Opinion | Heavy Lies the Crown

I was in London last week when the febrile madness of Where Is Kate? was blowing up social media, and The Curious Mystery of the Doctored Mother’s Day Photograph consumed every news outlet and dinner table conversation.

After The Associated Press issued a “kill notification” on the botched Photoshopped image of a suspiciously glossy Princess of Wales flanked by her beaming progeny, there was a typical outburst of tabloid pomposity questioning whether Kensington Palace could ever be considered a “trusted source” of news.

Huh? When was the last time any tabloid considered the palace a trusted source of news? As editor of Vanity Fair in 1985 I wrote a piece revealing that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were having awful marital fights. The palace roundly denied it and the royal couple denied it in a television interview, confirming in my mind — correctly as it turned out — that it was all true.

But this time, the volume and tenor of the gossip was off the charts. In all the raucous, salacious and often cruel rumor-mongering last week about Catherine, almost no one considered that behind the scenes something tragic was unfolding. When social media shrieked that there would be a very somber press announcement on Friday, royal-watchers assumed it would be from King Charles, who is battling an unspecified cancer.

But then the bombshell: Catherine announced in a video message that she, too, has cancer. After which there has rightly been a wave of cosmic shame at what this gracious public servant has been made to endure.

Catherine’s explanation of her cancer diagnosis was composed and moving, her face strained but brave. Filmed on a bench against a glimpse of spring daffodils, here was an ill mother trying to cope with a shocking diagnosis and painful medical treatment while shielding her young, worried children from the vultures of modern media.

I am told the turmoil behind the scenes has been intense, resulting in what has felt like a series of baffling press screw-ups. We hear often of Prince Harry’s hatred of the press. If possible, Prince William — while concealing it better — hates them even more. His bloody-minded determination to stick to his grandmother Queen Elizabeth’s script of “never complain, never explain” is magical thinking in the era of the social media maelstrom, creating a vacuum filled by rumor and deranged conspiracy theories.

The almost simultaneous news of Charles’s own cancer has put William and Catherine in frightening proximity to ascending the throne just when they had hoped for a span of years to parent their children out of the public eye. The prospect of it, I am told, is causing them intense anxiety.

Help from other family members is scant aside from the redoubtable Princess Anne, Charles’s sister, and the good-egg Gaiety Girl Queen Camilla. The slimmed-down monarchy that Charles always promoted is suddenly looking very lean indeed. The combination of the Harry and Meghan clown show in Montecito, Calif., the fusillades from Harry’s memoir, “Spare” and the disgrace of Prince Andrew — who has little social contact with anyone except his horse — have put William and Catherine under unmanageable pressure.

Catherine is the most popular member of the royal family after William. The future of the monarchy hangs by a thread, and that thread is her.

It may not be a popular thought, but in many ways I blame the predicament and weakness of the monarchy today on Queen Elizabeth. It’s possible that future generations will see her as the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the British monarchy. She stayed too long, and by doing so, left behind a legacy that may be the opposite of what she wanted.

The time for Elizabeth II to step down was not long after her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the year I have come to think of as “Peak London,” when Britain dazzlingly hosted the Olympics. Elizabeth II had embarked on a triumphantly healing visit for the first time to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, Prince Charles proved he was a settled married man at last to Camilla, Prince Harry was a national hero after two military tours of Afghanistan, and Prince William and Kate Middleton had recently tied the knot at Westminster Abbey in a blaze of national good will.

It would have been such a gift to her heirs if at that glorious moment Elizabeth II had stepped aside, like the Queen of Denmark did in January 2024. After 52 years on the throne, Margrethe II announced her abdication in her New Year’s address with the elegant explanation, “The time takes its toll.”

Instead, Elizabeth II stayed on some 10 years — to the end. Apparently to honor her oath to serve “my whole life whether it be long or short,” but actually because she loved her job. She had seen how bored and marginalized the Queen Mother felt when, widowed young by George VI and deprived of power dinners with heads of state or the inside scoop from her husband’s tête-à-têtes with the prime minister, she was relegated to boring rounds of cutting ribbons in those huge feathery hats. No, Elizabeth II loved the world of politics and power as much as she did breeding horses and tramping the heather of her Balmoral estate.

But her 70-year reign has left a pileup of heirs infantilized by too little to do and trapped by a dusty structure that should have been reformed decades ago.

Charles, full of prescient ideas, inventive concepts of philanthropy and imaginative plans of how to modernize the monarchy, saw his hopes and dreams curdle as he waited and waited to put them into action. The beleaguered flexitarian was only allowed to marry the woman he loved when he was 56 years old. Even with the best prognosis for his cancer, he has been left with a rueful rump of a reign. His sad-sack motto was always “just my luck,” but that has never seemed more true than now.

And William, instead of taking over the Duchy of Cornwall estates in his early 30s and creating a space for the popular Harry to develop a strong portfolio of his own, ended up in a rivalrous relationship with his younger brother that exploded irretrievably when Meghan Markle entered the scene. A less hidebound palace might have come up with a more creative way to solve the Sussex imbroglio.

The fascination of the crown will always be the tension between a venerable institution and the human beings who are trapped inside it. Isn’t it just too cruel to expect modern mortals to live and love and parent in such a blisteringly unforgiving media gaze?

Catherine is battling more — much more — than cancer. A tidal wave of premature responsibility is crashing in her and William’s direction. Frozen, unready and with Catherine now seriously unwell, the Prince and Princess of Wales await the awesome burden of the Crown.

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