Duel of the Duchesses: are Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle friends?
When Meghan married Prince Harry, she could do no wrong. Now, it seems, she can do no right. Welcome to Britain’s peculiar relationship with its royals
It was inevitable that two beautiful young royal wives would become the focus of widespread fascination, universally admired and unrelentingly pursued. The cameras and the commentators simply loved them. How long – in these days of celebrity worship, reality television, new angles and fake news – could this undiluted adulation last? Well, it lasted four months. That’s a lifetime in terms of contemporary culture where reputations are made and unmade with the flash of an online headline.
Weddings of the century
The whirlwind romance between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle culminated in the second “wedding of the century” in July this year. The first, between Harry’s elder brother William, heir to the British throne, and Catherine Middleton, in 2011, was certainly no whirlwind, but it too satisfied the world’s need for a fairy tale and revived interest in the Windsor dynasty. These young men are, after all, the sons of the popular People’s Princess Diana, and carry the dreams and genes of their adored mother.
In his homily in the “wedding of last century,” when the princes’ parents married, Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, famously intoned, “This is the stuff of which fairy tales are made.” It soon became the stuff of which nightmares are made, and the unravelling of the marriage of the Waleses became a feeding frenzy. Journalist Walter Bagehot’s warning against “letting in daylight upon magic” looked like anachronistic fantasy in a flurry of flashbulbs and some horrendous headlines.
Kate and Will
Twenty years on, interest in the romantic lives of the next generation of Windsors filled the gap left by their mother. Like many an undergraduate, Prince William promptly fell in love, but unlike most, that love endured. In fact the courting proved to be a test of endurance – they had known each other for a decade, and been together, with one brief break, for seven years before they wed.
The object of William’s love, Kate Middleton, was a striking departure from the consorts of previous heirs; the daughter of Michael Middleton, a middle-class former airline dispatcher, and Carol Goldsmith, a former flight attendant of working-class stock. The couple had established their own business; worked hard and prospered sufficiently to provide their three children with a public school education that allowed them to join, with apparent ease, the upper-classes – scions and heirs, daughters of millionaires, MPs and earls.
But more importantly, what the Middletons embodied were all those virtues that Queen Victoria brought to the monarchy and the middle classes: respectability, affability, fortitude, self-possession, discretion, loyalty, a sense of duty and a strong sense of family.
The couple’s road to the altar was a long, but only slightly rocky one, and the bride entered royal life with all the dignity and ease with which she had joined the class below. She duly produced, despite appalling morning sickness, two sons and a daughter, an heir and two spares, and has taken her place at her husband’s side.
Meghan and Harry
Then along came Meghan Markle. Would The Three Musketeers become (to use George VI’s phrase) “Us Four”? Meghan was raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of divorced parents – an African-American clinical therapist, Doria Ragland, and a German, Dutch, English, Irish and Scottish television lighting director, Thomas Markle. Recounting the moment he proposed, Prince Harry confided, “All the stars were aligned.” Certainly, at least two real stars were in alignment – the bride and groom – famous in their own spheres, but together a stellar union, the first match between a prince and an actress since Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
The Apache helicopter pilot and his fiancee needed all the courage – and restraint – they could muster, as what the press inevitably called “the Markle Debacle” unfolded before the wedding – estranged half-siblings and a befuddled father. But the wedding was a marvel – as moving and romantic a spectacle as any choreographer could have dreamt. The only reminder of the drama, the sole, supremely dignified figure of her mother, Doria.
Trouble in paradise
A triumphant foreign tour followed the announcement of a baby and all was well with the world. And then the worm began to turn with the tale of Meghan’s “tiara tantrum”, after the Queen denied the bride an emerald fender of uncertain provenance and she had to make do with Queen Mary’s Filigree. The leaks continued: an aide resigned after six months, apparently exhausted by texts from the duchess at 5am.
But the insidious twist came with the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were quitting the city for the country – from Nottingham Cottage in Kensington Palace to Frogmore Cottage, a five-bedroom house not far from St George’s Chapel where they wed. It is hardly exile. Windsor is 20 minutes away – less by helicopter.
After that, le deluge. The reasonable explanation – that they wanted to begin life in the country with their baby (as the Cambridges had done) – was not acceptable. The brothers could not have fallen out; so it must be their wives. And that had to be the reason the Sussexes were quitting “KP”.
A tale of two ladies
Two such different women – the Duchess of Cambridge: a placid, self-composed home counties girl attached to the heir to the throne since she was 21; the Duchess of Sussex: an accomplished, independent American; a self-reliant, once-wed actress in her mid-30s. They’re not at odds; they’re simply different.
It is suggested that Meghan resents being number two – but as any survivor from Hollywood – with its Oscars, its Emmys, its stars system – knows, her role was never to be the lead. William and Catherine will always have top billing. That’s showbiz; that’s monarchy. And who better than Meghan to understand this?
KP has a fine tradition of spats and intrigue. Diana used to call it “an upmarket Coronation Street” – curtains twitch as duchesses come and princesses go. Princesses Margaret and Michael of Kent, cousins-in-law and neighbours, cordially loathed each other for decades.
Even those two centenarian Scottish aristocrats, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – the Queen Mother – and Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, married to brothers, King George VI and Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, were not especially close. The beautiful Marina, wife of the fourth brother, George, Duke of Kent – the daughter of one Grand Duchess and the granddaughter of two – used to refer to Elizabeth and Alice as “those common little Scottish girls”. Cecil Beaton, a friend of both, noted: “The Queen Mother adored Princess Marina the moment she died. When she was alive, she hated her.” There was, too, the half-century enmity between the Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor.
Will a feud unfold?
How easy it is to say, ‘So what is new?’ Yet, this observer is not convinced that history is repeating itself. There is no feud; no froideur. A number of commentators have noted a telling exchange when the four gathered at the Royal Foundation Forum in February this year. Asked whether there were any disagreements with the family working closely together, Harry responded, “Working as family does have its challenges, of course it does. But we’re stuck together for the rest of our lives.” When William was asked, “Do you ever have disagreements about things?” he shot back with a smile, “Oh, yes.” The interviewer persisted: “The last thing you disagreed on, how did you resolve it?” William responded: “Is it resolved? We don’t know!”
We shall probably never really know what goes on behind those palace walls (apart from constant refurbishment), but one can’t help but think that, as this easy frankness suggests, these young men and their wives will stay close, if not cosy, and carry on doing the Kingdom proud.
Updated: December 9, 2018 07:03 PM