From the Death of Prince Philip to the Bombshell Oprah Interview, the Most Notable Royal Moments of 2021
The Royal Family faced a myriad of challenges this year, from the death of Prince Philip to ongoing scandals and feuds. Yet despite it all, Queen Elizabeth, pictured here at on May 22, 2021 in Portsmouth, England, remained a steady and calming presence during the global pandemic. Photo: Steve Parsons/WPA Pool/Getty Images
It has been another doozy of a year for the Royal Family, who were buffeted by pandemic restrictions like the rest of us. The funeral for Prince Philip was held under strict COVID protocols. The family faced another fright with the sudden illness of the Queen: a nation, and the world, held its breath until she was back on her feet, thankfully. But the scandals and feuds were outweighed by the arrival of three new great-grandchildren for the monarch, and a terrific year in the public service spotlight for William and Kate, who stepped up to support Charles and Camilla as they all took up many of the Queen’s responsibilities with grace.
1. Death of Prince Philip
The death of the Queen Elizabeth’s consort and husband of 73 years, was the single most significant royal event of this past year. The 99-year-old Duke of Edinburgh, who had ridden out the first year of the pandemic mostly in isolation with the Queen at Windsor Castle, died there on April 9, 2021.
The pair met first at a wedding in 1934, when Elizabeth was just 8 years old and then known as Princess Elizabeth of York. Philip was 13 at the time. Their second meeting, in 1939 at the Royal Naval College, where Philip was then a cadet, is where Elizabeth was said to fall for the charming young Greek royal in exile. From their 1947 marriage, through the Queen’s ascension to the throne in 1953 and subsequent coronation, Philip was at her side as she undertook her duties as sovereign. They raised their four children and eight grandchildren together.
The Queen, a solitary figure in black, isolated from her family by COVID regulations, was silent at his televised family-only funeral, a dramatically smaller affair than would have otherwise taken place. But she gave a tribute to him in a 1997 speech that sums up her gratitude and appreciation of him beautifully: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all of these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
2. The Bombshell Sussex Interview
There was much turmoil in the House of Windsor in the weeks before Philip’s death, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex set off a bomb from their new home in California whose ripples were felt keenly in all the royal palaces. First Meghan sat down with American TV royalty, Oprah Winfrey, to tell her side of what happened during her time as a working royal. Then pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Meghan was joined by Harry towards the end of the interview, which was intercut with imagery of the pair showing Oprah around their Montecito mansion, including a tour of little Archie’s chicken coop. The revelations included some that made Oprah’s jaw drop: from the family and palace not allowing the duchess to seek treatment for her suicidal ideation while pregnant — a situation she attributed to pressure from the tabloid media— to an allegation that one of the royals had wondered aloud to Harry about what colour their first child’s skin would be. Meghan gave testimony about a much-reported incident involving tears over a bridesmaid dress, correcting the record to say that it was she, and not Kate, who was left crying in the run-up to her and Harry’s 2018 wedding. Among the smaller revelations were Meghan protesting that she knew nothing about the British Royal Family before she joined the Firm, and Harry speculating about how his father and brother feel “trapped” by their pre-destined roles in life. He also commented on the much-speculated about feud with William, calling the state of their relationship “space.”
The repercussions of the interview continue to be felt to this day, but for the Sussexes, it was a successful and very Hollywood way to launch their new careers as American celebrity media content producers and philanthropists. They launched their Archewell Foundation and made the cover of the Time 100 Most Influential issue in the aftermath of the televised event. The timing, just before Philip’s death — as he lay in hospital, in fact — made Harry’s return home to England for his grandfather’s funeral notably awkward, however.
3. The Queen’s Resilient Summer
After a brief mourning period, Queen Elizabeth emerged to meet with and host the G7 leaders at a summit in Cornwall in June. Sitting down with the assembled leaders — socially distanced — she was heard to quip, “Are you supposed to look like you’re enjoying yourself?” The 95-year-old Queen, the oldest and longest-reigning British sovereign, later the same week received Joe Biden, the oldest person elected American president (he was then 78) at Windsor Castle for a review of the troops and a private audience with Biden and his wife, Jill. This would mark the 13th American president she has welcomed, a feat that truly shows the remarkable span of history she has embodied and experienced. Later that same busy weekend, she was seen tapping her feet to the music at a COVID-abbreviated Trooping the Colour, the celebratory review of her military that marks the monarch’s official birthday each June. After the first waves of the pandemic, where she proved to be a steadying hand to the nation and the Commonwealth, then the death of her husband, the Queen emerged from mourning with a show of spirit, resilience and humour that was nothing short of remarkable.
4. The Next Generation
A wave of new great-grandchildren surely cheered the Queen in her difficult year. Following the birth last year of Eugenie’s son, August, there came in rapid succession this spring a son, Lucas, on March 21, for Zara and Mike Tindall; then a daughter, Lilibet Diana, for Prince Harry and Meghan on June 4; followed by a daughter, Sienna, for Princess Beatrice on Sept. 18.
Then on Sunday, Nov. 21, the Queen made her first known appearance since a slate of cancellations due to illness at the special double christening for Lucas and August at Royal Lodge, Windsor. The dual christening was a first for royal babies, made all the more special by the attendance of the Queen.
5. Scandals Drag On
The saga of Prince Andrew’s connections to the late convicted American pedophile Jeffrey Epstein continued to cause headaches for the palace this year. A new lawsuit, launched in a New York court by Virginia Roberts Giuffre alleging sexual abuse by the prince when she was a minor, caused Andrew to first go deeper into hiding at Balmoral and then to launch a strident defence with expensive powerhouse American attorneys (for which his mother is reputedly paying). It seems there is no path back for the errant prince to his royal duties anytime soon.
Another scandal briefly distracted from Andrew’s woes. The chief aide to his older brother (and heir to the throne), Prince Charles, was forced to step down over a cash-for-access-and-favours scheme. Michael Fawcett, the prince’s longtime former valet and then CEO of The Prince’s Foundation, quit in early November following several months of turmoil surrounding his dealings with Mahfouz Marei Mubarak, a Saudi billionaire who made heavy donations to restore some of the prince’s favourite properties (including Dumfries House in Scotland). Fawcett arranged for Mubarak to be awarded a CBE and an OBE, and supported his application for citizenship. Prince Charles has denied any knowledge of the arrangements.
6. Feuding Brothers
The state of William and Harry’s relationship was a major focus again this year. Immediately following the Oprah interview, William was sandbagged by reporters while on the way to an engagement, asking him if the Royal Family is racist. “We are very much not a racist family,” was his response, given over his shoulder as he walked away. He has not commented on his feelings about Harry since. That doesn’t mean the press and book industry has stopped adding fuel to the fire. Following on the heels of last year’s feud scoopbook, Battle of Brothers by Robert Lacey, was Brothers and Wives by Christopher Anderson. The author of a previous bestseller on the princes, Diana’s Boys, Anderson put forward the allegation that it was Prince Charles who had speculated aloud about Archie’s skin colour. The book also included further reporting on the source of Harry’s falling out with William, who (along with other members of the family and friends and staff) expressed the view that the Meghan relationship was too much, too fast for royal pacing.
Meanwhile, there was the long-anticipated “reunion” of Diana’s sons at the unveiling of the memorial statue they commissioned of her for the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace. Harry flew over to attend the event, held on what would have been Diana’s 60th birthday, but the two brothers stood apart, barely interacting. It was heartbreaking to see, for all of us who remember the young men walking behind their mother’s coffin.
7. Camilla Turns Around Public Opinion
When Camilla married Charles in 2005, there was still some simmering public resentment, blaming her for a role in breaking up the marriage of Charles and Diana, and usurping her place after her death. That isn’t wholly fair, of course, as Charles was the one who broke his marriage vows, and the couple was divorced before Diana’s death. But the connection people still have around the globe for Diana made Camilla’s position tricky. She has played it cool, and slow, standing in the background. In recent years, she has put in the work both alongside Charles and on her own, anchoring royal engagements.
But it is her focus on domestic violence, something she has been quietly working on for years, that made a big impression this year. The pandemic has seen record rates of domestic violence around the world, inflamed by the enforced isolation and economic hardships it has wrought. In July of this year, The Guardian proclaimed Camilla “A Woman Transformed,” reporting from a round table she attended in a Bristol Women’s Aid office. She explained her commitment this way, with tears in her eyes: “It’s what all these very brave ladies tell me. It’s seeing is believing. Hearing is believing. Like many other people in this country, I didn’t know much about domestic abuse, in fact I knew nothing at all.”
She explains why the cause drew her: “It was a taboo subject, but I think we can talk about it now. And if I can talk about it, and bang the drum a bit, so can a lot of other people. So, that’s what I try to do to help.”
8. The Queen Is Hospitalized
The news was like an electric shock: the last time Her Majesty was in the hospital was in 2013, for gastroenteritis. When she cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland at the last minute in October, the world was stunned. The Queen simply doesn’t cancel things, least of all last minute. It took a few days for the palace to acknowledge that she had been taken to hospital and kept overnight for “preliminary tests.” There was an announcement that she would be back on duty by Remembrance Sunday, which the Queen considers among the most important days on her calendar, but she did not attend, under doctor’s orders to rest what was described as a strained back. But soon after, she returned to limited public events via Zoom, and to attend the retirement of Defence Chief Sir Nick Carter, then soon after the christening of two of her great-grandchildren. The cancellation of the Queen’s annual Christmas lunch for extended family was down to COVID precautions, and she is still set to spend the holiday at Sandringham with close family as planned.
9. The Reconfigured Fab Four
After Prince Philip’s retirement and the exit of the Sussexes, the core group of working royals became Charles and Camilla, William and Catherine, Edward and Sophie and Princess Anne. But the four faces most seen and covered this year were Charles, Camilla, William and Catherine. Charles and William both focused in on their environmental work, a cause that Charles has long been committed to, and effective in affecting change. Charles in particular was centre stage at the Glasgow COP26 Summit. And William, whose Earthshot Prize kicked into gear this year, was by his side.
Meanwhile, Kate was by William’s side, and, like Camilla, began to take on more of a forward-facing role. The televised Christmas carol concert she hosted this holiday season, resplendent in scarlet red, is a great example of her new profile, fit for a Queen-in-waiting.
10. Meghan Wins a Round With the Tabloids
Meghan won a summary judgment for invasion of privacy earlier this year against Associated Newspapers, for publishing portions of her private letter to her father. When the news company appealed, some unfortunate details were released in discovery, such as the emails she sent to her former aide, Jason Knopf (the one who had filed a complaint against the duchess for bullying her staff) proving that not only did she know the letter might be leaked and that she had written it careful with the knowledge of that fact, but that she and Harry had also facilitated the co-operation with authors of the book Finding Freedom. This last point caused Meghan to write an apology to the court for forgetting this fact. Nonetheless, the court of appeals upheld the judgment that the duchess’s privacy had been breached, and the damages awarded will stand. Meghan declared it a “precedent setting” decision that will “reshape a tabloid industry that conditions people to be cruel, and profits from the lies and pain that they create.”