It’s been portrayed as a rift between the princes – or a catfight between their wives. But the couples are preparing for very different lives
Shielded by trees inside the Queen’s historic Windsor estate, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are settling into their new home, Frogmore Cottage, ahead of the birth of their first child. “Cottage” may be too humble a name for a Grade II-listed house with a reported 10 bedrooms, gifted to them by the Queen and refurbished for around £3m. And, according to reports this week, now complete with a vegetable patchand “floating” yoga studio. The “Frogmore” is at least appropriate, given the preponderance of frogs at its nearby lake (a disgusted Queen Victoria once noted they “made the grass look as if it were alive”).This is Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s new base, 20-odd miles from their former Kensington Palace home and former neighbours, the Cambridges, as well as other assorted royals also billeted in the west London royal residence Edward VIII called the “Aunt Heap”.
Their wish to start family life away from the Kensington Palace goldfish bowl is understandable, even if the price is living under the Heathrow flightpath. The recent announcements that Harry and Meghan are to set up a separate official household with offices at Buckingham Palace, and that they have launched their own Instagram account – @sussexroyal – has oxygenated speculation over the split of the “Fab Four”. For split read “rift”, or “spat”, according to reports, unable to resist perpetuating rumours of rows between the brothers, or – even better – between their wives.
Photographs of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan and their husbands laughing together, have done little to dampen tittle-tattle, while columnists are quick to pit the two women in particular against each other. Even the Chelsea Flower Show is not immune, with some gardening media pitching a “classic English” garden by Kate’s charity against an African climate-change garden by Meghan’s charity.
“I was told the tensions were between the two brothers and that they had really gone through quite a difficult patch shortly after the engagement announcement. But two duchesses having a cat fight – that’s a sexier story,” says Vanity Fair royal correspondent, Katie Nicholl, author of Harry: Life, Loss, and Love.
In the public’s eye it had always been just the two of them; princeling brothers inextricably bound by tragedy; the memory of them trailing their mother’s coffin in bewildered grief still so vivid. Then two became a trio on Prince William’s marriage. But with Harry still solo, he looked every inch “the spare”. Now married, and having finished serving in the army, Harry is seeking a meaningful role. Already we are seeing the first indications of how he and Meghan intend to operate. Constant reinvention is the way the monarchy strives to survive. And with his marriage to the American former actor – seemingly a politically and emotionally literate, independent, liberal, ripper-up of rulebooks, champion of period poverty and writer of supportive messages on bananas to sex workers – it is fair to say Harry’s reinvention is without precedent.
“Brand Sussex” will have an international stage from which to promote their messages on humanitarianism, environmental awareness and mental wellbeing. But the fact that their offices will be under the canopy of the Queen’s most senior advisers will not be without challenge, predict royal-watchers.
The Sussexes certainly have an audience for their vision; their Instagram account broke the world record for attracting 1 million followers in less than six hours. It now sits above 4 million and counting. Photographs posted so far appear to accentuate the personal, like the sharing of hitherto private moments tending elephants in the African bush, rather than the official engagement shots we see of William and Kate. They have the support of celebrity friends, too; among them the Clooneys, Serena Williams, Oprah, Jessica Mulroney.
They also have, in their freshly hired communications secretary, Sara Latham, a professional with pedigree in the political and the corporate worlds on both sides of the pond. Her former clients include both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair. The Sussex household will be financed by Prince Charles through his Duchy of Cornwall income, the Queen through her Duchy of Lancaster funds, and the taxpayer through the government’s annual sovereign grant.
A parting of logistical ways for the brothers was always inevitable, aides say. Senior royals historically set up their own households on marriage, the Yorks and Wessexes being recent examples. It was “wilful misunderstanding” to characterise it “as some kind of fallout”, says Andrew Morton, Meghan biographer and author of the global bestseller Diana: Her True Story. Palace sources stress that having two households is about preparing both couples for their futures. The long-term plan had always been for Harry to have his own household once married. Now he and Meghan are about to have their own family, and have a new official residence, it made sense to start moving to this permanent structure.
The eagle-eyed media have already swooped on the financial and environmental impact of Harry helicoptering to engagements in Birmingham, at a reported £6,000 cost, two days before telling thousands of young people at Wembley Arena on WE Day, “every blade of grass, every ray of sun and every rain drop is crucial to our survival”. Likewise, Meghan’s private jet – reportedly lent by the Clooneys – to her extravagant baby shower in an ultra-luxe New York hotel penthouse suite, was also criticised. Lest they forget, the image of frugality the royals like to project is one where Princess Anne can still wear 30-year-old coats, and Charles chooses to have his suits patched, albeit by Savile Row tailors.
The WE Day speech, at the event encouraging youth activism, perhaps yielded a glimpse of what now to expect from the Sussexes. Here was Harry, pacing the stage, microphone casually slung in hand, praising his student audience as “the most engaged generation in history”, urging them to find their “true north” and having a little pop at mainstream media to boot. It was received with rapturous applause, especially as Meghan joined him onstage. Traditionalist curmudgeons shuddered. “Cringe-worthy”, bellowed the Sun; “part New Age gibberish” harrumphed one Daily Mail columnist.
“It was very ‘woke’. It was very Meghan. It was just not what we have heard from Harry before and that’s what has taken everyone by surprise, his friends included,” says Nicholl. “This is a boy they hung out at the pub and went shooting with. Now he’s drinking green juices and meditating.”
The couple’s staff will be based at Buckingham Palace and so under the supervision of the Queen’s senior officials. Latham will report to Donal McCabe, the Queen’s new communications secretary, who previously held senior posts at bookmakers Ladbrokes, Landsec, Boots and Railtrack. Harry may find this quite an adjustment; to give up the freedom he has enjoyed at Kensington Palace, “which is incredibly autonomous”, Nicholl believes. “There’s is a sense there is the potential for them to be more reined in at Buckingham Palace. It is very telling that their head of communications will have to answer to Donal. That says a lot. And I think that is very much the subtext of the story.”