What do you get the woman who has her own armed services, church, monarchy and enough palaces that she must occasionally forget how many she owns?
Because damn, it’s hard to shop for the sovereign who has everything.
Friday marked the wedding anniversary of the Queen and Prince Philip who have now officially been wed for 73 years, at least several of which have been happy.
To mark this impressive milestone, William and Kate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have found an answer to the vexing issue of monarchical gift-giving by going for the solution beloved by parents who’ve forgotten to pop into Harrods: the handmade children’s card.
The palace, to celebrate this matrimonial milestone, has released an official image of the Queen and Prince Phillip showing them sitting gingerly side-by-side on a great Windsor castle sofa.
And in this new and curiously photoshopped looking shot of Her Majesty, the couple can be seen doing their best to look impressed by the artistic stylings of their great grandchildren Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis in the form of an anniversary card.
At first glance this might all look suitably charming, a heartwarming reminder that small children, even tiny royals, are hardly mini Picassos in the making.
But look closer: Buckingham Palace’s choice of image actually contains something of a coded message that Prince Harry could hardly fail to miss.
Here’s the thing. The Queen and co could surely have picked from any number of pictures showing she and Philip doing such astounding things as sitting, standing and being within startling physical proximity of one another.
But no. Instead they went for a shot, released via their official Twitter and Instagram accounts, that not-so-subtly serves as a pretty glaring statement about who matters – and who doesn’t – in the royal pecking order.
Poor Prince Harry. So much of his 36 years has been defined by what he is not – not born first, not destined to be king – forever more lumped with the ignominious and surely deeply upsetting title of official “spare”.
We know that having to face an incessant drumbeat of reminders about his second class status within the monarchical world is one of the reasons that pushed Harry and wife Meghan the Duchess of Sussex to spectacularly quit royal life earlier this year.
Despite the couple’s global success at drawing a new generation to the royal brand and at injecting some dazzling relevance into the moribund institution, they were still gallingly forced, time after time, to play second fiddle to the balding blokes who took palace precedence over Harry.
Finding Freedom, the biography which this week Meghan admitted in a court statement admitted to having giving personal information to the authors, paints a picture of the Sussexes’ ambition being stymied by the royal machine’s slavish devotion to rank.
“Harry, who wanted to do so much in the world, was growing frustrated that he and Meghan often took a back seat to other family members’ initiatives and priorities” Freedom’s authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand write.
“While they both respected the hierarchy of the institution, it was difficult when they wanted to focus on a particular project and were told that a more senior ranking family member, be it Prince William or Prince Charles, had an initiative or tour being announced at the same time — so they would just have to wait.”
That festering feeling was only exacerbated in the run up to Christmas last year when the palace released an official portrait of the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince George.
“What a fascinating and historic image to remind us of the essence of the royal system!” royal biographer Robert Lacey sardonically writes in his recently released Battle of Brothers. “The current monarch with three future monarchs. All the living heirs – and not a suggestion of a ‘spare’.”
The unspoken message to Harry seemed to be: stay in your gilt lane.
According to Lacey: “Palace sources have also let it be known that the plan of depicting the direct line of royal succession was enthusiastically supported by Prince William, who was not saying anything for the record – but who wanted to send his younger brother a message.”
The next blow to the Sussexes came on December 25 when the Queen’s annual Christmas speech aired showing she had chosen to surround herself with images of her family, none of which were of Harry, Meghan or Archie (in fact, the 94-year-old only made one oblique reference to the arrival of her ninth great-grandchild).
Like everything the Queen does, there was nothing accidental about this glaring omission.
“Palace sources insisted that the photos were chosen to represent the direct line of succession, but for Harry and Meghan, it was yet another sign that they needed to consider their own path,” write Scobie and Durand.
So, back to Friday’s release. Given the profound sensitivities around these sorts of official portraits it’s hard not to interpret this shot as conveying a pointed message. That is, despite the monarchy’s loss this year of its two most charismatic, dazzling crowd pullers they are not fussed from a bluntly hierarchical point of view.
The line of succession is just fine and dandy, thank you very much, and thanks to Wales’ men folk’s fecundity swerves clearly past the house of Sussex.
RELATED: Prince Harry’s $130m Crown disaster
Imagine what sort of signal it would have sent if the Queen and Philip had instead been “reading” a card made by 18-month-old Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. Still, it would have been a profound bridge-building manoeuvre and would have signalled that despite the ructions and controversies of this year, Her Majesty remained committed to the grandson to whom she used to be so very close.
By and large the image of the Queen these days is that of some sort of benign, grandmotherly figure tottering about the place with a hat firmly wedged on her head. But it could be argued this latest move on her part betrays a ruthlessness and a survival instinct in terms of protecting the crown that borders on the cutthroat.
So happy wedding anniversary Your Majesty. Let’s hope you liked that card from the Cambridges. Chances are might not be getting one postmarked California anytime soon.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.