton and Kate Middleton both have. Diana didn’t and had a family that hardly spoke to one another. It was terrible for her to marry a man who then had an affair with her. For her, it was like a nightmare.
You note that “even at her most bitter ebb with the royal family, [Diana] was always a monarchist.” How would she have performed as queen?
Ironically, Charles and her became very cordial at the end of their lives in the late 90s. She would probably have had another child and would have understood that it was not going to work out as she had hoped. In her 60s today she would still be in prime condition. Her reign would have been a magnificent one, according to me.
You write that you find it “offensive to present the canny, resourceful Diana as a woman of no agency.” In which case, was she not a cruel woman for playing out her failing marriage to her children via the world’s press?
Instead, because she was so consumed by her emotions and her anguish that it became difficult to see the effects of her decisions on her family, While many of her actions caused hurt to her children, it was all balanced by her warmth and her wonderful mothering skills. There’s a lot going on with Diana and my point is this whole victim, martyr image that she has developed in the last five years is just not the case. We keep hearing that she was complex, interesting, and self-determining.
As you put it, “Kate’s charm is less about dazzle and more about sheen.” Could Meghan have learnt from her example better?
These women are so different. I don’t think they were never going to have a particularly close affinity whatever had happened. They would have had a very cordial relationship. Kate was raised English and has been working since she was 21. It’s an entirely different outlook on the world. I’m also not sure that anybody could have really changed how Meghan felt about what she discovered when she married Harry. It was a disorienting experience to find out what life was like inside the palaces. It was not what she imagined. The life that she was going to lead was just a big grind—and she didn’t like it.
You write that “Love and Strategy would be a good name for a Kate Middleton perfume.” How big a role did Kate’s mother have in “arranging” her union with William?
It was an absolute love match, and it is still. I think that Kate fell madly in love with William, but there’s a difference between falling madly in love with somebody and being able to navigate for 10 years the obstacle course that was like a Snakes and Ladders game. She could have at any point stepped on a snake and gone down to the bottom of the chute because it was full of obstacles—press, family—and I think that [Kate’s]It was tremendously important that my mother kept the course straight.
You call Prince Andrew “a coroneted sleaze machine” and paint him as arrogant, entitled, and vindictive. Are there redeeming characteristics?
Somehow, I feel sorry that he is there. He’s clearly a dim bulb, there’s very little going on upstairs, and he’s something of an oaf. It’s clear that he doesn’t know how the rest of the world sees him. It is very difficult to be intellectually receptive and surround yourself with sycophancy. He didn’t know who he was, nor did he have any taste for people.
I suppose the British people are lucky he wasn’t the first-born son?
So lucky! Whatever misgivings you have about Prince Charles, he’s an extremely decent man, who strives to do good in the way that he sees it. For 50 years, he’s been grinding out good works and hasn’t had a great deal of affirmation for it. Imagine Andrew becoming king. This would lead to the demise of the institution.
You portray Prince Harry as a complete hate-monger. Doesn’t that make his current foray into media all the more puzzling?
I’m told that is most puzzling to the royal family themselves at the moment. Apparently, what they say about Harry is ‘we don’t recognize him.’ Essentially, this conflict between wanting no press to being someone who can’t seem to stop talking. And he’s now writing a book which invades not just his own privacy but also that of his family, when he’s always suffered so deeply from these tell-all books. I think Harry must be in his own mind completely confused about what he should and shouldn’t be doing.
Many royal disputes revolve around money. It is difficult to slim down this institution and make it modern. Members are forbidden to work at the centre, are then encouraged to drift outside and take charge of their own lives. Yet they’re completely unprepared for the real world and can’t leverage personal connections without criticism that they’re leaching off their positions. Isn’t it unsustainable?
It’s become more and more incompatible with modern life. I think what older generations were prepared to do, which was to live on an allowance and do the good work, it’s much harder today for modern people to accept doing, though Kate and William have accepted that. However, the Queen says that Prince Philip did not feel secure when he was her husband and consort. He found ways to be extremely helpful to the world. He quickly took up his post and turned it into an extremely powerful platform. You could actually live comfortably with the money you have, in lovely houses that are going to continue being paid for. But you do feel infantilized, and I think that’s what Meghan disliked most about being married to Harry. This is a person who earned a living aged 21 and now she’s totally dependent upon a man who really is completely dependent on his family. So that’s kind of quite an uncompromising feeling.
After Meghan and Harry’s hugely successful first tour to Australia in 2018, you write that Meghan believed that “the monarchy likely needed her more than she needed them.” Was she correct?
As we witnessed from the Commonwealth tour, a lot of her intuitions were correct. [from William and Kate]It went horribly. Meghan felt that much of what she did in Australia was archaic. Her contribution to media modernity was significant, according to me. But [her pushback]was executed in a chaotic manner and filled with bad feeling and recklessness.
You write how William and Kate would calm each other down while Harry and Meghan feed each other’s sense of indignation and victimhood?
You can be one of [Harry and Meghan’s] team said: ‘they’re addicted to drama,’ which seems to be opposite with William and Kate—they are all about ‘let’s keep it calm, let’s keep this composure and not have drama.’ It’s interesting as I came to think that William had very much become a Windsor, and Harry has become all out Spencer [Diana’s family name]. They are an impetuous, hot-headed family that is full of drama and swashbuckling.
You suggest that if William and Kate’s marriage got into trouble, “the whole Windsor house of cards could come tumbling down.” If the institution is really that brittle, how many generations of royals can we possible have left?
It is fragile. It’s very interesting how it evolves now [because]You will have to make it more modern. If there is drama between William & Kate, it will make it difficult for the organization to continue credibly. So they’re very lucky that they have these two people who are actually willing to serve their country and follow the path of duty as the Queen has. William is very similar to his grandmother. He’s very prudent, he’s thoughtful, he’s not headstrong. That’s a lucky thing for the monarchy. We have to wonder if Harry was the monarchy’s first son. Would it still exist?
It’s acknowledged that race played in Meghan and Harry’s withdraws from the family. Are there signs that the family is working to solve its diversity issues?
The palace seems to be trying to solve it. There’s no doubt that Meghan must have felt very isolated. She wouldn’t have been meeting anybody who looked like her in that period. It was only 8% in diversity. It was, I believe, a wake-up call. They’ve said as much and have appointed a diversity executive now.
Given how the ruthlessness of the British tabloid press, demonstrated by how it targeted Meghan’s family, especially her father Thomas Markle, it appears to enter the royal family is to almost curse anyone close to you.
It’s horrible. I remember when I had lunch with Diana in 1997, she said to me: ‘I’ve got nowhere to go for August because nobody wants me to come and stay.’ I was startled and said: ‘What do you mean, you’re the most popular woman in the world!’ But she said, ‘No, but when I come and stay you’ve got the press hounding you, going through your trash, spying through the windows, it’s a nightmare.’ And I did feel even although Tom Markle has done some very reprehensible things, I mean he’s not easy to like, however I felt that he had been horribly treated by the press, and sort of seduced and exploited. To see him watching his daughter’s wedding at Windsor Castle in an AirBnB by the Mexican border, hiding from the press, mortified by everything that had happened. You know, it’s a sad image.
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