On the face of it the clutch of family photographs released to mark the Queen’s 96th birthday are just as they should be, a touching and heart-warming celebration of the monarch as mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
From a slideshow of images issued by Prince Charles showing him and his mother down the years, to more recent snapshots of the Queen surrounded by the Royal Family’s newest and youngest generation, they are formal and informal, in colour and in black and white. And all have one thing in common — our Queen of 70 years is wreathed in smiles.
But it is the one shared by Prince William on Twitter that perhaps bears the most scrutiny. The picture taken by the Duchess of Cambridge in 2018 shows William’s grandmother and late grandfather Prince Philip crowded together on a comfy sofa at Balmoral Castle with seven of their great-grandchildren.
In a week when Prince Harry has made a none too subtle attempt to carve out an aura of exclusivity in his own relationship with the Queen, it is a powerful — and poignant — rejoinder to set the record straight.
In a week when Prince Harry has made a none too subtle attempt to carve out an aura of exclusivity in his own relationship with the Queen
This is not the first time William appears to have subtly used images to do so — there was a similar pictorial rebuttal not so long ago concerning Harry’s apparent appropriation of their late mother.
For several years, through a combination of natural diffidence and an unwillingness to make relations with his brother even worse than they already are, William had silently watched as Harry cloaked himself ever more firmly in Princess Diana’s legacy.
Harry was at it again this week in his latest U.S. TV interview, making remarks which even the most neutral of royal observers found provocative. Asked if he felt his ‘mum’s presence’, he told NBC’s Hoda Kotb: ‘For me it is constant. It has been over the last two years. More so than ever before.’
He went on to say: ‘It is almost as though she’s done her bit with my brother and now she’s very much, like, helping me. Got him set up and now she’s helping me set up.’
A year ago, Harry used much of his Oprah Winfrey interview to make frequent claims about his mother. On that occasion, he spoke of his belief that she would have been angry at the way he and Meghan had been treated. At one stage he boldly stated of their departure from royal life: ‘I think she saw it coming.’
It may, of course, have been mere coincidence, but exactly a week after that broadcast, William publicised the hand-drawn cards his children, George, Charlotte and Louis, had made for Mothering Sunday. There was a twist, however: the cards were not for Kate but for Diana, William’s mother.
A year ago, Harry used much of his Oprah Winfrey interview to make frequent claims about his mother. On that occasion, he spoke of his belief that she would have been angry at the way he and Meghan had been treated
Inside were expressions of love and loss for the grandmother they never knew. But the cards communicated a wider message — Diana was the mother of two sons.
If this was designed to halt the torrent of comparisons between the wronged Diana and the son who believes he, too, has been the victim of an uncaring institution, William must have been bitterly disappointed.
Harry has barely drawn breath since, frequently invoking his mother’s name with regard to the frustrations he and Meghan have faced, and drawing comparisons between their own unhappiness with royal life and Diana’s. (Although it is worth pointing out that, unlike Harry, Diana, for all her difficulties, did not abandon her country and continued to serve the monarchy.)
And now, the Prince has taken his suggestion of his exceptional place in the family to a new level with the audacious claim this week that he and the Queen enjoyed a unique relationship. ‘We talk about things that she can’t talk about with anybody else,’ he boasted to NBC.
Of all his recent utterances, it is certainly one of the most breathtaking. Not only does it ask us to put aside the controversy generated by his inflammatory remarks about racism within the Royal Family, it also invites us to believe that of all the Queen’s eight grandchildren, he occupies a distinctive position as her favourite.
As one of the Queen’s longstanding staff told me: ‘No longer content to claim a special status with his mother, he now seems to be mythologising his relationship with his grandmother. Would she recognise this description? I very much doubt it.’
Harry has barely drawn breath since, frequently invoking his mother’s name with regard to the frustrations he and Meghan have faced, and drawing comparisons between their own unhappiness with royal life and Diana’s
The Queen has always been scrupulous to avoid any accusations of favouritism when it comes to her grandchildren, but insiders insist that if there was a ‘special one’ it would be not Harry but Princess Anne’s son Peter Phillips, 44, her first grandson.
‘She has always been close to Peter and admires the way he and his sister Zara handled themselves as grandchildren of the monarch but without royal titles,’ says an old friend of the Queen.
‘Like William and Harry and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Peter and Zara were children of broken homes, but were somehow more exposed because of Anne’s decision that they should not have titles. She thinks Peter especially has inherited the resilience that is so characteristic of Anne. She sees him as dependable.’
Prince Philip shared this affection and regarded Peter, outdoorsy and sporty, as the most sensible and level-headed of all his grandchildren. It was into Peter’s care that the grieving William and Harry were entrusted in the days after news of their mother’s death reached them at Balmoral.
At Gordonstoun, the tough Scottish school where Peter was head boy or ‘guardian’, as it was called, he wore his royal connections lightly. As Anne famously remarked of Peter and Zara: ‘They’re not royal. The Queen just happens to be their grandmother.’ Even when Anne’s marriage to Peter’s father, Captain Mark Phillips, was disintegrating, home life at Gatcombe continued relatively untroubled.
Indeed, its informality was such that as young boys William and Harry liked nothing more than escaping the iciness of Highgrove and their parents’ rows for relaxed Gatcombe and the company of their cousins.
Harry was at it again this week in his latest U.S. TV interview, making remarks which even the most neutral of royal observers found provocative
Even the Queen fell in with this easygoing mood. When they came into her presence, Peter was made to bow and Zara to curtsy. After that show of respect, however, the Queen was treated very much as any grandmother would be.
One afternoon when she was being cuddled on her grandmother’s knee, 18-month-old Zara took hold of the Queen’s necklace and broke the string, scattering the priceless pearls over the carpet. ‘Granny’ voiced no complaint other than a grunt of exasperation, then got down on her hands and knees and, with Peter helping her, picked them up.
Not even the break-up of Peter’s marriage to Canadian Autumn Kelly, which ended last year after 13 years and two children, dented the special relationship between grandmother and first grandchild. And you certainly won’t find Peter Phillips giving credential-burnishing interviews about his relationship with his grandmother.
So what then of the bond between Harry and the Queen? Harry was right about one thing in the interview, recorded during the Invictus Games in The Hague: ‘She has always got a great sense of humour with me,’ he declared.
And there is no doubt their ability to laugh at the same things has underpinned the relationship. But the fact is there has been precious little laughter since Harry and Meghan began releasing their ‘truth bombs’ on the Royal Family from cossetted exile in California.
Presenter Hoda Kotb places her arm on Prince Harry’s shoulder during their chat at the Invictus Games in The Hague
As a small boy, Harry’s misbehaviour often exasperated the Queen, who assumed neither Charles nor Diana nor their nannies were firm enough with him.
In his broadcast, Harry suggested an intimacy with his grandmother that some close to the royals are questioning. ‘She certainly used to worry about Harry, what with his moods and his scrapes, but because, like Prince Andrew, he fought for his country, she has always been enormously proud of him,’ a close figure tells me.
‘She also was always very conscious of his status as second in line to William, just as Princess Margaret was to her. But this didn’t confer any favouritism and after all she has hardly seen him in the last two years.’
The grandson she sees the most is 14-year-old James, Prince Edward’s son who lives nearby.
A figure familiar with the relationship between Harry and the Queen tells me: ‘A wariness has crept in in recent times, just as it did with Princess Diana.’
What then are the things they talk about that, as Harry claimed, ‘she can’t talk about with anybody else’? According to sources, her favourite topic is news of her great-grandson Archie and Lilibet, the great-granddaughter named after her and whom she has yet to meet. ‘She’s also interested in their lives in California.’
According to a Windsor aide, the meeting last week went well. ‘The Sussexes were in a good mood and so too was the Queen, she was pleased to see them.’
Insiders insist that if there was a ‘special one’ it would be not Harry but Princess Anne’s son Peter Phillips, 44, her first grandson
Which makes Harry’s other remarks about the Queen’s security all the more puzzling. His extraordinary claim that he was ‘just making sure she’s protected and has got the right people around her’, sparked fury.
Insiders believe he was referring to figures such as the Queen’s private secretary Sir Edward Young and Angela Kelly, his grandmother’s personal assistant and dresser.
Harry has had issues with both of them. Two years ago, ahead of his acrimonious departure from Britain, he blamed senior courtiers, including Sir Edward, for cancelling a lunch he and Meghan were due to have with the Queen at Sandringham where they had been invited to discuss their plans to step back from royal duties.
And in 2018 he was reported to have rowed with Liverpool-born Ms Kelly over the choice of Meghan’s wedding day tiara.
Coincidence or not, but the redoubtable Ms Kelly was photographed in a car with the Queen at Sandringham yesterday.
The NBC interview was remarkable for Harry’s absence of warm words for anyone but the Queen. Asked outright whether he missed his father and brother, he dodged the question. Just as he did on Oprah, Harry sought to make a distinction between the Queen and the institution of monarchy.
This has infuriated other royal figures who are understandably suspicious of Harry and Meghan for praising the Queen while attacking other family members.
It explains why Harry’s meeting with Prince Charles was both shorter and more fraught than that with the Queen. Nor did it help that, according to an aide, Harry and Meghan were not on time, and the Prince, who hates unpunctuality, had to leave to prepare for the Maundy Thursday service at St George’s chapel after 15 minutes.
When this latest furore calms, it will be remembered not for Harry’s failure to show fellow-feeling for his father and brother, but for the way he aggrandised his relationship with his 96-year-old grandmother. At such a venerable age, doesn’t she deserve better?