LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II turns 96 on Thursday, a milestone she will mark out of sight at her country estate, Sandringham. But the birthday has not arrived without a dollop of drama from her self-exiled grandson, Prince Harry, who said this week he wanted to make sure the aging queen was “protected.”
Harry, who paid his grandmother a rare and surprise visit for tea at Windsor Castle last Thursday with his wife, Meghan, said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, “I’m just making sure she’s protected and got the right people around her.”
His cryptic comment, to an American TV network, raised the hackles of royal commentators and the London tabloids. Elizabeth, they pointed out, was well-protected by her son and heir and Harry’s father, Prince Charles, and by his eldest son, Prince William. The clear implication was that her prodigal grandson, now living in Southern California, need not apply for the job.
The queen, who suffered a bout of the coronavirus in February, has been notably frail since the death of her husband, Prince Philip, a year ago. She has canceled multiple public engagements and no longer even ventures out to events that are close at hand, like Easter services held at St. George’s chapel at Windsor, where she now lives full time.
Now largely homebound, she carries out most of her duties via video calls. Greeting visitors at Windsor Castle recently, she told them she had trouble walking. Her diminished condition has raised questions about how much she will take part in four days of ceremonies during the Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70 years on the throne.
While Buckingham Palace is loath to acknowledge it, the British monarchy has assumed the characteristics of a regency, with Charles fulfilling many of his mother’s public duties as her proxy. That gave Harry’s comment particular piquancy since it suggested she was vulnerable to manipulation.
Relations between Harry and his father and brother have been strained since last year when he and Meghan accused the royal family of callous treatment in a sensational televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. The couple claimed that a family member had voiced concerns about the skin color of their unborn child.
Harry brushed aside a question from the “Today” co-host, Hoda Kotb, about whether he missed his father and brother since he pulled back from royal duties and relocated to Southern California in 2020. He said he was focused on the athletes participating in the Invictus Games, an international competition for wounded service people that was founded by Harry in 2014 and is being staged this week in The Hague.
“At the moment, I’m here focused on these guys and these families and giving everything I can — 120 percent to them — to make sure that they have the experience of a lifetime,” Harry said in the interview, which aired Wednesday. “And when I leave here, I go back, and my focus is my family, who I miss massively.”
None of that suggested that Harry’s rift with the royal family will heal any time soon. The United States felt like home these days, he told NBC. He said he was not even sure he would return to attend the jubilee in June, despite media reports that Buckingham Palace had offered him and Meghan a coveted spot on the palace balcony, where the royal family waves to the crowd.
Some Key Moments in Queen Elizabeth’s Reign
First grandchild. In 1977, the queen stepped into the role of grandmother for the first time, after Princess Anne gave birth to a son, Peter. Elizabeth’s four children have given her a total of eight grandchildren, who have been followed by several great-grandchildren.
Princess Diana’s death. In a rare televised broadcast ahead of Diana’s funeral in 1997, Queen Elizabeth remembered the Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris at age 36, as “an exceptional and gifted human being.”
A trip to Ireland. In May 2011, the queen visited the Irish Republic, whose troubled relationship with the British monarchy spanned centuries. The trip, infused with powerful symbols of reconciliation, is considered one of the most politically freighted trips of Elizabeth’s reign.
Marking 70 years of marriage. On Nov. 20, 2017, the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 70th anniversary, becoming the longest-married couple in royal history. The two wed in 1947, as the country and the world was still reeling from the atrocities of World War II.
Harry has been in a long-running dispute with Britain’s Home Office, which he claims has refused to provide him adequate police protection when he visits the country. He said on NBC that he still hoped to bring his children to meet their great-grandmother. The queen has yet to meet Harry and Meghan’s second child, Lilibet, whose name was also the childhood nickname of Elizabeth.
While Harry spoke warmly of the queen — saying they still had an easy, humor-filled rapport — his reference to protecting her raised a red flag with royal watchers. Many have soured on him and Meghan since the rupture with the royal family; they viewed Harry’s latest comment as just another potshot.
“I think you’ll find that Prince Charles and Her Majesty’s children and William are DOING just that and supporting the Queen, with actions — and not just words,” Robert Jobson, the royal editor of the London Evening Standard, said on Twitter.