The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stripping Prince Andrew of his title doesn’t solve the Windsors’ real problem

Britain's Prince Andrew, center, is seen with other members of the royal family at the funeral of Prince Philip in Windsor, England, in April 2021. (Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

By removing Prince Andrew’s military affiliations and royal patronages on Thursday, Buckingham Palace effectively put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Just as firing Andrew — or, technically, retiring him from public life — in 2019 didn’t stop questions about his connections to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, announcing that the prince will face legal challenges as a private citizen doesn’t solve the Windsors’ real problem:

Their brand has become scandal. And that helps no one.

In nearly 70 years as queen, Elizabeth II has sought to project stability. For the monarch, who was catapulted toward the throne by her uncle’s abdication in 1936, duty has always come first. But her record-long reign might soon be best remembered for her family’s controversies.

To name a few: her sister’s relationship with a divorced man in the 1950s and the conflict it caused with the Church of England; a generation later, Prince Charles and Princess Diana battling each other in the media and Sarah Ferguson’s, a.k.a. Duchess Fergie’s, toe-sucking entanglement. There have been myriad pay-for-access imbroglios. Last year, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, ignited an international media storm with their Oprah Winfrey interview, alleging, among other things, racism in the royal ranks.

Andrew, the queen’s second son, is ninth in line to the throne — distant enough that his scandal hasn’t engulfed the crown but still close enough to be toxic. He hasn’t had public duties since defending his association with Epstein in a widely panned interview in late 2019. Charities swiftly distanced themselves from the prince; this week, more than 150 veterans signed an open letter requesting the queen strip her son of his honorary military roles after a federal judge in New York allowed to proceed a lawsuit brought by a woman who says she was trafficked as a teenager to the prince by Epstein. The prince has repeatedly denied having any sexual encounter with the woman.

The palace’s core problem is not Andrew’s car-crash interview, his equally tone-deaf retirement announcement or even the luxuries he reportedly accepted from oligarchs and other shadowy sources while serving as a special trade representative for Britain years ago.

It’s that stripping Andrew of honorifics at this point is cosmetic — an attempt to put distance between the palace and the prince after years of ignoring his ties to a sex offender. (Actually, two; Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell, with whom the prince also had a friendship, was convicted last month of trafficking.) Andrew, of course, has not been found guilty of anything. But the allegations against him differ markedly from the extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and other controversies the monarchy has weathered, and sometimes successfully papered over, in the past.

Seeking dismissal, the prince’s lawyers had argued that a 2009 settlement his accuser signed with Epstein shielded Andrew from suit; the judge concluded that the agreement does not unequivocally free the prince from liability. Arguably, the details that emerged recently about the $500,000 settlement are a reminder of how often scandals are swept under rugs.

It’s not just that the monarchy’s centuries-old ability to avoid responsibility for individuals’ questionable choices looks increasingly kaput. Or that the allegations against Andrew, involving sexual abuse of a minor, make the rest of the tawdry stuff look tame. To even call this fiasco a scandal is a gift; human trafficking is a crime.

Of course the palace was right to downgrade Andrew — but it should have done so long ago and not ignored this situation while the prince did not cooperate with law enforcement investigations as he once promised.

About the only thing the prince has gotten right in all this is acknowledging in 2019 that the royal family is expected to represent the best of Britain. To the extent that the Windsors have a brand, it’s supposed to be that — not trafficking lawsuits, cold responses to suicidal thoughts or cash-for-honors scandals.

Shoring up the monarchy’s stability has long seemed destined to be the legacy of the 95-year-old queen. For her decades of public service, Elizabeth is beloved. The rest of her family? Less so, polls consistently show. And her relatives’ scandals might well undo her life’s work.

It might be years before the full story of Andrew’s association with Epstein is clear and we can truly tally the damage the prince has done to the Firm, as the royal family like to call themselves. But it’s entirely possible this chapter will play a role in future downsizing of the monarchy.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as the queen knows better than most. Starting in 2019, Elizabeth has opened Parliament with the Imperial State Crown carried in on a pillow to spare the aging monarch its weight. There are no velvet cushions on which to rest her other burdens.