So what are we to make of the revelations that Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex have lavished not far short of £2.5 million of public money – our money – on renovating Frogmore Cottage?
The charitable response is that it is the inevitable but necessary cost of ensuring the safety of this hugely popular royal couple and that of their son.
Those of a less charitable disposition will wonder if this is not another example of the Sussexes’ insouciance for public relations and an instinct for extravagance that sits awkwardly with their attempt to position themselves as modern, forward-looking and in touch with how ordinary people live.
The newlyweds moved out of Kensington Palace this spring amid reports of a rift with his brother William and sister-in-law Kate. They have now spent £2.4million of public money doing up their Windsor home. Pictured: revealing Baby Archie to the world in May at Windsor Castle
It is certainly uncomfortable timing.
Reports at the weekend suggested that over the past 18 months, Meghan had amassed a jewellery collection that has been valued at £600,000. And no one yet has dared put a figure on her constantly changing wardrobe of high-end couture.
Danger signs were already there, ever since the duchess’s £350,000, five-day baby shower extravaganza to New York. But that was a private affair and did not involve British taxpayers’ cash.
The refurbishment of Frogmore Cottage is of an entirely different nature.
The major work included replacing defective ceiling beams and floor joists, and updating outmoded heating systems.
It also needed rewiring, with its own electrical sub-station, while new gas and water mains were installed. The couple are also thought to have installed a luxury kitchen and bathroom in the Grade II listed building. Naturally, officials were keen to downplay suggestions that this was an example of royal profligacy.
The overhaul of Frogmore Cottage (pictured) was approved by the Queen, according to accounts released yesterday
‘The property had not been the subject of work for some years and had already been earmarked for renovation in line with our responsibility to maintain the condition of the occupied royal palaces estate,’ was the response of Sir Michael Stevens, the Keeper of the Privy Purse who is responsible for the monarchy’s finances.
Indeed, we were also told the house’s fixtures and fittings were ‘substantially’ paid for by the couple – which means the bills have been met by Harry’s father, the Prince of Wales.
With an estimated fortune of £20 million inherited from his mother’s estate and trust funds from the Queen Mother, Harry could, of course, afford to pay for the renovation himself.
Indeed, we were also told the house’s fixtures and fittings were ‘substantially’ paid for by the couple – which means the bills have been met by Harry’s father, the Prince of Wales
There is nothing to prevent him from doing so, though it could lead to legal complications. For Frogmore Cottage is owned by the Crown Estates and it is in the gift of the Queen. Custom and practice is that royal properties occupied by a member of the Royal Family are maintained by Sovereign Grant, in other words the taxpayer.
No one begrudges Harry and Meghan having their own home and it is part of the compact between the Royal Family and the public that, within reason, we pay for that home.
All the same, when public services are under such pressure and household budgets squeezed, that compact seems more relevant than ever. In return for their entitled lives, royals should give something back. The question is: are Meghan and Harry keeping their side of the bargain?
For Frogmore Cottage is owned by the Crown Estates and it is in the gift of the Queen. Custom and practice is that royal properties occupied by a member of the Royal Family are maintained by Sovereign Grant, in other words the taxpayer
Their reluctance to share traditional photos of their son and the near-farcical lengths they went to keep secret details of his birth – a child, remember, that is seventh in line to the throne – suggest they are not.
Certainly, we know they hear the criticism because friends such as the Clooneys and Oprah Winfrey have said so. But do they listen? No wonder there are some around the Royal Family who have come to the conclusion that this is a couple who want the privileges and perks of royal life (along with their new coterie of jet-set friends) but have not yet realised – or accepted – that it comes at a price.
Meghan’s decision to avoid Donald Trump’s state visit and Harry’s reported boorishness at his brief encounter with the American first family only added to the narrative.
Public affection for the Duke and Duchess – especially for Harry – runs deep. But their behaviour is testing that fondness. Many remain baffled about the couple’s decision to up sticks from the security of Kensington Palace for Frogmore Cottage.
Meghan’s decision to avoid Donald Trump’s state visit and Harry’s reported boorishness at his brief encounter with the American first family only added to the narrative
Increasingly, it looks like the motivation was largely due to the rift that opened between Harry and his brother William, and, to a lesser extent, that between Meghan and the Duchess of Cambridge.
Slowly and steadily in the year since his wedding, Harry has unpicked his relationship with William and Kate. From separate homes to separate offices and separate staff, he and Meghan have been going their own way.
The splitting of their charitable interests, the Royal Foundation, is just the latest manifestation.
Are the public now having to meet the cost of this wilful split? Was it really too difficult to remain at Kensington Palace? Indeed, it’s a vast estate where the chances of bumping into neighbours are slight.
As a friend of Princess Diana, I regularly visited her apartment over the years. She often told me she rarely saw other members of the Royal Family who lived there – much to her relief – let alone her immediate neighbours Princess Michael of Kent and Princess Margaret.
Slowly and steadily in the year since his wedding, Harry has unpicked his relationship with William and Kate. From separate homes to separate offices and separate staff, he and Meghan have been going their own way
For much of last year, Harry and Meghan continued to live at the Palace in cosy Nottingham Cottage, his pre-marriage digs which Meghan said she adored when she moved in.
But suddenly it no longer suited. With a child on the way they, understandably, wanted somewhere bigger. The Duke of Gloucester, whose children are adults, offered to give up his home, Apartment 1.
This was certainly grand enough, and the only essential building work it needed was a £1.4 million new roof – which was to be done anyway.
However, the apartment is directly next door to the Cambridges. Was that the reason Harry declined?
Friends insist this privacy-obsessed couple always wanted to move to Windsor after their wedding and fell in love with Frogmore.
The British are naturally forgiving but even so, financial recklessness, arrogance and a cavalier disregard for public sensitivity could do irreparable damage to an institution that most of us care deeply about
As I said, no one objects to funding their new home, provided Harry and Meghan are going to give the public value for money. If, however, they intend to spend a considerable period of time overseas, as has been reported, perhaps in southern Africa, which will also inevitably involve large sums of public money, attitudes will change.
Harry won plaudits for launching the Invictus Games, which has given opportunity to many wounded military personnel and veterans to compete in sport, and for his championing of issues such as mental health.
But all that might be put at risk by what many will see as self-indulgence.
The impregnability the couple currently enjoy with the wider public might turn to vulnerability.
It might be wise if they start by taking some lessons from fellow royals. Charles and the Queen have meticulously avoided the ostentatious.
The British are naturally forgiving but even so, financial recklessness, arrogance and a cavalier disregard for public sensitivity could do irreparable damage to an institution that most of us care deeply about.