It’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.
On April 26, Tina Brown, the former editor-in-chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, publishes The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil, which pulls back the curtain on this secretive clan through years of research and interviews with intimate royal sources.
Brown spoke to TIME about her book and what lies next for the Royal Family. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book is split into chapters on different top royals. Which was the hardest story to get access for?
The Meghan and Harry story was exploding as I wrote it. And that went through bursts of people really willing to talk but then you’d have periods where everybody was in full lockdown. So I would say that they were the hardest in a strange way.
What was the biggest surprise in writing this book?
How incredibly difficult it is to fit in 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. And the second thing that shocked me was just how bad the press was to the adolescent Harry and William, how deeply that phone hacking and spying and stalking impacted their lives, and how absolutely heartless and ruthless 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. But she was a child and from a very turbulent and riven family. 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. Both Camilla and Kate Middleton have that kind of family. Diana didn’t and had a family that hardly spoke to one another. She was the worst candidate to have a husband who then cheated on her. It was like the worst nightmare for her.
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?
The irony was that at the very end of her life in the 90s, she and Charles became on quite cordial terms. I think the anguish would have died down, she probably would have had another child, and she would have accepted that this was a marriage that was never going to be the romance she thought. Today, in her 60s, she would have been in her prime. I believe she would have been an absolutely superb Queen.
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?
No, when consumed by her passions and her anguish, she became thoughtless of the impact of her actions on her family. A lot of the things she did were very hurtful to her boys but it was all mixed up with her incredible warmth and 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. She was a complicated woman and much more interesting and much more self-determining than we keep hearing.
As you put it, “Kate’s charm is less about dazzle and more about sheen.” Could Meghan have learnt from her example better?
They are just such different women. I don’t think they were ever going to have a particularly close affinity whatever had happened. I think there would have been a cordial relationship. Kate was raised in such a traditional English way; Meghan has been a career woman and fending for herself from the age of 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. To her, it was just an utterly disillusioning process to discover what it was like to live inside the palace system. Compared to what she had imagined, there was no fairy princess-ness about any of it. 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?
No, it was a complete love match and still is. 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] mother was hugely helpful in keeping that course steady.
You call Prince Andrew “a coroneted sleaze machine” and paint him as arrogant, entitled, and vindictive. Does he have any redeeming qualities?
In some ways I feel sorry for him. He’s clearly a dim bulb, there’s very little going on upstairs, and he’s something of an oaf. He certainly has no clue how he comes off in the world. Unfortunately, being intellectually dim and surrounded by sycophancy is a very bad combination. So he wound up just not having a clue who he is, and having absolutely terrible taste in 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 if Andrew was about to be king! I think it would be the death of the institution.
Your portrayal of Prince Harry has him utterly consumed by hatred of the press. 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.
A lot of royal conflicts revolve around money. But how can this institution slim down and modernize when members are born into the very center and forbidden from work, but then drift out to the periphery and are suddenly encouraged to fend for themselves? 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. But what the Queen would say is that Prince Philip felt caged when he came in as her husband and consort, and he found a way to make himself extreme useful to the world. He took his position and made it into a very powerful platform. And frankly, you could live very, very comfortably on the allotted money in beautiful houses which are always going to be 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?
A lot of her instincts were right as we saw from the recent Commonwealth tour [from William and Kate] that went so badly. Meghan sensed that a lot of the stuff she was doing in Australia felt archaic. I think she had a lot to offer in terms of media modernity. But [her pushback] was just chaotically executed and done with such recklessness and bad feeling that a lot of this stuff got mixed up.
You write how William and Kate would calm each other down while Harry and Meghan feed each other’s sense of indignation and victimhood?
As 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]. The Spencers are a very hot headed, impetuous family with a lot of swashbuckling drama.
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 in a fragile state. It’s very interesting how it evolves now [because] it is going to have to modernize more. I do think that it will be very hard for it to credibly continue if there was drama at the top between William and Kate. 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. I think that William has quite a lot of resemblance to his grandmother. He’s very prudent, he’s thoughtful, he’s not headstrong. That’s a lucky thing for the monarchy. You have to wonder, if the first son had been Harry would it have survived?
It’s acknowledged that race played in Meghan and Harry’s withdraws from the family. Is there any sign the household is trying to address its diversity problems?
I think the palace is trying to address 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. The diversity of the palace was about 8%. So I think that was a wakeup call. They’ve said as much and have appointed a diversity executive now.
Given 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 though 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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