The stage is set for a typically convivial Christmas at Bucklebury Manor, the charming Georgian home of the Middleton clan. Pippa will be there with her husband James and new baby Arthur, a fourth grandchild for Michael and Carole. So will Pippa’s sociable brother James.
It’s set to be quite a gathering, in fact, with growing speculation that William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will turn down the traditional Royal Christmas at Sandringham and join the party in the Berkshire countryside instead.
As James Middleton told an interviewer from German television in the past few days: ‘Christmas is all about family and gives the Middletons a chance to regroup.’
Yet for all the domestic merriment on offer in Bucklebury – William is known to particularly enjoy the old-fashioned games the Middletons specialise in – his decision to retreat to the in-laws might also signify something less cheery and rather more troubling, according to Royal observers.
Feeling the strain: William, Harry, Meghan and Kate gather at Westminster Abbey for the Armistice centenary service in November
Indeed, it now seems likely that William and Kate will spend Christmas not only apart from Harry and his pregnant wife Meghan, but many miles away.
So is this further evidence that the two brothers are now more determined than ever to live their lives separately?
While the Middletons watch Christmas Strictly and play board games, Royal sources suggest that Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will be with the Queen and Prince Philip in Norfolk.
Speculation has been mounting about the tensions between the two couples for some weeks, particularly since it was revealed that Harry and Meghan are to abandon Kensington Palace, the home and office space they share with William and Kate, in favour of Frogmore Cottage in the grounds of Windsor Castle.
This is a striking move – dramatic even – partly because it is rare for a member of the Royal Family as important as Harry not to have Central London base. But more because the brothers have seemed so close throughout their lives. Until now, that is.
It now seems likely that William and Kate will spend Christmas not only apart from Harry and his pregnant wife Meghan, but many miles away
With the stream of disclosures threatening to become a torrent, The Mail on Sunday understands courtiers at Kensington Palace have started a ‘mole hunt’ in an attempt to stop leaks to the media that have led to so many unfavourable reports.
They have certainly not made for comfortable reading. Insiders have claimed, for example, that a rather ‘dictatorial’ Harry has been throwing his weight around, aggrieved that neither his brother nor courtiers and servants have been ‘rolling out the red carpet’ for his new American bride.
It has been suggested that Meghan has been brusque with servants and that her exacting wedding preparations led Kate to burst into tears following a bridesmaid fitting for daughter Charlotte. It has been a stressful time all round, it is true.
Kate has only recently given birth to her third child, Louis, while Meghan finds herself a newcomer in a foreign land – and a member of the most extraordinary family in Britain. Perhaps a few early false steps and antagonisms were to be expected.
Meghan, who has worked hard to master her new Royal brief, is well-liked not just by the public, but by her new father-in-law, Prince Charles. He admires her work ethic and shares an interest in the arts.
But the MoS understands that the unease between the Cambridges and the Sussexes is more long-standing and has been deeper than has so far been suggested.
As early as last Christmas, well before the May wedding, Meghan was suggesting she didn’t feel entirely welcome with all members of the family. And it was in response that Charles attempted to smooth things over by engineering an invitation to Anmer Hall – William and Kate’s country home near Sandringham. He hoped it might bring the couples together.
It didn’t go well. Indeed, one well-placed source says the occasion was marred by a ‘ghastly row’ between the couples – one reason there will be no repeat this Christmas. A senior Royal aide has revealed that the atmosphere at Anmer soured shortly after Harry and his then fiancee had arrived, and Meghan was judged to have been ‘downright rude’.
The MoS understands that as early as last Christmas, well before the May wedding, Meghan was suggesting she didn’t feel entirely welcome with all members of the family
‘Kate had a quiet word with Meghan,’ says the aide. ‘It escalated rapidly after Meghan complained to Harry that she had been “told off”.
‘He took her side, while William defended Kate, who was five months pregnant with Louis and certainly didn’t want this sort of confrontation.’
Kate, it is said, already felt put upon in being asked to host Meghan and Harry. Tired and pregnant, she had been hoping for a quiet Christmas. Perhaps the strain showed.
At any rate, the atmosphere was ‘poisonous’ for a while, continues the aide, and only thawed with a visit by Charles, who was told by William what had happened and did his best to jolly everyone along.
This is by no means an isolated example of Meghan’s supposed high-handedness, according to chatter in Royal circles.
A new book by Royal commentator Robert Jobson claims that the Queen had to speak to Harry about Meghan’s attitude after a disagreement about which tiara she would wear at the couple’s wedding.
The MoS understands that the unease between the Cambridges and the Sussexes is more long-standing and has been deeper than has so far been suggested (pictured: Meghan and Kate at the wedding of Princess Eugenie)
There were ‘temper tantrums’ when Meghan was told she would not be able to have the emerald and pearl tiara she had chosen from the Royal collection. Aides explained that the Vladimir tiara – smuggled out of Russia after the revolution and sold to Queen Mary – would not be suitable because of uncertainty over its provenance. But Meghan insisted.
The book says that both the Queen and Angela Kelly, Her Majesty’s dresser, were taken aback at how forcefully the couple pressed the issue. Harry had previously told one Royal employee: ‘What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.’
A row over wedding jewellery is one thing – Meghan would not be the first anxious bride – but might there be a still sharper anxiety that explains why the Duke and Duchess of Sussex now seem permanently on edge?
This newspaper has learned from one of William’s closest friends that the Prince had doubts about how suitable Meghan might be as his brother’s bride – and that he voiced them.
It is understood William’s concerns reached the ears of the Queen and, more pertinently, of Harry himself. One member of William’s circle told the MoS: ‘The problem is that the Cambridges felt things had moved very quickly between Harry and Meghan. Wills particularly was worried and felt close enough to Harry to voice his thoughts.’
The two boys were brought especially close by the death of their mother, and William has always kept an eye out for his younger brother. But few of us like it when our romantic choice is questioned – and this appears to be the case with Harry now.
Royal observers are asking, too, if William fears that Meghan is in some way assuming the space occupied by his late mother Diana. A beautiful, fashion-loving Royal determined to make her mark through charitable works? The parallels are inevitable.
The two boys were brought especially close by the death of their mother, and William has always kept an eye out for his younger brother
Kate, in contrast, has taken a less showy approach to her role. She has dutifully accepted advice on how to dress and how to deport herself as a Royal, whereas Meghan has so far seemed determined to strike out on her own – on occasion at least.
It is understood that Kate has had a number of meetings over tea in which she has attempted to explain the rules of The Firm to Meghan – and that her advice didn’t go down well. Kate is said to have told friends she was very sad about what was happening and felt that Harry was ‘changing’.
‘She and Harry have always had a very close relationship, but she said things were different,’ says one. But if William’s wife has become adept at fading into the background, that does not make her soft.
On the contrary. ‘Meghan’s a strong character and so is Kate, so it doesn’t surprise me there have been clashes,’ said the source.
Indeed, some are calling her a Steel Marshmallow, a phrase first applied to William and Harry’s great-grandmother, the late Queen Mother.
With the days that William, Kate and Harry went around together as a dynamic team now decisively over, they are leading lives that are not only increasingly separate, but very different.
Harry and Meghan spent a considerable part of the summer in their rented house in Oxfordshire where they entertained friends including George and Amal Clooney, and tennis star Serena Williams. Theirs is a markedly more celebrity-driven ‘court’ than has been normal for the Royals in recent times, and quite different from the so-called Turnip Toffs who make up William and Kate’s group of friends in Norfolk.
And with the celebrity associates, it seems, come celebrity anxieties.
So uncomfortable have they grown with a steady stream of media disclosures, it seems that Harry and Meghan are now determined to bring them to a halt.
It will be fascinating to see just what or who the Royal ‘mole-hunt’ unearths.