Tina Brown On ‘The Palace Papers’ and Why Prince Charles’ Reign Is Crucial to the Monarchy’s Future
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth II watch a flypast from the balcony of Buckingham Palace during Trooping the Colour on June 2, 2022 in London, England. Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
The Queen is the Crown incarnate, and any story about the monarchy is de facto a story about the monarch. The story of the Queen, 96, after bearing the weight of the Crown for 70 years, has become one of succession, as she nears the end of her reign. That’s why legendary British-American editor Tina Brown’s provocative new book, The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — The Truth and the Turmoil, stands out among a crowded field of titles being churned out in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year. Brown’s take is refreshingly nonpartisan, unlike most royal books, which tend to be hagiographies or hit jobs.
The Palace Papers, which picks up where Brown’s 2007 book, The Diana Chronicles, left off, is an intensively researched, episodic history of the highs and down-and-dirty lows of the past 25 years in the British monarchy, with some flashbacks to the key circumstances that forged these larger-than-life personalities. A deep dive into the motivations and machinations of the Queen’s successors, it explains how they fit into the larger royal narrative, and it offers a measured take of the likelihood of their success when it is their turn to be anointed.
One of the biggest differences between the Queen and her heirs, as Brown – the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and founder of The Daily Beast news site – well knows, is that younger generations of the Royal Family have not enjoyed the deferential media treatment afforded the Queen for most of her reign. “I’m not sure anybody again can have the mystique of royalty in the sense of the way the Queen has, because we just know too much about them now,” Brown says in a Zoom interview from her home in New York.
Then, she duly heaps on more texture and details culled from her research, which included interviews with some 120 (mostly nameless) courtiers and social fixtures who had ringside seats to what happened behind palace doors. The Royal Family lives in another dimension, one that Brown likens to The Truman Show, the 1998 movie about an insurance salesman who discovers his whole life is being directed, and filmed, for a reality-TV show.
The modern monarchy is pinned under glass by the endless curiosity, and sense of ownership, of the people it serves. The framework for this scenario was in place long before Instagram Live; as the British Empire began its inexorable crumble, the monarchy needed to find a new raison d’etre. In her book, Brown notes this was a functional shift. “In the reign of George V, the monarchy, shorn of its executive power, had been reinvented as the protectorate of national morality and guardian of the British way of life. The personal had become the institutional.” And thus, the curtain was raised.
To survive this new, more exposed milieu, temperament and training became paramount in grooming a great successor. With such a long windup to his accession day, Charles has adopted some, er, eccentricities along the way. He was derided as a nutter for talking to his flowers and banging on about architecture, but history has come around to prove Charles was far ahead of the conventional wisdom on organic farming, preservation and environmental issues. As Brown writes: “The Queen has been known to comment to advisers that she finds him ‘maddening,’ and only in the last decade, when she has depended on him to share the burden, has she seen him as more than a recalcitrant child.” The Queen and Prince Philip’s efforts to instil discipline, duty and emotional reserve – monarchical qualities Brown says the Queen was blessed to be born with, and have served her exceptionally well – into the esoteric young Charles, backfired.
Charles found comfort in Camilla Shand, turned Parker-Bowles, turned Duchess of Cornwall, before, during and after his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. The great-great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the mistress of Charles’ great-great-grandfather, Edward VII, has captivated the Prince of Wales for a lifetime now. In her first royal book, Brown often references the fact that Camilla looks quite a bit like Charles’ beloved nanny, Mabel Anderson. Make of that what you will, but it is clear Charles had been perpetually seeking motherly nurturing.
Camilla is the character you learn the most about in The Palace Papers, as Brown shows how the devoted and passionate divorcee became his bastion of support as the Queen grows more fragile and the Crown looms. Camilla’s saga, though, is about the merry chase she deftly led to seal the deal with her prince after his divorce from Diana, which was greatly complicated by the Princess of Wales’s tragic death in the 1997 car crash in Paris.
In a rare, attributed quote from the late German Princess Margaret of Hesse and by Rhine, who attended the wedding of Charles and Diana, we learn about the demise of the Wales’s marriage. “One day, he’d had enough. It was as simple as that. One day – a day neither she [Diana] nor anyone else can identify – she pushed him over that invisible line. He didn’t realize it at the time, but she’d goaded him past the point of endurance. After that, he retreated into himself.” In due time, Charles was drawn back to his old flame.
Brown describes the then-married Camilla Parker-Bowles as a high-spirited country girl in “tight white breeches and shiny black dominatrix boots,” a combination that was irresistible to Charles. Throughout their affair, and the years she spent in the wilderness waiting for the home wrecker outrage to die down, Parker-Bowles was also, as an (unnamed) neighbour in Sussex described her to Brown, “absolutely constant and unflinching,” with a dignity “that has earned her a lot of quiet praise.”
The author goes behind the scenes following the 1993 release of the “Camillagate” tapes: the tabloid-purloined wiretaps of private phone conversations between Charles and Camilla published a month after Charles split from Diana, offering proof that he and Camilla had been carrying on while they were married to others. This is the raunchy six-minute call where he expressed his desire to live in her trousers and be reincarnated as her tampon. Women spat at Camilla in supermarkets after Diana’s death, when she was hiding out at her house in Wiltshire, not far from Charles’ Highgrove House. In the evergreen journalistic trope of “follow the money,” Brown unravels the mounting bank overdrafts that Camilla gradually offloaded to her princely lover. Camilla, she maintains, was just as profligate with cash as Diana, but Charles was motivated to cover his lover’s bills to avoid more scandal and hasten her public acceptance, so he could marry his one-time mistress.
The Camilla relationship “vexed” the Queen for many years, according to Brown, who quotes “a Highgrove regular,” referring to a guest at Charles’ Gloucestershire retreat, on the difference between Charles and his mother. “Charles is absolutely desperate for his mother’s approval and knows he’ll never really get it. He’s the wrong sort of person for her – too needy, too vulnerable, too emotional, too complicated, too self-centred, the sort of person she can’t bear.”
Brown can be harsh, and often is. Notably, in describing some of Prince Harry’s youthful antics, including a naked frolic in a hotel room, she inserts, “What was he f–king thinking?” into the narrative about the Duke of Sussex, now a private citizen in Montecito, Calif. She also gives praise where due, and allows her subjects multiple dimensions without trying to make real live humans conform to the prevailing theories of partisan royal coverage. “I’m very fond of all these characters,” she explained in the interview. “They are characters in a novel. I feel their difficulties, their struggles. I’m sort of empathetic to all of them in their different ways. Some of them are not very lovable. But I did feel affinity and depth about the issues that they are dealing with, and did get very involved with them as characters.”
For all his foibles and quirks, Brown says Charles’ reign will ultimately be successful, because he is diligent and does not resent his destiny as king. “There is a lot of gloom essentially from many people saying we should just skip over Charles. I don’t agree. I think that Charles and Camilla are very good shock absorbers, if you like, from the Queen’s going to [Prince] William [Duke of Cambridge] ascending.”
The Cambridges, she foresees, will be very charismatic as King and Queen. Kate is beloved for her beauty, her elegant fashion sense and, along with their three lovely, well-behaved children, the Cambridges make a modern-day “us five,” a repeat of Queen Elizabeth’s own tight-knit and domestically stable nuclear family, which her father called “us four.” But, in the meantime, Charles’ reign “gives William a chance to breathe without having to take on this tremendously heavy legacy of the Queen, and will allow him a little bit of time and space to understand what he really wants to do when he is king.”
William, who turned 40 this summer, has already had to be fleet on his feet, pivoting recently when the Jubilee royal tour he and Kate undertook in the Caribbean faced stiff headwinds of republicanism and provided some wildly inappropriate post-colonial photo ops. As Brown told me: “There is no doubt the royal tour is a sort of antique. Because it implies people aloft waving at people down below, which, of course, is exactly what they shouldn’t be doing in today’s world.” She added from her sources that “I know actually that William is extremely unhappy with the way that tour was constructed and wants to tear that thing apart. I think that is the last of those kind of royal tours for this generation anyway.”
The Cambridges will, she thinks, reconstruct tours in a new way. She cites Kate’s recent success meeting with Crown Princess Mary in Copenhagen as a triumph; two women who had a mission and stayed on message. “I think in today’s more modern world looking like a crisp diplomat is a much better look than being the touring monarchs in big hats. That’s finished, that’s done.”
Kate, and the stable domestic partnership she provides, was exactly the tonic to heal a prince wounded by his unstable childhood. William was the peacemaker throughout his parents’ tempestuous divorce, and Brown shares his heartbreaking line, from a meeting with Charles and Diana in his headmaster’s sitting room at Ludgrove, when they came to tell him they were splitting up. “I hope you will both be happier now,” the 10-year-old said, with remarkable maturity.
The Queen gave William tremendous latitude when he and Kate (now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) were dating, since she wanted to ensure he was choosing the right wife. (The ghost of Diana, Charles’ fateful mismatch, forever looms large over the Royal Family.) They were allowed to live together at Clarence House and have trysts at a Balmoral cottage. Brown describes William’s desire to have a few unfettered career years as an air ambulance pilot before he settled into full-time royal duties, countered by what she calls Kate’s “undisguised clarity of romantic mission,” in which “rarely did she overplay her hand.”
The story of their long courtship, she writes, is that “Kate had won by observing every old-fashioned rule of courtship: patience, resilience, and giving her man the space he needed.” As for William, “the rawness, rage, and confusion he had suffered since his mother’s death were soothed by something old-fashioned and rare in his fiancée: her constancy.” Slow and steady wins the race.
Frankly, aside from a few topless vacation photos taken with a telephoto lens and one rumoured affair, William and Catherine have remained remarkably scandal free. About that affair rumour – that William strayed with a neighbour from their country-house circle – Brown debunks this myth, saying “The Cambridges believed it was all being spread by the older generation in Norfolk whose own years of sub-rosa activities made them assume most rumours were true.” She also writes that “well-sourced royal scribe” Richard Kay “affirmed to me that he strongly believes there was nothing there.” William sent a warning letter to the press. It was clear that, as Brown writes, Kate, “a national icon of flawless motherhood” must be protected, because “in the social media age, the monarchy would be unlikely to survive a messy rift in the House of Cambridge.”
William and Kate have both benefitted from the Queen’s personal mentorship and just don’t bring the drama. Brown admires Kate’s acceptance of her role in the Royal Family as a support for William and a faithful representative of the monarch. She smiles unflaggingly on rope lines and at hospital openings, never shirking her duties. She has created effective initiatives for early childhood education and mental health. Most importantly: She never complains, and she never explains.
Even as Charles sets about streamlining the working family so only key senior members remain on the payroll, no one has yet solved the issue of what to do with the “spares” and other minor royals. Again, Brown demonstrates, it comes down to the money. There is a haunting scene in the book where Brown describes the Queen meeting with the keeper of the Privy Purse to discuss allocations of the Sovereign Grant (the payment given annually to the monarch by the government to fund her official duties).
“The way she doles it out is remarkably personal. Members of the family wait in trepidation to hear if they are going to get a raise. The Queen meets annually with the chancellor of the exchequer alone, at a small table in her second-floor receiving room with the corgis running around, and produces a piece of paper on which she has written her list.” The amounts are arbitrary, and at her sole discretion. This illustrates how beholden relatives are to her, as those further down the line of succession really have few ways to earn money. The Palace shut down minor royals’ entrepreneurial arrangements after a series of high-profile front page embarrassments: cash-for-access scams involving Prince Andrew’s ex, Sarah Ferguson, and Prince Edward’s wife, Sophie; Andrew’s penchant for dictator-adjacent favours, not to mention the Epstein saga; and Edward’s film company milking his connections and skirting press rules to film his nephew William at university. The palaces really are gilded cages.
Calamitous Andrew gets a thorough examination under Brown’s canny pen, but his distance from the throne makes him irrelevant to the succession story, although he does present a threat to the respect the monarchy relies upon for its preservation. But it is worth noting that the author finds just the tiniest titch of understanding for the lost man-child, even as she provides enthusiastic details of his naiveté and her role in uncovering the Andrew-Epstein connection when she was editor at The Daily Beast.
Today, Andrew stands banned from his royal duties and stripped of his patronages, his fate sealed in February when he settled the lawsuit against him in a New York court brought by Virginia Roberts Guiffre, who had accused him of sexual assault when she was underage. The multimillion-pound settlement did not include an admission of guilt, but it was the final straw for the Palace.
Queen Elizabeth has shown private affection for her son, but his place in the Firm is gone. This was a decisive, efficient clean-up ahead of Jubilee year celebrations; the one wobble being when Andrew, live on camera, walked his mother down the aisle and took a front-row seat at Prince Philip’s Westminster Abbey memorial service in March.
There is no comparison between Andrew and his nephew Harry, this generation’s royal spare. Yes they both had distinguished military careers, but that is where the comparison ends. Brown demonstrates a great deal of sympathy for Harry. “I think he’d been boiling up for a long time as I describe it in that chapter of just how much he was suffering,” she says. “And I think no one really understood how much Harry was suffering until he married Meghan Markle.”
As any follower of modern royalty knows, Meghan’s arrival and fresh perspective was greeted with great excitement, and she was seen as a much-needed injection of diversity into the monarchy. The Palace Papers is the book, Brown writes, she wishes Meghan, now Duchess of Sussex, had read before marrying Prince Harry, to prepare her for royal life and insight into the cultural divide between Britain and North America. The Queen is the monarchy, and her job is to represent Britain to the world. Understanding that would have saved Meghan a lot of heartache.
Then there is the question of celebrity, with Brown drawing a distinction between palace celebrity and Hollywood-style celebrity, which, as a successful actor, was Meghan Markle’s universe before she joined the royal family. She is writing about Princess Margaret in this quote from the book, but the lesson holds for anyone outside the line of succession: “The peril of celebrity is that it curdles.” It also threatens the Crown: A central thesis in this book is the lesson the Queen and powerful palace courtiers learned from Diana’s blinding wattage, which was encapsulated by a simple, two-word mantra: “Never again.”
Meghan upset a lot of apple carts. “Her major problem was impatience,” Brown says. “I think that if she had just simply chilled out for a couple of years and sort of learned the lie of the ground – made her alliances, made her allies [and] figured out more careful strategy – I think she would have been a knockout success. Frankly I think she was a knockout success in the beginning, but it was really her impatience. She just didn’t like it,” she says, as in didn’t like being a royal.
Brown feels for Meghan, and praises both her acting and writing on The Tig, the blog she shut down in 2017 after she and Harry were publicly dating. “I understand how tough she found the press and how negative and how isolated she felt as a woman of colour. All of those things are true. But she also had a great platform for change, which is something she was very committed to. Diana gave it 16 years, she gave it 20 months.” She thinks Meghan was overly blamed as architect of their exit. “I think Harry was very, very eager to get out of there. He could not take it anymore.” It is, she adds, a more complicated situation than is currently “the stereotype and the received wisdom in the story, and that was the thing I was interested in challenging.”
“Megxit” – the decision by Harry and Meghan to quit their royal duties – was occluded overnight by the COVID-19 pandemic, a tragedy that had the remarkable effect of rebuilding the British public’s relationship with the monarchy, says Brown, who calls it a regenerative moment. “For everyone in the U.K., there was a throwback sense to WWII. A sense of the Queen as comforter, the Queen, like her mother, who stayed at the palace as the bombs fell. England was united in this dark new crisis.” The Queen consciously plucked at memories of wartime valour to rally courage for the COVID battle, paraphrasing lyrics from Vera Lynn’s famous song “We’ll Meet Again.” The Royal Family were all impressive during that time, says Brown, which was “ironic for Harry and Meghan, because they had made all this noise and made a sort of rival court in Montecito, and England turned completely back to the Queen and the Royal Family for what they have always provided, which is stability.” The Queen, Brown concludes, has been saddened by what has happened to her family in recent years. Worse, perhaps than her annus horribilis of 1992 when fire and multiple royal breakups rent the House
of Windsor. Andrew’s disgrace, Harry’s departure, Philip’s death – these have been heavy burdens to bear on top of failing health and her own bout with COVID. But, continues Brown: “The Queen is so pragmatic. She knows her reign is coming to its twilight moment. The announcement she would like Camilla to be known as Queen: that was estate planning.”
As Camilla was only supposed to be named Princess Consort when Charles becomes King, this may be the nicest thing the Queen has done for her son. True to form, it will also stabilize the monarchy in her wake. Camilla, who turns 75 this year, is his own “strength and stay” as the Queen said about Philip. As she said at the couple’s wedding reception in 2005: “My son is home and dry with the woman he loves. They are now on the home straight: the happy couple are now in the winners’ enclosure.”
Brown thinks the Queen is focused on leaving her legacy of maintaining the Crown’s relevance intact. During her entire reign, she has fought to adjust to changing times. She has also fought the existential threat of republicanism at home, and throughout the Commonwealth, with stoicism and devotion to duty. “It won’t be easy, because her family have not shown the same self-discipline,” says Brown. “Except for William and Kate.”
They say temperament skips a generation. The Queen, who Brown says has long been resigned to the fact she will never understand her son, must hope for a horizon where crisp diplomacy replaces dirty laundry. But that would likely mean the next book would be a lot less of a page-turner.
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