LONDON — For Queen Elizabeth II, 2021 was a challenging year that brought sorrow, scandal and personal health issues, all of which played out under the ever watchful eye of the British tabloid press — for which the lives of royal family members remain a topic of fascination and frequent scrutiny.
Prince Philip, to whom she was married for more than seven decades, died in April — and a photo of the queen sitting alone at his funeral because of coronavirus restrictions summarized for many the cruelty of the pandemic. It was also a year that saw new controversies — with Prince Harry and Meghan’s explosive Oprah Winfrey interview sparking debate about racism in the royal family — as well as concerns over the 95-year-old monarch’s health.
Here is a look back at one of the most challenging years for Britain’s royals.
Death of Prince Philip
Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died in April at age 99. The palace said Philip, who was the longest-serving royal consort in British history, “passed away peacefully at Windsor Castle,” about an hour outside of London, where he and the queen isolated amid the global health crisis.
The prince was hospitalized shortly before his death for heart surgery and battled an infection that was unrelated to the coronavirus, the palace said.
The country bid the prince goodbye with a funeral that paid tribute to his long life — but also adhered to Britain’s stringent coronavirus restrictions. The specially adapted ceremony meant no crowds, no singing and a guest list limited to 30 people.
Mourners, including the queen, wore black face coverings — and one particular scene shattered hearts around the world.
With her head bowed and her face covered, the queen, who was dressed all in black, was forced to sit alone inside Windsor’s St George’s Chapel. The scene prompted many to share their own stories of how social distancing and coronavirus rules had given them no option but to grieve in isolation.
More than six months after it was taken, the image was recalled once again when a series of scandals hit Downing Street, alleging that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staff had broken coronavirus rules on multiple occasions.
“Every time I read about how Boris and his mates partied away, I’m reminded of this photo of the queen, alone at the funeral of the man she loved for decades. It’s heartbreaking,” read one of many recent tweets contrasting the queen’s actions with the alleged rule-breaking of the government.
Meghan and Harry’s stunning Oprah interview alleged racism within the family
It’s been an eventful year for Prince Harry and wife Meghan, who lost their royal patronages and honorary military titles in February, welcomed a second child this summer and continued to face allegations that they were deepening a divide within the royal family.
In March, the two sat down with Oprah Winfrey for a sensational interview in which the pair alleged racial hostility within the royal family.
Meghan, who is biracial, said there had been “concerns and conversations” during her pregnancy about “how dark” their son’s skin might be. The query was raised by an unnamed royal who the pair later clarified was not the queen or Philip.
Prince Harry claimed his father and heir to the throne, Prince Charles, had stopped taking his calls after the pair announced they would be stepping back from their duties and hinted that his relationship with his brother, Prince William, had become strained, adding they were on “different paths.”
Meghan also revealed that she had experienced “constant” suicidal feelings soon after she married into the family. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore,” she told Winfrey, as the pair accused the family of displaying a significant lack of support.
Following the interview, the queen issued a statement saying she was “saddened” by the pair’s comments and that “the issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning.” William was also forced to deny claims that the family is racist.
Prince Andrew, accused of sexual abuse, continues to face scrutiny
Britain’s Prince Andrew, second son of Elizabeth, has long faced questions over his friendship with disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in a jail cell in 2019.
The prince also stands accused of sexually assaulting an American woman, Virginia Giuffre, who says she was forced to have sex with Andrew at the behest of Epstein on at least three occasions. The prince has denied the allegations.
In October, British law enforcement officials confirmed they were dropping their investigation into the claims.
However, the prince faces a lawsuit in the United States filed by Giuffre, who is seeking unspecified damages. Lawyers for the prince attempted to have the case thrown out in November by filing an application to a U.S. judge that called the lawsuit “baseless.”
Inquiries into the Epstein scandal are likely to proceed in 2022, with a U.S. judge ruling that Andrew must be questioned under oath by July 14.
A hospital stay and a string of canceled events spark concerns over queen’s health
Many across Britain have never known a life without Elizabeth, who took to the throne in 1952 — which means a lot of people are glued to any report regarding her health.
In October, the monarch was spotted using a walking stick for support — a rare sight that served as a vivid reminder the queen is 95. In the same month, the palace announced that Elizabeth had been admitted to a hospital for “preliminary tests,” which sparked widespread concern.
After a night, the queen was discharged but advised to take things easy — performing only “light duties” from Windsor castle. The health scare forced her to cancel trips, although the monarch continued to meet with some officials via video link.
🤝 Today The Queen received two Ambassadors in audience via video link from Windsor Castle.— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) October 26, 2021
🌎 There are more than 170 Ambassadors and High Commissioners based in London at any given time and each will have an Audience with The Queen shortly after taking up his or her role. pic.twitter.com/Pf9NiUFGca
The monarch also pulled out of attending a Remembrance Day service, which the palace blamed on a sprained back.
She is still expected to give her traditional Christmas Day speech. Last year, she focused on acts of empathy and kindness that have brought people together during the coronavirus pandemic.
This year’s prerecorded Christmas message will be the first since Philip’s death and is expected to be particularly personal.
While the royals experienced great loss and various challenges this year, the family also expanded with the birth of four babies: August Brooksbank, Lucas Tindall, Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor and Sienna Mapelli Mozzi.
The queen ends 2021 with 12 great-grandchildren, four of whom will be celebrating their first Christmas.