Doesn't the Queen deserve better than this baffling festive absence? RICHARD KAY examines the impact of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's decision not to spend Christmas with the royal family
- Duke and Duchess of Sussex will not travel to Sandringham with the other royals
- Understood Sussexes will spend Christmas with Doria at undisclosed destination
- Their decision to stay away follows their absence from Balmoral in the summer
You would have thought that when your grandparents are as elderly as the Queen and Prince Philip, making life as easy and uncomplicated for them would be a matter of course.
Which makes Prince Harry’s decision to stay away from Sandringham this Christmas all the more baffling. To the Queen, for whom the tradition of the family gathering is a key date in her calendar, Harry and Meghan’s absence will be a matter of great sadness. It will also be a source of frustration.
For it will surely feed into the narrative that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are somehow slipping away from the ties of loyalty, family and duty that for so long have bound the royals. And in particular it will only add to the speculation that the rift between Harry and his brother Prince William, far from easing, is actually getting worse.
This candid shot of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was taken by a member of the pubic in December 2017
Meghan Markle and her mother, Doria Ragland, arriving at Cliveden House Hotel on the National Trust's Cliveden Estate to spend the night before her wedding to Prince Harry
Even at times of great family adversity – such as the divisions over Princess Diana – the royals have demonstrated a great knack for putting differences to one side and coming together.
It meant a lot to the Queen that even after the Prince and Princess of Wales separated, Diana would still appear at Sandringham church on Christmas Day.
Harry and Meghan’s absence will be a matter of profound regret. No one will miss him more than the Duke of Edinburgh. Philip will not be an eternal fixture at these family gatherings, he will be 99 next year and has not been in the best of health recently.
Their decision to stay away follows on their unexpected absence from Balmoral in the summer when courtiers thought that they would join the Queen for a long weekend only for them to apparently change their minds.
At the time there were suggestions that they were unwilling to take baby Archie on such a long trip.
Queen Elizabeth II visits the Royal British Legion Industries Village in Aylesford earlier this month
But the revelations that she flew to Ibiza in August with Archie, and indeed to Sir Elton John’s holiday home in the South of France with the baby, make that argument somewhat hollow.
What makes this latest development so perplexing is that they are about to embark on a six-week sabbatical from royal duties – to recharge their batteries – part of which they plan to spend in America with Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland for this month’s Thanksgiving celebrations.
But then what?
Royal aides assumed that, suitably refreshed, the couple would then take their place at Sandringham for Christmas.
While officials were last night at pains to stress that their absence should not be seen as any kind of snub, the fact is the Queen expects to have the family around her for the festive season.
It is understood that the Sussexes will spend Christmas with Doria at an undisclosed destination, possibly in the UK but also possibly in the US.
Yet they will have spent Thanksgiving with Doria at her home in Los Angeles only weeks before.
‘If they had intended to spend the holiday with Meghan’s father, I don’t think there would have been any complaint,’ a senior courtier says.
‘But that does not seem to be on the cards.’ Meghan’s estrangement from her father Thomas Markle, who did not attend their Windsor Castle wedding and has still not met Harry, remains a source of considerable tension.
Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and their son Archie (pictured together in South Africa) will be spending the festive season away from Sandringham
Marriage into the Royal Family does mean compromises. In exchange for the privilege of great wealth come other demands, none more so significant than appearing with the family at church on Christmas Day.
Rightly or wrongly, many will wonder whether Harry and Meghan’s absence is about more than just a brotherly rift with William, but actually is about deeper tensions.
Harry has spent all but one Christmas with the senior royals, missing the occasion only in 2012 – when he was serving in Afghanistan. All year there have been mutterings within royal palaces about the freewheeling conduct of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Yes, they have a young baby but so too have other members of the royal family in the past.
Harry himself was barely three months old when he made his royal Christmas debut – at that time the celebrations were held at Windsor Castle.
There was then no question that Diana and Charles would remain at Kensington Palace. The Queen would have been thrilled to extend an invitation to Meghan’s mother, if that had helped persuade the couple to come to Sandringham.
But it seems from aides that Harry and Meghan’s minds were already made up.
Of course there will be sympathy for a relatively young couple determined to carve their own role away from royal protocol.
But many more will reserve their compassion for the Queen. At 93, doesn’t she deserve better?