To commemorate the eighth wedding anniversary of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Kensington Palace accounts on Twitter and Instagram published a lovely photo montage. It revisits the images of the happy couple waving to adoring crowds, Union Jacks fluttering in the spring breeze. But scroll down to the responses and you’ll find skeptical reaction gifs featuring Real Housewives and Jonah Hill: references to an unsubstantiated but stubborn rumor that Will may have cheated on Kate.
Once upon a time, rumors of an affair would have been no sweat for a future king. But for the modern royal family, a very specific set of circumstances, built on both history and legacy, make this situation particularly tricky. The rumor may seem like nothing—just another instance of poorly sourced celebrity gossip perpetually burbling—but in actuality, thanks to a style of legitimacy set in the 19th century, accusations of infidelity are uniquely damaging. That’s because the modern royal family is built on the idea of a fairy tale, one that prominently features a wedding, followed by a happily ever after.
This latest trouble began with a strange non-sequitur of a story about Kate falling out with one of her “turnip toff” neighbors up in Norfolk, Rose Hanbury, Marchioness of Cholmondeley. The Sun suggested Kate and this woman were “rural rivals,” and Kate had banished Hanbury from her home.
An odd, vehement debunking in the Daily Mail hinted at deeper trouble, however: “I can also reveal both sides have considered legal action but, because none of the reports have been able to offer any evidence about what the so-called dispute is about, they have chosen to ignore it,” wrote columnist Richard Kay.
It doesn’t take a media lawyer to guess the planted gossip signaled the royals’ willingness to take anybody hawking more detailed rumors to court. Nevertheless, by early April, In Touch felt comfortable putting “WILLIAM CHEATS ON KATE” on their cover. And last week the story went viral, seemingly thanks to a Twitter account, Pop Alerts News, which treated the story as fact.
Now the Windsors are on the brink of a potential publicity meltdown, as unsubstantiated rumors of an affair circulate heavily on social media and begin to percolate into American gossip publications. Rumors of philandering presents a heightened danger to the Windsors, who must maintain an image of fidelity or risk jeopardizing the crown’s survival. That’s thanks, in large part, to the long legacy of Queen Victoria, who linked marital faithfulness and romantic love in royal marriage to fight for the legitimacy of the throne.
Historically, adultery only mattered for royals because kingship was determined by blood. Having a mistress was therefore simply part and parcel of having a crown. In the ancien régime, the king’s chief mistress was an official role, one with power—but not too much power!—and vital to the overall ecosystem of the court (see, for example, Madame de Pompadour). In a pinch, she could be conveniently blamed for failures or embarrassments. Ironically, Marie Antoinette might have been better shielded from court gossip if there had been a mistress to divert some of the criticism.
For the kings of Great Britain, the arrangement hasn’t been as formal. But they, too, have kept busy. After his restoration to the throne, Charles II was keen to demonstrate his royal authority— in part with legendary excesses—and so he kept enough mistresses that their likenesses dominate the Restoration room in the National Portrait Gallery. Yet monarchs stayed within an established playbook. Edward II was hustled off the throne, in large part, because of his controversially close relationship with Piers Gaveston. Gaveston was a favorite, a close companion and advisor—but there were rumors of a sexual relationship between the two men. If the relationship had remained quiet, likely no one would have cared. What caused the problems was the king elevating Gaveston to a position of immense power.
Queen Elizabeth I, of course, had many male favorites, but she kept any actual hanky-panky totally secret. In public, to maintain her power, she continued to present herself as the virgin queen. Any husband would be her superior and, therefore, threaten her position as sovereign; any signs of a sex life would demote her from ruler to mere woman.
By the 19th century, however, royal authority was waning, and Queen Victoria ascended her increasingly powerless throne with her own, unique challenges. Her paternal uncle was still alive, and plenty of people believed he was the rightful heir, as the nearest man in the succession. She was a woman reigning in an era of renewed piety, following a succession of particularly scandalous kings. So, Victoria and her husband Albert wedded legitimacy to fidelity and presented a warm, united front to the nation. They adopted romantic love as their fortress against the revolutionary upheavals of their century.
Victoria and Albert’s modern, respectable love steered the monarchy onto a course that would see them safely through an era where many thrones would fall. The middle class was ascendant and valued romantic love; Britain didn’t need strategic marriages to build alliances when they had an immense navy and one of the world’s most powerful economics. Transforming royal marriage into a nationalistic fairy tale suited the needs of the time, and provided a powerful template that Elizabeth and Philip would eventually follow. Though Victoria certainly wasn’t shy about matchmaking for alliances, it was subtle and wrapped in the notion of love and family.
Of course, kings still kept mistresses. It was the sort of thing that was done, and known, and determinedly not discussed in public. Then came Diana.
Through Diana the royal family sold the eager public a Barbara Cartland novel. Diana, a beautiful, shy young-virgin, was the spitting image of the fairy tale princess. The royals built Diana into such an icon that when it turned out that Prince Charles was not a worthy suitor, the public turned—not on the bride— on the royal family. And so did the press.
Charles’s mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles—the granddaughter, oddly, of Mrs. Alice Keppel, King Edward VII’s favorite mistress, a fact that she reportedly used as a pickup line with Charles—was a problem in a way that Mrs. Keppel wasn’t. The press was not willing to feign ignorance, as they had since at least Victoria’s time. Every lurid detail was happily spread across the pages of the British tabloids and celebrity gossip magazines globally; it was internationally known that Charles had laughingly informed Camilla he’d find it so convenient to be reincarnated as her tampon. The monarchy’s relationship with the public hit rock bottom after she died.
Ironically, it was fidelity and romance that returned the Windsors to the fold. The public glommed onto Queen Elizabeth’s dogged faithfulness to her role, and her husband, despite the rockiness of the early years of their marriage. Even Charles and Camilla pulled off this pivot, appearing together on the Buckingham Palace balcony and bopping cheerfully around photo ops together.
Will and Kate’s marriage offered a story of young love and a fresh start, an example of the next generation emerging unscathed from their parents’ awful personal disasters. Their wedding was an enormous international media event; in the years since, they have periodically released warm, candid photos showing a stable, happy family unit. Their marriage set the stage for years of basically positive press—babies covered excitedly, followed by Harry and Meghan’s own wedding.
But now the Windsors are up against the gravitational force of tabloid storytelling; there’s been so much positivity that they’re due for a negative run. So far, it’s Harry and Meghan that have borne the brunt. Allegations of adultery will get you sued into the poorhouse if you don’t have hard evidence—photos, or recordings of pillow talk about tampons. It’s easier to rely on tittle-tattle insinuations about Meghan’s supposed divahood. But now the Windsors face a new ecosystem that is even harder to control than the British tabloid press, which has lawyers and knows when it’s time to back off. Social media has no such compunction.
This is the flipside of the royals’ enthusiastic embrace of social media: while that approach cuts out the tabloids, it opens up the court of public opinion, an array of people without media lawyers advising them, who cannot be pressured by threats to clamp down on access.
This has been a problem for Meghan for months; she has attracted a particularly toxic population of vicious trolls. But Harry and Meghan are visibly, publicly enamored of one another, and most of the world is still invested in the fairy tale-ready love story. Who wants to root against two lovers against the world? Despite all the ways they represent a break with the monarchy’s past, they remain safely on the trail blazed by Victoria and Albert.
A perception that Will has betrayed Kate, reenacting the mistakes of his entitled father, represents a true danger to the Windsor brand.