In August 2018, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sat down and addressed a letter to her father, Thomas Markle, in the wake of his dealings with the tabloids, including his announcement that he wouldn’t be attending her wedding via TMZ. “Daddy,” the letter began, “It is with a heavy heart that I write this, not understanding why you have chosen to take this path, turning a blind eye to the pain you’re causing.” She pleaded with him to stop talking to the press. Instead—after a 2019 People magazine cover story featuring anonymous friends of Meghan, who mentioned that she had written such a letter—he provided the letter to the Mail on Sunday, which promptly published selections. In response, Meghan sued the paper in October 2019 for breach of privacy.
Now, Meghan has prevailed in that lawsuit against Associated Newspapers, the parent company of the Daily Mail. In late January, Meghan’s lawyer asked for a summary judgment, asking the judge to go ahead and rule without a jury trial, on the grounds that it’s a clear-cut case and Associated Newspapers would lose. Lawyers for the media company, meanwhile, argued that Meghan meant for the letter to be leaked, and that four ex-employees from the Palace days could shed light on the original circumstances in which it was written—threatening a very embarrassing trial in which the inner workings of the Palace were dragged into a courtroom. But the judge ultimately granted the summary judgment on her privacy claim, while a second copyright claim will have to go to trial if Meghan wants to pursue it.
The judge’s ruling on Meghan’s behalf is just the latest chapter in a long history of the British royal family’s troublesome letters falling into the wrong hands, sometimes to spectacular scandal and disaster. It’s part of the dance of monarchy—immense visibility and therefore public curiosity, which is a very complicated thing to corral. Meghan’s handwritten letter is a throwback to centuries past; in the intervening decades, royals have had their phone calls and voicemails intercepted—the modern iteration of the letter. No matter the technology, there’s a longstanding interest in intercepting royal communications, especially those that are scandalous, juicy, or just plain intimate, dragging what’s typically cloaked in a tightly controlled veil of spectacular majesty into the public domain.
In the days when royalty and their secrets were intricately involved with political stability—or lack thereof—letters could be incredibly high stakes. Take the chain of events that saw Mary Queen of Scots imprisoned for nearly 20 years in England and, eventually, beheaded at the behest of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Mary fled Scotland shortly after the assassination of her estranged husband, Lord Darnley, and her subsequent marriage to another man, Lord Bothwell—which convinced many people that they had conspired to murder Darnley. (Don’t feel too bad for Darnley, who had one of her close advisors stabbed to death in front of her while she was four months pregnant.)
Mary asked Elizabeth for help regaining her throne, but Elizabeth locked her up because she didn’t need a rival queen, and a Catholic at that, potentially conspiring against her. As Erin Blakemore recounted at History.com, Elizabeth also convened a council to consider a cache of documents that became known as the Casket Letters (so-called because they were kept in a small, elaborately detailed silver box called a casket). They contained both passionate sonnets purportedly from Mary to Bothwell and a promise to marry him, written a month before Darnley was killed. Their authenticity was questionable; Elizabeth ultimately concluded that the letters didn’t prove anything. But still, somebody leaked them years later, as part of the process of neutralizing Mary’s power as a rival.
But the true golden age of the incriminating letter was the 19th century. The blackmail plot was a staple of fiction at the time, and generally, the blackmailer was working with compromising correspondence. For instance, it was the subject of a famous Edgar Allen Poe short story, “The Purloined Letter,” which depicts his famous detective Dupin retrieving a letter stolen from the royal apartments of a young princess. At the same time, the royals’ reduced ability to put their hands on the levers of actual power meant that their reputations became more important than ever. Unfortunately, Bertie, the Prince of Wales—Victoria and Albert’s playboy eldest son, the eventual Edward VII—loved to write long, chatty, flirty letters to the many women with whom he was involved, to his detriment.
In 1869, Harriet Mordaunt confessed to her husband, Sir Charles Mordaunt, that she had been unfaithful with several men, including the Prince of Wales. He was furious and unforgiving; “He wanted a divorce, and he wanted to see his wife’s lovers, especially the Prince of Wales, in the witness box,” Bertie’s biographer Jane Ridley recounts. Even worse, when he searched Harriet’s desk, he found 18 letters from the Prince of Wales. They were nothing lurid, but they were enough. Ridley makes the case that Harriet’s family—well-connected in royal circles—knew the best way to contain the scandal was to have Harriet plead insanity; “it seems that Harriet Mordaunt’s father, Sir Thomas Moncrieffe, was in league with Marlborough House to ensure that Harriet was declared insane and not fit to appear in court.” She was diagnosed, specifically, with puerperal insanity—postpartum depression, essentially—and spent the rest of her life basically tucked out of sight. The Prince of Wales was called to the witness box, but never named as a correspondent in the divorce; his letters to Harriet were printed in the Times, but Ridley estimates they actually benefitted Bertie, because they didn’t actually contain anything particularly scandalous.
Somehow, this experience didn’t put Edward off his habit of writing lightly incriminating letters. After his death, this caused a problem for the palace, when another of his (numerous) mistresses, Daisy Warwick, attempted to get George V to buy her remaining letters from his father; if he did, she’d cancel publication of her potentially scandalous memoirs. George V didn’t bite, and she was nearly imprisoned for her efforts, but her chosen go-between, millionaire Arthur du Cros, finally paid off a bunch of her debts. It turns out those letters weren’t actually that scandalous, either—Ridley calls them “the usual mixture of gossip and affectionate banter.”
In the modern era, the notion of a scandalously incriminating letter seems downright quaint. But while the technologies involved have changed, royals can still fall into the same types of trouble. Take, for instance, two of the more embarrassing moments of the early 1990s nadir for the royals: Squidgydate and Camillagate, in which the Prince and Princess of Wales were each recorded in intimate chats with people who were conspicuously not each other.
A ham radio enthusiast named Cyril Reenan recorded a phone call between the princess and James Gilbey, heir to a gin fortune, made on New Year’s Eve, 1989. (She was still married to Charles at the time; Gilbey has denied that they had a full-blown affair.) Diana complained about the misery of Christmas at Sandringham—“I was very bad at lunch. And I nearly started blubbering. I just felt really sad and empty, and I thought, Bloody hell, after all I’ve done for this fucking family”—while Gilbey called her by the nickname “Squidgy” and attempted to buck her up emotionally. Yes, it seems weird that a ham radio enthusiast managed to randomly pick up their cell phone frequency; what’s even weirder is that, according to this detailed timeline, the call was recorded January 4, four days after it was actually made.
It took a few years for the recording to make its way into the public domain. Reenan took them to the Sun almost immediately, but the tabloid didn’t publish; eventually, the National Enquirer broke the story in August 1992, in the context of the Waleses’s ongoing, acrimonious divorce, and it was open season for the British tabloids, with the Sun leading the way. One even set up a paid telephone number where you could call in and hear the full recording. And then, in November, came an even more humiliating leak: the infamous Tampax call between Charles and Camilla, full of intimate, risque banter.
A few years later, it was the younger royals’ turn. The phone-hacking scandal that ultimately embroiled dozens of people and brought down an entire Murdoch-owned tabloid initially kicked off when the royal household grew suspicious about News of the World stories that were a little too detailed. First came an item about William pulling a tendon in his knee, the BBC reported, then details of a planned meeting between Prince William and a reporter, Tom Bradby. Apparently, William had arranged to borrow some video equipment; “When he and I hooked up we both looked at each other and said ‘Now, how on earth did that get out?’” Bradby told the BBC. “We worked out that only he and I and two people incredibly close to him had actually known about it.”
Kensington Palace went to the police, who began digging. It turns out that News of the World’s phone-hacking operation extended far, far beyond the royals; ultimately the 168-year-old tabloid was closed and editor Andy Coulson was sentenced to 18 months for conspiracy to intercept phone calls and voicemails. As part of the trial, the Guardian reported in 2014, former royal editor Clive Goodman testified that he had personally hacked the voicemail of William 35 times, Harry nine times, and Kate a whopping 155 times, as well as various other royal aides. The messages weren’t exactly scandalous, but they were fairly intimate—in one hacked voicemail, for instance, William called Kate “babykins.” The trial also revealed emails in which Goodman told Coulson about the Queen’s irritation over Palace police on patrol snacking on nuts that were left out for her, to the point of marking the bowls. It’s the type of behind-the-scenes detail that is humanizing, but also somewhat undermines the majesty of Her Majesty.
The Squidygate and Camillagate recordings and the phone-hacking both offer context for the Sussexes’ decision to sue Associated Newspapers over the letter; Harry has spent his life dealing with press tactics that have been aggressive and, at times, downright illegal. Meghan’s lawyer, Justin Rushbrooke, argued that her privacy claim was an open-and-shut case: “It is as good an example as one could find of a letter that any person of ordinary sensibilities would not want to be disclosed to third parties, let alone in a mass media publication, in a sensational context and to serve the commercial purposes of the newspaper,” Rushbrooke told the court, according to the Guardian.
But Antony White, representing Associated Newspapers, responded that there were “significant factual matters” that need to be hashed out at trial, “in relation to the circumstances in which the letter was written and the extent to which she (Meghan) had disclosed information about the letter with a view to publication.” The Associated Newspapers team basically argued that the letter was a piece of PR, meant to be leaked as part of the wider reputational battle that was happening—hence their indication that they would call four former employees of the Sussexes, who worked in their Kensington Palace office. This is exactly the type of situation the Palace cannot abide; “A trial would be traumatic for Meghan and Harry, it will expose palace operations, members of staff would be dragged into it on the witness stands ... it would be deeply uncomfortable for the institution,” a “senior royal source” told the Times of London.
Unlike Edward’s letters, or the taped phone call between Charles and Camilla, Meghan’s letter to her father is a very straightforward plea from a daughter to her father. The fight at the heart of this court case isn’t one about sexual morality—it’s about authenticity. The British tabloids have often taken a deeply cynical view of Meghan’s actions, accusing her of posturing at every turn. The Daily Mail’s legal team is essentially arguing, once again, that while Meghan has built her brand on authenticity, she’s somehow insincere. Over the last few years, they’ve played this tune repeatedly, conveniently ignoring that the entire business of monarchy is presentation, and all the Windsors are doing it all the time; their special focus on her is clearly wrapped up with a sense that she isn’t a proper royal, which is deeply grounded in her race, her nationality, her career, and her background.
The Sussexes, meanwhile, are once again attempting to define the terms of their existence in the public eye, which is a vitally important battle for two people who are incredibly famous, but no longer under the Palace’s umbrella. Though it’s worth noting that Meghan’s victory is also a victory for the rest of the royals, in terms of the precedent it sets. But while they’ve won this round, the judge only ruled on her behalf on one of her counts. If she wants to continue to press Associated Newspapers on the allegation that they violated her copyright, that will have to go to trial in October—at which point, they’ll get those other staffers involved, and there’s no telling what happens. And as long as there’s an immense public interest in the royals’ doings, there will be somebody trying to get their hands on their letters, or voicemails, or text messages, or finsta. Meghan is the latest, but she won’t be the last.