January 20, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
‘He was a kind of nothing, titleless’: that was the exiled Coriolanus, as viewed by an old friend. Prince Harry has been forced to give up the use of his title, His Royal Highness, as has his wife Meghan. Much more painful is the loss of his military patronages. He was Captain General of the Royal Marines, in which he had served in Afghanistan. He had been given that rank and title by his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was Captain General for many years. Harry is barred from wearing military uniform in public, and will not hereafter take part in the military ceremonies. These are hard terms for his stepping down from royal duties, but the monarch has laid them down and he had, as he says, ‘no other option’.
The details of Harry’s new life are well known and need no recapitulation here. What strikes me is the resemblance of Harry and Meghan to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. That Duke had thought that after the storm of abdication had died down he would be allowed to return to England and live quietly, perhaps in Fort Belvedere on the Windsor estate. There was no chance of that; he was allowed back in England on one occasion only, to attend the funeral of his mother Queen Mary. There is room for one monarch only in the country. After the war, which he had spent in Lisbon and the Bahamas, he lived in Paris. France was extremely generous; the Duke paid no income tax, and he lived in a superb house on the Champs Elysées at peppercorn rent. His empty life revolved around golf and dinner parties, all arranged by his Duchess. He seems to have been terminally bored.
The most telling anecdote came soon after his abdication, when he was staying at a friend’s house in France. He was at dinner when a servant brought him word that his younger brother, now King George VI, was on the phone. The Duke sent back word that he was dining now, and could the King call back later? He did not. Monarchs do not call back.
The loi fondamentale of the House of Windsor is that it must be preserved at all costs, and never allowed to be endangered. All threats are warded off. George V refused asylum to his cousin Tsar Nicholas, believing that in 1917 his own throne would be at risk. The demands of Harry and Meghan were considered to be of that order, and surely their ‘have their cake and eat it’ hopes would not have gone down well with the public. It is quite common for people on TV to say ‘I’m a republican, personally’, and the popularity of the Queen is no guarantee of the throne’s permanent stability. It was hugely naïve of Harry and Meghan to believe that their demands would be met: as it was put to me, ‘When you quit a job, you don’t keep the company car.’ The Queen met the crisis with a decisive ruling. The matter would be resolved ‘at pace’, within days, and the negotiations left to the courtiers. These are not the supple-kneed operators of legend, and they do not resemble Roger Allam in the film The Queen. They are much more akin to the Whips in Parliament; they are hard men whose duty it to keep order in the unruly mob of minor royals. Discipline tells, as it usually does.
So Harry and Meghan enter the uncharted waters of North America, where their future life will be largely lived. How satisfying this will be for Harry is purely a matter of speculation. My own suspicion is that Dryden’s All For Love gives a vital clue. It was his re-working of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with an outcome ultimately fatal to Antony. The story will continue to enthral the world.
Ralph Berry, a renowned authority on Shakespeare, lives in Stratford-upon-Avon.