Somehow, it all had a familiar air. Once again, Britain’s tabloid press was hot on the heels of a juicy royal scandal. Once again, Buckingham Palace was forced to issue a terse statement confirming the worst. And once again, a royal marriage lay in ruins. When the 5V2-year union of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, and Sarah, his rebellious duchess, fell apart in a blaze of publicity last week, it was just the latest domestic disaster to strike the world’s most scrutinized family. But it shows signs of becoming the most damaging—further tarnishing the image of the House of Windsor and underlining what even many staunch royalists regard as its incompetence at managing its periodic crises.
The damage came not just from the break-
down in the Yorks’ marriage, which was confirmed at noon on March 19 when palace officials announced that lawyers were working out the terms of the couple’s separation. After all, marital strife has become embarrassingly routine for Britain’s royals. As long ago as 1978, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, divorced her husband, Lord Snowdon. Three years ago, Princess Anne and Mark Phillips formally separated. And even the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, have long been reported to maintain, at best, a distant working relationship. But the collapse of
the marriage of the Queen’s second son struck closest to the monarch herself, including a controversy over how it was being handled, and took place in an unusually bitter atmosphere. Within minutes of the announcement, palace officials were blaming the duchess for the breakdown and virtually exiling her from their inner circle—exposing the steel behind the Royal Family’s genteel facade. “No family in the world is more adept, more ruthless, at the art of self-preservation,” commented Ross Benson, royals writer for London’s Daily Express.
There had been signs of trouble ever since Prince Andrew married the former Sarah Ferguson in Westminster Abbey on July 23,1986. The tabloids first hailed “Fergie” as a lively, unpredictable addition to the stuffy Royal Family—but soon condemned her as vulgar and
greedy. She ran into criticism for her weight, her questionable taste in clothes and her numerous vacations. More flak followed when it was discovered that she had kept most of the profits from two children’s books that she wrote featuring a character called Budgie the Helicopter after saying that the money would go to charity. She and Andrew, who are both 32, ran into further criticism for the fortresslike design of their $ 10-million mansion, Sunninghill Park in Berkshire, west of London. Critics likened it to South Fork—J. R. Ewing’s fictional homestead in the television series Dallas—and nicknamed it “South York.”
But it was another uncomfortable Texas connection in the real-life soap opera that apparently led to the breakdown of their mar-
riage. It began in May, 1990, when the duchess went on holiday with a group of friends at a resort in Morocco while Prince Andrew, a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy, was away at sea. One of the other guests was Steven Wyatt, the 38-year-old son of Houston oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt, who has sometimes been portrayed as the modis el for J. R. himself. Then, in o January, a cleaner discov2 ered 120 photographs in a 2 London apartment recently J, vacated by Steven Wyatt— § including several showing ^ him and the duchess in Morocco wearing bathing suits and with their arms around
each other. The cleaner took them to London’s Daily Mail, which did not print the photos but reported the episode, along with an “artist’s impression” of one of the pictures.
Wyatt last week flatly denied any impropriety. “I have never had any romantic liaisons with the duchess,” he told reporters in New York City. “We are still friends, but it is a platonic friendship.” Prince Andrew, according to newspaper reports, was nonetheless angered and humiliated by the suggestions that his wife had been cheating on him. Still, according to reports last week, it was just one incident in a gradual breakdown in relations between the couple, made even more difficult by the prince’s extended absences on naval duty. In the end, it was the duchess who finally took steps to bring their marriage to an end.
Buckingham Palace made that plain, an-
nouncing that it was lawyers acting for the duchess who initiated discussions about a formal separation. At stake would be custody of the couple’s two daughters, three-year-old Beatrice and two-yearold Eugenie; a monetary settlement for the duchess, who, despite her husband’s annual allotment of $500,000, reportedly ran up debts of about that much to support her luxurious lifestyle; and what title and status she will be allowed to keep after a separation or eventual divorce. A key clause in any agreement would almost certainly bind the duchess to remain silent about her life as a royal.
Buckingham Palace officials had clearly hoped to delay any announcement until all those matters were settled. And they were particularly upset that the Yorks’ marital difficulties had become public in the middle of Britain’s closely fought election campaign. The affair knocked politics off the front page of the nation’s widely read tabloid papers for three days running—causing royal concern that the House of Windsor’s domestic difficulties were distracting attention from the campaign. At the same time, a senior palace official quickly made it clear that at least some courtiers blamed the duchess for the Royal Family’s latest embarrassment and the way it became public.
Minutes after Thursday’s official announcement, the Queen’s press secretary, Charles Anson, briefed BBC radio reporter Paul Reynolds, who later reported that “the knives are out for Fergie in the palace.” Reynolds said that palace officials were claiming that the duchess had employed a public relations firm to put her side of the story to sympathetic newspapers, and might herself have leaked details of a meeting she had with the Queen. “I have very rarely heard palace officials speak in such terms about someone,” Reynolds added. “They are talking about her unsuitability for royal life.”
The next day, though, the attack appeared to backfire as the tabloids portrayed the duchess as a victim of a savage campaign of revenge by the palace. “Queen puts knife into Fergie,” blazoned The Sun’s front page. Within hours, Anson apologized to both the duchess and the Queen for his remarks and said that the monarch had not authorized them. But the damage had already been done, and the public was left with a lingering impression of a disorganized palace.
Even the most ardent royalists were shaken. The monarchy’s image as a pillar of British family life took another heavy blow—and the messy aftermath of the announcement added to Buckingham Palace’s reputation for incompetent crisis management. Harold Brooks-Baker, publisher of Burke’s Peerage, said gloomily: “This is the saddest day for the monarchy since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936.” Brooks-Baker suggested that the Royal Family should take greater care that its children’s spouses are prepared for the strains of royal life. “Future royal marriages will be looked at very carefully,” he said. “The further people marry from their own milieu, the more difficult life is.” And, he said, it might force officials to allow Prince Andrew to marry again in the future. By current convention, a royal is prohibited from remarrying, although there are no formal laws against it. Concluded Brooks-Baker: “Perhaps something good will come out of this after all.”
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