For years, Buckingham Palace has successfully protected Prince Andrew from the consequences of his long-running association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Long before Jeffrey Epstein’s death, his relationship with Prince Andrew was an established fact. They’d been friends for twenty years, a source told Vanity Fair as part of a damning 2011 profile of Andrew and his many embarrassments to the family; “It was Jeffrey who taught Andrew how to relax,” said the source. Epstein is also just one of many disreputable rich men in whose proximity Andrew seems to find himself again and again.
Yet Andrew’s ongoing camaraderie with a known sex offender never quite managed to escalate into an existential problem for Buckingham Palace. Every time the relationship bubbled up, the royals ran a very old play that has worked innumerable times—silence, followed by a terse denial (if absolutely necessary) and then more silence. It didn’t hurt that the Metropolitan Police decided not to pursue a full investigation at the time, Channel 4 revealed. And, of course, the Palace had a lovely new crop of young royals to trot out regularly, generating good headlines for the family and pushing Andrew further into the background. There has been no reckoning.
But MeToo has changed the cultural context for these scandals, and recent days have brought renewed stream of stories in the British and American press about Andrew’s connections to Epstein. Some with new and hard-to-refute proof: The Daily Mail released a video of Andrew peeking out the door of Epstein’s mansion, reportedly in 2010, looking both sketchy and buffoonish. Buckingham Palace has had to issue increasingly stringent denials, first saying that “any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors [by the Duke] is categorically untrue,” and then later issuing another statement, insisting that: “The Duke of York has been appalled by the recent reports of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged crimes. His Royal Highness deplores the exploitation of any human being and the suggestion he would condone, participate in or encourage any such behaviour is abhorrent,” via the Guardian.
It’s fairly rich, this idea that Andrew is now appalled, considering that this information has presumably been available to anybody who cared to see it for more than a decade. But the Duke’s long-running failure to own up for his actions, even a decade after Epstein’s initial sentence, presents a question: What exactly does it take for a royal to face consequences?
Britain’s monarchy has always had a complicated relationship with dissipation. The sheer asymmetry of their existence invites excess: larger-than-life partying at best, abuse of power at worst. At the same time, the king or queen (and their many relatives and hangers-on) have always been subject to public scrutiny of their morality (or lack thereof). Whether a royal’s actions prompt fallout or controversy, written off as the prerogative of rank, is often a matter of the wider context of the era.
When stories about royals’ sex lives filter all the way down to us now, it’s not necessarily because they were true—it’s that they were practically radioactive in their relevance. At one point, rumors circulated that Henry VIII had had an affair with Anne Boleyn’s mother, as well as her sister, making their relationship borderline incestuous. But everything to do with their marriage was vexed by questions of legitimacy, since Henry broke with the Catholic Church to make it happen. During Boleyn’s trial, there were also accusations of incest with her brother, George, who was also tried for treason, quite clearly part of the royal effort to discredit Boleyn and ultimately get rid of her, so Henry could move on to the next of his many wives.
Another example is James I, who was known for his close attachments to young men. From the Guardian:
All his life, James was in thrall to handsome young men, from his cousin Esmé Stuart, whom he made Duke of Lennox in 1581, to Robert Carr, later the Earl of Somerset, and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Soon after his marriage, James was being called in Edinburgh “a bougerer, one that left his wife all the night intactam [untouched]” and in 1624, when he was dying, he wrote to Buckingham calling him “my sweet child and wife”.
Certain important episodes in James’s life become explicable as assignations or attempts at blackmail. In the so-called Gowrie conspiracy of 1600, what was James doing, going off alone - a king, alone - to a remote chamber with the handsome, 20-year-old Alexander Ruthven? His story of going to meet a stranger who had treasure was not believed in Edinburgh, and neither gold nor stranger ever turned up.
Following the childless and unmarried final Tudor, James I was the first Stuart, meaning his legitimacy as king wasn’t clear-cut, exactly the type of situation when undermining rumors flourish. What made those young men important is that they were “favorites”—advisors with a great deal of influence on the king, and therefore vectors of power who tended to attract ambient anxiety about the monarch like tar pits trap dinosaurs. But James managed to keep a lid on things; the dynasty didn’t run into real trouble until his son, Charles I, whose contentious relationship with Parliament eventually cost him his throne and his head.
Perhaps the most famously hedonistic court was that of Stuart successor Charles II. His reign was known as the Restoration, because it followed a period without a king (after his father lost the English Civil War). He’d spent the intervening years exiled to France, broke; once upon the throne, his lifestyle as king earned him the title of the “Merry Monarch.” The public implications of the debauchery at Charles’s court were complicated: On the one hand, it was yet another way of reasserting immense royal power, a loud statement that the days of Oliver Cromwell and his buttoned-up Commonwealth were over. Sure, Charles took an incredible number of mistresses partly because he was a horndog of absolutely titanic proportions, but it also helped foster a larger image of opulence, which is a way of demonstrating power. But there was also a great deal of pushback against what was seen as the gross immorality of the Restoration court—which ultimately played into the problems for his successor, James II, who was deposed in favor of the very Protestant William and Mary. That’s because it played into anxieties about the religious regime of the day.
These broader narratives still determine how various royals’ misbehavior is received. Prince Harry’s partying has generally been seen as a charming laddishness, granting him a forbearance that allowed him to skate through both naked photos from Las Vegas and a Nazi costume. Prince Charles, on the other hand, never could quite play his cards in a way that harmonized with his public image. Part of why the love triangle between him, Diana, and Camilla blew up so massively was that he got caught saying things like he wished he could be reincarnated as Camilla’s tampon and take up permanence residence in her body. It was the specific, unkingly tawdriness of his affair, even more than the simple fact of the affair itself, that set the tone for the Windsors’ awful early 1990s.
And Prince Andrew has long been an embarrassing figure for the family; the tabloids called him “Randy Andy,” thanks to his parade of girlfriends before and after his wife Fergie. (He was also dubbed “Air Miles Andy” after he infamously took a $5,000 helicopter ride to travel a mere 50 miles.) He’s always had an inclination to the playboy life, but he doesn’t actually have the fortune in his own right to carry it off—primogeniture and that long-lived mother strike again—which has added up to a public image as the sort of man who chases both skirts and billionaires in a similarly unseemly manner. His association with Epstein falls perfectly into this existing narrative in a way that bodes very poorly for him.
Yet Andrew is also a clear favorite of his mother, hence Buckingham Palace’s repeated firm denials as well as his recent attendance at church services in her company at Sandringham. And, when you have a system based on the inheritance of privilege by birthright, it’s hard to cast anyone out for immorality. If you can effectively fire someone from being a royal, what’s a royal, anyway?
But Andrew is so far removed from the line of succession that, beyond the current queen’s fondness for her son, the “Firm” only has to manage his impact on the crown—they don’t have to fully rehabilitate him for an eventual ascendance to the throne. And one big player is absolutely not an ally: Charles has been concerned about Andrew’s judgment for years. Vanity Fair royal correspondent Katie Nicholl wrote:
According to one source, Prince Charles is less than happy that the royal family has been dragged into such a tawdry story.
“Andrew welcomed Epstein at Windsor Castle, Sandringham, and Balmoral at different points during their friendship, which led to tensions between him and Charles,” according to the source. “Charles has disapproved of quite a lot of Andrew’s friends and acquaintances over the years, and Epstein is no exception. I was told he was very concerned about the friendship for a long time and saw it as a disaster waiting to happen. This story isn’t going away, and no one knows what will come out next.”
Charles has been pushing for a slimmer-line royal family for years, anyway, arguing the focus should shift to himself and his children and their families, pruning the tree and operating without all the cousins. This is one of Charles’s savvier positions, and any further tabloid covers about his brother’s Epstein connection just adds fuel to his fire. Andrew is already at the absolute bottom of the royal popularity power rankings; he received a merely 21 percent positive response from interviewees in a recent YouGov poll.
Perhaps the better lesson from the Epstein story is the ways in which the American elite operates like an aristocracy. The aura of power leads to an expectation of bad behavior, even as it’s disapproved. Harvey Weinstein was allowed to operate as he did for so long because his power’s ugly exercise seemed, almost natural. The rich are different; the royal occupy a different plane.