Despite outward appearances of reconciliation, ill feeling still pervaded the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, writes Robert Lacey in this extract from his new book in The Times.
Prince Philip started feeling below par early in February 2021 — and on the evening of Tuesday, February 16 he headed to King Edward VII’s Hospital in central London for a few days of “observation and rest”. After two weeks the duke was transferred to St Bartholomew’s, where he spent some time recuperating following what the palace described as “a successful heart procedure” on March 3. But matters were starting to look more serious. Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview was scheduled for broadcast on March 7 in the US and March 8 in the UK, and commentators were urging CBS and ITV to postpone their screenings. The broadcasters and the Sussexes ignored the appeals and the programmes went ahead.
Philip was unconcerned, according to his friend and biographer Gyles Brandreth. What did worry him, said Brandreth, was “the couple’s preoccupation with their own problems”. “I know from someone close to him,’’ revealed the author and broadcaster, “that he thought Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was ‘madness’ and ‘no good would come of it’.”
Prince Philip died in his sleep at Windsor Castle three weeks and three days after leaving hospital, unable to play any part in his family’s response to grandson Harry and his wife’s wounding accusations of racism and indifference that had, by Meghan’s account, driven her to the brink of suicide.
The Queen had said all that she wished to in her official four-sentence reply. Prince Charles could only manage a feeble chuckle — yes, chuckle! — in response to a reporter’s shouted question: “What did you think of the interview, sir?” But Prince William had his own response ready and waiting. “We are very much not a racist family,” William declared — speaking out clearly and firmly to a group of reporters through his facemask, with all the anger of a man whose brother had linked him to those lethal code words “unconscious bias”. It was very obvious who was going to be the family’s next Prince Philip — though hopefully without all the gaffes.
When it came to the funeral the following weekend, William and his grandmother worked out together how, in the prevailing circumstances, he could not possibly walk in harmony with Harry behind his grandfather’s coffin in the way that he might have done in the past. The device of recruiting cousin Peter Phillips, Princess Anne’s beefy son, to serve as a diplomatic buffer between the two brothers had been deployed before — two years earlier at the Easter Sunday service at Windsor in April 2019, after William and Harry had gone public with the news that they were splitting their combined households.
Prince Philip’s funeral was a moving service that Saturday, April 17, 2021, rendered the more mournful and tender by the pandemic restrictions — the spare and spaced congregation, the black masks that so conveniently kept private emotions private and the purity and simplicity of the sound from the four-person choir echoing in the empty chancel.
But family anger ran deep. It was not by accident that neither Anne nor Sophie exchanged a public word with Harry in the course of the afternoon. People felt incensed by what they saw as the calculated and focused cruelty of the TV interview and by the hypocrisy of Meghan — relating so brightly to Oprah how she had phoned the Queen to show her concern about Philip’s condition without even considering, apparently, the impact that their televised catalogue of grievance might have upon the invalid’s morale and health.
And then came the episode of the wreath. “Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul, in the name of God the Father Almighty who created thee . . .” The Dean of Windsor was just addressing the final commendation to the congregation in the chapel when journalists’ phones started to “ping”. Timed at 15.39 BST (British Summer Time), just before the end of the funeral service, it was a tweet from Omid Scobie, the royal editor for Harper’s Bazaar and the co-author of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex biography Finding Freedom, passing on Harper’s Bazaar’s 15.35 report on the “sentimental tribute” from the Sussexes “to the late Prince Philip at his funeral today”.
“BAZAAR.com can confirm that Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan [sic] contributed a custom wreath that was laid in honor of the Duke of Edinburgh at his funeral service at Windsor Castle today. A card, handwritten by Meghan herself, also accompanied the wreath.” The Sussexes’ wreath could be seen at that moment leaning among the other eight simple white and green family tributes in St George’s Chapel propped against the stalls on either side of the duke’s coffin, and it had already attracted some attention on account of its unconventional and rather autumnal pinkish-brown flowers.
The detailed Sussex press release explained why this was so. Harry and Meghan had, apparently, invited their favourite Cotswold florist to handpick locally sourced flowers — Acanthus mollis (bear’s breech), the national flower of Greece, to represent the prince’s birthplace, together with Eryngium (sea holly) recognising his connection with the Royal Marines. “The wreath also features campanula for gratitude and everlasting love, rosemary to signify remembrance, lavender for devotion and roses in honour of June being Philip’s birth month.” There had been no press release about any of the other family tributes. They were all “private”, explained Buckingham Palace aides, declining to provide any details. Only the Queen’s funeral wreath had been a matter of some restrained disclosure – “white blooms including lilies, roses, freesia and sweet peas”. These had all been chosen personally by the Queen to be placed on top of her husband’s coffin, together with a concealed handwritten card that was thought to bear the childhood name by which he fondly called her — “Lilibet”.
But when it came to Meghan and Harry’s wreath there was still more data to absorb. In case you might want to commission a wreath like this for yourself, the details were provided of Willow Crossley, the florist “that the Sussexes had turned to time and time again for special occasions”, including their May 2018 wedding reception and Archie’s christening. “Do you feel you got enough recognition for your wreath now, Meghan?” asked one Twitter user sarcastically. “Did your PR work how you wanted?” “She just can’t help herself,” came a response that seemed to speak for many. “Me. Me. Me. It’s quite sickening.”
Wreaths aside, there were two powerful memories that most viewers took away from the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021. The first was of that final commendation farewell, when the duke’s coffin, draped in his personal standard and bearing his naval sword and cap, started its slow and oh-so-mortal descent into the vault beneath the chapel.
The second more joyful memory, occurred after the service, as Prince Charles emerged into the bright afternoon sunlight and stripped his facemask from his ears. The prince had clearly been crying, but he had the presence of mind to dismiss the waiting funeral cars with a wave of his hand — leading to a finale that no one had expected. Instead of driving up the hill to the castle in the wake of the Queen who left first in her limousine, the rest of the family blinked and straggled out into the fresh air, talking to each other mask-less.
Every TV viewer around the world noted what seemed to be a touching reunion between William and Harry after the funeral. The sight of the two brothers walking together across the courtyard chatting to each other with apparent animation — and even smiling, were they? — was as if their now open and processionally proclaimed rift had never been. And many noted how discreetly Kate, having got the pair of them talking, moved off sideways to leave them together — “Perfect Queen material!” remarked one royal correspondent approvingly.
The apparent reunion inspired one British newspaper to claim hopefully that the brotherly encounter had led to a two-hour family conference or “mini-summit” of reconciliation — but this was firmly denied by both sides.
Harry, for his part, proudly showed around snaps of Archie on his mobile phone, then later let it be known via the ever helpful Scobie that he had seen the Queen twice before he got back on the plane to California on Monday. His grandmother liked to walk her dogs in the grounds of Frogmore House, so it seemed likely that he had joined her there.
Meanwhile, William and Kate, after saying goodbye to Charles, who headed to Wales where he had been mourning at his Llandovery estate, went back to Kensington Palace together to put the children to bed. They told friends that they could see no point in talking to Harry, since any discussion of substance would go straight back to Meghan to be leaked out via Oprah or some other tentacle of the Sussex network that had not stopped spreading stories in the weeks since the interview that the couple’s friends had promised would be their final word.
©Robert Lacey 2021 Extracted from the updated paperback of Battle of Brothers: William, Harry and the Inside Story of a Family in Tumult by Robert Lacey, to be published by William Collins on June 24 at £9.99
The Battle of Brothers extracts in The Times:
● Extract one: Prince William ‘split his household from Prince Harry after Meghan bullying claims’
● Extract two: What went wrong between Prince Charles and Prince Harry
● Extract three: Meghan’s diamond earrings: the ugly truth about her wedding gift