Valentine Low is The Times newspaper’s royal correspondent and though he has been reporting on the House of Windsor for more than a quarter of a century, following the royal family all over the world, he has never written a book about them. So, it’s telling that this highly respected journalist’s first leap into the murky world of royal exposés is not a biography, but an investigation into the hidden world of courtiers.
These are the royal advisors – the private secretaries and communications specialists – who keep the business of monarchy turning. They are vitally important (and usually very smart) cogs in the wheel of “the Firm”, gatekeepers and strategists to the Crown, who the public rarely gets to see but who hold a great deal of power. While royal journalists deal with them daily, as a rule courtiers try to keep a low public profile.
They are not the story … except, as Valentine discovered, they often hold the key to the story and that makes for fascinating reading.
Courtiers: The Hidden Power Behind The Crown delves into the history of these trusted touchstones, revealing a rich tapestry of complex characters. It’s all gripping – trust me, this is a book you will want to read! But it is the chapters unpicking what Valentine attests really happened inside the court of Prince Harry and Meghan, the hot-house tensions that were feverishly bubbling over behind the scenes, that have hit headlines.
The author also posits possible deep-seated motivations for the now fifth in line to the throne’s withdrawal from royal work, issues that he says were there long before Harry met Meghan; and talks to some of those who were at the coalface working in the Sussex court.
“When Meghan gave her interview to Oprah Winfrey, she made all these disobliging remarks about the institution and drew a distinction between the institution and the members of the royal family, and clearly she was pointing a finger at the courtiers, the people whom Diana used to call ‘the men in grey suits’,” Valentine explains as we talk about why he wanted to write this book and the “truths” he uncovered.
“They’re a much-traduced breed. They’ve got it in the neck from Meghan, they got it in the neck from Diana, Fergie as well was very rude about them. So, it struck me as interesting to answer the question: who are they and what do they do?”
“There’s this caricature image of someone who’s both fawning and Machiavellian, and up to no good, whispering all sorts of evil thoughts into their principals’ ears.”
In recent times those “principals” Valentine is referring to include the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, King Charles, Prince William and Catherine, Prince Harry and Meghan.
“Of course, it’s unfair. There’s a bit of fawning that goes on, there’s a bit of Machiavellianism that goes on, but a lot of these people are in the job for all the best motives. They’ve got a notion of public service at the core of what they believe and they’re trying to serve the monarchy.”
Valentine carried out close to 100 interviews, but it wasn’t easy. “I think they thought this was potentially an interesting project, potentially something worth doing, that might shed light on how the monarchy works.” While some key members of the royal household talked on the record, the majority – especially those around Harry and Meghan – would only share their experiences with Valentine under “conditions of extreme secrecy and confidentiality”.
And while quoting unnamed insiders is frustrating for the reader, there is enough cogent detail to know we are hearing from some very important people. Pretty quickly a picture starts to build, and it’s not pretty!
Valentine’s reputation as an esteemed royal correspondent certainly helped unlock closed doors, and reading the book you get the distinct impression that Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah did a lot of damage to staff, leaving some in the royal household feeling hurt and misrepresented. They needed to open the windows.
“People sometimes have a story to tell,” notes Valentine enigmatically. His personal insight to the heart of the Meghan and Harry discord really began with a leaked confidential email. In March 2021, Valentine was the journalist who sensationally broke the news of accusations of bullying made against Meghan. The story ran just days before Harry and Meghan’s bombshell interview with Oprah aired, and while Valentine didn’t know what the couple would say in the TV special, this was an early – and frankly unprecedented – shot across the bows from inside the royal household.
“It was astonishing news. I was bowled over. Not the least by the fact that those allegations of bullying had remained secret for two and a half years,” he says.
Valentine is well aware that the timing of the leak was no coincidence, and his newspaper’s agreement to print the email played a crucial part in what developed into an ugly nest of accusations. “I’m quite open about that. As indeed are my sources who discussed these things with me,” he offers.
“If it had waited until after Oprah, Meghan would have established her narrative, and to say anything about bullying afterwards would just come across as sour grapes. It would have been lost in all the noise. Letting it be known beforehand, you can have the platform of saying, excuse me a moment, there’s another narrative out there. Meghan is portraying herself as a victim but there are other victims here and it’s a more complicated story than Meghan would have you believe.”
The complaints were detailed in an internal email which was originally sent in October 2018 when the Sussexes were on their first overseas tour to Australia. Its author was one of the Duchess’s then closest advisors, press secretary Jason Knauf, who addressed the complaints not to Harry and Meghan, but to Prince William’s then private secretary, Simon Case. Knauf referenced “unacceptable” treatment of staff by Meghan which he said was outlined in “report after report” that he had received.
The contents of the email were shocking, and in many ways courageous. This would certainly irreparably damage Knauf’s relationship with the couple he had worked so hard to protect and possibly end his career with the royal family.
Looking back, the very fact that Knauf was the one airing these issues gives them a powerful veracity. The American-born courtier was not like the typical traditional “tweedy courtiers” with the stiff upper lip of Britain’s upper classes. He is a dynamic, American executive who at one time worked for New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark, passionate about conservation and human rights with far-sighted ideas to make the world a better place.
It was Knauf who had fashioned Harry’s extremely combative statement revealing Meghan Markle as the Prince’s girlfriend, a press release that pulled no punches, brazenly accusing the media of racism and harassment. “That statement was obviously very surprising,” says Valentine, who keenly recalls the day it was sent out in late 2016. “We’d never seen anything like it… vituperative and attacking.”
At the time Valentine assumed “this is Harry’s anger and his desire to protect Meghan, which is completely understandable. He had said his girlfriends don’t last the course partly, not wholly, because they didn’t like the pressure and the exposure, and who can blame them … but also, much more importantly, there was obviously [the memory of] his mother. He felt she wasn’t protected, and he was determined that when it came to his life, he would do everything in his power to protect them.”
But in the book, Valentine quotes a source who gives another context to the passion in that statement. “He was freaking out, saying, ‘She’s going to dump me’,” the source explains.
“Harry, who had first met Meghan three months earlier, phoned Knauf demanding that he put out a statement confirming that Meghan was Harry’s girlfriend. Meghan wanted public validation that this was a serious relationship, not a passing fancy. She was also convinced that the palace was unwilling to protect her from media intrusion. In a conversation that revealed much about Meghan’s view of the royal household, as well as being a foretaste of what was to come, she told Harry’s staff: ‘I know how the palace works, I know how this is going to play out. You don’t care about the girlfriend’,” writes Valentine.
What did the other royal households (Buckingham Palace and Clarence House) think? “They were very unhappy,” says Valentine. And in another sign of things to come, Harry’s team did not consult with the palace hierarchy. “The statement was not given to them in advance for discussion,” notes Valentine.
For Knauf, the statement proved his loyalty to Harry and Meghan. “It was not usual palace practice … Knauf told the Prince he did not feel bound by any protocol,” writes Valentine.
So, just a couple of years later, for this committed courtier to be complaining – albeit privately – about his bosses, shows the intensity of the disintegration of the relationship between the Sussexes and their staff.
The email that Knauf wrote, which talked about staff leaving because they were so unhappy, was leaked to The Times by “sources” who “were concerned that nothing was done at the time to investigate the situation, and nothing done since to protect staff against the possibility of bullying by a member of the royal family”. A spokesperson for the Sussexes quickly released a rebuttal: the Duchess was the victim of a calculated smear campaign and “is saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself”.
Despite an independent investigation commissioned by Buckingham Palace, the exact circumstances behind that explosive email have never been revealed … until now. “I think Meghan was a very difficult boss,” Valentine tells me. “Bullying is a tricky word. I think she was foul for some people. I think she made some people utterly miserable. She completely destroyed one person, who I’m not going to name. This person is still very emotional and sensitive about what happened. The psychological repercussions are still there, which is extraordinary. I know this person and I thought they’d be strong, but they were crushed.”
Valentine was told that when Meghan was made aware that her staff were “not happy and felt poorly treated”, her response was: “It’s not my job to coddle people.” Those who stuck it out called themselves “the Sussex Survivors’ Club” and their “damning epithet for Meghan” was that she was a “narcissistic sociopath”.
The core members of this group included the Queen’s former Assistant Private Secretary, Australian Samantha Cohen, who had worked for Her Majesty since 2001. It was the Queen who a few weeks after their wedding asked Cohen to step in and help the couple. “Having the Queen send in her trusted courtier was massive,” says Valentine.
“Some might see it as the Queen imposing someone but it wasn’t; it was the Queen helping out. Harry knew Sam very well and liked her, because she’s incredibly likeable and good at her job. She’s also flexible and not stuffy at all. When she worked for the Queen, she’d brought in all sorts of fresh ideas. So, it was a very good choice, being a woman, being not English; a very good choice to help Meghan through this period. Sam is incredibly can-do, one of life’s problem solvers. The idea that even Sam would be driven to the depths of frustration and despair over Meghan tells an interesting story,” he says.
“I think there’s no doubt she was very difficult to work for. There are allegations that staff were bullied and left. I have descriptions in the book from unnamed members of staff who were shouted at by Harry and by Meghan, when things were not going well. And an interesting bit I discovered was a moment from before they were engaged, when Meghan says to one member of staff, ‘you and I both know that I’m going to be your boss soon’. It’s quite chilling. If you look at the menace in Meghan’s recent interview in [US publication] The Cut, it’s the same tone.”
The Sussex Survivors’ Club “would say on repeated occasions ‘we were played’,” notes Valentine, who discovered some deeply disaffected staff on Harry and Meghan’s team.
But the more insiders he spoke to, the more Valentine began to discover something he probably already suspected, that Harry had issues with his day job long before he met Meghan. “I think there are always tensions between brothers and with William and Harry there was a certain butting up against each other when they were dividing up the areas of interest: military veterans, African conservation and so on. It didn’t lead to major rows, I don’t think, but there was something there.
“The more important thing that was there before Meghan was Harry’s sense that he had a limited shelf life, that he wanted to do things now. William’s more long term, more strategic, thinks about the big picture more. Harry wants to do things now. I think it’s because he had this fear of becoming Prince Andrew,” says Valentine, who in his book quotes a source expounding the idea.
“Harry had a problem, one that nobody could talk him out of: he believed that time was running out. ‘He was always pushing,’ said one insider,” writes Valentine. “‘He had this thing, that he had a shelf life.
“He was fixated … He would compare himself with his uncle [Prince Andrew]. He would say, ‘I have this time, to make this impact. Because I can.’ Until George turns 18, was the way he was thinking about it. ‘Then I will be the also-ran.’ He was genuinely thinking of it as, ‘I have this platform now, for a limited amount of time’.”
Does Valentine think Harry was playing the victim when he made these remarks?
“That’s not a victim thing, no – although there is a certain amount of playing the victim in Harry, that’s true – but being outrun by Prince George is not that. That’s a recognition that who are we [the public] interested in? We’re interested in the new and the young, the up and coming. It’s a recognition of an inevitable process. People who worked for Harry said ‘no, no, you can keep on doing good for much longer than you think, it’s not this limited life,’ but [this idea fuelled] Harry’s desire for instant action.”
Of course, there have been some incredible results from that sometimes infectious impatience. “It was Harry who probed the Invictus thing so quickly, it went from a year seeing the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs to it happening. That was Harry just saying, I want to do this and I want to do it next year. Astonishing, really,” praises Valentine.
Another side of Harry he witnessed which has proved to be a blessing and a curse is how this prince wears his heart on his sleeve. “He’s a very transparent person. What you see is what you get. There’s no side to Harry. In a good way. So if he’s cross you’ll see it, and in a good mood you’ll see it,” Valentine explains.
“I remember one tour of Brazil. We were visiting a project and I was the reporter, and he was talking to families with young kids, and they’d had terrible lives. These were dreadful stories and Harry was quite obviously moved. I was moved, standing a few feet away. I was desperate to talk to him and said to his aide, ‘can I have a word with him?’ He said, ‘can you give us five minutes we’ll do the next room, he’ll come and talk to you’. Which he did.
“The reason he wanted to do the next room before talking to me was because he was still emotionally moved by the last conversation, and he wanted time to recover. And when he did talk to me, he talked to me really interestingly, really emotionally. He said he’d been close to tears. He was so open and great and interesting. That’s the Harry we know and love.
“But the other side of that transparency is if he’s got a beef with you, he lets you know about it. On that tour of Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji, he was wanting to be so protective of Meghan [who was pregnant]. He was so sensitive and alert to anything that might have been critical of Meghan that he just spent the entire tour in a bolsh with the media.
“I’ve got such a strong memory of one long welcome ceremony in Fiji. Meghan was bolt upright, Hollywood smile plastered on her face, looking absolutely immaculate, giving the impression that she was loving everything going on, but I’m sure she was bored witless. Harry spent the entire ceremony glaring over at the press because he’s always on the surface. I don’t mean he’s superficial; I mean you see it, and we saw it then.”
We all know how this played out and though Valentine doesn’t shy away from digging into the detail of courtiers’ complaints, he is also at pains to point out there is fault on both sides. The palace was slow to respond and could be inflexible. No doubt we will hear more about the Sussexes’ version of events in Prince Harry’s upcoming memoir and the couple’s Netflix documentary.
“One of the most interesting things from my point of view in my investigations is the remark by someone who knows Harry well who said that, even though they didn’t like what Harry and Meghan had done, they thought that in a funny way Meghan did Harry the greatest kindness because it was clear he’d been unhappy for a while and the palace didn’t know what to do with him. Meghan got him out of that.”
Courtiers by Valentine Low, Headline, is on sale now
You can read this story and many others in the December issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.