Amid frenzied speculation about the Princess of Wales, how much privacy can a royal expect?


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When it emerged in January that Catherine, Princess of Wales, was recovering from abdominal surgery, Kensington Palace said there would be little official commentary on her condition.

Catherine wished to keep details private, the palace said, and she was expected to remain out of the public eye until after Easter.

Nothing has publicly changed on that front. But in the absence of further information — other than she’s said to be doing well and paparazzi photos that appear to show her in a car with her mother — social media has run rampant with rumours.

Such speculation is in some ways a function of timing — how long Catherine has been out of the public eye — and a confluence of other events.

“It’s unusual for a senior member of the Royal Family today to disappear from public view for such a long period of time,” Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview.

Two people holding programs sit in chairs in a large church.
Queen Camilla, right, and Princess Anne attend a service for the life of King Constantine at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, on Feb. 27. Prince William had been expected to deliver a reading but pulled out shortly before the service. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

But, Harris suggested, a collision of other events sent the speculation into a “fever pitch.”

Along with questions about Catherine’s health and that of her father-in-law, King Charles, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, there was her husband, Prince William, pulling out of a memorial service for his godfather at the last minute and the sudden death of Thomas Kingston, the 45-year-old husband of Lady Gabriella Windsor.

“We see efforts by social media sleuths to try to put together all of these various issues that are not related to one another,” Harris said.

Add to that the interest Catherine, 42, herself elicits as a factor playing into the speculation.

“She is in many ways the most visually impactful, the most easily relatable to amongst the working royals,” Judith Rowbotham, a social and cultural scholar and visiting research professor at the University of Plymouth in southwestern England, said in an interview.

Set against the backdrop of the speculation, there is a larger, long-standing question of just how much privacy any royal can expect — or should have — in this time of instant internet communication.

Two people shake hands.
King Charles, left, has an audience with Alexander Williams, the high commissioner of Jamaica, at Buckingham Palace on Thursday. (Yui Mok/The Associated Press)

To some extent, an answer may lie in how close that royal is to the throne, something that has also been brought into sharp relief by King Charles’s diagnosis of an undisclosed form of cancer.

“He is the head of state of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms, so his health is a matter of state,” Harris said.

“Certainly it is in the public interest to know whether he’s reviewing his red boxes [of state papers] or receiving the prime minister, whether or not he’s undertaking his duties as head of state.”

If he weren’t able to do that, there would be discussion about whether there was a need to consider a regency, Harris said.

So far, however, there have been photos released showing Charles meeting politicians and reviewing get well cards he has received. He’s been seen being driven from Clarence House, where he lives, to Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Family’s X (formerly Twitter) account this week posted pictures of him meeting ambassadors at the palace, and of a virtual session he had with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Sitting at a desk, King Charles speaks to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who appears on a large display screen.
Charles, left, speaks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau via videolink during a virtual audience at Buckingham Palace in London on Wednesday. (Victoria Jones/The Associated Press)

But with other members of the Royal Family such as Catherine, Harris said, it’s a matter of debate regarding how much should be kept private.

In Catherine’s case, the only glimpse since her surgery has come via paparazzi photos published earlier this week in American outlets that appear to show her being driven in a car by her mother.

In the absence of further information, the conditions may have been primed for the rampant speculation — she’s growing out her bangs or maybe she had plastic surgery — that swirled on social media.

“We are being told that all is going well,” Rowbotham said. “But of course it leaves … nothing to speculate on but wild rumours and what could be the worst scenario.”

If a more precise nature of Catherine’s condition were revealed, Rowbotham suggested, it could spawn stories about its prognosis that could haunt Catherine for years.

“By keeping it private, in a sense what she does is she keeps the focus on herself and who she is rather than what may be a very ordinary, very straightforward bit of surgery.”

WATCH | Health concerns for Charles, Catherine:

Princess of Wales, King undergo medical procedures

The Princess of Wales has undergone a planned abdominal surgery at a London clinic, while the King is being treated for an enlarged prostate. Princess Catherine is not expected to return to royal duties until after Easter, but King Charles is expected to have a shorter recovery.

There is, of course, a fine line to walk about how much information to release, although perhaps even a few hints regarding Catherine’s condition might have averted some speculation.

“Perhaps if there had been even Kensington Palace showing some examples of the get well cards that she’d received and stating that Catherine thanks the public for their interest in her health … perhaps there would have been fewer rumours,” Harris said.

The rumour mill seemed to particularly pick up speed after William pulled out of last week’s memorial service for King Constantine of Greece, for undisclosed personal reasons, just before it started.

That “undoubtedly” set off the swirl of speculation, “even though it was stressed that it was nothing to do with the Princess of Wales,” Rowbotham said.

When it comes to how much privacy the royals can expect or deserve, Rowbotham looks over the past century.

Since the time of King George V, she suggested, the Royal Family has seen itself as servants of the state, following the idea that “we owe duty to [the people] in return for their, if you like, duty of loyalty, and that therefore we should be available on public occasions.”

WATCH | Charles seen after diagnosis announced: 

King Charles seen for first time since cancer diagnosis

King Charles was seen waving to well wishers at Buckingham Palace for the first time since his cancer diagnosis before flying to his Sandringham Estate in a helicopter. The King’s eldest son William, the Prince of Wales, will take on more royal duties while the King receives treatment.

“But there has always been an expectation, which I think is reasonable, of having a degree of privacy within the intimacy of family life, of everyday life.”

Rowbotham thinks it would be unreasonable to expect that members of the Royal Family would have no right to a private life.

“I think it’s interesting that the present generation of the Royal Family in particular sees the pressures involved in their kind of public life, and the pressures involved in others, and are therefore openly interested in mental health issues,” she said.

A person listens to other people sitting nearby.
Catherine, right, speaks to students and staff during a visit to Nottingham Trent University to learn about their mental health support system in Nottingham, England, on Oct. 11. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

Public scrutiny of the royals, however, is unlikely to fade any time soon. In fact, it ramped up around Queen Camilla when she took this week off from public duties.

Harris expects to see a lot of interest in the return of senior members of the family such as Charles and Catherine to public life, and sees public expectations guided at least in part by how the last monarch carried out her role.

“I think we see the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II, who placed her royal duties above other considerations and was almost constantly being seen in public,” Harris said.

Elizabeth did take time for herself, but it was a predictable part of the royal schedule.

“Unexpected absences of senior members of the Royal Family from public life spark a great deal of concern,” Harris said.

“So this is going to be a challenge particularly for William and Catherine, who are eager to ensure that their children have as ordinary a life as possible and opportunities to grow up out of the public eye.”

Celebrating the Commonwealth

People carrying flags leave a large church.
Flag bearers carrying the flags of Commonwealth countries leave Westminster Abbey after the 2023 Commonwealth Day service on March 13, 2023, in London. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

That public scrutiny of senior members of the Royal Family will continue on Monday when the Commonwealth Day service is held at Westminster Abbey in London.

While King Charles won’t be in attendance, Buckingham Palace says Queen Camilla; Prince William; Prince Edward and Sophie, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh; Princess Anne; the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester; and the Duke of Kent will attend.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest in how Queen Camilla is able to deputize at this event,” Harris said.

Two people greet each with a traditional Maori greeting
Charles is greeted by a member of a Maori group as he arrives to attend the annual Commonwealth Day on March 13, 2023. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

“There’s going to be interest in which members of the Royal Family are present at the Commonwealth Day service and how this service unfolds without the monarch assuming a very prominent role in the event, as has been the case in the past.”

A recorded video message from Charles will be played during the service, which will focus on the theme of resilience.

The Commonwealth, which now includes 56 member countries with a population of 2.5 billion, was a high priority for Queen Elizabeth.

Charles remains “very interested and engaged” in the Commonwealth, Harris said, even though his health is temporarily preventing him from undertaking visits to Commonwealth countries. Planning for a trip to Canada that was expected in May has been put on hold, although the Australian government says planning is continuing for a trip there in the fall.

This year’s Commonwealth service is the second in Charles’s time as monarch.

“Last year it was very much the run-up to the coronation. Now the coronation is over … and it’s a question of settling into the new reign,” Rowbotham said.

People holding programs sit on chairs in a large church.
From left to right: front row, Charles, Camilla, Prince William, Catherine; back row, Prince Edward; Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh; Princess Anne and her husband, Timothy Laurence, attend the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey on March 13, 2023. (Hannah McKay/The Associated Press)

“Now we may see, for instance, some absences or lower-profile representatives of some of the nations who may be thinking of becoming a republic and either remaining within or removing themselves from the Commonwealth.”

Musical performances at the service will include Canadian pianist

Spencer Klymyshyn, a graduate of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal who is studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

No way back for Andrew 

People walk down a road past a fence and greenery.
Andrew, left, Sarah, Duchess of York; Zara Tindall; Laurence; Mike Tindall and Princess Anne arrive at the service for King Constantine at Windsor Castle on Feb. 27. (Andrew Matthews/Getty Images)

Even if Prince Andrew was front and centre as members of the Royal Family arrived at Constantine’s recent memorial service, there is nothing to indicate the disgraced brother of King Charles will return to official public duties.

“You can see he’s so happy to be head of the pack where he thinks he belongs, but it changes nothing,” Rowbotham said.

Andrew’s reputation sank like a stone after a television interview regarding his friendship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Andrew, who was also accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing a 17-year-old girl supplied to him by Epstein, agreed to settle that legal action by making a substantial donation to accuser Virginia Giuffre’s charity and declaring he never meant to malign her character. He had strenuously denied her allegations.

Earlier this year, he was named in recently unsealed U.S. court documents detailing dozens of associates of Epstein.

However much Andrew might want to return to public duties, observers say it’s not going to happen.

“It’s quite clear that Prince Andrew’s charities, his military regiments, are not interested in working with him,” Harris said.

“Ever since the disastrous BBC interview in 2019, and even more so after his legal settlement with Virginia Giuffre, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about Prince Andrew’s conduct.”

At events where the Royal Family gathers in a personal capacity, such as the memorial service at Windsor Castle for King Constantine, he will likely continue to be present, Harris said.

“But there doesn’t appear to be a path back to a public life after years of being in disgrace.”

Still, there will be renewed public attention on him when the Netflix movie Scoop hits the small screen on April 5. The streaming service says the film will take audiences behind the scenes of the BBC interview.

“That will remind the public of that disastrous interview and all of the details that became part of the part of the debate concerning his conduct, the Pizza Express alibi, the supposed inability to sweat because of his time in the Falklands War,” Harris said.

“All of those embarrassing details from that BBC interview are going to be brought back into the public eye.”

Rare glimpse of a royal

Three people holding programs sit on chairs in a large church.
Princess Alexandra, left, and her daughter, Marina Ogilvy, attend the service for King Constantine on Feb. 27. (Jonathan Brady/Getty Images)

The memorial service for King Constantine did provide the opportunity for a rare glimpse of a royal who had a high public profile in the earlier years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Princess Alexandra, 87, attended the service with her daughter, Marina.

Alexandra, a first cousin to Elizabeth, had a long career as a working member of the Royal Family, Harris said, and used to be quite famous in her own right.

“When she visited Canada around the time of Expo 67, she undertook a really successful tour of B.C. and the Yukon.”

Alexandra was praised for her ability to connect with the public, and her wardrobe was compared to that of Jackie Kennedy.

A person holding flowers talks with another person.
Princess Alexandra is seen at Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park on June 6, 1967. (CBC Archives)

“She had numerous patronages of her own, but now she’s very rarely seen in public,” Harris said.

In the official photographs from King Charles’s coronation last May, it appeared that Alexandra was being physically supported by Prince Edward and Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh.

“So there was a lot of interest and relief in seeing Princess Alexandra [at the memorial], as she used to be such an important public figure over the course of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign,” Harris said.

Royally quotable

“He is the best of fathers, the most loving of husbands and still is my best friend.”

— Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, in a speech on Friday as she paid tribute to her husband, Prince Edward, ahead of his 60th birthday on Sunday.

Two people stand behind a birthday cake sitting on a table.
Edward places a hand on the shoulder of Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, as he’s about to cut a cake to mark his upcoming 60th birthday during a visit Friday to Headingley Stadium in Leeds, England. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Royal reads 

  1. The British army has removed a claim made on its website that the Princess of Wales will attend an event in June, after apparently publishing the information without approval from Kensington Palace. [The Guardian]

  2. Prince Harry was not improperly stripped of his publicly funded security detail during visits to Britain after he gave up his status as a working member of the Royal Family and moved to the U.S., a judge has ruled. [CBC]

  3. Prince William condemned a rise in antisemitism during a visit to a synagogue in London. [BBC]

  4. King Charles is planning on making an official visit to Australia later this year, despite his cancer diagnosis. [ITV]

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