The Queen, the 'problem princes' and the family troubles that marred the last years of her reign

In her 90s, the Queen was faced with twin family problems that threatened to rival the worst difficulties of the Diana years in damaging the monarchy.

Prince Andrew’s friendship with a convicted child sex abuser and Prince Harry’s decision to turn his back on royal duties – and then mount repeated personal attacks on his family – threatened to undermine all that she had worked for.

That the sources of these problems were the son who was said to be her favourite child, and a grandson to whom she was particularly close must have been especially painful for her.

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But once again, the Queen demonstrated that the welfare of the institution she embodied and served came above all other considerations by effectively dismissing Andrew and Harry from royal responsibilities.

Prince Andrew and one of his mother's corgis leave a train at London Liverpool Street Station in 1966Prince Andrew and one of his mother's corgis leave a train at London Liverpool Street Station in 1966
Prince Andrew and one of his mother's corgis leave a train at London Liverpool Street Station in 1966

The Andrew problem rumbled on for more than a decade after it emerged in 2011 that he had formed a friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, a mega-rich American businessman who was also a paedophile convicted of sex offences against children.

Andrew’s links to Epstein included arranging for him to pay off £15,000 of debts incurred by his former wife, Sarah, Duchess of York.

In the wake of the payment being revealed, Andrew’s role as a trade envoy for Britain was terminated, but much worse was to come.

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Allegations were made by an American woman that she had been coerced by Epstein and his circle into having sex with Andrew when she was 17.

Late in 2019, in an attempt to quash the claims, Andrew gave a car-crash interview denying everything to the BBC’s Newsnight, in which he came across as arrogant and lacking in sympathy for the many victims of Epstein, who had killed himself in prison whilst awaiting trial for sex offences.

Charities and institutions connected to Andrew rushed to distance themselves and the Queen moved swiftly to effectively sack him from royal duties. He was to take no further part in public life.

Within weeks, worse was to follow. As 2020 began, Prince Harry and Meghan announced that they wished to step away from royal duties, spend much of their time abroad and take commercial engagements to earn money.

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For the Queen, this was a serious blow both personally and to the Royal Family. She enjoyed a close bond with Harry, whose marriage to Meghan, who is of mixed race, in 2017 had brought the royals more closely in tune with diverse, modern Britain. As a couple, they were immensely popular with the public.

Harry had already revealed publicly and damagingly that there was a rift with his brother, William. It later emerged in a biography of Harry and Meghan that the brothers had fallen out over the swift progress of the couple’s relationship.

Now it appeared both he and his wife were struggling to cope with royal life, raising the spectre of Diana, who had complained of a lack of support from the Royal Family, a state of affairs given particular poignancy by Harry’s speaking of his mental struggles after his mother’s death.

The Queen again moved swiftly, her lifelong commitment to preserving the monarchy meaning she could not countenance a half-in, half-out royal role for the couple, with the attendant risks of their status and titles being used for financial gain or exploited.

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They would no longer formally represent her, or use their HRH titles, and pay back the £2.4m of public money used to refurbish Frogmore Cottage, where they lived.

The Firm came first for the Queen, even though she was at pains in a highly personal statement to emphasise both her sympathy and affection for the couple and their son: “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family.”

The couple’s final separation from royal life was confirmed in a statement from the Palace in February 2021 which once more had the stamp of the Queen putting the monarchy’s interests above all else.

Harry would lose his honorary military titles, as well as all royal patronages. The statement said: “It is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.”

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That prompted a rejoinder from Harry and Meghan which many felt was impudent to the Queen, whose entire life had been devoted to service: “We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.”

A month later, having settled in California, Harry and Meghan gave a bombshell interview to American talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey, in which the princess said she had been left feeling suicidal by a lack of support from the Royal Family.

They also claimed that a member of the royal household – who was not named – had made a remark they considered racist by asking what colour they believed Archie’s skin would be when he was born.

The couple later clarified that neither the Queen nor Philip had made the remark.

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The interview made headlines around the world. The Queen convened a meeting with Charles and William to decide the family’s response, and 36 hours after the interview, the Palace issued a terse statement.

“The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan.

“The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.

“Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.”

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But if the Queen hoped that having had their say publicly, Harry and Meghan would concentrate on their new lives, she was to be disappointed.

In the days after the television interview, Harry went on to criticise his father for his parenting skills, and also said his brother, William, was “trapped” by royal life.

Soon afterwards, it was announced that Harry and a co-author were working on his autobiography, which was scheduled for publication in 2022 – the year the Queen celebrated her Platinum Jubilee.

In old age, the Queen faced the unwelcome reality that the actions of her own family once again caused serious problems for the monarchy she sought to protect at all costs, just as they had more than two decades earlier.

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