‘An appeal to compassion’: What royal watchers are saying about Princess of Wales’s surprise disclosure

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Just as final preparations for today’s Royal Fascinator were being completed, there was the surprise disclosure from Catherine, Princess of Wales, that she has been diagnosed with cancer.

Catherine, 42, said in a video statement that her cancer — she did not reveal the type — had been discovered after the “major abdominal surgery” she had in January and that she is now undergoing a preventative course of chemotherapy.

“This, of course, came as a huge shock, and [my husband Prince] William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family,” she said.

The announcement came after weeks of intense scrutiny, wild rumours and conspiracy theories circulating as she remained out of the public eye following her surgery. 

It also comes as Catherine’s father-in-law, King Charles, undergoes his own treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer.

The announcement brings with it inevitable shorter-term questions — about how the Royal Family will adapt with two senior members facing cancer diagnoses and whether the wild speculation around Catherine will abate — as well as longer-term considerations about the future of the monarchy.

WATCH | Catherine’s statement on her cancer diagnosis: 

Princess of Wales says she’s receiving cancer treatment

Catherine, the Princess of Wales, says in a video released to her social media pages that tests after her surgery revealed ‘cancer had been present,’ and that she is in the early stages of preventive chemotherapy.

“There has not been so much concern for the health of multiple generations of the Royal Family since 2020, when both the future King Charles III and Prince William contracted COVID-19 around the same time,” Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said via email. 

Harris sees the situation potentially shifting the nature of the public attention on the family.

“Public interest in the Royal Family will be focused on the health of the King and the Princess of Wales in the coming months rather than public engagements and official royal duties.”

Charles’s retreat from public duties as he undergoes treatment for cancer had already led to a regrouping of sorts when it came to public duties by senior members of the family, and continued juggling is likely now, given Catherine’s ongoing treatment.

Royal visits outside the United Kingdom — particularly by the most senior Royals — seem unlikely in the next several months.

“We can expect to see fewer public engagements by senior members of the Royal Family,” said Harris. “It is unlikely that King Charles III and Queen Camilla or the Prince and Princess of Wales will undertake Commonwealth tours in 2024 and the monarchy will be less visible on the international stage.

“There will be an increased schedule of public engagements for the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, the Princess Royal and even the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.”

WATCH | King’s visit to Canada postponed: 

Plan for King Charles to visit Canada postponed by cancer diagnosis

Plans for King Charles III’s first tour of Canada as head of state are on hold following his cancer diagnosis, CBC News has learned. Although the visit was never confirmed officially by Buckingham Palace, Canadian government sources told CBC News that King Charles III and Queen Camilla were set to visit in May. Read more: www.cbc.ca/1.7112434

The royal calendar is moving toward a particularly busy time of year, and may well take on a different complexion over the next few months. 

“A lot of the big events are coming up in May and especially in June, so we’ll see what happens, and you simply … adapt,” Patrica Treble, Toronto-based author of the Write Royalty newsletter on Substack, told CBC News Network.

“Any family who’s had to deal with illness knows that’s what you do, and you take it one day and one week at a time.”

As shocking as today’s news has been, it is not the first time multiple generations of the Royal Family have had serious health concerns at the same time.

“The last years of King George III’s reign … prompted debates concerning the succession as King George III was mentally ill and his son the Prince Regent suffered from numerous health problems, including obesity and gout,” said Harris.

“Only the birth of Queen Victoria in 1819 made clear there would be a smooth succession to a young generation after the reigns of her elder uncles.”

With both Charles and Catherine having had cancer diagnoses, scrutiny is likely to increase on William and his eldest son and heir, Prince George.

“In the 21st century, the succession is clear, but the timing and tone of the next couple of reigns remains uncertain,” Harris said.

The situation is particularly fraught for William.

“William is now in an increasingly tough position where he is committed to his duties as Prince of Wales but has also made it clear his first priority is his family,” Justin Vovk, a royal commentator and a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton who specializes in the history of the monarchy, said via email.

Inevitably, one question that flows from today’s announcement is the potential impact it might have on the morass of conspiracy theories and wild speculation that had been swirling around the Princess of Wales over the past several weeks.

WATCH | Londoners react to Catherine’s annoucement:

Londoners react to ‘incredibly sad’ cancer announcement from the Princess of Wales

Catherine, the Princess of Wales, announced she is receiving treatment for cancer, in a video released Friday following a prolonged absence from the public eye.

“What struck me most was how much of the message seemed specifically focused on cutting down all the speculation and rumours and the emphasis on privacy,” Vovk said.  

“Kate was making it extremely clear that she won’t be in public for some time, and she is letting everyone in (however briefly) on her personal struggle. Again, it felt very much like an appeal to compassion.”

Still, can it actually tamp down the speculation? There are no guarantees.

“Sadly, I think there will be some on social media who will see this as a chance for further conspiracy theories and unhelpful comparisons,” said Vovk.

“I’ve seen some of those already, but I’m hoping Kate will mostly receive support, as she should.”

The remainder of this newsletter was prepared prior to the announcement today from the Princess of Wales.

A milestone for Prince Edward

A closeup of a person smiling.
LEEDS, ENGLAND – MARCH 08: Prince Edward, Duke of Edinburgh smiles during the Community Sport and Recreation Awards on International Women’s Day at Headingley Stadium on March 08, 2024 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images) (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

He’s not had the public profile of his older brother, King Charles. But Prince Edward did have a moment in the spotlight in recent days.

The Duke of Edinburgh turned 60 on March 10. The occasion was marked by the release of new photos, along with rare television and newspaper interviews with him.

In them, he offered views on the monarchy and his marriage to Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh. 

“Our role — being part of the monarchy — in trying to bring people together, is as important as ever, if not more so today,” he told the Daily Mail.

In a television interview, Edward described Sophie, whom he married on June 19, 1999, as his “rock.”

“I’m incredibly lucky that I found Sophie and that she found me,” he said, according to a report in The Independent.

A couple enbraces.
Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, left, and Prince Edward hug after her speech during a visit on March 8 to Leeds, England. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Sophie offered her own praise of her husband in an emotional speech that was a marked departure from the kind of speeches members of the Royal Family usually make.

“He is the best of fathers, the most loving of husbands and he is still my best friend,” Sophie said while they were at an engagement in Leeds just before his birthday.

The speech was “honest and heartfelt, not fake, not sentimental,” said Judith Rowbotham, a social and cultural scholar and visiting research professor at the University of Plymouth in southwestern England, in an interview. “Just a loving tribute to a decent man.”

Rowbotham saw Sophie’s speech as a signal of how things have changed with the new reign of King Charles.

Had Queen Elizabeth “still been alive, the comment would have been much more restrained, because the Queen would not have approved,” said Rowbotham. “But Charles is of a different generation, in that sense more open.”

Queen Elizabeth did pay public tribute to her husband, Prince Philip, describing him as her “strength and stay” during their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1997.

Two people laugh as they speak with other people inside a large church.
Prince Edward, left, and Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, speak to New Zealand singer Benson Wilson during the annual Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in London on March 11. (Henry Nicholls/The Associated Press)

“But when you compare what she said … with what Sophie Edinburgh said, it’s plain that there is a new spirit of not emotional sentimentality, but of being open about human emotions,” Rowbotham said.

In recognition of Edward’s 60th birthday, King Charles appointed him to Scotland’s Order of the Thistle.

Harris saw that appointment as part of recognition in recent months of Edward’s public service, and of him taking on a higher profile.

“We’re seeing Prince Edward, who perhaps was previously viewed as simply one of many extended members of the Royal Family who undertook public engagements, being seen as a more prominent public figure in his own right as he reaches the age of 60.”

Harris also sees Edward in ways following in the footsteps of his father, Prince Philip, the previous Duke of Edinburgh. 

“Sometimes Prince Philip was able to speak about the role of the monarchy in a way that would not have been possible for Queen Elizabeth II, who as a constitutional monarch was supposed to be above politics,” Harris said.

Two people talk with one another.
Prince Edward, right, receives a gift from a traditional healer during a tour of the Pretoria National Botanical Garden in Pretoria, South Africa, on Jan. 22. (Alet Pretorius/Reuters)

Prince Edward’s comments on that role come in a “more understated fashion,”  she said.

For Edward, there has been a notable public evolution.

In his younger adult years, he was the target of criticism for dropping out of his training with the Royal Marines. A television production company he founded in 1993 also brought him into conflict with other members of the Royal Family, particularly when the company followed his nephew, Prince William, while he was at university.

“There were clearly some missteps and some difficult moments early in his public life,” said Harris. 

“And there’s been a transformation of his image all the way to the present day, as now he’s being recognized for having one of the most successful marriages in the Royal Family and for decades of public service.”

Keeping calm and carrying on

An adult shakes hands with a young person as another adult holding a dog looks on.
Queen Camilla meets well-wishers during her visit to Belfast on Wednesday. (Samir Hussein/Reuters)

Senior members of the Royal Family were out and about in recent days as King Charles continues to limit public duties after his cancer diagnosis.

Queen Camilla made another solo trip, this time to Northern Ireland.

“We’re seeing that Camilla has a very important role travelling around England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland and ensuring that the monarchy is visible in all these places and serving in that traditional role of the monarchy acting as a unifier for places that might have very different political interests,” said Harris.

At Buckingham Palace, Princess Anne and Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, were on hand for a reception to mark 70 years since the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the Korean War.

Four people speak with one another.
Princess Anne, left, and Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, speak with Maj. Gen. Eldon Millar and Yoon Yeocheol, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, during a reception for Korean war veterans, which they hosted on behalf of King Charles at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday. (Tristan Fewings/Reuters)

Charles did meet a few veterans at the palace, but he was not at the reception.

Rumours have run rampant about his health, too, but pictures have continued to emerge on a relatively regular basis of him being driven back and forth from his residences or welcoming ambassadors or politicians at Buckingham Palace.

“He’s finding ways to show the public that he is still very much engaged in the day-to-day business of being King and is connecting with the public as much as possible and this in itself counters misinformation,” said Harris.

Prince William was also out this week, undertaking another engagement in his ongoing effort to address homelessness.

Royally quotable

“It is our duty to remember what was once called ‘the Forgotten War.'”

— A message from King Charles, read by Princess Anne, at the reception to mark 70 years since the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the Korean War. Charles said it had been a “personal ambition” of his to invite those who were at the reception to Buckingham Palace, in some form, “to recognize this significant milestone and ensure you are all most deservingly honoured for your valiant service over 70 years ago. 

“You might therefore imagine how particularly disappointed and frustrated I am to not be able to join you all in person,” Charles said.

Several people talk in a living room.
King Charles, centre, meets with Korean War veterans Alan Guy, Mike Mogridge, Brian Parritt and Ron Yardley at Buckingham Palace in London on Tuesday. (Jonathan Brady/Reuters)

Royal reads

  1. Whether public trust in the Royal Family and the monarchy has been damaged by the controversy around the doctored image of the Princess of Wales and her children will only emerge over time. But in ways it appears to have been tested, at least in the short term. [CBC]

  2. Editing photos to make the family look good? Kate’s just following royal tradition. Even Queen Victoria had photos of herself altered. But in an age of fake news and a suspicious public, the penalties are higher. [The Guardian]

  3. A British privacy watchdog says it is looking into a report that staff at a private London hospital tried to snoop on the Princess of Wales’s medical records while she was a patient for abdominal surgery. [CBC]

  4. Prince William paid tribute to his mother at the Diana Legacy Award, while narrowly avoiding his younger brother, Prince Harry. [The Independent]

  5. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has launched what appears to be a new lifestyle brand with dozens of products in the works as she makes a return to Instagram after a four-year hiatus. [The Guardian]

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