There was an interesting detail tucked into one of the many postmortems on the Sussexes’ split from the monarchy. It came from Tom Bradby, a journalist friendly enough with the couple that he did the TV interviews in Africa where Harry and Meghan spoke about the tough time they were having. In January, he reported in the Sunday Times that the pair had returned “refreshed” from their end-of-year break and wanted to meet with the rest of the family and various officials to discuss how they might work toward becoming financially independent. “Harry was asked to put pen to paper with some ideas for discussion. He was reluctant, on the grounds that such documents normally leak,” Bradby explained. But Harry was talked into it, and sure enough: “The document, or its details, was shortly afterward leaked to The Sun. And then, once he had gone ahead with an announcement anyway, palace officials claimed to have been blindsided by it.”
There’s something very important to remember when consuming news about the royals: while they’re presented by the media and consumed here in America as a family saga, a tight circle of dramatic and nuanced relationships, the inner workings of the monarchy is less a family-focused fairy tale than a satirical workplace comedy about a bunch of branch offices of varying importance to HQ, sometimes working together and sometimes absolutely not. Basically, it’s Palace Veep, or the pitch-black British version of The Office.
Of course, in centuries past, schemes and plots behind palace walls were much higher stakes for everyone involved. (Just ask Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.) As the monarch’s power has waned, matters became less life-and-death. But that didn’t mean an end to the intrigue behind palace gates. During Victoria’s reign, her extremely staid, respectable household at Windsor and her son Bertie’s glittering, fast court around Marlborough House were two entirely different visions of what monarchy was even supposed to do—two competing webs of royals and functionaries and flunkies and hangers-on. It took years for Victoria’s heir to liberate himself and create his own court in the first place; for a long time, as biographer Jane Ridley recounts, Bertie’s office was run by men handpicked by his mother to report back on whatever happened to Victoria, who almost always found fault with something her son was doing.
While the “royal family” is literally a family, the monarchy as a public institution is really more of a family-run business. The Firm, as they call it. But this isn’t some guy and his kids running a furniture business together, sitting in an office handling payroll and troubleshooting supply chain issues. Instead, the royal family is made up of several households, containing independent operations for each of the major players with dedicated staff. That’s a lot of cooks, all of whom have subtly different interests—hence the occasional palace intrigue.
There’s Buckingham Palace, the metonym for the Queen’s household; there’s Clarence House, which refers to Prince Charles’s operation. At one point, William and Harry shared a household out of Kensington Palace, but they split after Harry got married. At that point, Harry and Meghan got their own outfit—but it was based out of Buckingham Palace and therefore tucked into the chain of command for the Queen’s own household.
All the other working royals have their own households, too. Perhaps the most chaotic place on the internet is the Wikipedia page for “Royal Households of the United Kingdom.” From the Queen to the Princess Royal to the randos like the Duke and Duchess of Kent, they’ve all got their own crew. Until Andrew was shoved out the door, he had an office out of Buckingham Palace with a private secretary named Amanda Thirsk, who was apparently just a little too supportive of the prince: she reportedly encouraged him to do the disastrous Newsnight interview and set the world straight.
That’s the tricky part about being a courtier—part of the job is being able to see when a royal is fucking up, and then make them stop, which is much, much easier said than done. And these people are extremely important in the way that monarchy is presented and maintained, as the Telegraph explained in 2019:
The Men in Grey, as Diana called them, have successfully ensured the survival of the House of Windsor. As Queen Mary’s biographer, James Pope Hennessy, warned: “it is courtiers who make royalty frightened and frightening.” They maintain control by undermining power with gossip and setting up rivalry between courts. Clarence House took on Kensington Palace during Charles and Diana’s acrimonious divorce in 1996.
When things are going well and everybody’s getting along, this structure is functional, if byzantine. Each of the royals has their own crop of patronages and causes and subtly different branding based on their interests, personality, and role in the monarchy, so it makes sense they’d each have their own set of staff to interface with the outside world, communicating their brand to the media. If anything, this fascinating piece at Town and Country points out, Buckingham Palace and the rest of the monarchy probably should have staffed up in the PR department upon Meghan’s arrival and the intensifying media interest in the family. (No wonder the Sussexes would eventually hire PR firm Sunshine Sachs.)
But this series of fiefdoms also leaves a lot of potential for rivalries, miscommunication, and just plain attitude between the various households. In Sarah Bradford’s biography of Princess Diana, she describes the somewhat contentious relationship between the households of the sovereign and the heir, back in the 1980s: “Buckingham Palace tended to regard the chaotic office of the Prince of Wales at St. James Palace as something of a joke.”
There were tensions, too, between the people around Charles and the people around Diana. Her private secretary Patrick Jephson (not a neutral source, of course) told Bradford: “In the background, the Prince’s party at court tended to regard Diana as ‘a mystery and a threat and somebody to be demeaned, mocked, or briefed against, or constrained and restrained in some way. They used to talk very patronisingly about “putting her in a box where she couldn’t do too much harm.’” Once they separated, staff very much had to pick a side, because the “War of the Waleses” was on.
And it’s sounding like there are similar tensions at work in the back-and-forth between the Sussexes and the mothership. In the Telegraph’s royal newsletter, Camilla Tominey reported that “behind palace doors, some courtiers expressed concern that the Queen had not gone far enough, arguing that the only way to truly stop the Sussexes setting up as competition in North America was to strip them of their royal title altogether.” Though at this point, the couple is planning to shut down their Buckingham Palace office at the end of March as part of leaving the ranks of working royals, meaning they won’t even have their own in-house team in the mix. Instead, they’re increasingly leaning on team of advisors from outside the courtly universe, which surely won’t help the problem of competing agendas.
On top of fractures within the family itself, just as Prince Philip retired, the Windsors also lost the man who was reportedly good at keeping them all in line. In 2017, with the Duke of York’s help, Charles apparently forced out Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s longtime private secretary, because he wanted more duties handed over faster as part of succession planning. The problem is that Geidt was actually good at keeping all these people in line. The Telegraph reported:
The highly respected former Scots Guard, who was ousted after 10 years in a reported power struggle with Prince Charles and the Duke of York, “ran a very tight ship” and his replacement Sir Edward Young is “nowhere near as powerful”, according to insiders.
One source said: “He hasn’t got the strength of character of Geidt. Sir Christopher used to help to sort out all of the family stuff, which is why he locked horns with Prince Charles and the Duke of York.”
Hence: Prince Andrew doing an absolutely disastrous interview on his own initiative, conflict between the young royals filtering out into view, Harry and Meghan walking out, and so forth, all of it magnified by the underwater iceberg of each visible royals’ personnel. You’ve got that many people with that many interests, somebody needs to be able to smack heads together—or else.