Britain’s royal hierarchy has changed dramatically in the past several weeks, after King Charles III became the country’s first new monarch for seven decades and several of his relatives stepped into new roles.
But there is a troubling familiarity to the first major crisis to grip the newly reorganized institution.
The royals are once again battling serious allegations of racism inside palace walls, after an honorary aide resigned and apologized following complaints that she repeatedly asked a Black British charity boss where she was “really from.”
“It was like an interrogation,” Ngozi Fulani, who runs the domestic violence charity Sistah Space, told BBC Radio 4. “Although it’s not physical violence – it is an abuse.”
The aide, identified as Lady Susan Hussey in British media, served as the late Queen Elizabeth II’s lady in waiting for more than 60 years and is a godmother to the Prince of Wales.
Fulani was attending an event hosted by Camilla, Queen Consort, intended to highlight what she called a “global pandemic” of violence against women, and to celebrate the work of campaigners and charities who tackle the issue.
But the experience Fulani endured has overshadowed that message. “I have to really question how this can happen in a space that’s supposed to protect women against all kinds of violence,” she told the BBC.
The timing of the controversy couldn’t have been worse, erupting as it did on the first day of Prince William and Catherine’s visit to the United States for the Earthshot Awards ceremony, their first overseas trip in their new positions. Keen to draw a line under the situation playing out at home, Kensington Palace condemned the remarks of William’s godmother as “unacceptable,” adding that it was “right that the individual concerned has stepped aside with immediate effect.”
Now, the royal institution is facing a fresh round of uncomfortable questions.
“I was shocked. It’s 2022, and somebody can speak like that and think like that,” Diane Abbott, a Labour MP who represents Fulani and the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons in 1987, told CNN. Abbott said the suggestion that a Black person is not truly British is less prevalent today then decades ago, but still exists generationally.
“King Charles III and a lot of people around him are very committed now to modernizing the monarchy. They want to modernize it, they want to keep it relevant,” Abbott said. “But this sort of incident takes them back.”
“Meghan Markle talked about this, and she got roundly abused – and she’s still the target of negativity in the British press,” Abbott added, referring to the Duchess of Sussex. “I think this incident shows that what Meghan Markle was trying to indicate is true.”
A swell of goodwill surrounded the royals following the Queen’s death, but that sentiment was not limitless and the simple truth remains that the late monarch outshone all of her descendants, including King Charles, in terms of popularity among the public.
In the wake of his mother’s death, King Charles told religious leaders he felt he had a personal duty to “protect the diversity of our country.” But without the Queen’s unifying presence at the top of “The Firm,” the royals must now respond to serious questions about whether their institution adequately represents a multicultural Britain.
This was, after all, an aide previously at the heart of the royals’ inner circle. Hussey frequently accompanied Queen Elizabeth II to official engagements, riding alongside her to the funeral service for Prince Philip in 2011. She welcomed prime ministers and dignitaries to Buckingham Palace, stood by the throne at State Openings of Parliament, and was often pictured laughing alongside the matriarch, Charles and other royals at horse-racing events.
But now, Hussey’s comments have dragged the royal family back into a debate it has sought to dissociate itself from.
Questions of how robustly the palace confronts racism have swirled since Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, told Oprah Winfrey last year that someone in the family questioned her on the skin tone of her unborn baby.
CNN was told last year that the Queen dispatched Hussey, along with her Dresser Angela Kelly, to offer advice, guidance and tutelage to Meghan after her entry into the royal family – an institution that the duchess has since said ignored her pleas over her mental health and made her feel unwelcome and isolated.
And later last year, Britain’s Guardian newspaper unearthed documents, buried in the UK national archives, which revealed that the Queen’s courtiers had banned ethnic minority immigrants and foreigners from holding clerical positions at Buckingham Palace until at least the late 1960s.
When this emerged, the palace didn’t confirm when this practice had ended but told CNN: “The Royal Household and the Sovereign comply with the provisions of the Equality Act, in principle and in practise. This is reflected in the diversity, inclusion and dignity at work policies, procedures and practises within the Royal Household.”
Such stories have forced royals to go on the defensive. Prince William told reporters in the aftermath of the Winfrey interview that the royals are “very much not” a racist family; months later, a senior royal representative later said Queen Elizabeth II supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
And royals have since tentatively approached the thorny issue of the monarchy’s historic links to slavery, with then-Prince Charles saying in June that the “time has come” to confront the legacy of the practice. Many activists want more, such as a formal apology from the institution.
Incidents like these recall a number of previous controversies and threaten to undo the efforts of the senior royals to present themselves as in-touch and relevant ambassadors for Britain – a particularly dangerous proposition in the early months of Charles’ reign.
Hussey’s swift departure, and Kensington Palace’s immediate response, has been noted by some onlookers as a sign that the monarchy is learning from past mistakes.
“A few years ago this incident would have been dismissed and Ngozi would have been regarded as too sensitive,” Abbott told CNN.
“The speed of response this time, and the fact there was an apology and [William’s spokesperson] made a statement, does show that there is some progress on race issues in the royal family,” she said.
“It’s not fast enough,” Abbott added. “I would like to see them have more Black people in the royal household, I would like to see them genuinely open their arms to Meghan Markle, and I would like to see them use their role to try and encourage a genuinely multiracial society.”
Others have also called for the monarchy to look inward. “There are clues here that this is a pattern; that it’s institutional,” Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party who was present at the event and said she witnessed the conversion, told the BBC on Wednesday.
“It really left its mark on me. It left its mark on Ngozi,” she said of the exchange, urging the royal family not to frame the incident as a one-off. “Don’t minimize, don’t deflect,” she said.
And however much change is happening inside palace walls, the country is changing faster. On the same day of the Palace reception, results from last year’s national census revealed that people who described themselves as Christian in England and Wales fell from 59% to 46%, the first time it has dipped below half of the population. There was a huge surge in those who said they had no religion, while the number of Muslims rose to 6.5%.
The Christian faith has legal status in England, with the Church of England as the established church and the monarch as its titular head, the “Defender of the Faith.” The figures provide another example of how cultural attitudes in Britain are shifting away from those in which the monarchy is steeped.
The palace will hope that public anger over Hussey’s comments will subside following her resignation, but there are more roadbumps ahead. An immaculately timed trailer for the much-hyped Netlix documentary about Harry and Meghan was released on Thursday, with Meghan telling viewers they will “hear our story from us.”
And, more significantly, the incident has hinted towards a question that may reappear during Charles’ reign, just as it did at times during his mother’s tenure: Can the royals adapt, or is the institution simply too archaic to represent Britain today?