Platinum Jubilee aside, 2022 hasn't been much of a year for Britain's royal family yet.
For most of their almost 11 years of married life, the future king and his bride were elatedly greeted everywhere they went, whether it was to the English countryside for a day or to the Southern Hemisphere for three weeks. All they had to do was show up and the whirlwind of outfits, quotable exchanges with the folks lucky enough to get face time, and precious family moments would commence.
But things just aren't that simple anymore.
While the reception Kate and Williams received (to their faces) during an eight-day tour of the Caribbean last month—their first official tour in two years, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—was perfectly cordial, the whole business was shadowed before they arrived by a rise in vocal anti-royal sentiment emanating from the former British colonies.
First the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge canceled a scheduled March 20 visit to an indigenous Maya village in Belize after residents protested their impending arrival, Kensington Palace citing "sensitive issues involving the community in Indian Creek."
That same day, human rights group Advocates Network released an open letter to William and Kate, from 100 prominent Jamaicans, calling the couple "direct beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by the royal family over centuries, including that from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans."
"During her 70 years on the throne," the letter read, "your grandmother has done nothing to redress and atone for the suffering of our ancestors that took place during her reign and/or during the entire period of British trafficking of Africans, enslavement, indentureship and colonialization."
Rejecting the idea of celebrating Queen Elizabeth II's 70 years on the throne and demanding "an apology and recognition of the need for atonement and reparations" from the royal family, the leaders planned to mark the 60th anniversary of Jamaica's independence from the United Kingdom instead.
Casting off the vestiges of colonialism isn't usually at the top of the itinerary when the young royals come to town on one of their goodwill jaunts. So William and Kate may have been taken aback when Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told them directly on March 22 that the island nation no longer wanted the queen—who's been head of the Commonwealth of Nations since her accession to the throne in 1952—as their head of state.
Barbados did just that in November, remaining in the Commonwealth (which currently stands at 54 member states, including Canada and Australia) but becoming a republic and electing Dame Sandra Mason as president. Famed Barbadian Rihanna was at her swearing-in, as was Prince Charles, as a sign of the family's support for the country's new government.
Addressing an audience at the Jamaican governor general's residence in Kingston, William did not apologize on behalf of his family, but called slavery "abhorrent" and something that "never should have happened." He echoed a speech his father gave in Barbados, agreeing that the "appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history."
There were still the usual trappings of ceremony on their trip, for better or worse. William and Kate rode in a parade with Jamaica's Defense Force in the back of the same open Land Rover that the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, traveled in when they last visited in 1994, the ability to smile and charm and pretend nothing is out of the ordinary being part of the couple's job.
Really, it may be No. 1 on the list of qualifications.
"It just looked like a throwback of a different time, which cannot be at all what they wanted," journalist and royals expert Jonathan Sacerdoti told E! News in an exclusive interview. "In fact, I think the royal family sees Prince William and Catherine as kind of their secret weapon of the modern era, the modern version they send out to try to counter these sorts of images, so they were probably very disappointed in how that looked."
In a statement released at the end of their trip, William said, "I know that this tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future. In Belize, Jamaica and The Bahamas, that future is for the people to decide upon." He and his wife fully enjoyed their time, though, he added, and "Catherine and I are committed to service. For us that's not telling people what to do. It is about serving and supporting them in whatever way they think best, by using the platform we are lucky to have."
Of course, the juicier headlines don't necessarily reflect that many people were still excited to see the royals or at least were proud to host them in their country, so "I don't know that it's fair to say it was an unmitigated disaster," Sacerdoti said, "but it was reported that way. And the fact that it was reported that way and that those negatives have been picked up means it could be damaging, and I think it's now about how they react coming out of it."
But while it may have been extra-nice for Will and Kate to return home on March 26, it's not as if everyone's thrilled with the royal family there, either.
Public support for the 95-year-old queen remains high ("Bulletproof," Sacerdoti called her popularity) and, provided the fickle COVID variants allow it, celebrations of her historic Platinum Jubilee marking her record 70 years on the throne should be pretty grand. Yet these days, the family's missteps seem to stick in the collective craw for longer.
They've always had their critics, as any grand establishment calmly carrying on in splendor and in part on the public dime while the rest of the world seems to be burning might have, but the naysayers seem to be multiplying.
It's been 13 months since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's interview with Oprah Winfrey opened a rift—between those who were aghast that the now California-based couple would tarnish the Crown as they did with accusations of racism and bullying, and those who were proud to tweet that they knew it all along, that that's just how those Empire-mongering royals have always been.
Harry traveled to England alone for his grandfather Philip's funeral last April, the queen's consort of 73 years having died two months shy of his 100th birthday, and then again to join William at the July 1 dedication of a statue of their late mother, Princess Diana, in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace. It was like old times seeing the brothers together, but the air also managed to be heavy with Harry's tales of his family's less-than-welcoming attitude toward Meghan.
Jamaican attorney and reparations advocate Bert Samuels told Newsweek before William and Kate's arrival that the Oprah interview lingered in hearts and minds in his country, and that he hoped the prince would "come here with an apology, not only for slavery but for the treatment of a Black woman who had to run out of the palace with her husband."
Needless to say, that did not happen. (In the fraught days after the interview aired, William did say during an outing that they are "very much not a racist family," and the palace released a statement calling issues the couples raised regarding race "concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.")
The birth of Harry and Meghan's daughter Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor last June 4 made for cheery news, but it was without the Royal Baby Fanfare that preceded the May 6, 2019, birth of her brother, Archie Harrison, in London (let alone the arrivals of all three of Kate's kids) and what's happening in Southern California just seems so separate from anything the royals are up to in the U.K.
Then there's the matter of the queen's health—by all accounts very robust, the fully vaccinated monarch even powering through a bout with COVID in February with nothing reportedly worse than cold-like symptoms. Two days after the palace confirmed her positive test, however, Hollywood Unlocked posted on Instagram Feb. 22, citing "sources close to the Royal Palace," that the monarch had died.
Long story short, it was b.s. and within a couple of hours it had been flagged by Instagram as "false information," but even what proves almost on arrival to be completely untrue can rattle a few nerves. Not seeing the queen for another week didn't help.
All told, five months passed between public, in-person appearances by the queen, which prompted much fretting (and more than a few snide jokes) about her condition. She surfaced on March 29 at the Service of Thanksgiving memorial for Philip at London's Westminster Abbey that was attended by almost every member of her U.K.-based family, including Prince George, 8, and Princess Charlotte, 6 (who were not at their great-grandfather's funeral last year).
And then there's Prince Andrew.
The Duke of York's past friendship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in jail while awaiting trial in August 2019, was another one of those in-full-sight scandals that people were aware of for more than a decade. His questionable exploits (Andrew has always denied doing anything illegal or engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct) have coexisted alongside events like royal weddings (including his two daughters' nuptials) and hundreds of official appearances.
Only fairly recently have those chickens come home to roost.
On Feb. 15—a month after the queen stripped him of his patronages and military titles and a month before he was due to be deposed—Andrew settled a civil lawsuit brought against him by Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre, who alleged she was forced to have sex with the Duke of York in the early '00s, when she was younger than 18.
"Prince Andrew regrets his association with Epstein, and commends the bravery of Ms. Giuffre and other survivors in standing up for themselves and others," read a letter filed with the court by Giuffre's lawyer, David Boies. "He pledges to demonstrate his regret for his association with Epstein by supporting the fight against the evils of sex trafficking, and by supporting its victims."
Andrew, 62, denied ever meeting Giuffre (or engaging in any illegal or inappropriate conduct whatsoever), suggesting in a cringe-worthy November 2019 BBC interview that directly proceeded him stepping away from his royal duties that a widely published photo seemingly showing him with his arm around Giuffre could have been doctored.
The queen's action in January came in response to increased scrutiny of Andrew's past ties with Epstein and the late financier's friend Ghislaine Maxwell, who was convicted of sex trafficking charges in December.
Already facing calls for transparency as to where the money to mount his defense was coming from, news of the undisclosed (but reportedly approaching $16.3 million) settlement ramped up questions about who was footing the bill.
Amid speculation that the queen was paying his legal expenses, various reports have said that Andrew's mother has contributed upward of $2 million from her private income to the settlement. In January, Andrew and ex-wife Sarah Ferguson reportedly settled roughly $5.4 million in debt on the ski chalet in Verbier, Switzerland, they purchased for a reported $19.6 million (by today's exchange) in 2014, paving the way for them to sell it.
"You can see where [any proceeds from a sale] are going to go," Isabelle de Rouvre, who originally sold the property to the Duke and Duchess of York, told the Washington Post.
In any case, talk of these huge sums of money "is not helping the royal family," Sacerdoti says. "It's terrible for their PR. It's only going to make public opinion, at least regarding some members of the family, worse."
In a previous interview following news of the settlement, Sacerdoti told E! News that any sort of public comeback for Andrew would be "very difficult," but he predicted he'd still be involved in official royal family events. "We might see him in the group but more quietly in the background," he said. "The queen is still his mother. He is still the Duke of York."
So Andrew front and center with the queen was probably the last thing even the monarch's biggest fans wanted to see so soon after that debacle. Yet there he was, escorting his mother into Westminster Abbey at the memorial for Philip.
Which, according to experts, must have been exactly what the queen wanted.
"It shows she wholeheartedly loves and believes her son," Evening Standard royals editor and biographer Robert Jobson told People. Moreover, he added, "She has faith in Andrew. Even if he disappears from public life, he's been able to pay tribute to his father, who after all, was very proud of his service in the Royal Navy, where he fought in the Falkland Islands conflict."
Still, Sacerdoti told E!, "I think it was surprising to see him taking a prominent role in the memorial because people didn't expect that. They expected him to keep a lower profile indefinitely, really. As a public figure, however, he is the queen's son."
Regardless of the tough calls she's had to make as boss of The Firm, "as a mother, she is somebody that has dedication to her family through good times and bad."
And at face value, there certainly isn't anything unusual about an elderly parent taking her son's arm to steady herself, the queen likely wanting to enter the service for her late husband on as much of her own steam as she could. "That's an image she's apparently very proud of maintaining," Sacerdoti noted. "When it comes to the Jubilee celebrations, I suspect she'll want to pursue the same goals of being seen as independent as much as possible."
So "on the one hand, this was a mother who asked her son to help her," Sacerdoti said of Andrew. "On the other, she knows exactly how it would look. One has to assume there was somewhat of a statement going on, not just on his part, but also on Her Majesty the Queen's part and that's to say, whatever's happening, he is still her son and she has a right to literally lean on him when she needs to."
But even when all of the above—from the British Empire's notorious history to Andrew's scandal to the queen's physical (if not reputational) mortality—is considered, the expert adds, "Lots of people in the country, even those who don't support the idea of a monarchy anymore, still have a soft spot for the queen. I think all of this points to the fact that the monarchy's reputation relies on being maintained," now and after her reign. "And there's a big question mark over whether that will be the case."
Subsequently, Sacerdoti wouldn't be surprised if William and Kate are still regrouping from their rocky tour, with more foresight as to what people in the U.K. and beyond really want from them on their agenda moving forward.
"I think a lot of questions will be asked," he said, "in terms of how they could have gotten something that wrong and how they can improve on it in the future."
And the old royal adage of "never complain, never explain" probably won't cut it—or at least that second part definitely won't—as they attempt to keep calm and carry on.
—With reporting by Beth Sobol