Another glimpse of behind-the-scenes royal life comes from Valentine Low, a veteran Times of London journalist, with his new book is “Courtiers: Intrigue, Ambition and the Power Players Behind the House of Windsor.” It’s about the palace advisers who Princess Diana once called “the men in gray suits,” Sarah Ferguson described as the “constipated, self-appointed keepers of the gate,” and Harry scathingly referred to as the “middle-aged white men who’d managed to consolidate power through a series of bold Machiavellian maneuvers.”
The Washington Post spoke to Low about this palace machinery, which he admits to being rather “pale, male and stale.” He also maintains that the royal family and the courtiers aren’t racist, but concedes there were cultural differences with Meghan and her Californian style — particularly all that hugging. He talked about Charles’s “explosive temper” and noted that while Harry had wanted to change the way the British press operated, he had “put himself out of the battle” by leaving.
What follows are lightly edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: The word “courtiers” makes us think of knee breeches and Henry VIII. You also say that only a few people you interview admit to using that term. Why use it as the title of your book?
A: That’s who they are: People who work at the court. They may not like using the term. They may not because it’s got so many connotations they don’t think of it as applying to them. But that’s who they are. And it conveys to the reader what this is about.
Q: During the 2021 Oprah interview, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, said “there’s the family and then there’s the people that are running the institution.” How much power do the top advisers really have?
A: They have an awful lot of power, but it’s complex. I’ll give an example. Back in the 1990s, Charles gave a television interview to Jonathan Dimbleby in which he admitted that he’d had been unfaithful to Diana. Apparently, after the event, Charles was at dinner privately somewhere and he was being quizzed by friends who thought perhaps he made a mistake. He pointed at his private secretary, who was at the dinner, and said, “he made me do it.”
They do shape lives. But, the ultimate decision is taken by the member of the royal family.
Q: Can you give us a run-down of the senior courtiers?
A: At Buckingham Palace, the institution’s headquarters, they have different roles. The Lord Chamberlain is in charge, overall. You have a private secretary who works for the monarch and is in charge of policy and the diary, the CEO. You have the communications secretary. You have the keeper of the privy purse, who is like the CFO. You have the master of the household, who is like the COO — someone brilliantly described to me as a “hotel manager,” someone to look after the staff and so on and arranges banquets. There’s also the comptroller, they are very much in charge of the ceremonial.
Q: These are the senior advisers. There are also people like Lady Susan Hussey, the late queen’s lady-in-waiting, who made headlines with the racism row at the palace. How could the palace have let that debacle happen?
A: It’s very difficult to answer that because, you know … Susan Hussey is not racist. But she’s a person of a generation. She’s used to meeting all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds at Buckingham Palace, not just world leaders and aristocrats. People who know her well were surprised and aghast. … We do all know you don’t talk to people like that. So what went wrong? Why she did that is a puzzle. It perhaps reflects something about the palace.
But the royal family is not racist. Charles has done an awful lot with ethnic communities, he really has. And William isn’t racist either. But the palace machinery, it’s pretty pale, male and stale. The royal family isn’t institutionally racist, but as an institution, it can be pretty slow to adapt to changing times.
Q: What does a lady-in-waiting do?
A: Ladies-in-waiting were around a lot with Queen Elizabeth II, I think you’ll see them a lot less now. In the example of Lady Susan Hussey, I remember seeing her at a reception at Buckingham Palace to coincide with a NATO summit, and there were a lot of people there like [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron. And Lady Susan Hussey was greeting a lot of these people like old friends. She’s a very useful person to have around to oil the wheels of these events … Under the new system with Camilla, I think there’s much less of that to be on hand.
Q: You write that Queen Elizabeth II was a relatively straightforward employer. What’s Charles like as an employer? In your book, he’s comes across as someone passionate about his charity work, but also someone who has an explosive temper.
A: Charles has got a temper and we all saw that, didn’t we, in the first couple of days in his reign with the pen. But I think the moment passes, he explodes and then he calms down. The incident I describe in some detail in my book, which was originally in a book by Penny Junor, where he is absolutely foul to [a courtier]. They came back from Balmoral, then they get on the royal train and this chap just wanted to retreat and to dive into a large drink. And Charles summons him, and is suddenly sympathetic and says, “you know, you’ve had an awful day.”
Q: You were the journalist who broke the story about Meghan’s alleged bullying of staff members. Do your sources stand by their claims? Did the Sussexes ever threaten to sue?
A: Before we wrote that story, the Times and I were absolutely determined, we’ve got to get it legally watertight. So a lot of effort went into making sure everything was absolutely correct and well-sourced and they couldn’t get us. We had a long letter from Meghan’s lawyers casting doubt on the story and we had another letter from Meghan’s lawyers, but we proceeded to publication anyway. Since then, we haven’t heard a word. Absolute silence. Because we got it right, what we said was correct. We stuck to the facts. And, the people I spoke to, they very much still stick to their story.
Q: Do the British tabloids make stuff up or significantly distort things? In “Spare,” Harry writes that the press sometimes just fabricated stories.
A: An awful lot has changed in the last 25 years or so. The tabloids certainly are capable of running stories which, possibly they believe to be true but aren’t, because they are not as well sourced as they might be.
Going back a long time, I know they used to make stuff up. When I was a youngish reporter at the London Evening Standard I was covering a tour in the U.K. by Michael Jackson. I didn’t need to write a story for the weekend, but the tabloids did, and I remember they sat around in the hotel room and discussed what they could make up. This was mid- to late-’80s. So that’s what it was like then, the bad things are true. But I think it’s changed an awful lot since then, I really do. And, you know, a lot of stories which people denigrate the tabloids for then turn out to be true.
Q: You penned a Twitter thread that went viral, exploring what you said was Harry’s distorted view of the coverage of an event in June 2018. What happened there?
A: In June 2018, Megan did what they call in the palace, “an away day” with the queen. She went on to Cheshire with the queen, just the two of them, and did a small handful of engagements. In Harry’s book, he says that the papers said the trip was an “unmitigated disaster” and portrayed Meghan as “uppity” and so on.
I thought, hang on, I remember that day, I remember stuff I wrote and others wrote and thought surely not. I looked up every paper and it was all incredibly positive. The tabloids all basically had lovely pictures of the Queen and Meghan giggling away, having a laugh. It could be that I suspect he saw some stuff online. That’s Harry’s problem. He gets obsessed with looking stuff up online and he just kind of lumps it together: online, social media, and the press, they all become one.
Q: Back in 2016, the palace blasted the “racial undertones” of British coverage of Meghan. Is the British press racist?
A: I’d say no they are not. Whenever people talk about race in relation to the coverage of Meghan they point to basically three articles. The Daily Mail’s “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” which let’s be honest, is unforgivable. It indulges in racial stereotypes, it’s inaccurate, it’s lazy, cliched, and it’s stupid and it’s offensive.
The other one was Rachel Johnson’s piece where she talked about Meghan’s “exotic DNA,” which, again, was ill-advised phrasing, and clumsy and not good … And the other one was a comment piece by Sarah Vine, in the Daily Mail, where the front page had the phrase “niggling worry.” That was just stupid. And that’s kind of it.
I’m not talking about social media — there is ghastly, racist stuff on social media and below the line in comment things on newspaper websites. What goes on below the line is pretty terrible sometimes. But the newspaper coverage, people always point to those three articles because that’s all there is to point to. The rest of the coverage was not racist. It really wasn’t.
I think a lot of the feelings about Meghan … was nothing to do with race, it was to do with the fact that she’s American and the cultural differences. I mean, in the palace, they do not talk Californian. It’s a language they don’t understand. And Meghan with her hugging and all that and William feeling awkward or whatever it was when hugged by Meghan on first encounter … all that stuff they aren’t used to. It has nothing to do with race.
Q: Prince Harry has spoken about how changing the tabloid media landscape is his ‘life’s work.’ Has he had any success in changing the palace-media ecosystem?
A: He definitely wants to change how things work and he has not, as far as I can see, had any success yet. The palace view is that the press is here to stay. Their view is partly that we are a necessary evil, but also partly, we can be a necessary force for good. We get messages out that they want to get out. The palace can be critical of the press but they don’t want to blow up their relationship with the media in the way that Harry does. And of course, the pressure to change has eased off. If Harry had stayed and been a continuing voice for change, there might be some kind of change. But he’s put himself out of the battle.
Q: Harry says that the palace may officially say “no comment” but they actually spoon feed the press background information. Is that accurate?
A: Like all institutions, sometimes people speak off the record. This happens in every walk of life, like in politics. … It’s what goes on between the palace and journalists, … but it’s not an evil conspiracy. Look at what’s happened since the Netflix documentary and since Harry’s book came out. It’s pretty much silence from the palace.
Q: The clock is ticking: We have a coronation coming up. Do you think there’s any chance for reconciliation between Harry and Charles?
A: It’s going to be really difficult because surely it involves having a painful, delicate diplomatic personal conversation. And given Harry’s track record of putting such conversations into the public domain, they are likely going to think well, how can we trust him? So how do you have these conversations? It’s going to be really difficult.