When Prince Harry left the royal family rumors swirled. Now a photo of a particular royal shows why he may have had no choice.
If we were going to do a pro and con list for being born the child of a future king, at first blush it might seem like a very unfair fight.
To grow up in the bosom of the house of Windsor means summers at Gan Gan’s 50,000-acre private estate and all the grouse a preschooler can shove in their tiny gob while a footman stands ready with a wet wipe.
It means getting to skip queues at airports, Annabels and at every alpine post-piste watering hole between Chelsea and Courchevel while their protection officers prevent them from passing out in their gluhwein. (Or at least the Sun getting a shot of them passed out in their gluhwein.)
However, this week we witnessed a big fat entry on the ‘con’ side of this list with Prince George, eight, and Princess Charlotte, six, attending their very major official event, namely the service of thanksgiving for the life of their great- grandfather, and barbecue impresario extraordinaire, Prince Philip.
For George and Charlotte this was a Rubicon-crossing moment, marking just the very first of the hundreds, if not thousands, of lengthy church services, tedious military ceremonies and attendance-mandatory HRH outings they are now looking down the barrel of.
But what was marked about the Cambridge kidlets’ appearance at the memorial (aside from the bizarre sight of watching the Archbishop of Canterbury having to politely make chit chat with someone who I’m guessing is not adverse to eating Clag) was that this was also a watershed moment for their uncle and California-resident Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.
As the service ended, the royal family made their way outside in order of precedence. First came Prince Charles and his wife, the vastly underappreciated Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall followed by George and Charlotte and their parents William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, back on home soil after their bruising tour of the Caribbean.
As the three generations of future kings made their way out of the millennium-old Abbey, and the press pack’s cameras whirled in what would otherwise seem like a fairly routine moment.
However what set the moment apart was that it marked the first that Harry would have had to publicly take his place behind his niece and nephew in public.
If the 37-year-old had deigned to leave his designer chicken coop and the kombucha-stained manuscript of the memoir he is currently working to celebrate his grandfather’s life, and had been in the Abbey, he would have been left to walk, not side-by-side with his brother, but behind his Year Four student nephew and Year Two niece.
Imagine, for a moment, being unceremoniously shunted down the pecking order, and while the world was watching live on TV, in favor of a child?
It is hard to see how that would not have been an ego blow for Harry who for the majority of his life enjoyed nearly-equal jogging with this older brother.
The Duke of Sussex, ostensibly busy creating content and change and impactful synergy or synergistic impact or whatever grab bag of right-on, meaning-free phrases he has chosen that day, announced earlier this month he would not be attending the service, much to the consternation of the UK press.
Keyboards the length and breadth of Fleet Street were angrily pounded and left spittle-flecked by incensed journalists over what a bum move this was. The expat royal could not make it to London for this poignant family moment, the furious typing went, but he will miraculously manage to get himself to Europe in mid-April for the next Invictus Games.
(Harry is reportedly hoping to visit his 95-year-old grandmother during that trip; however he is also in the midst of a legal stoush with the Home Office about the decision to have his official police protection removed. Lawyers for the royal have previously told a court that he “does not feel safe” when he returns to the UK.)
But let’s imagine Harry had come to the Philip service, very likely on his own and very likely wearing what has become his now go-to facial expression when he’s in Blighty, the Sussex Sour Grimace. He would have likely been left to sit behind his tiny niece and nephew of him in the Abbey, both of whom (along with three-year-old Prince Louis who was left at home) have bumped Harry down the line of succession.
While he was born in the number three spot he has been successively shunted lower and lower over recent years and currently comes in at sixth.
(Likewise, Prince Andrew was born second-in-line to the throne and today is number nine, ominously close to double digit territory.)
It’s a bit like being cast in a play in a starring role for opening night with the provision that over time your role will get smaller and smaller until you are just another face in the chorus.
How could that not take a toll, even on the most well-adjusted and sanguine among us?
The question of where Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex fitted in the palace pecking order, back before they had bolted for sunnier climes in every sense, was reportedly a touchy issue.
In Finding Freedom, the book’s authors write that after the Sussexes wed, “Harry, who wanted to do so much in the world, was growing frustrated that he and Meghan often took a back seat to other family members’ initiatives and priorities. While they both respected the hierarchy of the institution, it was difficult when they wanted to focus on a particular project and were told that a more senior ranking family member, be it Prince William or Prince Charles, had an initiative or tour being announced at the same time — so they would just have to wait.”
While the Sussexes’ abrupt exit does not come down to one factor, it would make sense if the duo, already sensitive to their lower status, had read the tea leaves and realized this was only going to become more so as George (and Charlotte and Louis) got older.
You have to remember here, William and Harry were very carefully raised by their mother Diana, Princess of Wales as equals. In matching outfits they were taken to every event or outing, official or not, as a pair. When they entered young adulthood, the same paradigm held. In 2008, they rode 1600km across South Africa together on motorbikes for charity and in 2010, undertook their first joint overseas tour visiting Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa again. The previous year, in 2009, they set up their shared charitable organisation, the Royal Foundation.
Even when William went out and found himself a wife, it simply became that the three of them were routinely sent out by Kensington Palace aides like a titled job lot. At every turn, for years, that status quo held firm… but this was always going to be temporary.
The reality of this situation is something that Harry has long been keenly aware of, telling Newsweek in 2017: “I feel there is just a smallish window when people are interested in me before [William’s children Prince George and Princess Charlotte] take over, and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
(Let’s be clear here – Harry clearly absolutely adores George, Charlotte and Louis telling biographer Angela Levin in 2017, “The reason I am now fifth is because of my nephew and niece and I could never wish them away. They are the most amazing things ever.”)
My point is, Harry’s standing and spot on the palace totem pole was only ever going to slip lower and lower. Such is the fate of the spare.
Harry, having watched the 1001 small indignities that his uncle faced given as his position in the line of succession dropped further and further away from the throne, must surely have known what lay ahead on this front.
In their 20s, Princess Margaret, Andrew and Harry were all known as the bon vivant royals, the HRHS who could perennially being found yukking it up at Mayfair’s members-only clubs while their staid, responsibility-laden older siblings fretted at home about all that ‘heavy is the head’ stuff. (Crowns amiright?)
But in each case, while it initially looked like they had each gotten the better end of the titled deal, all play and not having to open parliament, was soon turned on its head with each spare left to face inevitably sliding into monarchical irrelevance as they they were leapfrogged by their children and nephews.
In what other job would you automatically go from essential to extraneous in only nine months?
Given all of this, it would be entirely understandable if Harry wanted to avoid this fate and wanted to strike out on his own, to be defined by his own achievements and not forced to obediently accept being pushed further and further out from the spotlight.
George and Charlotte, for what it’s worth, didn’t appear to be thrilled by their royal promotion to public duties either, for what it’s worth. They arrived looking somewhat miserable, understandable given the talking to which I imagine they got in their bulletproof Range Rover on the way there about nose-picking and sibling-flicking. (In the most relatable moment of the whole event, Mia Tindall was caught on camera saying something that looked an awful lot like “I need the toilet” to her mother de Ella Zara.)
On balance, does all the grouse and all the gloomy country houses and getting to have a Stubbs in the playroom really make up for being stuck in a life so devoid of choice and the many simple freedoms you and I enjoy? I personally don’t think so. And if George and Charlotte’s faces are anything to go by, neither do they.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.