The Game of Mansions at Windsor: Did King Charles Get It Right When He Asked Harry and Meghan to Vacate Frogmore?
King Charles III and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex at the Committal Service for Queen Elizabeth II, Windsor Castle, Sept. 19, 2022, England. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/WPA Pool/Getty Images
The news that King Charles is evicting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle from Frogmore Cottage has become a subject of hot debate for royal watchers.
The order from the Crown Estates for the Sussexes to vacate the premises (a wedding gift from the Queen along with their fancy titles), is just another messy scandal on the rocky path to Charles’s coronation. Reports suggest that the eviction order was given sometime in early January – right after the publication of Harry’s memoir, Spare – makes the move seem like an act of retribution.
Then again, other sources maintain that the move has been in the works for a long time, part of a larger series of cost-cutting measures and rethinking of royal housing that came about after the Queen’s death, which changed the status, fortunes and influence of many relatives.
Whatever the motivations, the Frogmore controversy means that, once again, Harry’s fate is unfairly twisted up with his uncle Andrew’s. Yes, neither of them are working royals, but for very different reasons. Harry chose to leave (he also chose to light the Palace gates on fire as he left, and continues to lob criticisms and complaints from across the pond). Andrew was stripped of his roles and titles because of a scandal of his own making, from his association with disgraced American financier and sex offender Jeffery Epstein, as well as his £12 million settlement in the civil sexual assault case brought against him by Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s trafficking victims.
But as they stopped being senior royals at the same time, their fates and storylines have become entwined. This became most evident at the Queen’s funeral, where the two, both military veterans, were not allowed the showy military regalia of royalty.
The Frogmore affair is polarizing royal watchers. On the one hand, we have supporters of King Charles saying that the house is empty, in the main, since Harry and Meghan’s move to California in 2020, and it’s the King’s prerogative to re-jig things at Windsor.
Rebecca English of the Daily Mail (yes, the Mail is a tabloid, and we are often wary of what they report, but English herself is a real reporter) wrote this week that she believes Charles loves Harry very much, citing examples of tenderness she has witnessed over the years. But, she says, “Charles is not just a father, he is a king.” And, as such, “he feels he owes it to his country to act as a monarch, regardless of the repetitive family drama.” In the same way we saw Queen Elizabeth be decisive about Andrew, so too now is Charles taking charge of loose ends.
On this pro-Royal Family side of the debate, the reasoning boils down to cost-cutting – the house sits empty, save for rare visits from the Duke and Duchess (they stayed at Frogmore last year when they returned to the U.K. for the Platinum Jubilee festivities). English does admit, however, “that if the Crown Estate’s decision to pull the plug on Harry and Meghan is a practical and financial one, it is also a move that could seriously backfire.”
On the other hand, Sussex supporters are appalled. Favoured reporter Omid Scobie, who co-wrote Finding Freedom, and who is widely considered to be in the pro-Sussex camp, labelled the move “cruel” in a Yahoo! column that has since become a screaming headline in Britain. The emphasis here is on how the Sussexes, who have already been cut off from security in the U.K., will be deprived of a safe place to stay in the country. Furthermore, after stepping back from their royal roles the Sussexes reportedly paid back the costs of their tax-funded renovation of Frogmore, which were said to be around $3 million. It is unclear now that they have been requested to leave, if they will be reimbursed for the renovations. People, which appears to have been given the scoop of the Sussex spokesperson, confirming the couple have been “asked to vacate”, certainly reflects the American media consensus that the move was peremptory at best and nasty at worst.
Then there is the rumour that Andrew will take up residence in Frogmore, a reveal that has been kept secret for months. The question of Andrew’s continued residence at the massive 30-bedroom Royal Lodge, has been hotly debated. The King now controls the Duke of York’s income, which comes from the Privy Purse, the strings of which are held by Charles. (Andrew may have gotten a top-up from his mother from her pot of private Duchy of Lancaster funds.)
The last known total for Andrew’s allowance was £249,000, and that was back in 1993. Regardless, whatever he receives now is expected to be drastically reduced this year, meaning he likely won’t be able to afford the upkeep on the massive Royal Lodge – even with his rent set at a ridiculous £250 per week! All this is germane because downgrading Andrew’s housing situation would be a popular move, another cost-cutting gesture.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that the current heir to the throne, William, Prince of Wales, now lives at Adelaide Cottage, which has only four bedrooms, so not even enough space for a nanny (although he still maintains the luxurious Apartment 1A inside of Kensington Palace in London), while disgraced Andrew has gobs of reception rooms and empty bedrooms.
So the Game of Mansions at Windsor has become the issue of the moment. Whether Andrew will accept the downgraded digs or not (he was reportedly offered the keys last week, as the story of the Sussexes leave-taking broke, though Palace officials have neither confirmed nor denied any of this) remains to be seen. But the Sussexes are having their drawers emptied and shipped to Montecito, Calif., sometime between now and the summer.
This latest mess can be regarded as a pulling off of the bandaid, getting things done ahead of the coronation. Dragging things out could, indeed, be harmful in the long run. The eviction is Charles’s decision to make, after all, and English reports that he endorsed the Crown Estate’s move.
But it is a terrible look, and it fuels the Sussex’s indecision about whether to attend the Coronation, which has consumed the British press since Harry and Meghan’s pre-and-post holiday media blitz died down.
A side note to this controversy is the development that several superstar performers are turning down the opportunity to perform at the Coronation pop concert at Windsor palace. The list – which reportedly includes Adele, Harry Styles, Robbie Williams, and Elton John – gets muckier by the day.
It might be helpful to look at what Charles and the Palace have done right, and wrong, since the whole debacle began. Keeping silent (and keeping the larger family and courtiers silent) about the Sussexes’ various interviews and assertions over the years has been a very successful tactic.
But the publicly punitive measures towards Harry in particular could have been handled better. Taking away Harry’s honorary military titles for Harry made sense, since he is no longer a working royal. But the Royal Family could have shown a unified front if Charles had reached out to mend fences during the Queen’s funeral.
Yes, the Queen was following tradition by stripping Harry of his military titles. But Charles could have made an exception for his son, who did serve with distinction in Afghanistan and and has become an advocate for veterans with his Invictus Games. Andrew is a very different case, and yet they were treated the same at the Queen’s funeral, both only allowed to wear military dress uniforms for a single event, at the Vigil of the Princes.
Was there really no way to allow his son to wear his own, earned, rank of uniform for the duration of the funeral? Could he not have let Harry send a wreath on Remembrance Sunday 2020 to honour his own fallen comrades and all of Britain’s war dead? (Harry instead marked the occasion privately by visiting the Los Angeles National Cemetery to pay respects to fallen Commonwealth soldiers, including those from the Royal Canadian Artillery.) That, in particular, looks petty. Charles has the power to allow the Queen Consort’s grandchildren to stand with her at the coronation (another decision with not-so-great optics). He could have shown Harry that respect.
I don’t presume to think it would have changed the trajectory of Harry’s airing of his grievances, which appear really deeply baked and exacerbated by his concern for his wife and her experiences in the royal spotlight. I don’t even know if it would have been possible for Charles to take the high road, but it would have been a nice gesture and might have helped take the temperature down, and set a good example for the courtiers and even William, that to be a monarch is to be gracious.
It is still two months to the coronation, which can be an eternity in terms of royal news cycles. But this latest mess, especially if Andrew can’t be budged out of his house that now far exceeds his contributions to the Crown, is likely to carry forward.