Happy (almost) New Year, everyone. I didn’t write one of these posts last year, but I did in 2017, and I think they’re worth doing as we level-set before 2020. Royal watching is fun for history and fashion lovers (and maybe gossip lovers?), but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the minutia and lose the forest through the trees. The last three years have been eventful for the British Royal Family, but I think it’s worth recognizing that so many of the micro-dramas we’re watching play out are dictated by a macro- one: we’re in the last years of Elizabeth II’s reign and the family is positioning itself, organically and otherwise, for what will likely prove one of the most momentous occasions in its history.
And I say that, yes, with full knowledge that kings and queens have lost their heads, civil wars have been fought, and England has occasionally conquered the better part of France.
While we spend the year following engagements and jumping on the latest news cycle, this post attempts to pull out the key moments that defined the last 12 months and zoom out far enough to identify the broader trends. In other words, while 2019 was defined by the Sussexes and the Duke of York, the larger foundational shift is the continuation of what began in 2017 and 2018: positioning the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge as future kings.
The Andrew drama was – and still is – sordid and damaging, but it also distilled for many Charles’s value to his family and the Commonwealth. Whatever his detractors may say, he has decades of hard work and tangible success behind him, and a clear vision for what he wants the monarchy to look like in the future. Slimmed down, obviously, but more to the point: devoid of people in positions like Andrew – royal by birth, but without the power or rank to be truly impactful. We don’t know the exact course of events that went on behind-the-scenes when Andrew was sacked, but I think the assumption that Charles played a key role in it – indeed, that his mother gave way to him on this – isn’t wide of the mark. Even more, it was the right call. 2019 was a good year for Charles.
It was also a good year for William, if only by default. In theory, he’s been in the eye of a fraternal storm with Harry for the better part of 18 months, but he’s pretty much quietly gone about his business. His greatest sin is perhaps being a bit awkward at Easter, or perhaps letting slip that he had no idea when his nephew was due, but against the backdrop of his family’s behavior this year, that’s small potatoes. If the rumor that William prompted the splitting of The Royal Foundation is true, then it certainly indicates that he has the backbone to take on the top job. Or rather, that he too has a clear vision for how he intends to conduct his work and the forthrightness to protect that as needed.
The differences in personality between the brothers has become all the more apparent, and the situation actually calls to mind a scene from the latest season of The Crown, when Philip tells Elizabeth the monarchy has always needed an Elizabeth over a Margaret, like a George VI over an Edward VIII, or a Queen Victoria over an Edward VII. William and Harry are another pair that are worth considering in that line up, because it wasn’t too long ago that William was compared with his younger brother and found wanting, at least per opinion polls. Harry is more spontaneous, more candid, and is often described by royal reporters as having the best bed-side manner in the family. By contrast, William is reserved, cautious, and when he’s not happy, a tad cold. Perhaps. I would argue that until very recently, William has had a lot more to protect, and in general, a lot more at stake.
Arguably, we’re seeing the downside of Harry’s temperament, and thus the benefit of William’s. We’re also still very much in the middle of this story. I personally think Harry brings tremendous value to the Royal Family, and I sincerely hope that whatever the growing pains have been over the last 18 months, things are smoothed out professionally and personally as soon as possible.
It’s also worth anchoring Harry’s behavior to the shifting dynamics of the succession. Harry has the most power and leverage he will ever have right about now, and for the years when his father is king but Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte are too young to work. Thus, it makes sense for Harry to pursue his work aggressively today, with the understanding that his star will fade as he ages. Likewise, it behooves him to carve out a space in the royal and public worlds that will create enough flexibility and longevity to sustain him down the road. The rub is that it would be ideal if he did so with the blessing of the Queen, Charles, and, yes, William.
Of the past three years, 2019 has certainly been the grimmest. It’s hard to believe that this year started out with Harry and Meghan still living in Nottingham Cottage, or that Archie’s birth was only seven months ago. A lot happened. With that, let’s tick our way through.
A dramatic year started pretty quietly. The biggest announcement was from Kensington Palace that Meghan had adopted her first four patronages: the National Theatre, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Smart Works, and Mayhew. Before the end of the month, she carried out her first engagements with each of them. It was all very in keeping with Meghan’s efficient and aggressive (in a good way) approach to her work: say it and then do it.
This month saw the beginning of the Sussexes’ media trouble, a narrative that we’re still watching play out. Negative stories began to pile up, accusing Meghan of being difficult to work with (and for) and providing a platform for her estranged family to harass her. After months of silence, Meghan finally hit back by ok’ing several of her friends to speak on the record with People Magazine. The consequences of this move would prove deadly (ok, not literally): Not only did it piss off the British press that the exclusive went to an American publication, but her father returned the volley by giving the Mail on Sunday a personal letter Meghan wrote in the Summer of 2018.
Kate also planted the seeds (pun kind of intended) for what would prove her major project this year: KP announced that she was working on a garden with the Royal Horticultural Society that would debut at the Chelsea Flower Show. The disparity between this paragraph and the last one is illustrative of so very much, no? More significantly, how KP released this information was indicative of a slightly newer approach. They provided photographs of Kate working behind-the-scenes and highlighted just how much hands-on work she had been doing privately. This wasn’t the first time, but I do think over the past year, KP has really doubled down on showing us how much work goes on that we don’t see. Yes, I think it’s a partial response to the “work shy” narrative that’s followed the Cambridges for years, and yes, I do think it’s effective.
This was also the month of mini-tours that feel so long ago I borderline forgot they happened. Harry and Meghan spent three days in Morocco, while William and Kate made a two-day trip to Northern Ireland. It’s a testament to how busy this year got that two tours are basically side notes.
Three events are worth noting this month. The first is that the Royal Family began celebrating the 50th anniversary of Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales. The Queen hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace that included Charles and Camilla, as well as the Cambridges, Sussexes, and the Princess Royal. Notably absent were Andrew and the Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward). I think it’s fair to call that telling, though most attention was focused on the four younger royals being in the same room.
Later that month, Kate undertook her first joint engagement with the Queen. Earlier in her royal career she joined the Queen for engagements that included other royals, but this was the first one-on-one, and it was lovely. It’s always noteworthy to see the Queen engaging with Charles, Camilla, William, or Kate, given their positions, and I think we were overdue these photos. While I also think this engagement was a corrective for the fact the Queen had already done a one-on-one with Meghan last year (not in a petty way, but in a “for the sake of appearances” kind of way), it was also part and parcel of more clearly recognizing Kate’s contribution to the family.
Finally, the family convened for Commonwealth Day. The theme of Commonwealth unity was certainly at odds with the angst over Brexit then (well, still) unfolding in the halls of Westminster. This also marked Meghan’s last formal appearance before maternity leave.
The big ticket item this month was when Charles, William, and Harry made a joint appearance together for the premier of Sir David Attenborough’s Netflix Series, “Our Planet.” It was a fitting engagement given all three’s interest in the environment and sustainability, and a rarity to see them all without the extended family.
The next moment worth highlighting was a very awkward showing on Easter Sunday when the RF gathered at Windsor Castle. William and Harry stayed in separate corners, which might not have meant anything in other circumstances, but is at odds with how they usually congregate.
Just four days later, Kate joined Harry for an Anzac Day service, a unique pairing given the absence of their spouses. Some of this may have been in response to coverage of Easter, but the practical rationale is that Harry attends this event, Meghan was on mat leave, and Kate stepped in. At the very least, it proved that relations between Harry and Kate are still warm, and it provided an interesting example of protocol. Without William present, Harry takes precedent over Kate, so we saw her trailing behind him and positioned in a more junior seat.
Finally, on the Cambridges’ eight-year wedding anniversary, the Queen appointed Kate to the Royal Victorian Order, following her introduction to the Royal Family Order last year. Many felt that this was long overdue, but I would point out that I think it had more to do with 2019 being Kate’s first full year as a full-time working royal and the concerted effort to push her forth as a future queen.
In the background of all of this, rumors percolated that William had had an affair in 2018, Harry and Meghan officially moved to Frogmore Cottage, and William made an off-the-cuff remark to a reporter that he had “no idea” when Baby Sussex was due. All was not quiet on the Windsor front.
On May 6, the Sussexes welcomed a baby boy. Harry emerged from Frogmore Cottage to give a statement to the press that mother and baby were well, and seemed completely overwhelmed (in a good way!) by his newfound fatherhood. It wasn’t long, however, before everything descended into a cluster with the media. And, to be fair, looking back on the posts and articles, things were confusing. We didn’t know where Meghan had given birth, or when exactly, and the press felt that they had been purposefully misguided by the Palace. This tweet from Richard Palmer pretty much sums it up:
At the time I pushed back on the media uproar, but with hindsight, I do think the Palace missed the mark here. There was a way to protect the family’s privacy and, indeed, handle the birth differently from how the Cambridges did without misleading reporters. Or at least without leaving the impression of having misled reporters.
Two days later, it was announced that the baby was named Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. Though allowed to take the courtesy title “Earl of Dumbarton,” the couple made it clear that they were eschewing all titles for Archie, referring to him as “Master” in the announcement. TBD on whether that changes when Archie is older – or when Charles is king – but I think it was a clear point that Harry and Meghan intend to raise their son as a wholly private citizen.
On May 20, the Chelsea Flower Show opened and Kate was front and center to show off her work for the last several months. The “big” moment came when she personally gave the Queen a tour of her garden, with William trailing behind. It was very clear this project belonged to the Duchess, and the images of her walking alongside her grandmother-in-law were poignant.
Last but not least, at the very end of the month, The Sun broke the news that the Royal Foundation was splitting, with Harry and Meghan spinning off to begin their own charitable foundation.
June opened up with a working visit from the President of the United States, accompanied by the First Lady. The Queen and Charles greeted them at Buckingham Palace, while Camilla and Harry joined the party for a luncheon and private tour of the Queen’s gallery. Later on, Andrew accompanied the American guests to Westminster Abbey, Charles and Camilla hosted a tea at Clarence House, and the entire family turned out for a state banquet. Much was made of Meghan’s absence, but I think it was much ado about nothing. Meghan was on maternity leave, so her presence wasn’t expected, nor was it requested by the Queen. Had it been, she would have been there.
Trooping the Colour saw one-year-old Louis make his debut…and then promptly steal the show with his facial expressions. The other kerfuffle came from the fact that Harry and Meghan joined Camilla and Kate in a carriage, taking the rear (and thus less optimal) seating. I think what we saw in 2018 was aberration based on the high of the royal wedding, and what we saw this year was a return to normalcy, a situation I covered in more depth here.
This year’s Garter Day on the 17th saw the Queen formally invest King Felipe of Spain and King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands into the Order of the Garter. As such, the party of wives looking on included two more queens than usual, while they mingled with Camilla, Sophie, and Kate. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima stayed on to join the Royal Family for Ascot this year, and though it rained (complicating the royals’ entrance) it was the usual good showing for everyone. Kate’s look in particular was quite the “wow.”
Two days later, The Royal Foundation split was confirmed by the Palace, which didn’t do much except make official that which we already knew. A week later, the crown’s finances were released, including news of just how much money was spent renovating Frogmore Cottage. These reports rarely garner positive attention, but it was particularly bad timing for the Sussexes.
Last but not least, William, while on an engagement with the Albert Kennedy Trust, said publicly that he would have absolutely no problem with any of his children coming out, and that his only concern would be the public’s reaction given the roles they are in.
Early in the month, the Queen and Charles were in Edinburgh for the 20th anniversary of Scottish Parliament as part of the Holyrood Week festivities. You can read HRH’s speech here.
Then, my friends, it was time for Archie’s christening, but unfortunately what should have been a straight-forward, happy occasion turned into a bit of a storm cloud when people lost their minds that it was presented as a private occasion. Arrival photos were nixed, while the couple refused to release the names of his godparents, sparking debate over whether the Queen and RF were guilty of illegally withholding public information. Le sigh.
Concurrently, the spotlight returned to Andrew and his one-time friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. You can read my thoughts on that situation at the time here. Needless to say, it was the beginning of a rough summer for the BRF.
The month ended with the release of Meghan’s British Vogue edition, which proved controversial with the press and royal watchers. It also included comments from Harry about climate change that would prove unhelpful later in the summer when the couple flew private multiple times.
Even the Queen didn’t prove immune from criticism. She was photographed riding to church with Andrew on the Balmoral estate the Sunday after Epstein died, which many saw as signalling her son support.
Instead of staying silent, Andrew finally issued a statement regarding his friendship with Epstein, while the Sussexes’ celebrity friends defended their use of private planes. Both moves, arguably, did more harm than good. There was a kerfuffle a few days later when all five Cambridges were photographed departing a budget flight to join the Queen at Balmoral, making the seeming difference between the couples all the more clear. More than a few Sussex fans saw this is a pointed jab by William, but the logistics and timing of when that flight were booked remain unclear.
The month ended with the news that new Prime Minister Boris Johnson was suspending Parliament in September, a move which the Queen formally approved and sparked renewed discussion of how much power the Queen has to refuse the advice of her ministers. A pretty rough August all around.
Early in September news broke that the Sussexes had engaged a private crisis PR firm to handle their reputational issues, the unsaid message being that they didn’t believe Palace staff was up to snuff. As we’ve seen over the past three months, that didn’t really pan out well. We also received the first instances of invitations from patronages to Andrew being rescinded, or the Duke being strongly advised that his presence would be inappropriate.
But the month’s biggest moment came in its last days when Harry and Meghan touched down in Cape Town with Baby Archie to commence their first long-term foreign tour since last year’s mammoth Oceania trip. The first days of the tour were pointed and impactful, and Archie carried out his first engagement in the presence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu – all v. on-brand.
The tour logistics meant that Harry visited three countries solo, while Meghan stayed behind to carry out embargoed engagements in Cape Town. The most significant day of the tour was without a doubt when Harry re-traced his mother’s steps in Angola to mark both the progress made on the landmine issue in the last 22 years, as well as double-down on his commitment to continue her legacy.
In the midst of the tour, news broke that Parliament was prorogued, dragging the Queen into a rather bizarre conversation about the monarch’s authority to potentially veto her ministers’ advice. Such had more to do with controversy around PM Boris Johnson then anything the Queen actually did or didn’t do, but those sorts of discussions are better left avoided in Buckingham Palace’s view.
The Sussexes’ Africa tour carried into October, but its last days were muddied by news that Harry and Meghan were suing the Mail on Sunday for the publication of her personal letter, as well as myriad “fake news” stories over the past year. The Royal Family suing news outlets isn’t abnormal, if a tactic used sparingly, but the inclusion of an emotional, stream-of-consciousness missive from Harry appealing to the public for sympathy and support was. This particular incident tends to get lumped in with the documentary that came later, but they’re worth keeping separate. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the lawsuit in and of itself, though I do think the Sussexes have made life harder for themselves, and the statement was probably overkill. The post linked above breaks these thoughts down further if you missed it.
In the middle of the month, the Cambridges kicked off their Pakistan tour. The visit was a sartorial delight, with Kate primarily showcasing Pakistani designer Maheen Khan, but the biggest fashion win (for the first time ever) goes to William, who wore a Sherwani for a reception in Islamabad.
The tour itself was devoid of much drama, but its last days, too, were overshadowed, this time by the release of a documentary from the Sussexes about their Africa tour. Unfortunately, the meat of documentary itself, covering the couples’ work with local charities, was shunted to the side by statements made by Harry and Meghan about the difficulties of royal life and press attention. I wrote a lengthy post on all of this at the time, but I wasn’t a fan, and I still believe this was a big mistake. It was abundantly clear that the couple wasn’t in a good place, and the impact of sustained negative press had long caught up to them.
Remembrance Day was a subdued affair. Various royals handled related engagements in the days leading up, while the day of the official service saw the Queen, Camilla, and Kate take one balcony, while Meghan joined Sophie and Timothy Laurence on another. No change from last year, but there was much discussion about placement and interaction, or lack thereof amongst the family.
Shortly after this, the Sussexes started a six-week break from public life. They are believed to have spent Thanksgiving with Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, though it’s unclear where exactly, while they’ve spent December in Canada. But without a doubt, the biggest moment of the month – and perhaps the year – was when Andrew decided to give an interview clearing the air on his relationship with Epstein to the BBC. The result was a complete mess and further damaged his reputation, with the aftershock hitting the broader Royal Family. Within days Buckingham Palace announced that Andrew was stepping down from all royal duties. In other words, he got fired.
Charles was in the middle of a tour of India, New Zealand, and the Solomon Islands when the interview aired, but he’s believed to have stayed in communication with the Queen during the fallous, and to have been instrumental in his brother’s sacking.
This past month has served up decidedly lighter fare. There was a NATO reception at Buckingham Palace….
….And the annual Diplomatic Reception.
The Cambridges participated with Mary Berry on a Christmas special that saw them cooking alongside one another for a homeless charity and offering up some informal anecdotes about home life and the Cambridge kids. In other words, very wholesome, British stuff – the sort of content decidedly lacking from the Royal Family this year, for better or worse. (Well, mostly for worse, tbh.)
The year ended with a brief hospital stay for Philip, the Queen addressing Parliament with Charles by her side, and yet another Sandringham Christmas. George and Charlotte joining their family on the walkabout was a sweet note on a rather dour year.
The media is currently trying spin this year as the Queen’s second annus horribilis, but I’m having a hard time comparing 2019 to a year that saw two separations, a divorce, and Windsor Castle literally on fire. The Andrew saga is an actual royal scandal, and one that’s been percolating for nearly a decade, making it all the more serious, and frankly all the more infuriating. I agree whole-heartedly with the Royal Family’s decision to fire him, but I do think it’s worth remembering that in the grand scheme of the institution, he hasn’t been relevant in years. He’s done with public life, and he should cooperate with law enforcement, but barring any stunning revelation, I think he’s pretty much alone in the abyss. In other words, while the Queen has garnered herself some bad press for standing by him for so long, his sacking has mostly resolved that issue for her and Charles.
What’s going on with Harry and Meghan isn’t even in the same ballpark. A lawsuit, some private planes, a private christening…I understand the outrage that many felt this summer when British papers were buzzing with pettiness while remaining mostly silent on Andrew. And while I don’t believe the Sussexes are blameless in their current dynamic with the media, they remain effective, hard-working, and powerful members of the RF who are positioned to do a lot of good. We’ll get into this more when we cover Meghan.
As rough as this summer and autumn were for the Windsors, I think the last two months have (strangely enough) been an important lesson. The Christmas headlines were about George and Charlotte, and royal Twitter is currently aflutter over the latest Kensington Palace announcement. Engagements keep getting scheduled, plans are still being made, and the individual pales against the full force of institution. Continuity, after all, is what monarchy is about, and Queen Elizabeth personifies that better than almost anyone. We don’t know exactly how things are going to shake out in 2020, save one crucial detail: the line of succession is strong. Right now, Charles and William are the ones to watch.
I’m going to give this to Kate’s joint engagement with the Queen in March. New pairings are always noteworthy, and showing off the Cambridges is clearly part of the Royal Family’s current strategy. This was a lovely, traditionally royal moment, and a big milestone in Kate’s career.
This is a complicated thought, but I’m going to give this to William and Kate. These two have come out the other side of an uneven couple of years that saw more than a few stints of bad press. That said, I think their star being on the rise is directly related to Harry and Meghan’s being on the decline in ways that aren’t wholly fair. The broken Fab Four’s story isn’t complete, but for the time being, William and Kate appear to have matured into their public roles and found their niche. I think this dynamic deserves to be fleshed out, and I have a feeling there will be plenty of opportunity for that in the New Year, so keep an eye out.
Rookie of the Year
Prince Louis, without a doubt. He stole the show at Trooping the Colour, is Kate’s mini-me, and I think we’re going to get a lot of adorable moments from this one in the coming years.
Honorable Mention 1
I’m giving this to Charles, as the runner-up to William and Kate. I wrote a post on this last month and I think my thoughts are pretty clearly outlined at the top of this post, but he’s coming from a position of strength as we go into 2020.
Honorable Mention 2
Princess Anne. For better or worse, she’s found a new audience from watchers of The Crown’s Season 4, and she had her own viral moment coming out of the NATO reception.
Honorable Mention 3
I didn’t pull this thread through the post, but much like how 2017 and 2018 saw centennial events for World War I, this year the BRF lined up for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Senior royals were out in full force on June 5 & 6, more detail of which is captured here.
Most Significant Photo
I’m giving this to the photo of Archie meeting the Queen and Philip, with Doria Ragland joining in the family moment. Great photo and historic moment.
Finally, thank you to all of you – those who made it through this marathon post(!) and those of you who regularly visit to keep up with royal news. I know there have been some moments of unevenness from my end in 2019, particularly in the first half of this year when I had to step away from regular posting, so a particular thank you to those who hung on and kept coming back.
My New Year’s resolution is to get more history posts up in 2020 – my goal is to finish up the Richard III series in January, and then start a new series on the Civil War in the spring, but I have plenty of others – spanning the Plantagenets to the Windsors – outlined for in-between. I love hearing your thoughts, so thank you to those of you who comment, and to everyone else, always feel free to drop me a line here or on Instagram. Happy New Year, everyone!
4 thoughts on “A Year In Review: The BRF in 2019”
Great recap. Thanks for all your hard work!
Thank you! And Happy New Year!
Lovely recap! New reader to your blog and I’ve enjoyed it immensely!
Thank you very much, and welcome!