Valentine Low is best known to royal-gossips as the Times of London royal reporter who got the big exclusive on Kensington Palace’s attempts to frame the Duchess of Sussex as a “bully” in 2021, just days before the Sussexes’ Oprah interview aired. It was an obvious scheme to smear Meghan because KP was terrified that she would speak about just how horribly she was treated and how the Windsors are full of racists. Low used those connections – KP staffers mostly, Simon Case and Jason Knauf – to position himself as a royal biographer in tune with the royal courtiers. Thus, Low released his book, Courtiers: The Hidden Power Behind the Crown, last October. It made minimal impact, as did many of the royal books released in a rush last fall, ahead of the publication of Prince Harry’s Spare.
Well, now Courtiers is coming out in paperback, and Low has updated it with sections about what happened after QEII passed away, and how “race and racism” is one of the biggest issues facing King Charles’s reign. The new sections were excerpted in the Times, and there’s a lot of dumb drama about how Charles started firing people basically as soon as he became king, how Charles and Camilla changed the locks on Angela Kelly within days (we already knew that) and how Charles’s private secretary Clive Alderton (Prince Harry referred to him as the Wasp in Spare) is in over his head and already unpopular with the old-guard at Buckingham Palace. In the section where Low describes the Susan Hussey debacle last November, he goes into the royal issues around race and, of course, the Duchess of Sussex.
The Susan Hussey debacle revealed just how much of a problem the issue of race is for the palace. The underlying issue was not going to go away, however: the royal family has a problem with race, and has done so ever since Meghan made clear how unhappy she had been during her time as a working royal.
The “bullying investigation”: Later, it emerged that the palace had appointed an outside firm of solicitors to conduct an inquiry. Just over a year later, the palace said it would not be releasing the outcome of the inquiry, or even revealing what lessons had been learnt, on the grounds of confidentiality. But most people suspected that the real reason they were burying the report was to try to keep the peace with Harry and Meghan.
The Oprah interview: The second, bigger challenge faced by the palace in March 2021 was Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. For most people, their most damaging accusation concerned what one courtier awkwardly called “the r-word”. That had come up because of remarks that a member of the royal family supposedly made about the colour of Harry and Meghan’s future baby’s skin. A palace team had watched the interview overnight — it was screened in the US on the evening of Sunday, March 7, and was not due to be shown in the UK until the next day — and senior officials had spent the morning locked in conference calls as they debated how to respond. A draft statement was ready by 2pm on Monday. Much to the frustration of the media, however, the palace remained silent. One insider said, “One of the reasons was that the late Queen was adamant that she was going to watch the programme first.” And she was going to watch it with the rest of the population, on ITV on Monday evening.
The palace response: The next day, the serious negotiations began over the official response. William and Kate – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as they were then — sat together on a sofa as they discussed with their officials how to deal with the Sussexes’ incendiary allegations. The draft statement they had at that point did not yet include the phrase that was to become famous, that “some recollections may vary”. The insider recalled, “It had a much milder version. The debate was, do you rise entirely above it and offer the olive branch of [Harry and Meghan being] ‘much loved members of the family’? Or is there some moment when you have to intervene and offer a view?”
Kate & William wanted a tough statement: While they were as concerned as anyone about not getting into a tit-for-tat with Harry and Meghan, William and Kate were clear which side of the debate they were on. “They wanted it toughened up a bit,” said the insider. “They were both of one mind that we needed something that said that the institution did not accept a lot of what had been said. He said, ‘It is really important that you guys come up with the right way of making sure that we are saying that this does not stand.’ She was certainly right behind him on it.”
Kate gets credit for “recollections may vary”: While some have attributed “recollections may vary” to Alderton, more than one source has said that the author was in fact Jean-Christophe Gray, William’s new private secretary, who had been in post for less than three weeks. At least two senior officials in other households were against its inclusion, because they feared that it would rile Harry and Meghan. But once the phrase had been added to the draft, it was — according to another source — the Duchess of Cambridge who pressed home the argument that it should remain. “It was Kate who clearly made the point, ‘History will judge this statement and unless this phrase or a phrase like it is included, everything that they have said will be taken as true.’ ”
Steely Keen: This was, said the source, yet another example of how Kate is often far steelier than she appears. “She does not get as much credit as she should, because she is so subtle about it. She is playing the long game. She has always got her eye on, ‘This is my life and my historic path and I am going to be the Queen one day.’ ” The toughened-up draft went to Buckingham Palace for approval, and came back a couple of hours later. The Queen had said yes.
Palace inertia: One critic who has seen the system from the inside argues that the palace has lost its way. It is partly, they say, down to a management culture that does not encourage risk-taking. “You’ve got a complete inertia in my view, a complete inability to make decisions, to lead, to think about things strategically. And that is why you end up in this mess that they’re in with the Sussexes, [the] Duke of York and the staff issues. Because they’re so worried about their own positions. They kind of lose track of what being a leader is.”
Meghan “never really wanted to be accepted”: Courtiers at their worst can fan the flames of family dissent, over-energetically pursuing their principal’s agenda at the cost of the wider interests of the institution. They can also be the voice of conservatism, which, depending on circumstances, can be a good thing or a bad thing. If they are protecting the monarchy from the foolishness of a member of the royal family who thinks they know best, that can only be for the good. But if they stand in the path of progress, the verdict of history will not be kind to them. Some of those who worked with Meghan argue that she never really wanted to be accepted by the royal family. That might be true. But if the institution had tried harder, and if she had been more willing to adapt herself to palace life, she could have been one of the royal family’s greatest assets.
It’s difficult to take any of this seriously given how many times Low unquestioningly parrots the palace’s talking points. As in, it’s not our fault that we were unspeakably racist to Meghan, she never really wanted to fit into the royal family! GMAFB. The thing about the inquiry into the bullying accusations is also the palace’s talking point – if the accusations had ever been credible, if there was ever evidence that Meghan mistreated anyone, Knauf and Case would have leaked that sh-t years ago. It was always a trumped-up scheme to abuse and smear a Black woman who was speaking about how badly she had been treated. They could never release the findings of the inquiry because the findings made William and Kate look like what they are: racist imbeciles who can’t run an effective office.
As for Kate suddenly getting the credit/blame for “recollections may vary”… while I doubt Kate came up with it or even argued strongly for it, it’s fascinating that Kate is being pushed as the architect of that gaslighting bullsh-t. It’s also notable because this was 2021, about a year and a half before QEII passed away. Just how many statements were made with QEII’s “authorization” which she had nothing to do with?
Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, Cover Images, Instar, Backgrid, CBS/Harpo.