In mid-December, reports started to filter out of Buckingham Palace: The Queen was having trouble writing her annual Christmas Day speech.

Every year since 1952, Her Majesty has prerecorded her TV message, a chance to reflect on the highs and lows and one of the few if only times that she addresses her subjects directly.

It really shouldn't be a surprise, looking back at 2019, that the 93-year-old monarch was having trouble pithily and succinctly penning a speech about a year that was beset by PR crises and full-blown scandals of a magnitude that the royal family has not had to contend with in a generation.

However, there is one intriguing unifying factor when looking back at the majority of upsets and crises that have dominated the headlines this year: They involve "the spare".

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For much of the first half of the year, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were rarely out of the news. There was the Duchess' celebrity-filled New York baby shower, their decision to trade Kensington Palace for the wilds of Windsor and Frogmore Cottage, their choice to split from the Royal Foundation and set up their own charitable endeavours, the controversies surrounding their son Archie's birth and christening, and then Meghan's contentious Wimbledon outing. And that's even before the private jet fracas, their combative lawsuits or tear-jerking TV interviews.

By the time the northern summer hit, and the Queen had made her way north to her Scottish home Balmoral, it was the turn for the goings-on of another "spare" to start to raise eyebrows.

In July, businessman and convicted sex offender Jefrrey Eptein was arrested on sex trafficking charges, bringing his ties to Prince Andrew, Duke of York, back to the fore.

In the first half of the year, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were rarely out of the news. Photo / Getty
In the first half of the year, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were rarely out of the news. Photo / Getty

The photograph of the two men walking in New York's Central Park, taken in late 2010 when Epstein was already on the sex offenders register, was deeply damaging to the Duke.

In August, Epstein was found dead in his New York jail cell, dialling up the intense global media focus on Andrew and the accusation previously made by alleged Epstein trafficking victim Virginia Giuffre Roberts that she had had sex with Andrew on three occasions.

Andrew has repeatedly and strenuously denied her allegations. A statement put out by Buckingham Palace read: "It is emphatically denied that the Duke of York had any form of sexual contact or relationship with Virginia Roberts. Any claim to the contrary is false and without foundation."

The Duke of York was widely criticised for his BBC interview. Photo / Supplied
The Duke of York was widely criticised for his BBC interview. Photo / Supplied

In November, despite the noise about the Epstein saga largely dissipating, the Duke decided to sit down with the BBC's Emily Maitlis for an interview that will go down in infamy. Within days, reportedly under pressure from brother Prince Charles, his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, and his nephew Prince William, Andrew took the demeaning step of officially quitting public life, the first Windsor to make the drastic move since King Edward VIII in 1936.

Essentially, 2019 has been a year of breakneck, chronic crises centering on men who for much of their life were a heartbeat away from the throne.

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Both Harry and Andrew have been forced to contend with the curse of the "spare". From birth, they were raised with a sense of importance in the knowledge they occupied a privileged place in the pecking order. And then, come adulthood, they found that seniority slowly slipping away, leaving them further and further from any real power and only a nebulous idea of what they were supposed to do with themselves.

The 'curse' hit Prince Andrew hard in 2019. Photo / AP
The 'curse' hit Prince Andrew hard in 2019. Photo / AP

In the early '90s, Prince Philip would often pen surprisingly affectionate and kind letters to Diana, Princess of Wales. In one he wrote, "The only person in the family with a defined 'job' is Ma, who is the Head of State … The rest of us simply have to get on with life as best we can."

While this might be true for every member of the royal family, it is even more so for the "spares".

The role of the spare is one without any formal guidelines or rules. They are not the heir nor are they simply just a child of the monarch, destined to spend their days pluckily opening new scout halls or lighthouses. Instead, the "spare" occupies a strange no man's land between having some modicum importance and the cadre of titled workhorses who just get on with it. As children they are elevated above their cousins and/or siblings and then in adulthood are left to find that shred of superiority ebbing away.

Both Andrew and Harry enjoyed exemplary military careers, men who were lauded for their bravery and dedication on the front line. And then, finding themselves demobbed and stuck back in the UK, at something of a loose end. With no clear function in the royal apparatuses, they are left to fumble their way towards relevance and creating their own royal identity.

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For Andrew, he took on a role as a British trade envoy for a decade until 2011, a stint that was plagued by controversy over, among other things, his ties to the son of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and inviting Sakher al-Materi a "notorious" former member of the Tunisian regimen, to Buckingham Palace. (A spokesman for the royal defended the move, saying: "Whatever has happened since, at the time it was a legitimate public engagement.")

Prince Harry set up the widely lauded and hugely successful Invictus Games. This year, along with wife Meghan, a long-term and committed humanitarian, the couple have sought to establish themselves as roving, global philanthropists. While their mission and sense of duty is absolutely commendable, their approach and style has, at times, been at odds with the royal family's long standing working MO.

While the routes and choices Andrew and Harry have taken could not have been more different (or guided by more divergent motives), what they do have in common is that they are both men who have been left to their own devices, to muddle through and clumsily find their own way. In turn, this blundering process has caused varying degrees of damage to the royal family's image and brand.

They are far from the first "spares" caught in this predicament. Consider Princess Margaret, a woman who fitfully struggled to find a sense of purpose.

2019 did have some highlights. Photo / Instagram
2019 did have some highlights. Photo / Instagram

The life of the "spare" might come with all the gilt trappings the rest of the royal family enjoys but lacking any clearly defined duties or meaningful role in the hierarchy, the end result is often a PR debacle seemingly driven by ego and restlessness.

While 2019 did produce some highlights for the Queen to mention in her speech – the arrival of her eighth great-grandchild, Archie Harrison Mountbatten Windsor, and the engagement of her granddaughter Princess Beatrice – it is no stretch to argue that the last 12 months have represented an annus horribilis 2.0. As her family gathers around her to celebrate the holidays and the new year, here's hoping she gets to enjoy some respite. That and she has the chance to work out how to ensure Princess Charlotte never falls victim to this curse too.