Over the centuries, the British royal family have been many things: conquerors, vanquishers, tyrants and buffoons. They have been denied their destiny, gone mad with grief, been exalted and even exiled. They have been beheaded, beholden, belligerent and benevolent, but until now they have never really been victims. And certainly not self-identifying victims.
Yet the cult of victimhood has engulfed the royal battlements like a poisoned ivy. It has curled into ducal nook and princessy psyche, and it has turned some of the most privileged people on the planet into a whiny bunch.
Recently, we have discovered the following. The Duke of Cambridge struggled in his role as air ambulance pilot because he saw some bad things. The Duchess of Cambridge finds being a mother a ‘huge challenge’ that leaves her with a ‘lack of confidence’. The Duke of Sussex has suffered from anxiety, stress and depression, which made him do silly things like wear a Nazi uniform to a party. Meanwhile, friends of the Duchess of Sussex have complained to an American magazine on her behalf regarding the unsupportive antics of her father, Thomas Markle, and ‘global bullying’, whatever that might be. The way they go on! It is becoming clear that these younger-generation royals see themselves as underdogs, accursed, possibly even damned by birthright.
Of course everyone has doubts and worries, even royal personages. That is part of the human condition, the cheerless grind that shadows the painted merry-go-round — but when did key members of the House of Windsor decide to present themselves as victims instead of victors in life’s lottery?
Perhaps we can trace it back to when William, Harry and Kate launched the mental health charity Heads Together in 2016, in a bid to end the stigma around mental health issues. No one could argue with their good intent, but all too soon a new narrative developed: a very public conflation between helping those who suffered and the royals suffering themselves.
On their brave new empathy crusades the royals made it clear to the world that they were also casualties, citing their struggles to cope with various problems such as … um, well I really don’t know. Fringed epaulette fatigue? Kedgeree too cold? Perhaps they felt that if they expressed their suffering, ordinary people would relate to them better? Well, bingo. It was a shrewd PR move, and turned out to be good for royal business.
Last year, Prince William and Prince Harry talked about the emotional problems they faced following the death of Princess Diana. Look. We know. The image of their pale little faces following their mother’s coffin through the streets of London is seared into the nation’s heart; sympathy for these two lost boys was unbounded, then and now. Their loss was terrible and it was only to be expected that difficulties would follow. However, poor William and Harry were bereaved, like many people are bereaved. They weren’t mentally ill.
Meanwhile, the Duchess of Cambridge has three beautiful children, a full-time nanny, supportive parents, multiple homes, staff and a wardrobe full of chiffon gowns and LK Bennett wedges. Motherhood might indeed be a challenge for her, but it’s a thousand times worse for a single mother on welfare whose kids are at a failing school, who is worried about her heating bills and whose winter coat is not another perfectly tailored number from McQueen but the same old fleece from Walmart.
Royal suffering gets worse by the hour. This week Hollywood star George Clooney claimed that the Duchess of Sussex is being ‘pursued, vilified and chased’ just like Diana. ‘And we’ve seen how that ends,’ said Clooney, who is a friend of the Sussexes. The remarks followed the publication of a personal letter apparently written by the duchess to her father, telling him her heart was ‘broken into a million pieces’ because he gave press interviews, fabricated stories and criticized Prince Harry. Mr Markle’s brutish and selfish behavior towards his daughter is despicable, but surely, just like her, he has every right to tell his side of the story? Hate to disagree with George, but I would argue that all involved are responsible for the mess they find themselves in, not those whose job it is to report on these wretched proceedings.
Far from being anything new, royals have always had to negotiate the shifting sands of public opinion and personal hurts. It comes with the territory, the castles and the grouse shoots. Queen Victoria’s father died from pneumonia when she was eight months old, she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and her beloved husband Albert died young. In addition there were six serious attempts on her life plus a frightening stalker, and I don’t mean a badly designed tweed hat. Yet she didn’t feel the need to hold a positive-thinking coffee klatch or start writing messages on bananas, did she? When Charles II was on his deathbed, he even apologized to courtiers that it was taking so long for him to die. Hard to imagine today’s lot showing such self-effacing fortitude in the face of troubles, real or imagined.
Victimhood bleeds out into other areas of royal life, too. When she married last year, Princess Eugenie chose to wear a backless wedding dress that showed her scoliosis surgery scars, a condition over which she had triumphed. Here was another display that highlighted the current royal belief that you are no one unless you have suffered.
Speaking of which, sound the Fergie klaxon. Earlier this week, the Duchess of York joined a campaign called #HelloToKindness, which is taking a stand over online abuse. It is time, she wrote, that social media firms and ‘all of us as individuals’ did something about the ‘bullying, sniping, bitching’ and ‘even the most appalling sexism, racism and homophobia’ that pollutes cyberspace and makes it a ‘sewer’.
No argument there, but shortly after, online posters did what online posters do, and wrote some cheeky replies. ‘Oh God, Yorkie bar is back!’ said one, while another told the Duchess to ‘crawl back under a rock’. She duly posted these responses on her Twitter account. ‘This rather proves my point,’ she tweeted slightly smugly — but does it? Surely this is mindless rudery, rather than bullying and abuse? Something to be ignored rather than fetishized as an example of suffering? Here’s another cute hashtag to contemplate: #HelloRealWorld.
Meanwhile James Middleton, the younger brother of the Duchess of Cambridge, has every advantage that rich parents, good looks and royal connections could bring. Over the years he has launched two businesses selling cakes and marshmallows and both of them flopped. Recently he wrote in the Daily Mail about suffering from ADHD and depression, so now he is a victim too, which is much more palatable than being a failure. Living a privileged life doesn’t make anyone immune from mental illness, but equally I despair that every-one seems to need a story.
Unfortunately, there is no sign that this mania for royal victimhood will end anytime soon. The Duchess of Cambridge has said that she ‘would not hesitate’ to send her children to therapy if she thought they needed it. Talking through your difficulties may be a wonderful panacea, but is it always the answer? After all, Princess Diana had hours of psychotherapy, but was still dogged by problems.
Being royal is not the answer to life’s vicissitudes, but it lays down a velvet cushion against the blows, it acts as a buffer to rougher climes. Sift through the rubble of these royal troubles, this whipped-up McFlurry of petty worries, and they don’t amount to much more than a hill of half-baked beans.
So enough of the victimhood. To be a royal means to have bagged a gilded pony on the carousel of life. You are still riding high, even when you are feeling low. Perhaps they should all remember that, the next time the blues and the royals meet.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.