For fans of stories about palace intrigue — courtesy of the Tudors, the Romanovs and even the Lannisters — the public maneuvering taking place among members of the House of Windsor is hard to ignore.
Kate Middleton, her husband Prince William — second in the line to the British throne — and brother-in-law Prince Harry are up to something.
It’s hard to say exactly what, but it’s happening at a time when the British monarchy is poised for a major transition.
Queen Elizabeth II recently turned 91 and Prince Philip, who soon turns 96, just announced he will retire from royal duties in August. For at least a decade, Buckingham Palace has been preparing for the moment the queen dies and Prince Charles, William and Harry’s father, becomes king, the New Yorker recently reported.
The aftermath of the queen’s death, in fact, is the subject of a new TV drama, “King Charles III.” The show comes to American audiences on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater on May 14 and is adapted from a controversial but acclaimed play that first premiered in London and then made its way to Broadway. It also played in San Francisco last fall.
The story depicts Charles, who is genuinely pretty unpopular in the UK, taking the throne and facing opposition from Parliament. He also has to fend off a power grab by his son, Prince William, and William’s Lady MacBeth-like wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. In the end, the photogenic young couple succeed in getting Charles to abdicate in William’s favor.
Could such a palace coup be taking place in the real world of the British monarchy? Such things only happen in plays and TV shows, right?
But William, Kate and Harry do have some kind of campaign going. It’s a major PR offensive that clearly seems designed to usher in a more warm and friendly profile for the royal family — but could also work to push Charles to the sidelines.
The young royals have been very busy garnering positive headlines and social media posts for doing laudable things: standing up for true love with a commoner girlfriend (Prince Harry for his romance with American actress Meghan Markle); fostering good relations with France (Kate and William); celebrating a sixth wedding anniversary and expressing pride in the cuteness of their 2-year-old daughter (also Kate and William).
Most notably, Kate, William and Harry have given a series of candid interviews in which they have opened up about their struggles with grief and personal challenges. Harry revealed that he had sought professional help to deal with the 1997 death of his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, while Kate talked about the emotional adjustment that comes with being a brand new mother.
Last year, the three formed the Heads Together coalition, to fight stigma surrounding mental illness. For William, Kate and Harry to put themselves out there in this way, even on behalf of a worthy cause, marks a departure for a family that’s always been known for its adherence to tradition and emotional reserve.
These revelations also help solidify the portrait of young royals who are modern, compassionate, unpretentious and, most of all, relatable.
Even the ski-vacation missteps of the William and Kate — going away for a weekend and missing a key event in the royal calendar — made the duo seem less like pampered royals and more like a regular young married couple, giving each other the space to enjoy some separate, kid-free time with family and friends.
Who can’t relate to that?
This relatability campaign also highlights the difference between William and Harry and their stodgy 68-year-old father, whose ascension to the throne fills many Britons with dread, according to the New Yorker.
In a monumental new biography about Charles, “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life,” American writer Sally Bedell Smith offers a pretty damning portrait of him, according to the New Yorker. He grew from a “timorous, sickly child” into a bullied, jug-eared and intellectually ungifted boy and young man who benefited from special treatment throughout prep school, through Cambridge University and during his time in the Royal Navy.
Queen Elizabeth recently beat out Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest reigning monarch and her long, steady leadership is probably responsible for the fact that three-quarters of Britons believe that the country would be “worse off without” without the Royal Family, according to the New Yorker story
But the New Yorker story also cites a poll which shows that only a quarter of respondents want Charles to become king, and writers in both the conservative and the liberal press regularly refer to him as “a prat,” “a twit,” and “an idiot.”
That poll furthermore shows that more than half of respondents would prefer to see William crowned king instead. Even among those who call Charles a “decent chap,” there is a widespread conviction that he does the monarchy more harm than good. One conservative columnist, quoted by the New Yorker, said Charles possesses “a strong sense of duty. Might not it be best expressed by renouncing the throne in advance?”
As much as Charles has stated his desire to be a good, responsible monarch, he usually manages to tick people off with his scolding comments on a range of issues, from religion to agriculture to the ugliness of modern architecture, the New Yorker said.
Most famously, he came out as the villain in the breakdown of his marriage to “People’s Princess” Diana. His younger and more media media savvy ex-wife was among the many who alleged that Charles wasn’t a caring or faithful husband.
A 2015 BBC documentary furthermore reported that Charles at one point tried to boost his popularity by having his aides leak negative tabloid stories about his teen sons and their late mother. These stories portrayed Diana as a mentally unstable serial adulterer and revealed how William supposedly dealt with meeting Camilla Parker-Bowles, Charles’ mistress and eventual second wife, and on how Harry may have relied on his kind father’s help after he was caught using drugs.
For this behavior, William and Kate have reportedly limited Charles’ contact with their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, and denied him the opportunity to present himself to the public as a doting grandfather, the Daily Beast reported.
Given this family history and Charles’ unpopularity, it’s easy to understand why William and Harry — with the help of Kate — would try to set themselves apart from him in the upcoming transition and would even maneuver to secure their own power base within the “firm.”
Part of the transition involves William and Kate relocating their family from their country home to London’s Kensington Palace where they will be taking on more royal duties.
There could be more benign reasons for William, Kate and Harry trying to come across as the more accessible, down-to-earth alternatives to Charles. If they aren’t necessarily trying to help Charles out by shoring up his popularity, perhaps they are at least trying to prevent an insurgency against his rule.
The British people might be more willing to put up with King Charles III if they know that William and his brother, along with their significant others Kate, and possibly even Meghan Markle, are around to take over when he’s done and lead the monarchy into the remainder of the 21st century.
Whatever William, Kate and Harry are plotting, lovers of palace intrigue will have plenty to watch as it all unfolds.