In September 2013 armed police confronted a suspected intruder in the lush gardens of Buckingham Palace, provoking the target of their suspicions to howl with outrage: “Do you know who I am?” The officers offered apologies for failing to recognize Prince Andrew, but the Queen’s second son, fifth in line to the British throne, might not now be embroiled in controversy if he hadn’t been groping for an answer to the same question for more than a decade. Since retiring from the Royal Navy in 2001, he has been more at sea than ever.
The controversy relating to the disgraced U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein shows no signs of dying down any time soon, no matter that Andrew is “incredibly clear” in the words of a royal source that he has done nothing wrong. A legal process against Epstein in the U.S. must take its course and Virginia Roberts, one of the litigants, is reported to be mulling a tell-all book. The palace usually refuses to comment on matters relating to the private lives of the royals but has been bounced into making two extraordinary statements, the first on Jan. 2 rejecting “any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors” by the Prince as “categorically untrue”; the second on Jan. 4 referring to Andrew by his official title. “It is emphatically denied,” said the palace, “that HRH The Duke of York had any form of sexual contact or relationship with Virginia Roberts. The allegations made are false and without any foundation.”
The second rebuttal came in response to an interview with Roberts in the Mail on Sunday. She alleged she had worked for Epstein for three years as a “sex slave” and had on three separate occasions while only 17 been steered by him to sexual contacts with the Prince. Roberts waived anonymity to give the interview. In December, as “Jane Doe 3,” she had joined a civil suit in a Florida court with three other women, all claiming past abuse by Epstein and objecting to the arrangement that saw him convicted in 2008 on a charge of procuring an underaged person for prostitution rather than answering in court to the allegations of Roberts and her fellow litigants. The documents lodged by Roberts in the civil suit not only allege sexual relations with the Prince and with Epstein but also with the former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has vigorously denied the claims and used an interview with the BBC to accuse Roberts of lying. In a second BBC interview, Dershowitz said he hoped for the opportunity to test Roberts’ allegations in court and urged Prince Andrew to “take whatever legal action is available.” Lawyers consulting with palace officials have indicated that the options for such action appear limited. Even if a case could be brought, palace sources are aware that such a course would be fraught with risk, at very least dragging back into the public eye the messy backstory that brought Andrew into Epstein’s orbit.
It’s at very least a tale of money and poor judgment. The Prince is by no means the only senior royal to seek out wealthy company, lured by the apparent protection such company affords — the secluded retreats, the private security, the largesse. Andrew, like his big brother Charles, often seeks to raise money for his own charitable ventures. But in 2010, when Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah Ferguson — “Fergie” — came close to bankruptcy, charity began closer to home with Epstein helping to pay off her debts. This embarrassing revelation emerged after a photographer snapped Epstein, recently released after serving 13 months of his 18-month jail sentence, strolling through Central Park in New York in conversation with the Prince. Andrew’s decision to maintain the friendship despite Epstein’s criminal conviction unleashed a wave of criticism that eventually precipitated the royal’s 2011 resignation from his post as the U.K.’s special representative for international trade and investment. It wasn’t a paid job but had been the Prince’s main occupation since his navy days.
The challenge for Andrew and his palace minders has long been how to keep him meaningfully occupied and out of the headlines. There isn’t really enough royal work to go round, especially since the younger generation has started to pitch in. The Prince’s penchant for the good life earned him the nickname “Air Miles Andy” and has resulted in a trove of images that consolidated his image as a playboy, including a shot of him on Epstein’s yacht in 2001 surrounded by topless women and, from the same year, with his arm around the waist of a pretty blond: Virginia Roberts.
He has also broken bread with some pretty dodgy people, sometimes of choice and sometimes at the behest of the U.K. government, which likes to deploy royal soft power around the world. Until the financier’s downfall and conviction, Epstein appeared reasonably respectable by comparison, with a circle of friends that has been reported to include former President Bill Clinton among other well-known figures. The litigants have questioned whether Epstein’s connections helped him to strike his 2008 plea bargain. A royal source says that Prince Andrew vehemently denies having interceded with the U.S. authorities on Epstein’s behalf.
Another source speaks of the quiet work that has gone into carving out a lower profile set of activities for Andrew in the years since his association with Epstein tipped him out of the U.K. trade role. He had seemed, rather later in life, to be finding himself by focusing on charitable work, says the source. The fresh scandal threatens to define him in quite different terms, and risks contagion to the wider Windsor brand, and that is why palace officials will not fully rule out any options about what may happen, not even the prospect of the royal court seeking redress from a court of law.