World·Royal Fascinator

Looking ahead for the Royal Family: Why 2021 could bring comfort, continuity and the potential for controversy

As the Royal Family contemplates the year ahead, some notable milestones lie in the offing, along with the likelihood of continuing new ways of doing royal business that have evolved since the pandemic began. But controversies that have loomed large in the last little while show no signs of fading.

New ways of doing royal business that evolved last year during pandemic likely to continue

Queen Elizabeth appears via videolink from Windsor Castle during a virtual audience to receive Belgian ambassador Bruno van der Pluijm and Hildegarde Van de Voorde, who were at Buckingham Palace, on Dec. 18, 2020, in London, England. The Royal Family is likely to keep using online platforms for its work as the pandemic continues this year. (Dominic Lipinski/Getty Images)

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As the Royal Family contemplates the year ahead, some notable milestones lie in the offing, with Queen Elizabeth set to turn 95 in April and her husband, Prince Philip, set to turn 100 a few months later.

And 2021, unfolding as it is under the ongoing shadow of the coronavirus, also promises to see the Royal Family continuing to adapt to new ways of doing royal business that have evolved since the pandemic struck last March.

But 2021 also holds potential for trouble, as controversies that have loomed large in the last little while show no signs of fading.

Much of the Royal Family's business moved into the virtual world last year as the pandemic limited in-person activities, and in ways that broadened the extent of their endeavours.

"In some ways, I think the Royal Family came into its own during the COVID-19 restrictions of 2020," royal author and biographer Penny Junor said via email.

"Because so many events and speeches had to be done online, senior members of the family reached many more people than they ever would have done in a normal year of face-to-face events."

Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, take part in a chat over Zoom with front-line health staff at Surrey Memorial Hospital in June 2020. (Kensington Palace)

One such online event saw Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, meet via Zoom from their rural home northeast of London with hospital staff in Surrey, B.C., offering thanks for their efforts in the pandemic.

That support for front-line workers was at the heart of much of what the Royal Family did last year, as they sought to offer reassurance and urge resilience.

"In the absence of strong political leadership, I think they provided continuity and comfort," said Junor. 

In particular, the Queen's messages of hope and perseverance found broad praise. 

And in all likelihood, those kinds of messages from members of the family will continue.

"I imagine we will see more of this kind of soft leadership in the coming months," said Junor.

Prince William speaks via videolink in April 2020 as he officially opens the NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham, the second of seven potential additional health-care spaces to deal with the patient load of the pandemic. (Jacob King/Reuters)

But looking ahead, all is not sunshine and light. Controversies — some of the Royal Family's own making, others of a more external nature — cast shadows over 2021.

"The latest series of [Netflix's]The Crown did not paint any of them in a good light, particularly Charles and Camilla, and the danger, obviously, is that people all over the world will regard what in places is complete fiction as history," said Junor.

Headlines — tabloid and otherwise — return with regularity to the scandal surrounding the friendship Prince Andrew had with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and there is little to suggest that will change. 

Just last month, the Guardian was reporting that Andrew, through a spokeswoman, refused to deny that he stayed in Epstein's New York City mansion.

There is also little to suggest any decrease in the headlines spawned by arguably the largest royal story of 2020: the departure from the upper echelons of the family by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Harry and Meghan's decision to step back — first announced to much surprise a year ago and which came into official effect at the end of March — may mean they are no longer working members of the family. But they remain in the family, and their activities — even from their new home in California — continue to reflect on the House of Windsor. 

"Meghan's legal action against the Mail on Sunday [newspaper] is likely to reach the courts this year," said Junor.

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, visit Canada House in London on Jan. 7, 2020, shortly before their surprise announcement they would step back as working members of the Royal Family. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/The Associated Press)

While it has been expected that there would be a review of Harry and Meghan's arrangement after a year, media speculation has been swirling around whether Harry in particular will return to the U.K. for that — travel conditions permitting. 

Also on the calendar for a little later in the year is the unveiling of a statue to honour Harry and William's mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. The statue in the garden at Kensington Palace is set for unveiling on July 1, which would have been her 60th birthday.

As for one of those other milestone birthdays, don't expect a lot of official attention for Prince Philip's 100th on June 10. He has reportedly been adamant about not wanting a big to-do.

"To reach 100 is an extraordinary achievement, but Prince Philip's desire for no fuss is entirely in keeping with the man," said Junor. "There will be the traditional gun salute for him, but this will probably be the only official acknowledgement. I am sure he will celebrate quietly with family — if he is allowed to by June."

The author and the prince

Prince Charles, left, shown here on a tour in Bonshaw Provincial Park in Prince Edward Island in 2014, was interviewed about his environmental initiatives by Canadian author Margaret Atwood when she was guest editor for BBC Radio 4's Today program on Dec. 29. (CBC)

When noted Canadian author Margaret Atwood was guest editor for a BBC radio program the other day, she focused on the environment. A host of the Today show told listeners Atwood was keen to talk to other people who "have put campaigning for the natural environment at the heart of what they do." 

And that had her speaking for several minutes with Prince Charles.

"You were very early in that field of battle, so it must have been quite a struggle when you began," Atwood told Charles. "I notice you first talked about plastic way back in 1970, when nobody was doing that. So how much of a pushback did you have to face?

Quite a bit, in fact.

"Nobody really wanted to know at the time and I think they thought I was completely dotty," said Charles, who also talked about his interest in organic farming and longstanding concern over nanoparticles and microplastics.

Atwood also drew attention to an initiative Charles has launched to try to make markets more sustainable, an initiative he said has seen a transformation as businesses have gained more understanding of the climate crisis.

"Suddenly I noticed in the last 18 months or so, there has been a complete change of approach," he said. "Suddenly I think people are realizing the crisis, the real crisis, the real emergency, we now face."

Atwood told Charles that was "extremely encouraging," and that she would watch the initiative with great interest.

Prince Charles gives a speech during the global premiere of Netflix's Our Planet at the Natural History Museum in London on April 4, 2019. (John Sibley/Pool via AP)

Charles was also keen before the interview ended to note his ongoing discussions with Canada's First Nations leaders on environmental issues.

"It is high time we paid more attention to ... the wisdom of Indigenous communities and First Nations people all around the world," Charles said.

"We can learn so much from them as to how we can re-right the balance, and start to rediscover a sense of the sacred, because ... Mother Nature is our sustainer."

Human beings are "a microcosm of the macrocosm" when it comes to nature, he said.

"But we have forgotten that, or somehow been brainwashed into thinking that we have nothing to do with nature and nature can just be exploited, and if we go on exploiting the way we are, whatever we do to nature — however much we pollute her — we do [it] to ourselves," Charles said. "It is insanity."

Author Margaret Atwood holds her award after she was made a companion of honour by Queen Elizabeth at an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle, England, on Oct. 25, 2019. (Aaron Chown/PA/The Associated Press)

The interview was not the only brush Atwood has had with the Royal Family in recent years. In 2019, the Queen named her a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for her services to literature. Atwood accepted the award at a ceremony at Windsor Castle.

A royal reading list

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has never been shy about sharing her love of reading. And this week coming, that sharing is going to a whole new level.

Via Instagram, the Duchess of Cornwall's Reading Room will be launched on Jan. 15, offering what Clarence House said in a media release "is intended to be a hub for literary communities around the world."

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who is launching her own online book club, visits North Swindon Library on Jan. 24, 2019, in Swindon, England. (Steve Parsons/Getty Images)

It comes after Camilla, who is a patron of seven literacy-related charities, shared reading lists last year amid the pandemic that garnered positive responses.

Starting with four books chosen by Camilla, the Reading Room will offer information regarding those titles and their authors. Additional authors will be added later.

Already the Instagram account has focused on one British author and illustrator who has been having a moment: Charlie Mackesy, whose 2019 book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse has been described variously as a "publishing phenomenon" and an "illustrated call for love, friendship and kindness." The book went on to strike a particular chord with readers looking for inspiration and comfort during the pandemic.

"The art of writing is not easy, and to hear authors talk about their journeys ... will make the books more interesting," Mackesy said in a video of a conversation with Camilla posted to the Reading Room Instagram page. 

Author Charlie Mackesy speaks with Camilla via video about his book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. (Clarence House)

"Making the book, that time, I'll always remember as being incredibly difficult. And … sort of enthralling and exciting as well, you know — all those things."

There is no indication yet whether Camilla's Reading Room will feature any Canadian authors, but it seems possible. 

"As the project grows and develops, authors from across the Commonwealth will feature prominently in the Reading Room, given Her Royal Highness's great interest in literature from this area," the Clarence House media release said.

Camilla, the release said, "has long been aware that reading promotes a wide range of emotional, social and educational benefits. Her hope is that the Reading Room will encourage people of all ages and abilities to explore new books, creating opportunities for connection, engagement and discourse."

Royally quotable

"Remarkably, a year that has necessarily kept people apart has in many ways brought us closer."    

— In her Christmas message, Queen Elizabeth paid tribute to front-line workers and young people who have helped their communities during the "difficult and unpredictable times" of the coronavirus pandemic.

Royal reads

  1. A catering assistant who stole medals and photographs from Buckingham Palace has been jailed. [BBC]

  2. Prince William made three secret visits to a charity supporting homeless people that his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, introduced him to as a child. [Newsweek]

  3. Prince Harry feared veterans and members of the armed forces would be "more susceptible to suicide" after publication of a news article that claimed he had turned his back on the British military. [ITV]

  4. In Netflix's new period drama Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte — wife of King George III — is portrayed as Black. But was she really? [Radio Times]

  5. Diana dismissed criticism of her campaign for a global ban on landmines, newly released records show. [The Guardian]

  6. Prince Harry and Meghan's son, Archie, wished listeners of his parents' first podcast a Happy New Year as they invited activists and high-profile friends to reflect on 2020. [ITV]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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