LONDON — The usual royal response to scandal is to pull up the drawbridge and pretend nothing is happening. So many royal watchers here were quite surprised that instead of the expected “no comment,” palace officials have taken an uncharacteristic offensive posture.
Since the allegations emerged late last week that Prince Andrew had sex with an underage girl, Buckingham Palace has issued an astonishing three denials, hinted at legal action and written to editors of British newspapers to remind them of their legal and ethical responsibilities.
The latest intervention rang out from Prince Andrew’s ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, or “Fergie,” as she is widely known, who graced the front pages of several British papers on Tuesday as she spoke out in defense of Andrew.
“The York family is a tight unit. We’ve always been a tight unit,” she told the Daily Mail while at a luxury ski chalet in Switzerland, where she had been on holiday with Andrew and their youngest daughter. “He is the greatest man there is,” she said while declining to comment specifically on the unfolding scandal.
The British royal family famously turned inward after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but more recently has relied on sophisticated public relations credited with presenting royals such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry as both regal and regular folk. They are also more media savvy, announcing royal engagements and births on Twitter, for instance.
But when it comes to personal matters with any hint of controversy, the palace’s usual response is a terse “no comment.”
“In the past, the palace tradition was to rise above it all, or to be seen to rise above it all, or just to ignore this sort of thing,” said Robert Lacey, a royal biographer.
Not this time.
Prince Andrew, who is Charles’s younger brother and fifth in line to the throne, was named in U.S. court documents last week after a woman, named in the British press said she was forced by the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein to have sex when she was 17 with Prince Andrew in London, New York and the Caribbean.
Almost immediately, the palace’s PR machine started whirring. It dispatched a statement Friday saying the palace would not “comment in detail” on the case but that “for the avoidance of doubt, any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors is categorically untrue.”
For royal watchers, that was a lot of detail , with the palace directly addressing the accusation in the court filings. And then came another extraordinary rebuttal, which included a specific name.
With Britain’s Sunday papers gearing up to run an interview with the alleged victim , who they said was the “Jane Doe #3” listed in the court documents, and a 2001 picture of Andrew with his arm around her waist, Buckingham Palace decided to issue a second statement.
“It is emphatically denied that The Duke of York had any form of sexual contact or relationship with [the alleged victim] . Any claim to the contrary is false and without foundation,” a palace spokesman said.
When the alleged victim’s fathertold the Sun tabloid that his daughter was “so excited” to have met the Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace promptly responded, saying: “We have no record of such a meeting.”He has since retracted that claim.
It’s unclear how the latest allegations will affect the Windsor brand or Prince Andrew, who previously stepped down from his role as an ambassador for British business after a controversy over his friendship with Epstein, a registered sex offender. The legal case in the United States is ongoing, and the alleged victim is reportedly writing a tell-all book.
Royal watchers said the palace’s aggressive public response was probably at the behest of Andrew himself.
“Normally, if they say anything, it’s seen as prolonging the story and fanning the flames of controversy, which is what has happened here. But presumably Prince Andrew has insisted they do so,” said Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine.
To be sure, the palace has piped up on personal matters before. Seward recalled the time two years ago when aides to Prince William made it clear he was fuming when a French magazine published topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge, but Seward said that such strong reactions were “highly unusual.”
“Usually, they wouldn’t give credence to a story like this, because it’s very sleazy,” she said, referring to the allegations leveled at Prince Andrew. “It’s almost as if they are too grand to even notice, but the Duke of York obviously felt that they wanted an official denial,” she said.