The Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace is a sublime place. In spring and summer, the terraced grounds are a perfect riot of flowers while the shaded tree-covered walkway offers deliciously cool respite from the sun for ambling visitors.
It is easy to understand why this garden, dating back to 1908, was one of Diana, Princess of Wales’ favourite places at Kensington Palace.
“In the mornings, she would go out for a jog and would stop by the garden and have a chat with (the head gardener) and the gardeners,” the palace’s current head gardener said. “She would have a bit of a joke with them and was really friendly and warm.”
In 2017, the garden was transformed into an all-white spectacle in honour of the late royal’s memory to mark the 20th anniversary of her death. Then on August 30 of that year, Prince William, Prince Harry and Kate Duchess of Cambridge visited the garden.
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Appropriately, it was raining, the grey weather matching the sombre mood of the anniversary which marked two decades since the fatal day that Diana had flown from Sardinia to Paris with beau Dodi Al Fayed. (It was just after midnight on August 31, 1997 that the Princess, Dodi, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, and driver Henri Paul would leave the Ritz Hotel. Five minutes later, the Mercedes they were travelling in would slam into the 13th pillar in the Pont d’Alma tunnel ultimately claiming all of their lives except for Reese-Jones.)
On that day in London two decades later, the trio, clutching umbrellas, were shown around the revamped garden that now included some of the Princess’ favourite blooms including lilies and white roses.
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At the time, the shots of the trio, reflective and subdued, seemed entirely in line with the mournful mood of the occasion. In many of the images, the younger prince stands a little apart from his brother and sister-in-law; gone is the camaraderie and easy warmth that usually defined the threesome’s bond, still, given the day, that did not rouse any suspicion.
Now, looking back pretty much exactly three years later, it is hard not to wonder if the photos actually contain clues about another sad story that was already playing out behind the palace gates.
By August 2017, Harry had been dating Suits star Meghan Markle for over a year. Earlier that month, they had travelled to Botswana together for the second time, this time to mark her 36th birthday. There, according to the recently released biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Finding Freedom, they had discussed their future together.
According to Freedom, by the time of William, Kate and Harry’s Sunken Garden visit, Harry had already “started to tell most of his inner circle” that he planned to propose; had done some “diamond scouting” in May while in Botswana; and the couple had gone “so far as to bring the Palace into the conversation, consulting with the Prince’s aides about the best time for a ceremony”.
Clearly, marriage to Meghan was not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’.
While it would be months before Meghan would quit her TV role in 2017 and trade her home in Toronto to move into the small cottage that Harry lived in on the grounds of Kensington Palace, storm clouds were already reportedly brewing.
As things progressed at breakneck speed for the loved-up couple, one of Harry’s longest relationships was allegedly fracturing behind the scenes.
In Finding Freedom authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand claim that William, at some unspecified point in time, had sat his brother down to talk to him about the pace with which Harry’s romance was moving.
“Don’t feel like you need to rush this,” William told Harry, according to sources. “Take as much time as you need to get to know this girl.”
It was the last two words in that sentence – “this girl” – that reportedly left Harry deeply upset, the younger prince allegedly seeing the phrase as being leaden with snobbery and condescension.
“Harry was pissed off,” Freedom quotes a source saying. “Pissed off that his brother would ask such a thing. Some felt it was an over-reaction. But then, this totally sums them up as people – William, the calm and rational one, and Harry, who can’t help but take things far too personally.”
Further straining the bonds between William and Harry, allegedly, was a clash over the service planned for July 1, 2017, which would have been Diana’s 56th birthday.
On that day, her sons, Kate, Diana’s sisters Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale, and her brother Earl Charles Spencer were joined by Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Princess’ final resting place at her childhood home Althorp for a rededication ceremony.
The Daily Mail has previously reported that Meghan had flown in from Canada to join Harry and his family but did not ultimately attend.
“At the time, it was explained that her presence was not considered ‘appropriate,’” The Mail has reported. “An upset Harry told Meghan of his family’s ‘warnings’ and a very definite sense of ‘us against the world’ became entrenched.”
In early March this year, as Meghan prepared to farewell life as a senior member of the royal family, she told Freedom’s Omid Scobie, “It didn’t have to be this way.”
And she’s absolutely right.
Inherent to the tragedy of Harry and Meghan is that things just should not have turned out like this.
Meghan’s transition from civilian life where her day-to-day was wholly governed by her desires, whims and wants to subsuming herself wholesale to become part of a 1000-year-old institution was always going to be tough. Nobody, no matter how polished, how intelligent, how confident or how committed to their new life could ever really be truly prepared for what lay ahead.
Meghan’s royal journey, like that of every Windsor bride throughout history, was always going to be rocky; there were always going to be obstacles and stumbling blocks.
However, her tenure as a senior member of the royal family should never have been so short. Rarely, if ever, has the royal family been presented with a ‘recruit’ with so much zeal and vim; so driven by a desire to help; so able to connect with vast swathes of the population previously indifferent to the monarchy and so, seemingly, ready for the glare of public life.
What is so frustrating is that when William, Harry and Kate left the cloistered, private world of Kensington Palace’s inner sanctum to visit the Sunken Garden in 2017 that no one was essentially troubleshooting the already simmering issues that would later reach boiling point.
That no one had the presence of mind or the gumption to make the two brothers sit down and iron out their differences, rather than letting hurts deepen. That no one, fountain pen in hand, was at that moment behind a desk in the palace somewhere – as far as we know – carefully plotting to ensure the smoothest possible entry for Meghan into the strange waters of royal life.
Next year on July 1, the day that would have been Diana’s 60th birthday, William and Harry will be reunited in London to unveil a long-awaited statue commemorating their mother’s life and profound humanitarian legacy.
The eyes of Fleet Street and the world will be on them. Here’s hoping that on that summer’s day, in the garden of the palace where Diana lived her entire adult life, some very different images will emerge – of two brothers, bonded by grief and bonded by love. In fact, to see William and Harry with their arms around one another again would actually be the most fitting tribute to the princess’s life.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.