In November 2017, when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down to share their engagement joy with the world, there was little sign anything was amiss.
The royal family had “come together” with a “huge amount of support” for the couple, said Harry in an interview from the sofa. “They’ve been amazing,” Meghan confirmed, specifying that her sister-in-law-to-be, then Duchess of Cambridge, was “wonderful”.
They could not have looked happier, and the watching world could not have been more charmed.
As that world now knows in excruciating detail, that picture of a happy family was not all it seemed.
By then, according to Harry speaking in hindsight years later, “there were some real obvious signs ... that this was going to be really hard”.
The extent of that difficulty, or a version of it, has now been laid bare by Omid Scobie, whose book Endgame has reignited a racism row the royal family had hoped was behind them.
As anyone with a passing interest in the saga will now know, two members of the royal family have been “accidentally” named in a Dutch edition of the book, followed up by news outlets around the world.
What they actually said or did has been couched in the vaguest terms. A mention of “concern” over the colour of the skin of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s future baby, and a conversation allegedly including two members of the family.
For the author, who roundly rejects his moniker of “Meghan’s mouthpiece”, it is a much-needed exposure of the problems faced by the Duchess during her time in Britain.
For the royal family, it is an impossible charge to answer while sticking to their tried-and-tested policy of never rising to the bait of engaging with rumours.
And curiously, for those familiar with the building tension behind the scenes at the palace at the time, it all came as rather a surprise.
Back then, sources say, the disagreements between the Sussexes and the institution may have happened, but the issue of race was not known to be part of them.
Resources, money (relative lack of), and the media, yes. The hated system of allowing journalists not in their personal favour to report on their public engagements, yes. The disputed claim that the palace protected Catherine in the press but not Meghan, certainly.
But accusations about race, when it comes to the family itself, have come only later.
Prince Harry’s first public mention of racism was on November 8, 2016, when his communications secretary issued a strongly worded statement condemning “the racial undertones” of media comment pieces and the “outright sexism and racism” of social media trolls.
At the time, it was unprecedented.
It was only much later, in a 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey, that he claimed that even by then, the issue of his child’s skin colour had already been privately raised.
He was told by Winfrey that, “Meghan shared with us that there was a conversation with you about Archie’s skin tone”, and she speculated it was about “what will the baby look like?”
Confirming her suspicions, Prince Harry replied: “But that was right at the beginning, when she wasn’t going to get security, when members of my family were suggesting that she carries on acting, because there was not enough money to pay for her, and all this sort of stuff.
“Like, there were some real obvious signs before we even got married that this was going to be really hard.”
No one who watched their 2018 royal wedding, where the then Prince Charles walked his daughter-in-law part of the way up the aisle in a show of familial support after the no-show from her father, would have guessed.
Then, the watching world rejoiced at Harry’s happy ever after, with a ceremony that included an American preacher and a black gospel choir, alongside the tradition and formalities of a classic royal wedding.
Later that year, the Duchess announced she was pregnant.
More than two years later, she told Oprah: “In those months when I was pregnant, all around this same time, we have in tandem the conversation of he won’t be given security, it’s not going to be given a title.
“And also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”
The birth of Archie Mountbatten-Windsor was announced to the world with a photograph of him being cradled by his mother, as the late Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and maternal grandmother Doria Ragland looked on proudly.
As the Duke and Duchess settled into their working lives in the royal family, the issue of race began to become part of their conversation.
In July 2020, speaking to young people as president and vice-president of the youth organisation Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, they spoke of the essential task of confronting the ills of the Commonwealth.
The Duchess referred to her own “personal experience” of racism as she said this would be a “moment of reckoning” in which people “own” their past mistakes.
The following month, the Duke told the Color of Change initiative that “every single person on the planet” is responsible for tackling racism.
There was still no sign there were fingers pointed at the family.
Even as they left the royal family for a new life in Canada then America, the focus of their public statement was on working to “become financially independent” and carving out a “progressive new role within this institution”.
The rows behind the scenes, it is understood, were focused on their continued security and the contested notion that they “blindsided the Queen” with their announcement.
“All the rows were about the media,” said one familiar with the negotiations.
Asked specifically when the alleged conversation about race had been raised by the Sussexes, another source said bluntly: “The Oprah interview was the first I’d heard of it.”
Since then, it has been open season.
‘We are not a racist family’
Prince William was asked outright whether the royal family was racist, answering: “We are not a racist family.”
The late Queen issued the famous “recollections may vary” statement, with that key phrase later reported to have been encouraged by the then Duchess of Cambridge.
The rumours have taken flight since then, with every photograph and interaction analysed by critics – and fans of the Sussexes – around the world for racism.
A Caribbean tour by the Cambridges, which would have likely passed in a flurry of people-pleasing photographs just a few years ago, was sunk by a narrative of colonialism. Every major overseas tour since has been centred on apologies, reparations, and learning from the past.
In 2022, the palace acted swiftly as a senior aide repeatedly asked a black visitor to the palace where she was “really” from, with William’s spokesman quickly saying it was “really disappointing” to hear what had happened and that “racism has no place in our society”.
Meghan’s concerns of unconscious bias
As this played out in public, the then Prince of Wales, Charles, and Meghan were exchanging letters about the content of the Oprah interview.
The Duchess is said to have expressed her concerns about unconscious bias within the family. Sources have said she expressed how hurtful she found it, but made clear she did not consider the comments malicious or even racist.
Prince Harry belatedly distanced himself from outright accusations of racism. Two years later, in an interview with Tom Bradby, he said it was not the Sussexes who used the word racist, but “the British press”.
Asked if he would not consider the discussion “essentially racist”, he replied: “I wouldn’t, not having lived within that family.”
The Sussexes did not mention the issue in their tell-all Netflix documentary, or in the 410 pages of Harry’s memoir Spare.
Endgame reignites row
It was left to Scobie to reignite the row.
This week, in palace circles, the overarching feeling is one of disappointment.
“They were welcomed with open arms,” sources have repeatedly said. “Everyone was so happy for them, so ready to be supportive.”
“It’s just really sad,” added another source, of how it has ended up.
Palace officials, for their part, have entirely refused to engage.
“There are hundreds of books written about the royal family,” said a source. “We don’t comment on any of them.”
Another, speaking more frankly, said: “Why would we give this any credence?”
The Duchess has much more of her “full story” about her “grim experiences behind palace walls” to reveal if she chooses, according to Scobie.
The letters between the King and Duchess, and precise wording of any comments that could exonerate or incriminate, remain under wraps.
In public, the royal family will carry on as if nothing has happened.
But an invitation to Sandringham for a family Christmas? Perhaps not this year.