Britain’s sudden loss of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to North America has caused a sensation around the globe and, it is said, deep disappointment among the royal family.
Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic have dubbed it "Megzit", while the Sussexes have referred to their decision as "stepping back". But the real issue is, who among the Windsors will fill the gap?
The Firm, as the family calls the working royals, had – until recently – consisted of only 15 members: one Majesty and 14 Royal Highnesses. It was made up of Queen Elizabeth II, her four children and two of their wives, both of the Prince of Wales’s sons and their wives, three of the Queen’s cousins and one wife.
Suddenly, the Prince of Wales’s wish for a slimmed-down monarchy has become all too real. In fact, it is now looking rather scrawny. The Queen is in her 94th year. And, although she looks as if she may well reign into her second century, Her Majesty’s cousins, the Duke of Kent and his sister Alexandra, are in their 80s while the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester are in their mid-70s. The Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Princess Royal are only a little younger. The Earl and Countess of Wessex fortunately straddle the generations.
But over the next decade, as the Queen and her cousins retire (or worse) who will meet those mayors, visit those council houses, factories, schools and lighthouses, open those hospitals, bridges and attend those myriad galas and fetes?
George III and Queen Charlotte produced 13 grown princes and princesses to share the burden at the end of the 18th century. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert conceived four princes and five princesses to help out in the second half of the 19th century. But by 1950, there were about nine active royals and that was across some three generations – from Queen Mary to then-Princess Elizabeth. Perhaps the number of patronages and engagements expand and retract to match the capacity of the HRHs? Currently, some 3,000 organisations list a member of the royal family as patron or president.
For four decades, Tim O’Donovan, a retired insurance broker, has conscientiously counted every official engagement undertaken by the 15 members of The Firm. He has done it so well that when the palace conducted an audit themselves a few years ago, they found O’Donovan’s stats were faultless.
In 2019, the family undertook 3,567 engagements. The Prince of Wales topped the chart with 521 engagements, exceeding his sister, Anne, the Princess Royal, the usual winner. Yet Prince Charles’s total was only about 90 fewer than the total number of engagements undertaken by all four of the third generation, William, Kate, Harry and Meghan. Even the 93-year-old Queen’s 2019 total (295) exceeded William’s by 75.
The side-lining of Andrew, Duke of York, has of course, exacerbated the crisis. The loss of a fifth of the family in a matter of two months may seem, at first glance, catastrophic. But looking at the commitments of the two second sons, Andrew (274) and Harry (201); they are still fewer than either Charles or Anne’s annual efforts. Even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, whom a friend once described (admittedly before her remarriage) as "the laziest woman in Britain", managed to clock up, with little fuss, much warmth and good humour, 224 engagements. Meghan’s 83 engagements in 2019 were, understandably, negligible given her pregnancy and the birth of Archie Mountbatten-Windsor.
So how can those 558 engagements be made up in 2020 and the decade ahead? Of course, if the discussions with the family of a royal role for the Sussexes can settle on them continuing some duties, this will address the shortfall but their obvious concern about flying and their carbon footprint may curtail too many transatlantic crossings.
One solution may be to draft in the York princesses, Beatrice and Eugenie, to fill the gulf left by their father. While both their parents have had their share of scandals, both girls seem likeable and loyal and may rise to the challenge that neither of their parents could quite meet. This injection of two young Highnesses could easily solve the problem.
The other solution is to ask William and Kate, the next Prince and Princess of Wales, to increase their official load. Their obligations as parents are, to them, paramount and, for the survival of the monarchy into the second half of this century, the time and care spent with the future King George VII, his sister and brother, is well worth spending. But a doubling of engagements by both of them is surely not crippling.
The third solution is simply for the Windsors to do less. The so-called bicycling monarchies of Scandinavia, Belgium and Holland make do with no more than two or three couples in each kingdom – the sovereign and consort, the heir and spouse – and manage to do so with dignity and good humour, retaining the admiration and affection of their subjects. So, the situation is really not so dire.
As Andrew, Harry and Meghan get on their bikes and cycle into the night, the Queen can, with help from her kin, continue to shine and shine and, in time, her son will reign.