A challenging year for Royal Family but not quite the annus horribilis of 1992

With the ongoing scrutiny of Prince Andrew's friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and persistent rumours and criticism dogging Harry and Meghan — not to mention Brexit — it's been a challenging year for the Royal Family, but it doesn't quite rival 1992, which the Queen famously dubbed an annus horribilis.

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Queen Elizabeth II speaks with officials after delivering the Queen's Speech in the House of Lord's Chamber at the Houses of Parliament on Thursday. The Royal Family had to contend several controversies this past year. (Richard Pohle/WPA/Getty Images)

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Was it really another annus horribilis for the Queen? 

As 2019 draws to a close, there has been much chatter about whether the year has been another annus horribilis for Queen Elizabeth. 

Along with the sordid, ongoing saga around Prince Andrew's friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the House of Windsor was buffeted by talk of potential rifts between Princes William and Harry and their wives. 

Controversy also followed Harry and his wife, Meghan, over everything from privacy and secrecy to suggestions of hypocrisy when it comes to how environmentally friendly they might be. The Queen also found herself much closer to politics than usual as Brexit continued to convulse the U.K. 

But does all that really rival 1992, when the Queen famously told a gathering marking her 40 years on the throne that it was an annus horribilis?

Maybe not.

"This past year has been challenging for the Royal Family, but on balance, its events haven't threatened the monarchy in the same way," biographer Sally Bedell Smith, author of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, said via email.

In 1992, there was a litany of troubles. Andrew Morton's book Diana: Her True Story "was devastating for Prince Charles — and by extension, his fitness as a future king," said Smith, and Charles's separation from Diana was an "inevitable consequence." 

Princess Diana and Prince Charles at a Korean War commemorative service in November 1992. Andrew Morton's book Diana: Her True Story came out that year and was devastating for the couple. They divorced four years later. (Reuters)

The marriages of his brother Andrew and sister Anne also imploded. And in November, fire devastated Windsor Castle, for which Elizabeth has a particular fondness.

That's not to say, however, that 2019 didn't have its troubles.

"The only parallel between 1992 and 2019 is Prince Andrew as a source of serious concern," said Smith, with his involvement in the Epstein scandal staining his reputation.

"The Queen, backed by Prince Charles and Prince William, did the right thing by removing him from his public duties. He is now a 'minor royal,' well down the line of succession, so his departure from public life won't have as much impact as it would have in 1992, when he was preceded only by Charles, and his two young sons."

The problems Andrew faces "are pretty horrendous," Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine, said via email.

'The only parallel between 1992 and 2019 is Prince Andrew as a source of serious concern,' said Queen biographer Sally Bedell Smith. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"It is very sad for the Queen to see her favourite son being ridiculed and in such an unsavoury mess. But he is 60 in February and there is not much the Queen can do about it. He has to get himself out of the mess with as little damage to the institute of the monarchy as possible."

And then there is the controversy that swirled throughout the year around Harry and Meghan.

"The bumps in their life as a royal couple — their antagonism toward the press, the resentment of their tendency to act more like celebrities than members of the Royal Family, the accusations of hypocrisy when they failed to practise what they were preaching — will presumably smooth out in 2020," said Smith.

As much as there was controversy this year, there were also moments of hope and optimism.

Seward sees several "high notes" to 2019, including the arrival of Harry and Meghan's first child, Archie; the wedding of the Queen's "favourite great niece" Gabriella Windsor; and several "successful" high-profile royal tours. "William and Kate proved over and over again how suitable they are to lead the monarchy into the future."

Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, were model royals by all appearances and were one of the high notes of the year for the Royal Family, says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Smith expects that "to the degree that William and Harry have had a rift in their relationship over the past year, it seems likely that, too, will smooth out in 2020."

Smith said the Queen continues "to be fit mentally and physically and can be expected to carry out her duties as long as she is able."

Looking further down the road, Smith considers what might come in 2022, when the Queen will have been on the throne for 70 years. 

"If she continues as she is now,  there could be an unprecedented Platinum Jubilee celebration in the offing."

Prince Philip in hospital

Prince Philip, seen talking to Prince Harry, right, in May, was hospitalized Friday as a 'precautionary measure' for treatment for a pre-existing condition, Buckingham Palace said. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

Prince Philip was taken to hospital in London today for treatment of a pre-existing condition.

Buckingham Palace said the Queen's 98-year-old husband was taken from her Sandringham estate, where he spends much of his time, to King Edward VII's Hospital as a "precautionary measure."

It's the second time Philip, who retired from public duties in 2017, has been in hospital around Christmas. In 2011, he missed the Royal Family's festive celebrations as he recovered from a successful coronary stent procedure.

The Telegraph reported today that it was understood Philip had been under the weather "for some time" and had developed a cold recently. He was not taken to hospital by ambulance, and the admission Friday had been planned.

Philip has been in hospital a few times in recent years, including in 2018 for hip replacement surgery. In 2013, he had exploratory abdominal surgery. The previous year, he missed portions of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations while he was treated for a bladder infection.

Philip was last seen in public in May, at the wedding of Gabriella Windsor.

While Philip was in hospital in London on Friday, the Queen was travelling in the other direction, taking the train to Norfolk to begin her Christmas break at Sandringham.

Keeping an eye on Christmas

Left to right, Prince Charles, Prince William, Catherine, Meghan and Prince Harry, arrive for the Royal Family's traditional Christmas Day service at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham last year. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a simple walk to church, but one that draws significant attention as observers look for who's there — and who isn't.

This year, the countryside stroll to St. Mary Magdalene church at the Sandringham estate on Christmas Day won't feature two of the more high-profile members of the Royal Family.

Harry and Meghan have been taking a break from royal duties, and are celebrating Christmas with Meghan's mother elsewhere. Last year, amid ongoing reports of potential strife between Kate and Meghan, as well as between William and Harry, their walk together to church drew more attention than other years.

Curiosity will also surround whether Prince Philip will be seen. He was taken to hospital in London on Friday morning, Buckingham Palace said.

There may also be two additions to the Christmas morning stroll. Some reports suggest William and Kate's two elder children, Prince George, six, and Princess Charlotte, four, will join the annual walk for the first time.


Royally quotable

"Why can't they go home?"

— Prince William recounts what George and Charlotte have said when they have seen homeless people. William made the comments during the BBC Christmas special, where he said he makes a point of discussing the struggles other people face as he drives the children to school.


Royals in Canada

Meghan Markle, in baseball hat, with staff at the St. Felix Centre in Toronto. Markle volunteered at the centre when she lived in Toronto during the filming of the series Suits. (St. Felix Centre)

Brian Harris readily admits he "wasn't really aware" of who Meghan Markle was when he met her about four years ago.

In her pre-royal days living in Toronto while working as an actor on the TV drama Suits, Meghan was dropping off turkeys for the Thanksgiving meal at the St. Felix Centre, a charity that offers support for homeless and vulnerable people. 

But when Harris, the centre's executive director, now sees a photo from her time volunteering at the centre, he remembers meeting her

Harris recalls someone who was "very humble about the whole thing."

"She tried to keep a pretty low profile because she wasn't really trying to make it about herself."

Things have gone very high-profile for the centre after Meghan and Harry featured it among 12 charities they highlighted on Instagram this month.

"She was just trying to do a good thing," Harris said of Meghan's time at the centre, "and so we were very impressed by that, and very appreciative of the fact that now that she has this much bigger platform, she's still continuing to do good things."

Harris said the royal recognition has enabled the organization to "reach a much wider audience" and it is "very flattered" to be included in the group of charities highlighted by Harry and Meghan.

"Their influence can't be understated," Harris said.

"They have such an enormous platform and such an enormous reach … depending on how deeply involved they get with a particular charity, it can be immensely life-altering for that organization."

He said the centre's next challenge, early in the new year, is seeing if Meghan might consider a return visit in 2020.

"We've been trying to plant that seed that if her and Harry, or even just her … happen to be back on this side of the pond any time soon, that we would love to have them pop by for a visit and see the impact of their activities over the last few months."

Royal reads

  • Emily Maitlis, the BBC journalist who conducted the interview with Prince Andrew over his friendship with Epstein, shares secrets regarding that "hour of surreal television." [The Guardian] 

  • Camilla shared the holiday spirit with a group of seriously ill children as they helped decorate the Christmas tree at Clarence House. [The Telegraph] 

  • The latest season of The Crown has Queen Elizabeth hearing rumours that the prime minister of the day — Harold Wilson — was secretly a Soviet spy. Did MI5 really think that was the case? [BBC] 

  • Police surveillance files gathered about a goddaughter of Queen Victoria will go on display next year as part of a display looking at the history of the fight for women's rights. [The Guardian] 

A festive note:  The Royal Fascinator will take a break over Christmas and return to your inboxes on Jan. 10. Have a happy holiday.


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


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