LONDON — For more than 60 years, Susan Hussey served as a courtier to the royals in the House of Windsor. She was the ultimate insider’s insider, who rose to the title of “Woman of the Bedchamber” and was dubbed “Number One Head Girl.”
Within hours of a Black British charity chief posting their conversation at Buckingham Palace on social media, saying she was asked — repeatedly — where she was from, Hussey resigned from her royal role.
Who is the woman at the center of the royal racism storm?
And did she commit verbal “abuse” reflecting racist views? Or was she just elderly and out of touch? Did she reflect the attitudes of the new British monarch or was she a relic? Britons hotly debated the matter on Thursday.
Hussey was the queen’s longest-serving lady-in-waiting and quite possibly her favorite, given that she held the title of “Woman of the Bedchamber,” which effectively means she was the queen’s right-hand woman.
The role is honorary and unpaid — and in modern times has little to do with the bedchamber. Hussey began working at the palace in 1960. Like other ladies-in-waiting, Hussey would have helped the queen with correspondence, greeted guests at functions and accompanied the monarch to royal engagements, at home and abroad. She was reportedly tasked with helping newcomers navigate royal life.
The queen offered Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, “the ear of her most senior lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey,” Tina Brown wrote in her book “The Palace Papers.” Brown also asserted: “She hailed from the Jurassic period of court etiquette, and had also been proffered for guidance to [Princess] Diana (who couldn’t stand her).”
Hussey was clearly close with the Windsors. She was named godmother to William when he was born in 1982. After Prince Philip died, it was Hussey who accompanied the queen to her husband’s lonely funeral, when attendance was limited because of the coronavirus.
“She’s very tall, nicknamed the ‘head girl’ and a bit imposing, but very kind,” said Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty Magazine. “She was very close with the queen and the whole royal family. She’s always been very, very kind to Charles, always, throughout his whole life.”
A head girl or boy in British schools is the student who often represents the class on public occasions.
“They are so sensitive with anything to do with racism. I was surprised they didn’t support her a bit more, but they probably have behind the scenes,” Seward added. “But traditionally with royals throughout history, if anyone displeases them, they are out. As Prince Philip always, always said: ‘It’s not about the individual. It’s about the institution.’”
Hussey was born in 1939 and is the daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave and Mary Hermione, Countess Waldegrave. Her husband, Marmaduke Hussey, was a former chairman of the BBC. He died in 2006.
The couple had two children. Their daughter, Katharine, followed her mother’s footsteps and is one of the six “official companions” to Camilla, Queen Consort.
Hussey was awarded multiple medals, including ones for long and faithful service to the royal household. When Elizabeth died, Charles transferred Hussey to work for him. Her new job, Seward said, had been that of an “honorary” lady, who, along with Camilla’s companions, would be there to help out at big functions at the palace.
They “were meant to help smooth the way, be nice to guests, make them feel at home,” Seward said.
That was not the experience for Ngozi Fulani, a Black Briton and the chief executive of the domestic-abuse charity Sistah Space. She was at a reception at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday that brought together campaigners who are working to end violence against women and girls.
When Hussey approached Fulani, she repeatedly asked where she was from.
“It was like an interrogation,” Fulani told BBC Radio on Thursday. “I guess the only way I can explain it, she’s determined: ‘Where are you from? Where are your people from?’”
“I have to really question how this can happen in a space that’s supposed to protect women against all kinds of violence,” Fulani said. “Although it’s not physical violence — it is an abuse.”
She waved away excuses made that it had to do with Hussey’s age.
“Let us be clear what this is,” Fulani said. “I’ve heard so many suggestions it’s about her age and stuff like that, and I think that’s kind of a disrespect — an ageism kind of thing.”
Hussey has yet to comment publicly, but the palace issued a statement saying that “the individual concerned would like to express her profound apologies for the hurt caused and has stepped aside from her honorary role with immediate effect.”
Hussey’s age has drawn some attention in Britain, where some say the encounter was a generational thing, suggesting older Brits are adjusting to a new, more diverse country.
“She’s 83” was trending on social media in Britain on Thursday. Some say that she is of a generation in which comments like “Where are you from?” may be benign in intent, or that she just doesn’t know better. Others say that age is no excuse for comments that cause offense.
“What’s the official age at which you’re allowed to be racist?” asked LBC radio host James O’Brien.
Others disagreed that her comments were racist. In the Spectator, Petronella Wyatt wrote that she felt Hussey was being treated unfairly, noting the palace denounced the incident as “unacceptable.”
“But what is more ‘unacceptable’?” Wyatt wrote. “To publicly condemn and dismiss an 83-year-old for showing curiosity about someone’s heritage? Or for dispatching a loyal, grey-haired servant with such cruel haste, without even the benefit of a day’s grace? I incline to the latter. But then I am prejudiced, I have known Susan Hussey since I was 18, and if she is a racist, then I am an ornamental fountain.”
Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, said it is not unusual for ethnic minorities to be asked about where they come from. “It happens to everybody all the time,” he said. “It depends how it’s done.”
The conversation as reported at the palace, he said, “felt as an assertion of power.” He said the “Where are you from?” question “can be done clumsily and offensively. It can also be done in a way that’s intended to be benign but done clumsily.”
Halima Begum, director of Runnymede, a race equality think tank, said: “The courtier in question was born in the 1930s and is the product of a time and place defined by British imperialism. However, this does not excuse racism, whether or not it occurs inside the king’s London home.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian descent and a Hindu, said he couldn’t comment directly on the Buckingham Palace event but acknowledged he had experienced racism in Britain. He told reporters that the country has made “incredible progress” but that “the job is never done, and that’s why whenever we see it we must confront it and it’s right that we continually learn the lessons and move to a better future.”
The Buckingham Palace controversy comes as Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, traveled to the United States for the first time in eight years, hoping to highlight a young, vibrant British monarchy focused on climate change, social justice and improving mental health.
But it comes, too, as Prince Harry and Meghan prepare to launch a Netflix documentary on their decision to leave royal service, in part because of their feelings that the palace was not supportive of Meghan and that even a family member had asked what color their baby might be.
Earlier this week, the British government released details of its 10-year census, which showed that the country was becoming ever more diverse and more secular.
For the first time, less than half the people in England and Wales described themselves as “Christian,” with the percentages of Muslims and Hindus increased.
On race and ethnicity, the census found that 82 percent of residents in England and Wales identified as White, down from 86 percent a decade earlier.