Photos of Meghan and Kate from this time this year seemed innocuous at the time. But in hindsight, they showed the deteriorating relationship.
In July 1980, legendary royal photographer Arthur Edwards heard a rumour that Prince Charles had arrived at a polo game with a girl named Lady Diana Spencer. Noticing a young woman wearing a necklace with a large D on it, he approached her and asked if she was Lady Diana before snapping her photo. A month later, Edwards spotted the duo together in Scotland and thus broke the news of the royal’s budding romance with the aristocratic teenager.
The polo has often been a backdrop for key moments in royal history. It was in the late ’60s at another polo field where Charles met Camilla Shand who said to him, “That’s a fine animal, sir.” And in 1992, Princess Diana, by then in the throes of a deeply unhappy marriage to Charles, telegraphed her misery and anger towards her husband during a polo cup presentation. As he went to kiss her, she pointedly turned her head away as the closely watching cameras clicked and whirred, the snub heard around the world.
Last year, it was the couple’s sons Prince William and Prince Harry’s turn with a polo field in Berkshire the setting for one of the more public chapters in the brothers’ recent tumultuous years.
Rewind to July 10, 2019, when Harry and Meghan still called the UK home and the notion of a killer virus sweeping the globe was the province of the feverish imaginations of Hollywood directors. As children, both the Wales boys were taught to play polo as children and as adults have both stayed firmly in the saddle, often padding up for charity matches.
That day, both men were playing in the Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Memorial Polo Trophy as part of the King Power Royal Charity Polo Day, albeit on opposing teams. There, doing their bit to support their husbands were Kate Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan Duchess of Sussex and their children.
On paper, the day should have been a jolly outing, all sunshine, chukkas and Pimms. Instead, the outing came only weeks after the Sussexes had announced they were splitting from the Royal Foundation (the charity body set up by William and Harry in 2009), a move which had added fuel to the fire when it came to the growing drumbeat reports about a rift between the couples.
Thus, on that summer day, all eyes were on the four HRHs – and in hindsight, the pictures captured are telling.
Only six months before, seemingly in an effort to put those pernicious feud rumours to rest, the two couples had made the walk to church on Christmas Day side-by-side, the two duchesses happily chatting as they braved the icy weather for the annual royal excursion. (It did not go unnoticed that while their wives might have been speaking, the two men were not seen to communicate at all while in public.) For a family well-versed in the arts of image management, that Christmas stroll was a pointed rejoinder to all the press reports painting a picture of the alleged rancour behind palace gates.
However, despite briefly quashing the squabble narrative, the Christmas gambit only worked for so long and by the beginning of 2019, the words ‘Sussex,’ ‘Cambridge’ and ‘feud’ were popping up with alarming regularity in headlines.
And then we get to that lovely summer day and a polo match featuring the two Princes and a lot of very expensive ponies. When the series of shots hit the internet, the coverage focused on a number of things including Meghan facing criticism for the way she was holding Archie and tiny Prince Louis’ adorably rambunctious antics.
Looking at those images now, I wonder if there is something else entirely going on.
Though Kate and Meghan were photographed in close vicinity to one another, there was one thing very much not on display – any genuine sort of warmth between them. While in some images they are both happily looking at Louis cheekily wearing his mum’s sunglasses and in another Prince George stands with his aunt and cousin, the two women were not seen talking or even making polite idle chitchat. At another point, Kate, Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte gathered around the Cambridges’ car for snacks. Meghan was nowhere to be seen. (Likewise, Harry and William again were not photographed speaking to one another.)
Four days after that outing, Kate and Meghan fronted up to Wimbledon together, with Pippa Middleton in tow. With the eyes of centre court, the UK press and live TV cameras on them, both women smiled and chatted like jolly good chums.
The difference between their off and on-duty demeanour could not have been more marked.
Kate and Meghan would have known that there would be cameras there and that the lenses would be trained on them. The fact that they did not seem to feel the need to put on a cheery, chummy spectacle of sorts would suggest that things had already fractured seriously behind the scenes.
Nearly six months to the day after the charity polo match, Harry and Meghan would announce to the world they wanted out.
While it has been reported that a variety of factors contributed to their decision to quit as full-time working members of the royal family, their relationship with Harry’s family has cropped up again and again as something of a festering wound. There have been claims that things started to fray between William and Harry after the elder Prince failed to “roll out the red carpet” for his brother’s new girlfriend and that later, Kate was left in tears over an incident that happened before the Sussexes’ wedding.
Writing in the Times, royal biographer Katie Nicholl quoted one of Meghan’s friends telling her: “I think she felt like an outsider from the start. This wasn’t the life she was used to and she wanted out.”
As Kate and Meghan stood on the sidelines, looking after their children and doing little if nothing to create the impression of any sort of sisterly bond, I wonder if you can already see those particular cracks beginning to show.
With the UK ending its COVID-19 lockdown, it is believed that this year’s polo season will soon be up and running. It is far less certain when, if ever, in the near distant future, we will see the Cambridges and the Sussexes together again. At least this time, there won’t be any pressure on Kate and Meghan to keep up appearances.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.