Prince Andrew skipped the Christmas Day church service to ‘avoid being heckled’ while the other royals beamed with joy as they met an adoring public at Sandringham.
The Queen was buoyed yesterday after her great-grandchildren stole the show in their first public appearance on her Norfolk estate.
But the absence of her poorly husband, Prince Philip, and shamed son, the Duke of York – as well as Harry and Meghan – cast a shadow over the occasion.
After four days in hospital being treated for a mystery ailment, frail Philip, 98, was being cared for at the main house on the Norfolk estate as Her Majesty and other senior royals attended church.
Prince Andrew walking to the church deep in conversation with his brother, Charles
During the service, which was broadcast over speakers to the public outside, Canon Jonathan Riviere appeared to refer to the Duke of Edinburgh when he told the congregation: ‘We pray for those struggling with illness.’
Prince Andrew – who was forced to step down from public duties over his friendship with paedophile Jeffrey Epstein – also missed the service.
Instead, he attended an earlier low-key private service with his mother, walking to the church deep in conversation with his brother, Charles.
It is understood he missed the main service to spend time with his father, with sources saying it was a ‘personal decision’ by the prince.
However, there was speculation that Andrew was reluctant to make the mile-long walk down from the royal residence to the church in case he was heckled by the public.
But there was plenty of Christmas cheer in the shape of Prince George, six, and Princess Charlotte, four, who accompanied their parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, to the church for the first time.
The Royal Family attending the Christmas Day church service at Sandringham. Prince Charles, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte and Prince George on the way to church
Their brother, 19-month-old Prince Louis, stayed at home with his nanny, Maria Borrallo.
The junior royals were shy and hesitant at first, particularly smartly dressed George, who looked pensive and clutched his father’s hand.
However, Charlotte soon warmed up and her bubbly nature took over, especially when one member of the public handed her a brightly coloured blow-up flamingo and asked for a hug.
The beaming young princess, who looked sweet in a £140 green coat by Amaia Kids and Mary Jane shoes, with her hair neatly braided, looked delighted as she thanked wheelchair user Gemma Clark.
Miss Clark, 39, who has cerebral palsy, travelled from Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, with her family. She said Charlotte seemed pleased with the gift.
Charlotte was also encouraged by her mother, Kate – elegant in a green hat and grey fake fur-trimmed coat – to take posies of flowers from twins Thomas and Theresa Richman, nine, who suffer from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which affects the nerves that control muscles.
Their mother Michelle Richman, from nearby Bircham, said Kate stopped to talk to her because she recognised her from a brief meeting at a local delicatessen.
Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie faced the crowds at Sandringham without their father Prince Andrew who stayed away from the annual Christmas gathering of Royals as he continues to be dogged by his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein
Mrs Richman said: ‘It was absolutely stunning – I survived breast cancer six years ago so to still be here and see that today with the children was absolutely tremendous.
‘This has made our Christmas and made our year, it was a real honour to meet them all.
‘Charlotte said she had a really lovely Christmas – they had a very early start.’
Karen Anvil, a mother who took a world-famous picture of William and Kate walking to church with Harry and Meghan in 2017, gave Charlotte a doll and managed to capture some more pictures of the youngster on her phone.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their nine-month-old son, Archie, were notable by their absence. With the blessing of the Queen they are spending the festive season with Meghan’s mother Doria in Canada. But some onlookers were disappointed they weren’t in England, particularly given the poor health of Harry’s grandfather.
In the absence of her husband, the Queen, 93, who was dressed in festive red, travelled to St Mary Magdalene Church by car, significantly accompanied by her daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cornwall, 72.
The implication was lost on no-one, particularly following this year’s Queen’s Christmas message, during which she made a point of heavily featuring her direct heirs Charles, William and George, along with Camilla and Kate.
While she has always been fond of Camilla, there was a time when the monarch would not even tolerate hearing her name in her presence due to the stench of scandal.
The Duke of Edinburgh leaves King Edward VII Hospital in London, after being admitted last Friday for observation and treatment in relation to a pre-existing condition
But she has been deeply impressed by Camilla’s loyalty to Charles and the way in which she has embraced royal duties and won over members of the public with her warmth and geniality.
While the monarch has made no official proclamation on whether she supports Charles in his desire to see Camilla crowned Queen one day, having her travel with her to church will be seen as a public mark of approval.
Also enjoying a moment in the spotlight was Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, Princess Beatrice’s fiance, who was invited to spend Christmas at Sandringham by the Queen for the first time in a show of solidarity for her granddaughter, whose wedding plans have been overshadowed by her father’s scandal.
It was the smallest royal turnout for several years.
Zara Tindall, her husband Mike and their two daughters were away with family, as was her brother, Peter, his wife Autumn, and their two girls.
But the York family was out in force – as well as Beatrice and her fiance, her sister, Eugenie, was there with husband Jack. Other members of the public who got to meet the royals included Eileen Broughton, 91, and her daughter Tina, who drove her wheelchair-bound mother down from Lincolnshire for the occasion.
Miss Broughton, from Lincoln, said of Andrew’s absence: ‘I don’t think he would show his face at the moment.’
But she described their encounter with Kate as a fitting finale to a ‘perfect day’.
In a moment of minor drama, two men were escorted away by police after climbing over a fence behind one of the public viewing areas and walking along a field line near the church. A spokesman for Norfolk Police said no one was arrested.