When Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, entered the Velodrome on Tuesday night, with her children Beatrice and Eugenie protecting her, she did so with all the dramatic bathos that usually characterizes the reappearance of a long-forgotten, slightly tragic figure in a soap opera.
She humbly took a seat at the opposite end of the VIP area to where Prince Harry was sitting with a starry entourage that included former Prime Minister John Major (once his legal guardian), his cousin Peter Phillips, and Seb Coe and his wife, Carole.
It was a big moment for Fergie—the first time that she had been seen in public under the same roof as a senior royal in many years. But that is not to suggest that a rapprochement was in the air. Indeed, it would not have been possible for the two camps to be farther apart, and from the other side of the arena, the sight was pure physical comedy: Lucy Bannerman, Olympic reporter for the London Times, tweeted a picture of Fergie and the girls on the extreme righthand side of the VIP seats, in the front row, while Harry and his entourage were on the extreme left, in the back row, seperated by a forest of empty seats.
It seems that in the case of strained royal relations, the Olympics are not achieving their unifying goal.
One or two times during the evening’s entertainment, which saw Britain scoop two cycling gold medals and one silver, Fergie’s daughters, who get on well with Harry, allowed their eyes to swivel over toward their cousin, but the flame-haired matriarch kept her gaze fixed firmly forward on the track at all times. Harry did not so much as acknowledge Fergie’s presence and she did not acknowledge his. Although she clearly enjoyed the event and was having a good evening, she did look somewhat self-conscious at times.
Fergie knows that she is not welcome in royal circles—that much was made plain to her when she was not among the thousand-plus guests invited to last year’s royal wedding—and for this reason it is rather baffling what she was doing in the VIP area on Tuesday at all.
Representatives for the prince declined to comment when asked whether Harry was advised that the duchess—as she still preposterously insists on being addressed, despite all the “call me Sarah” business with Oprah—would be present on Tuesday night, but it seems unthinkable that he would actively have wanted to attend an event at which one of the great embarrassments to the House of Windsor in the modern era was present, seated just 60 yards away from him.
But of course, if Fergie wanted to go, and she had scored a ticket, then the royals couldn’t have stopped her. Viewed in that context, Tuesday’s encounter, far from being the first step in a thawing of relations between the Windsors and Fergie, was a declaration of defiance from the duchess.
As any parent can imagine, Sarah must be amazingly fed up with being relegated from parties and declared a persona non grata at events to which her daughters are made welcome, and it appears from her appearance on Tuesday night that she has now had enough of behaving like a second-class citizen.
Fergie kept away from her daughters in public in recent years, needing no one to tell her that her astounding clangers, culminating in a tawdry episode where she attempted to drunkenly sell access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, and was captured doing so on tape by a reporter for the now-defunct News of the World, were not really the stuff with which princesses hoping for promotion within the ranks need to be associated.
But now Fergie appears ready to defy the implicit diktat of the House of Windsor to stay away.
Possibly because avoiding the limelight by living mostly overseas and not accompanying her daughters out and about in recent years has not had its desired effect and has not done Beatrice and Eugenie’s prospects within the Firm any good.
Over the course of this year, the Yorks have been ruthlessly ousted from royal life. In the space of a few short months, they have been completely eliminated from the royal show by the master tactician, Prince Charles, who knows that only a slimmed-down monarchy—i.e., he and his two sons, plus their spouses—has any realistic chance of long-term survival. The public appetite for another slew of dukes of Gloucester, the queen’s cousin who lives at public expense in Kensington Palace and performs official duties, is minimal, no matter how hard these minor royals work.
The first shots were fired earlier this year, when the princesses were stripped of their royal protection officers and Beatrice was then told she would not be accompanying her father on a Jubilee trip to India, as she had lobbied to be allowed to do.
That, however, proved to be a mere softening-up exercise, a curtain-raiser for the main act, the Jubilee balcony non-appearance of the Yorks.
The campaign has proceeded with military precision over the summer, as the members of the newly slimmed-down monarchy have been thrust to the fore at every possible occasion in preference to Edward, Andrew, or his children. Getting rid of the Yorks has been made all the easier by the memory of Fergie’s many mistakes.
The curse of Fergie’s legacy has been something of a gift for the anti-Yorkists and a very effective stick for them to beat the House of York with.
Her relentless self-exposure, and the penning of a book, Finding Sarah, inspired by her encounters with Oprah and containing claims she was abused by her mother, who told her she was marked with “the sign of the devil,” haven’t helped, nor have her tweets (@sarahtheduchess) which are often self-promoting or refer to events where she is not allowed to accompany her daughters: “Sooo proud of my girls smiling broadly, celebrating Granny with the Nation and Eugie with her flag and both happy smiles.”
“Prince Andrew, The Duke of York looking very dashing in his naval uniform, would love to see more of my girls and their Papa on the BBC.”
“Talking to friends and realising you are not alone, it changes the whole mood. Sometimes the press is so negative, you think all believe it,” or, “Wow...Just realised it is Finding Sarah season finale on OWN Network, love OWN network, 9pm tonight...Tune in! Please!”
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Prince Andrew’s noble decision to allow Sarah to continue to live with him, even after the News of the World scandal exploded, has also made Charles’s mission to ease the Yorks off the stage easier. Unconventionality has never played well at court.
Charles has let it be known that he favors a slimmed-down monarchy when he becomes king, but it appears now that he has been allowed by Elizabeth and Philip to start making those changes early. His internal coup was announced to the nation after the Jubilee, when just Charles, Harry, William, Camilla, and Kate joined the queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Edward, at least, was given the face-saving task of dashing off to see Daddy in hospital. Andrew had to stand and watch as he and his family were all but declared an irrelevance by the careful stage-management masterminded by his brother.
Richard Kay of the Daily Mail recently reported that at a cocktail party in one of the royal palaces, Andrew was overheard “angrily telling a senior figure how he and others in the family are being pushed to the margins of royal life … for Andrew, according to one close figure, being excluded from the balcony scene was a sudden and totally unexpected demotion from front-rank to peripheral royal. It was ‘like a dagger to his heart and he hasn’t got over it.’”
For Fergie, however, the “demotion” of the House of York is a cloud that has a definite silver lining. She can do what she likes now, without fear of the curse of Fergie harming her beloved daughters any further.
The battle to keep her daughters in their jobs has been lost, but the silver lining is that also gone is much of the Windsors' leverage over her.
We may be seeing much more of Fergie in the months ahead.