Daniela Elser: Biggest bombshells from Tina Brown’s Palace Papers book

The Palace Papers digs into the dirt of the royal family. Photo / Getty


Hear that thud? The sound of something particularly hefty dropping on to shelves?

That’s the sound of the 571-page doorstop Tina Brown biography The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor – the Truth and the Turmoil hitting shelves around the country this week.

This is not your garden variety royal book, the sort of cobbling of previously reported bits and pieces all neatly repackaged and aggressively marketed, but an account that offers a fascinating and unbeatable view inside the royal crucible.

Reader: It’s not a pretty picture. Draughty, inhospitable palaces; a stultifyingly dull job (Brown quotes the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary as once saying to a relative, “You are a member of the British royal family. We are never tired and we all love hospitals”) and an institution doggedly bent on survival.

The Palace Papers digs into what it's really like in the royal family. Photo/Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images.
The Palace Papers digs into what it’s really like in the royal family. Photo/Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images.

The author of this behemoth, Tina Brown, is a woman who herself sits atop the social and media pile in both the UK and the US. Having held the editorships of Tatler, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, her contacts book groans with the names of the great, the good and unthinkably well-connected, many of whom seem to have told all here.

The book is a delectable read, featuring sex, lies, money, marriage, leaks to the press, Machiavellian subterfuge, tears, an unfortunate rash and the one irrevocable move the Queen made which left Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex totally “stunned.”

Ready to dig in?

Kate was bullied terribly

These days the future Queen Catherine might be Marlborough school’s most famous graduate but her senior education actually started at a school called Downe House. There, according to Brown, she was bullied badly.

One alumnus told Brown that she remembered, “Kate sitting on the stairs of her house crying her eyes out.”

In fact things got so bad that Kate “developed stress eczema” at which point her parents “whipped her out of there fast in the middle of the year” and promptly set her off to a new school.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo / Getty
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo / Getty

Kate and William met as both kids and teenagers

You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who has not seen the famous shot of Kate parading down the catwalk at a university fashion show in a sheer dress and her knickers, a particularly savvy ploy that certainly got future-husband Prince William’s undivided attention.

Turns out though that the now happily married couple had not only first come across each other as children but again later in their teens too.

Kate, a member of her primary school’s hockey team, played a match against Ludgrove, the prep school which William attended, when he was 9 years old before she attended a tea there.

Then later, while at Marlborough, Kate became besties with Emilia d’Erlanger and Alice St John Webster who both “moved in William’s circles”. When the future duchess was 17, d’Erlanger invited her to a house party whose guest list also included William.

Did sparks fly? Were lingering looks exchanged? Was there the first hint of a frisson? Sadly, Brown does not tell us but still, at least we know this love story ends well.

Kate rejected William’s advances

But before love and marriage and babies came that university fashion show and a very scantily-clad Kate. At the time, the pair were not only friends but housemates but that all changed when William spied the sultry art history student in her unmentionables.

Later that night, according to Brown, “William attempted to kiss the toast of the show,” but Kate was having none of it. At that point in time she was dating an older student named Rupert Finch so she “pushed [William] away”.

Trading panic for pinot

Well, this is particularly charming. Fast forward nearly a decade on from the Night of the Knickers and Kate was planning her wedding to her Prince. It is hardly a shock to hear Brown describe Kate as “the world’s most unflappable bride – no tearful scenes, no last-minute panics, no tantrums”.

What is an intriguing detail is how the now Duchess of Cambridge dealt with any planning stress alongside the two fulltime staffers who helped her co-ordinate the day.

“They worked like dogs but had lots of laughs and broke out the pinot noir with Kate at the end of the day,” one of her team has told Brown. She also writes, “I am told the bride’s only anxiety on the wedding day itself was that her stomach rumbling might be picked up by a hot mic.” Perhaps a protein bar prior might have helped, Your Highness?

Cressida Bonas and Prince Harry. Photo / Getty
Cressida Bonas and Prince Harry. Photo / Getty

Harry the cheapskate and organiser of dodgy dates

Think dating a prince sounds dreamy? Think again.

When Prince Harry was romancing Cressida Bonas, he “upheld the Windsor tradition of being tight with a buck”.

When they were both invited to the Tennessee wedding of his friend Guy Pelly to the Holiday Inn heiress Lizzy Wilson, “Harry casually told Cressida, ‘My office has got my ticket, you get yours,’ which [Cressida] reportedly found not only cheap but disrespectful, especially when she learned he would be off for half the weekend at Pelly’s bachelor booze-up.”

Even when they were on home soil, things were hardly much better for Cressie and, per Brown, “the bizarre reality of date nights was glumly eating takeaway and watching Netflix at Nottingham Cottage”. Cinderella, eat your heart out.

‘Asshole’ Andrew

For more than 15 years, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, has lived with her ex-husband, “coroneted sleaze machine” Prince Andrew, at Royal Lodge. She has relentlessly sold their life together as very chummy and has described them as “happiest divorced couple in the world”.

Brown offers a much less cosy version.

“​​An American media executive who came to see her at Royal Lodge about a project in 2015 paints a different picture one only hopes was an aberration,” Brown writes.

“‘We were having lunch,’ the media executive told me, ‘and Andrew came in and sat down and said to me, “What are you doing with this fat cow?” I was so stunned at his level of sadism. I thought, “What an asshole.” She has to sing for her supper. She’s afraid of him.'”

Brown explains their dynamic saying, ” … the deal seems to be that he bails her out when she’s in trouble, and she backs him up when he’s assailed by scandal. It is the symbiosis of sheer survival.”

Grim, no?

Prince Andrew has been in the spotlight after his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. Photo / Getty
Prince Andrew has been in the spotlight after his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. Photo / Getty

The Meghan leak

In late October 2016, the news broke: HARRY HAD A NEW GIRLFRIEND. Not only that, she was not some horsey, toff type with a cupboard full of headbands and a dog-eared copy of National Velvet by her bed but a successful woman with her own career, an ex-husband and was of bi-racial heritage.

Here’s where things get interesting. Brown argues that the glowing coverage that Meghan received at that point gave rise to the notion that it was some loose-lipped person connected to the Suits star who was responsible. Not so. Instead, she reports that it was a servant from the House of York who leaked the news.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attend the Wheelchair Tennis on day 3 of the Invictus Games Toronto 2017. Photo / Getty
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attend the Wheelchair Tennis on day 3 of the Invictus Games Toronto 2017. Photo / Getty

The lead up to the Sussex wedding was a “sh*t show”

On May 19, 2018 the world might have tuned in to watch what looked like the perfect wedding, from the bride’s perfect couture Givenchy wedding dress to the choir singing Stand by Me, but according to Brown, the lead up to the big day was anything but pretty and even goes so far as to describe it as a “sh*t-show”.

Brown writes: “After almost two years of getting to know the bride-to-be and witnessing her mesmerising hold over Harry, the Palace staff was reeling.

“Compared to the jovial team effort for the wedding of William and Kate, Palace sources report that the preparation for the Sussex union was all drama, all the time. Meghan’s MO was seen as revving up Harry when she sensed any obstruction.”

One palace source told Brown: “Meghan would say, ‘I’ll just do whatever you want me to do’ while meanwhile, she eventually got the chapel she wanted, the preacher she wanted, the choir she wanted, the dress she wanted, the tiara she wanted, the candles she wanted, the location for the after-party, the chef, the entertainment, the guest list. No one said no to anything.”

It was not only the bride who comes in for criticism with The Palace Papers with Brown saying that Harry turned “into groomzilla”.

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Photo / Getty
Britain’s Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Photo / Getty

“There was a lot of raging,” a palace source told Brown. “In-person shouting in front of other members of staff, basically in front of too many people, which is why it all started to come out and become the first-ever negative piece of coverage about the behaviour of the couple.”

The Great Crying Mystery

In late 2018, reports first surfaced alleging that Meghan had made Kate cry at a fitting for the flower girls’ dresses while last year, Meghan told Oprah Winfrey in fact it had been the Duchess of Cambridge who actually had left her in tears.

Brown offers an alternative theory of events, saying “there was an altercation” and that “Best guess: Both of them had meltdowns that day.”

Harry ‘berated’ Thomas Markle while he was in hospital

One of the many people who spoke to Brown for this book was Meghan’s estranged father, Thomas Markle. His relationship with his daughter fractured in the lead up to the wedding when it was revealed that he had staged paparazzi shots for money. During the ensuing media melee, Markle had a heart attack.

He told Brown about “a last berating phone call from Harry … while he was recovering in his hospital bed”. (Meghan has denied this.)

“Harry said, ‘If you had listened to me, this would not have happened to you.’ At that point I said, ‘That’s the snottiest man I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And I hung up on him. I said, “That’s it, no more.” After that, they never called me again, ever,” Markle recounted to the author.

“Meghan has since claimed she called him over twenty times.”

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo / Getty
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo / Getty

Meghan ‘got mad’ at Dad for siblings’ press attacks

Thomas is not the only Markle who has made Meghan’s life very difficult. Since day dot, basically, her half-sister Samantha and half-brother Tom Jnr have also readily spoken to the press, generally serving up excoriating take-downs of their famous sibling.

“Reeling, Meghan called her father and begged him to tell her half siblings to call off the dogs,” Brown writes.

“She was getting mad at me,” Thomas told Brown. “She kept saying it was up to me to handle it, but I don’t know of any parents that can control their fifty-year-old children.”

‘It feels like I have lost my best friend’

It was not only the Markle side of the family who was struggling to deal with the repercussions of the Harry-Meghan union but William too.

According to Brown, “within months of Harry’s involvement with Meghan, he reportedly told his father that his younger brother’s obsession with her was ‘like something I have never seen … it feels like I have lost my best friend’.” (Which, as she adroitly points out, is pretty much how Harry reportedly felt when Kate came along.)

Kate was ‘shocked’ by how Meghan spoke to staff

Royal staff are all but guaranteed two things: They will be paid poorly and generally treated pretty well. (Okay, so long as they don’t have to look after Andrew.)

Last year, allegations that Meghan had bullied Kensington Palace staff were reported by the Times, something the Duchess of Sussex has vehemently denied.

However, the question of how the Cambridges versus the Sussexes approached their teams is one that Brown does not shy away from.

“[William and Kate were] allegedly shocked by the way Meghan treated their shared employees,” she reports.

“A typically uncomfortable incident had taken place during the rollout of the wedding plans when I was told Meghan yelled at a junior employee who held an announcement back because it clashed with something scheduled with the household of another senior royal.

Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Photo / Getty
Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Photo / Getty

“An insider privy to the pre-wedding incident told me, ‘I wouldn’t say it was bullying behaviour but I’ve certainly never heard of a member of the royal family talking like that to a member of staff.’ Harry said he would talk to Meghan, who then apologised. But contrition became increasingly rare.”

Andrew didn’t tell the Queen truth about car crash interview

Now we arrive in November 2019, a month that will go down in infamy for Andrew’s Hindenburg-esque disaster of a TV interview. One of the first questions that emerged in the aftermath was, who the hell had thought this prime time grilling was a good idea?

The answer: Certainly not Her Majesty.

“He positioned the broadcast to the Queen as a discussion about his official duties and his success with Pitch@Palace, his entrepreneurial initiative. Expecting just that, Her Majesty, I am told by a source close to her, watched the broadcast alone in her private sitting room at Windsor after enjoying a light dinner on a tray. One only hopes she did not up-end her favoured champagne nightcap.”

(I feel like after having watched his Newsnight debacle, the Queen should have been calling for whiskey and a lot of it.)

That was not the only bit of fancy footwork with the truth that was reportedly going on. A Palace source told Brown that, ahead of the interview, Andrew had told the BBC team he had secured permission from Her Majesty to film the interview in the Blue Drawing Room in Buckingham Palace, before he had actually got the OK from her.

‘A Category 5 tantrum’

Around this time, the Sussexes flew to Canada for a six-week sabbatical but back in the UK though William was already fretting. When a “Palace old hand” spoke to the Duke of Cambridge at a charity do, he reportedly said “We may need you to come back for a bit. I’m afraid the wheels are going to fall off with Harry.”

Then, the following month when the selection of photos beside the Queen for her annual Christmas address very prominently did not include Harry and Meghan’s family, William, according to Brown, “was said to have been appalled” because “he knew his brother well enough to predict a Category 5 tantrum brewing”.

Everyone knew Harry and Meghan wanted out

While the world might have been left slack-jawed and totally shocked when news broke on January 8, 2020 that the Sussexes were done with fulltime royal life, his family were not, per the Palace Papers and “the family saw the split coming”.

“I think the Queen found herself genuinely very conflicted,’ a Palace source told Brown. “They could all see how unhappy Harry and Meghan were. Everybody was supportive of them leaving. But they wanted it done in an orderly way. And they also wanted it done in a way that set the right precedent. William’s got three kids. The precedent they set for this generation would affect his children. He’s very mindful of that. So they wanted it done properly.”

The first Megxit fail

The house of Windsor might have known that the young Duke and Duchess were done with working royal life but plotting an off-ramp proved to be a disaster.

On January 6, 2020 Harry and Meghan landed back in London, with their baby son Archie still in Canada, and they decided on a “last-ditch strategy” which would see them “bypass his father and the Palace gatekeepers and talk directly to the Queen, whose affection for him he believed was strong enough to trump his father’s disfavour.

“In this case, Harry’s goal to make an end run past the Queen’s advisers was very clear.”

A Palace source privy to events told Brown: “What the Sussexes tried to do was circumnavigate that and go and see her because, on her own, she famously says yes.

“She caves.”

While Her Majesty had initially agreed to Harry’s request to meet, inviting him to either tea or dinner at Sandringham, that invitation was soon rescinded with her private secretary Sir Edward Young being left to tell Harry the bad news.

(There has been speculation that, last month when Harry told an interviewer he had visited his grandmother to make “sure that she’s protected and got the right people around her”, he was referring to Young.)

‘Shell shock’ and the beginning of the end

It was barely 48 hours after Harry and Meghan touched down in the UK that they played what they allegedly thought would be their ace card, announcing via Instagram they were seeking a “new progressive role” and simultaneously publishing a shiny website with all the details of this new modus operandi.

Only problem: The Queen reportedly knew nothing about it.

“The Sussexes’ fully baked proclamation of intent on their website was an insult just by its very existence,” Brown writes, quoting an intimate Palace source as saying, “It was total madness.”

“Harry and Meghan overplayed their hand,” someone who was privy to the discussions told Brown. “They thought if they leaked [the website], it would force the royal family to respond by saying … ‘Okay, Harry and Meghan, what do you want? We’re going to give you what you want.’ … They thought this was their nuclear weapon. And so they deployed it. But the royal family went, ‘Okay, off you go.'”

Days later, Harry, Princes Charles and William and the Queen gathered at Sandringham to bash out the details.

“It’s always an unwise idea to give an ultimatum to Queen Elizabeth II,” Brown writes.

“I am told that, far from yielding the floor to her advisers, this was a process in which her sovereign self, not her granny persona, was very much in control … Megxit was not so much a deal as an edict.”

The scenario she presented to her grandson was simply – either the couple stayed as working members or they could leave but she reportedly refused to countenance an arrangement that would see them hold on to some of the trappings of royalty, like using their HRHs, while also pursuing commercial deals.

The meeting left everyone present in “shell shock”, she reports, “that the family alliance could have shattered in this way”.

“Harry and Meghan were really stunned,” a former adviser has told Brown. “They did not expect that to happen.”

Unanswered questions

The Palace Papers is a cracking read for the royally-obsessed but disappointingly, it offers little insight into life post-Megxit, skating over the last couple of years in only the briefest of chapters.

There are a number of instances where I would have loved to know what Brown (and her legion of eyes and ears) had really learned about the reaction behind Palace gates to Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview or their Netflix deals or even their penchant for the cheesiest of cheesy family photos.

Nor does Brown really touch the death of Prince Philip or the impact on the Queen.

On the upside though, there is still plenty of material out there for book three.

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