Damned when they don't, damned when they do.
For the past six years, Prince William and Kate Middleton have been criticized by traditionalist royal-watchers for not making their children—starting with Prince George, and then followed by Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis—more "available." As in, they don't trot their kids out for photographers nearly enough for the liking of those who prefer heartier helpings of royal sightings, especially of George, who's third in line to the throne.
Instead, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been relatively stingy when it comes to sharing those adorable faces with the world, largely waiting for birthdays and the usual milestones—christenings, birthdays, first day of school, wearing a bathrobe to meet President Obama—to release photos, many of them shot by Kate herself. And while George, who turns 6 on July 22, has had more big public moments to speak of than his siblings, including a tour of Australia and New Zealand at 8-months-old, he's still a fairly elusive fellow. Charlotte, who can turn the world on with a wave, doesn't show up if her brother doesn't, and 1-year-old Louis has looked completely different every time we've seen him, so rarely has he been seen.
And yet when some new family photos were released this weekend, the Cambridges were accused of questionable timing.
Apparently it's taboo now to release photos on the same day that someone else releases photos—when that someone else is a very close relative.
In keeping with what's been the theme of the past 12 months for the young royals—or at least the theme that's been supplied for them—Kate and William are facing charges of stealing thunder for sharing family photos just a few hours after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle released never-before-seen photos in celebration of their first wedding anniversary.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex otherwise enjoyed their anniversary privately but released a slew of new wedding pictures, setting the slideshow on their @sussexroyal Instagram page to "This Little Light of Mine," which they used for their recessional—another poignant moment of cultural diversity that made Harry and Meghan's 2018 nuptials a wedding the likes of which most of this family had never experienced, let alone taken part in.
Later on Sunday, the Cambridges shared photos and video from their family trip to the garden Kate designed as part of the Chelsea Flower Show, complete with a barefoot George navigating the rocks around a little flowing stream, Charlotte on a rope swing and Louis toddling around—the first time we've seen him walking.
"It was a case of anything you can do, I can do better," a veteran royal watcher told the Daily Express afterward.
According to some, the Sussexes and the Cambridges seem to be locked into a game of one-upmanship, with feathers being automatically ruffled when one's good works, which in theory should be the headline of the day, end up overshadowed by competing news that the other one has made.
Short of only working on alternate days so as not to upstage each other, it sounds as though certain clashes can't be avoided entirely. But this is really nothing new for this family.
Even no-nonsense Princess Anne, who is near the top every year when it comes to hours worked (i.e. official appearances made) but also doesn't particularly care for the whole endlessly-wave-and shake-hands part of the job, got annoyed when stories about what Princess Diana was doing—or wearing—would knock the stories about the causes she was advocating for on any given day off the page.
"BOVINE SALUTE FOR PRINCESS ANNE IN ULSTER" read a page-14 headline about a day the Princess Royal spent visiting a farm, her preferred kind of day. Diana's low-cut burgundy dress got all the eyeballs, however, and Anne was said to be "hopping mad," according to Diana biographer Sally Bedell Smith.
"Princess Anne, she had no time for Diana, she didn't like the way she went about her duty and the way she used the cameras and the media to promote herself in her eyes," the Daily Mail's Richard Kay said in the 2019 Channel 5 documentary Paxman on the Queen's Children. "Anne had a much more traditional approach to monarchy and royal duty.""Anne had a much more traditional approach to monarchy and royal duty."
Though he's a very proud father and grandfather, Prince Charles is said to be irked by the next generations getting all the ink. Though he and wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are by no means ignored, the Prince of Wales is of the opinion that the real news has perennially played second fiddle to either his personal life or to knee-jerk criticism of his positions, be it on architecture, farming or the environment. In turn, he's had a tetchy relationship with the press for the past 50 years.
"There's a whole lot of things I've tried to focus on over all these years that I felt needed attention. Not everybody else did," he told Harry when son interviewed father for BBC Radio 4 in December 2017. "But maybe now some years later they are beginning to realize that what I've been trying to say is not as dotty as they thought."
"He's overshadowed by the queen, and during his marriage to Diana she was the more famous half of the couple," Carolyn Harris, author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, told NBC News last year. "Now we see him in the context of his relationship with his sons and grandchildren."
It was only a matter of time, really, before a spotlight was enlisted to seek out any cracks in William and Harry's seemingly very close relationship.
Though most civilians just ate up the sweetness with a spoon, the overlapping photo releases on Sunday proved more fodder for the overarching narrative that Harry and Meghan are desperate to be doing their own thing and William and Kate aren't taking it well—and that William and Harry's relationship is devolving, not least because of a perceived lack of sisterly bonding between Meghan and Kate.
In the current case of the dueling photos, a source told the Express, "Our diary planning could be better." Meaning, the respective couples' offices need to communicate more to coordinate their schedules, particularly when it comes to PR maneuvers, because, presumably, no one is really trying to overshadow the other. That would be... petty, wouldn't it?
Now, any action can appear skewed if viewed through a certain prism, especially if it's the prism through which one is looking for trouble. But another explanation can be that William and Harry haven't divided to conquer each other.
Rather, they've had to divide to conquer the doubts that the House of Windsor is a sustainable enterprise.
William and Harry are facing a daunting task in modernizing the monarchy and keeping it afloat for future generations, all the while knowing that an increasingly skeptical populace that may not always accept the tax-subsidized privilege in their midst is out there.
"We are involved in modernizing the British monarchy," Harry told Newsweek in 2017. "We are not doing this for ourselves but for the greater good of the people."
Overall, Queen Elizabeth II and her descendants remain some of the most popular public figures in the U.K., but the queen is 93 and most people don't sound particularly psyched about Prince Charles becoming king. There could be lean times ahead for royal popularity, and while William and Kate are under more pressure to be practically perfect in every way, Harry has signed on as a full-time royal, too, and isn't entirely excused from having to play the long game.
"The queen trusts her grandsons," a courtier told Diana and Meghan biographer Andrew Morton. "She has confidence in them in a way that she never has had with her eldest son. They have really established themselves as being in touch with the public. William and Harry have star quality, believable and authentic heirs to the monarchy."
The brothers had maintained a joint household since 2009, when they first established their office at St. James's Palace. At the time it was a sign of William and Harry spreading their wings after being a part of their father's branch of the Firm at Clarence House.
When Harry and Meghan's plans to officially separate their house from William and Kate's were revealed, it was more akin to a junior partner leaving a company that he'd never be CEO of to strike out on his own than it was a slap in William's face.
Not that there's such a thing as completely leaving this Firm. The Sussexes' move to manage their own office was approved by Her Majesty, but the queen still wanted them under her roof, so their new office is at Buckingham Palace.
At the same time, Harry and Meghan, who enjoyed their six-month engagement living in Nottingham Cottage on the grounds of Kensington Palace—where William and Harry grew up and where the Cambridges enjoy the primo real estate that is the four-story Apartment 1A—decided to move. Not to bigger quarters within, but about 22 miles away to Frogmore Cottage, part of the royals' Home Park near Windsor Castle.
With the new house and the new office (both of which are actually hundreds of years old) came the new Sussex social media accounts, which are run by a team that, at the end of the day, reports to the queen's communications secretary.
For all the hand-wringing this caused, Harry is a grown man who just started a family of his own, so the least they can give him is his own Instagram page! (And even then, if it's going to be personally curated by anyone, it'll be his wife.)
In this day and age, it's imperative that the brothers spread out and blaze their own trails, for as long as they can. William's road inevitably leads to Buckingham Palace and Harry can be more geographically adventurous, but the more good the family can do, together or separately, and the more they can relate to their public as men who almost sound normal at times, the better it is for the royal brand.
Which is why everything's on the table for Harry and Meghan's future, including their family, which now includes son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, possibly spending a lot of time in Africa to tend to various causes—a way to both make their own mark and lead a far more private life than they'll ever be able to achieve in the U.K.
Their most elaborate stab at privacy to date was the secrecy they maintained as Meghan's due date approached, leaving those who were used to the military-grade precision with which the first three royal baby plans were mapped out scrambling for clues. Would she have the baby at St. Mary's in London, like Kate, or at a hospital closer to home? Would she have a home birth, as was the royal way for generations until practical Princess Anne started a new tradition in 1977 when she had son Peter Phillips? Would the multi-step announcement (labor, birth, photo, name) be reminiscent of George, Charlotte and Louis' arrivals, or would the Sussexes go quiet?
Ultimately they didn't stray too far from the norm, but the differences were notable: Archie was born at Portland Hospital for Women and Children (where Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie were born, as were Brooklyn and Romeo Beckham), but that wasn't known until the birth certificate was made public almost two weeks later. The labor announcement came barely a half hour before the birth announcement. But otherwise it was par for the course, including the notice set up on a golden easel outside the gates of Buckingham Palace advising that Meghan had been delivered of a son.
One other pertinent detail particular to Harry becoming a father, however: The inclusion of Princess Diana's brother and sisters in the initial palace announcement. The Duke of Sussex has proved himself to be the glue holding some of the looser branches of the family together, whether it was his insistence that the Duchess of York, who has a tortured history with the royals but is Eugenie and Beatrice's mother after all, be invited to his wedding, to the bonds he's maintained with his Spencer side.
Not coincidentally, Diana was the one who provided the breath of fresh air when she first joined the family in 1981—and for all of the troubles that ensued between her and Charles and her in-laws, she remains the person most credited for shaking up the system when it needed a good push.
She cut the promise to "obey" from her wedding vows and refused to walk behind Charles, as was tradition, when they were out and about. But perhaps most importantly to her, the Princess of Wales wanted William and Harry to not only enjoy their childhood, but also to become empathetic, thoughtful men. So while she and Charles did their best to protect their kids from the press, including when they were away at school, she also took them all over, from homeless shelters to hospitals, to help them learn about people outside the literal and proverbial palace walls.
Moreover, Diana, who struggled in silence for years with depression and an eating disorder, didn't want her sons to be afraid of feelings or expressing themselves, and she did what she could while she could. Her death in a car crash at only 36 years old was the defining moment of 15-year-old William and 12-year-old Harry's young lives, and only in the past few years have the two of them opened up about what that loss really did to them.
Harry, William and Kate launched the Heads Together campaign in 2016, a collaboration with multiple charities that work to educate and provide resources and services for people affected by mental health issues. Moreover, Harry knocked a huge chunk of rust off the royal gate by opening up in 2017 about his past anger issues and depression, and how the counseling he eventually got when he was in his 20s helped him cope.
"My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?" Harry told Mad World host Bryony Gordon. "And then [I] started to have a few conversations and actually all of a sudden, all of this grief that I have never processed started to come to the forefront and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with."
"Mental health was the great taboo. If you were anxious, it's because you were weak," William said at an event for the Guild of Health Writers. "If you couldn't cope with whatever life threw at you, it's because you were failing. Successful, strong people don't suffer like that, do they? But of course—we all do. It's just that few of us speak about it."
Kate, too, opened up about how difficult motherhood could be and how she identified with women who experienced postpartum depression. "Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer, overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother," she said at a Best Beginnings event in early 2017. "It's full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love, and worry, all mixed together."
William, though known for being a bit of a hellion back in his single-digit days, has become far more known for being sensible and stoic as a young man and future king. And while he has always spoken with a sense of empathy about mental health struggles, only recently has he offered more insight into his personal experience.
"Guys, in general, find it very difficult to talk about their feelings—doing what we're doing here makes a huge difference," the Duke of Cambridge said in a discussion with a group of football players in the new BBC documentary Royal Team Talk.
"I've thought about this a lot," William said in explaining why work on mental health is so important to him, "and I'm trying to understand why I feel like I do, but I think when you are bereaved at a very young age, any time really, but particularly at a young age, I can resonate closely to that, you feel pain like no other pain.
"And you know that in your life it's going to be very difficult to come across something that's going to be even worse pain than that. But it also brings you so close to all those other people out there who have been bereaved."
While he can only say so much and still maintain the private life that he and Kate aspire to have for their children, as Diana wished for William and Harry, William is right in there with his brother in starting a new chapter—a more open, relatable era for the royals.
Once upon a time, perhaps, people wanted their kings and queens to be benevolent yet inscrutable, but that time has passed.
William and Harry have a lot of old ways still standing in front of them, but showing that they have their own personalities and approach to their positions in life will go a long way toward making this era their own.