First it was Diana, then Fergie. Kate followed, as did Meghan. And that’s just in recent history. If we go further back, of course, the persecution of royal women extended far beyond tabloid gossip – just ask Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Mary Queen of Scots.
Women in the royal family have never had an easy ride. This is a subject Sarah Ferguson touched on in a new wide-ranging interview with French magazine Madame Figaro this week, where she spoke about the reality of being in the spotlight when you join the firm. “ââI may have been the most persecuted woman in royal family history, but I’m still here,” she said.
It’s undeniable that the ex-wife of Prince Andrew (whom she also said in the interview she still loves and stands by) has certainly faced more than her fair share of scrutiny, most memorably via one of the cruelest tabloid nicknames, “The Duchess of Pork”. And who could forget those viral toe-sucking images? But while Fergie's claim to be the most persecuted woman in royal history is a bold statement to make when you consider beheadings, exile and vilification, what her comments really expose, is just how imbalanced criticism of royals is - you just have to look at Prince Andrew and Meghan Markle to see that.
For women who marry into the royal family, a certain level of media interest is to be expected, but, more often than not, this can morph into an obsessive rumour mill – lest we forget “Waity Katie” and the pitting of Kate and Meghan against one another with exhaustive speculation.
And of course, Princess Diana’s separation from Charles in 1996 caused a media frenzy like nothing before it. She was hounded by the paparazzi, and while she begged them to leave her alone, it was the paps who chased her into that fateful tunnel in Paris in 1997 which led to her death at just 36. Earlier this year, Prince William condemned Martin Bashir and the BBC for its tell-all interview with his mother, saying the broadcaster’s “failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia and isolation that I remember from those final years with her”. Both he and Prince Harry have spoken often about how the press failed his mother and how they don’t want history repeating itself with their wives.
The royals are notoriously private and calculated in the way that they reveal information to the press. Yet, when women like Wallis Simpson - who became public enemy number one after Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcee - Diana, or Meghan enter the fold (read: women who know their own minds), the royal family doesn’t protect them. Before and following Diana’s death, the Queen was criticised for not protecting Diana from the press enough. This is something the younger members of the royal family have, in earnest, tried to put a stop to - who could forget Harry’s condemnation of the press when he called out the media for its “racial undertones” when referring to then-girlfriend Meghan?
I never thought that this [being a royal] would be easy, but I thought it would be fair and that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile.
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex
Meghan herself even described the trials of joining the royal family, telling ITV in a 2019 interview: “I never thought that this [being a royal] would be easy, but I thought it would be fair and that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile,” she said. Adding: “I’ve said for a long time to H—that’s what I call him—it’s not enough to just survive something, right? That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy. I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip. I tried, I really tried. But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
Comparing which woman has had it worse in terms of persecution is a depressing ranking. This persecution is ultimately why the Sussexes chose to leave. Perhaps, if the institution did more to correct social media gossip or unfounded sources, the persecution would dim down. But as long as trolls prey on the women who marry into the fold, women who dare to dip a toe in the royal waters will continue to enter a competition nobody wants to win.