World·Royal Fascinator

The pandemic puts the royals online — and 'at their best'

When Prince William opened a hospital to care for COVID-19 patients via video link, the novel way of doing what is otherwise a regular royal duty may also have been a harbinger for members of the Royal Family as they contemplate how to carry out their roles in the future.

Video links become key as Royal Family offers support in battle against COVID-19

Prince William speaks via video link Thursday as he officially opens the NHS Nightingale Hospital Birmingham, a facility that will offer additional health-care spaces to deal with the patient load of the pandemic in the U.K. (Jacob King/Reuters)

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When Prince William officially opened a hospital via video link the other day, it was in many ways a sign of the times. The hospital in Birmingham was built specifically to care for coronavirus patients, and William did the task from afar while the U.K. is locked down like so much of the world.

But this novel way of doing what is otherwise a regular royal duty may also be a harbinger for members of the Royal Family as they contemplate how to carry out their roles in the future.

"Royalty have recorded video messages in the past to acknowledge events in various regions of the Commonwealth that they are unable to attend in person," said Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris.

But Harris expects the process "will likely be accelerated" after the pandemic because there will be fewer senior working members of the Royal Family, particularly in the next reign.

"Virtual visits will allow for as many public events and accomplishments as possible to be acknowledged by the Royal Family," Harris said.

Given how so much of life has moved online lately, the past few weeks have seen a noticeable uptick in royal use of technology to carry out duties beyond palace walls.

Before William opened the hospital on Thursday, he spoke via video link with some of those involved in its construction.

"It's a Herculean effort, it really is, and you should rightly be very proud of what you've achieved," he told them.

On Friday morning, William and his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, were back in the public eye — albeit in a slightly more traditional way, even if it did involve a video link. They did a rare joint television interview with the BBC from their rural home in Norfolk, northeast of London.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of looking after people's mental health — a particular interest of theirs — they talked about worry for the Queen and Prince Philip, and William's father, Charles, as he recovered from the coronavirus. And they mentioned how they're keeping in touch with family members via video calls online.

"The curtain drawn over royal private life is pulled back a bit: there are video calls between the generations, there are ups and downs," the BBC's royal correspondent, Jonny Dymond, wrote on its website.

"William and Catherine have spent a fair bit of time talking to hospital workers over the past few weeks, and it is clear from their tone that it has affected and alarmed them."

A few days earlier, William and Kate did a video chat with students at a school for children of essential workers. HIs brother, Prince Harry, did a video chat with U.K. parents who have children with complex health needs. And Harry's wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, did the same with women from a community kitchen in London.

Charles opened a similar hospital a couple of weeks ago and delivered a video message after he recovered from COVID-19. He also contributed to a podcast for the first time.

Queen Elizabeth herself offered a rare television broadcast nearly two weeks ago, and was back on the airwaves a few days later, offering her first Easter message via radio. 

WATCH | The Queen's televised broadcast:

Queen Elizabeth urges strength, discipline in COVID-19 address

3 years ago
Duration 4:24
In a rare message to the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. "I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge," she said.

Additional factors may also have been at play in the Royal Family's public profile recently. Harris suggested the increased visibility could possibly be prompted by the illness of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was in intensive care for three days with COVID-19.

"The presence of the sovereign in a constitutional monarchy demonstrates the continuity of the government, even in times of crisis," said Harris. 

It's hardly the first time, however, that members of the Royal Family have stepped up or sought to be seen as offering leadership in a period of turmoil.

"This is where the Royal Family are at their best — at times of crisis," said Mark Borkowski, a British PR expert.

Monarchs, Harris said, have been praised when they showed decisive leadership. But if monarchs aren't seen as being front and centre in times of trouble, they can attract criticism. 

"Queen Victoria has been critiqued for not visiting Ireland until 1849, even though Ireland had experienced massive loss of life and emigration due to the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845," said Harris.

Fast forward to now, and there's the possibility the pandemic may have other knock-on effects on royal duties, including walkabouts.

"The COVID-19 pandemic may also lead to lasting public unease with crowds and handshakes," said Harris.

That, in turn, could make those video activities more frequent. 

"Virtual visits will provide a means for the Royal Family to connect with the public if these concerns continue after the pandemic," said Harris.

What about Harry and Meghan?

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, arrive at the Endeavour Fund Awards in London on March 5, during their final series of engagements before stepping back as senior members of the Royal Family. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Since Prince Harry and Meghan decamped from Vancouver Island to California last month, there have been few clues to suggest how their new life outside the upper echelons of the Royal Family might evolve.

Their previous online existence as SussexRoyal has gone dormant, and other than confirmation and a few general details for their new non-profit organization — under the name of Archewell — there has been little official word of anything.

"They're very quiet at the moment," said Borkowski, the PR expert.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the name Archewell, which comes from the Greek word for "source of action," was also the inspiration for the name of Harry and Meghan's son, Archie, who turns one on May 6.

A 'very smart' name

Borkowski said Archewell is a "very smart" name that sounds classy.

"They are clearly just easing off at the moment in the sense they're not saying anything or doing anything, which seems to be right," he said.

"There will come a time when newspapers are looking for other stories rather than COVID. I think [Harry and Meghan] would be damned if they did anything at the moment because they would be looked at as being opportunists."

Prince Harry and Meghan's son, Archie, will turn one on May 6. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Borkowski thinks they're looking for their place in the world post-COVID.

"And of course there's going to be a lot of interest in that."

While it has been pretty much official radio silence from Harry and Meghan lately, that hasn't stopped some media outlets from trying to suss out a few details of their new life, including some time they spent volunteering to deliver meals in Los Angeles for Project Angel Food, a non-profit organization that provides healthy meals for people with serious illnesses.

"They were dressed so casually — that's not how you expect to see them," Project Angel Food CEO Richard Ayoub told CNN. "You don't expect to see them at your door."

Another report widely cited, from the Radio Times, quoted primatologist Jane Goodall, a friend of the couple, as saying she thinks Harry has been finding life "a bit challenging" since they left the U.K. 

With the pandemic, which has struck the U.K. particularly hard, Borkowski suspects Harry would be wishing he could do something for his home country.

Prince Harry was at Abbey Road Studios in London in late February to help promote a single being released by Jon Bon Jovi in support of the Invictus Foundation. (Getty Images)

"Although his priority is his wife and his child, you would feel there is something in his makeup that he'd be wanting to do something at this time," he said. "An inability to do something for his country must be really tough for him."

Borkowski expects we will hear more from Harry and Meghan when "the news agenda becomes clearer." But that is not now, in the midst of a pandemic.

"Getting out there and saying anything about their world at the moment is not appropriate," said Borkowski. "I think they're sharp enough to see that, because it would reinforce a lot of the clichés and the tropes that have been building around them."

No wedding right now

Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, who were set to marry on May 29, have put their wedding plans on hold because of the pandemic. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Princess Beatrice had already seen her wedding plans altered — and her Buckingham Palace reception cancelled — as a result of the pandemic, but now there is word the marriage ceremony that had been set for May 29 is on hold.

People magazine reported a few days ago that Beatrice, the elder daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and fiancé Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi have called off the formal celebrations for now.

"There are no plans to switch venues or hold a bigger wedding," their spokesperson told People. "They aren't even thinking about their wedding at this time. There will come a time to rearrange, but that's not yet."

Royals in Canada 

Prince Charles takes off on board a snowmobile during a visit on April 24, 1975, to Pangnirtung in what is now Nunavut. (Doug Ball/The Canadian Press)

By the time Prince Charles arrived in Ottawa on April 20, 1975, to start his second official visit to Canada, the 26-year-old heir to the throne had gained a reputation as something of an "action man."

The 11-day visit to Ottawa and the Northwest Territories gave the naval helicopter pilot a chance to see a little more action in Canada's North, as he took rides in dogsleds and made a chilly dive under the Arctic ice in Resolute Bay.

WATCH | Prince Charles in Resolute Bay in 1975:

Prince Charles in Resolute Bay in 1975

48 years ago
Duration 1:41
Prince Charles visited Resolute Bay in 1975 and went for a dive under the ice.

But the visit also offered insight into how he saw his future role. That came during a session with high school students in Ottawa, when he suggested they ask him a few questions. 

"You're going to be King sometime, sir. What do you think the job of King is?" one curious student wondered, according to a Globe and Mail report at the time.

"I would say to take an interest and concern for other people," the prince said, according to the account from the late reporter Christie Blatchford. "And to be seen to be concerned, to exert some form of leadership. It's a fascinating job, really it is. Who could have a better job?"

Since then, Charles has become the longest heir-in-waiting for the throne, and visited Canada more than a dozen times.

Our friends at CBC Archives have taken a closer look at that 1975 visit, which also took Charles to Yellowknife and Winnipeg, before he flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to rejoin the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes.

Royally quotable

A message from Queen Elizabeth is displayed on a screen in Piccadilly Circus in London on April 8. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

"We know that coronavirus will not overcome us. As dark as death can be particularly for those suffering with grief light and life are greater."

— Queen Elizabeth, in her Easter radio message

Royal reads

  1. In a rare interview in Vanity Fair, Princess Anne offers insight into her life, from the decision not to have her children receive titles to her caution that the younger generation of royals may need to go "back to basics."

  2. In another lengthy article, the New Yorker delves into Harry and Meghan's "fractured fairy tale."

  3. Wallis Simpson died on April 24, 1986. Our friends at CBC Archives have taken a closer look at her life and how the twice-divorced American socialite had a dramatic impact on the Royal Family when her relationship with the man who became King Edward VIII rocked the House of Windsor and directly affected who would wear the crown.

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

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