Marital disharmony is nothing new for royal Windsor family

March 20, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON — The Queen of England's mission is to buck her people up when things go badly, to keep smiling through adversity.

But who will smile for the queen? Who is there to buck her up each time that peculiar failing of the Windsor family shows itself again, their inclination to marital disharmony and disunion.

So, Prince Andrew and his wife, the former Sarah Margaret Ferguson, are splitting. Pfftt!

Yesterday, the queen made it official by admitting what everybody here already knew. "Lawyers acting for the Duchess of York initiated discussion about a formal separation of the Duke and Duchess," she announced.

Media speculation on the subject, she said, was "especially undesirable during a general election campaign."

She asked that it be stopped.

She will not be obeyed. Papers like the (London) Sun, the Express, the Evening Standard have posted their troops at all the royal haunts. They are turning out stories that give reasons for the separation, almost none of which are verified or verifiable.

The duchess is accused in the newspapers of "being a bad mother, a sloppy dresser and a lazy freeloader." And a spendthrift to boot.

More specifically, Fergie, as the duchess is known here and elsewhere -- and not necessarily with affection -- was criticized for too much partying and running around, especially during the Persian Gulf war. She was accused of taking too many vacations. She took money for children's books she had published, while most other members of the royal family turned the proceeds from such ventures over to charity.

But mostly, the duchess' reputation was damaged by her overt friendship with Steve Wyatt, a Texas oil man. The friendship was thought to be warmer than a married royal should have with another man, although Mr. Wyatt told the Express "it is just a platonic friendship."

Prince Andrew is described as "selfish, jealous and arrogant." He's also a little dim, they say.

Fergie has unleashed her lawyers against Buckingham Palace. She wants a settlement. She wants the children, Princess Beatrice, 3, and Princess Eugenie, who turns 2 on Monday. She wants to keep her title.

She will probably get it all. Katy Heywood-Lonsdale, of Burke's Peerage, said she has no problem on the last count. "She will remain the Duchess of York until she remarries," she said.

Yesterday the queen had no official engagements. Maybe she just wasn't up to smiling through it all again. Maybe she was

thinking of her own predicament, her own life and marriage.

Twenty-five years ago a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, Joan Graham, wrote a short piece about a "royal rift," the growing estrangement between Queen Elizabeth and her Greek husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The story appeared on the front page of the Feb. 7, 1957, edition of the paper, and probably managed to darken the brows of a few Baltimore Anglophiles. But when it was flashed back to England by the wire services, it detonated with the impact of an IRA bomb.

Miss Graham found she had a world scoop and had become unwelcome at Buckingham Palace, which hung up on her when she tried to follow up on her story. Yesterday the Palace received calls nicely, if coolly. It gave out the queen's statement; nothing more.

In 1957, people took queens and dukes and duchesses more seriously than they do today. Also, it had been 20 years since the previous major Windsor scandal, when Edward VIII was lured from his throne by the charms of Baltimore's Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Despite the reported "rift," the queen and Philip carried on with their marriage, though it is widely believed there has been little warmth in it.

The queen and her consort were seen as stoic. This is a quality much admired by the British, but which is apparently absent from the characters of the queen's children.

The queen has four children: Charles, the heir to the throne, Andrew, Edward and Ann. Ann is separated from her husband, Mark Phillips. It is permanent.

Charles lives an uneasy life with his wife, Diana. No one would be shocked should that marriage eventually end.

Edward, the youngest son, is unmarried. Expectations are he will remain so.

Princess Margaret, the queen's sister, is divorced from the Earl of Snowdon.

Charles Kidd, the editor of Debrett's Peerage, doesn't think the Windsor record of marital discord and dissolution is all that extraordinary. "Not if you look at the peerage, the families who come into Debrett's Peerage. I'm afraid it's quite normal in a lot of these families."

Why?

"Perhaps they are prey to insecurity of some kind or other," he said. He had no other answers.

Ms. Heywood-Lonsdale, of Burke's Peerage, the other bible of the blue-bloods, said "there are a couple of families that have this problem" besides the Windsors.

But they are not Britain's ruling family, the nation's exemplar, so to speak.

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