Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, KG, GCVO, CD, ADC, turns 62 next month. It is long past the age at which a man is expected to stop being a cause of concern and embarrassment to his parents. And yet Andrew, who is said to be the Queen’s favourite child, has exposed his mother to the greatest threat to the royal family’s reputation in living memory.
As he awaits the decision of a New York judge, Lewis Kaplan, in the sex assault case brought by Virginia Giuffre, the prince finds himself in the deeply unedifying position of trying to evade court with a secret silencing deal struck by his late friend and convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.
The agreement, signed in 2009, stated that in exchange for being paid $500,000, Giuffre, then using her maiden name of Roberts, would “release … and forever discharge … second parties and any other person or entity who could have been included as a potential defendant … from all, and all manner of, action and actions of Virginia Roberts, including state or federal, cause and causes of action”.
Giuffre maintains that in 2001 when she was 17 she was trafficked by Epstein and his sometime girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell to have sex with the prince on three occasions – once in Maxwell’s house in Belgravia, where the infamous photograph was taken of her with the then 42-year-old prince’s hand around her waist, on the second occasion at Epstein’s mansion in New York and finally on Epstein’s private island, Little St James in the US Virgin Islands, with a group of other girls. The prince denies all allegations and says he has no recollection of ever having met Giuffre.
The prince’s lawyers have taken an aggressive approach to protecting their client. They first argued that the court summons had not been properly served, then attempted to get the case thrown out on the grounds that Giuffre doesn’t live in the US.
Now they are seeking their client’s salvation with the grim fact that he qualifies as a potential defendant in any sex abuse case connected to Epstein. In other words, it appears his possible culpability is being used as his defence.
Even if this legal loophole works, and Kaplan dismisses the case, it will be an outcome that will not clear the prince’s name, which his friends insist is his prime aim. Instead, added to all those letters that come after his title, will be a toxic question mark.
And that’s the best-case scenario for the prince. If, instead, Kaplan gives the go-ahead for the case to be heard, then the prince would be obliged to make a deposition and then, in the autumn, appear in court. He could in theory refuse to do either, but again the optics would be disastrous. However, if he did go to court, the world’s media would be offered a daily diet of sordid details. And if he were to lose the case, courtiers suggest he may no longer be able to travel internationally, for fear of criminal extradition.
As the royal expert and author Robert Lacey puts it: “The prospect of Virginia Giuffre’s allegations against a senior member of the Windsors being aired in court and reported around the world is just impossible to contemplate from the point of view of the royal family, and I’m quite sure there would be some settlement out of court.”
Given that Giuffre has waited over 20 years for recognition of the damage that she says was done to her, that settlement would presumably involve a large financial figure – which raises the question of who will pay it. The prince has spent the better part of his adult life cosying up to the super-rich, precisely because he lacks that kind of money himself. So again his mother, who is thought to have bankrolled his defence, would be his benefactor. That brings into the spotlight the contested question of whether her wealth is private or a product of her position as head of state, and therefore subject to some kind of taxpayer oversight.
Monarchists insists her private wealth and her public dispensation are completely separate things, but any settlement paid by the Queen would provide republicans with ballistic ammunition. What seems extraordinary is that this conclusion has been moving steadily closer for more than a decade, and the prince, and all those he has repeatedly reassured of his innocence, have been frozen in a state of denial, just hoping that it will all go away.
Catherine Mayer, the author of a biography of Prince Charles and co-founder of the Women’s Equality party, says that Buckingham Palace did “something very stupid” when the scandal first surfaced in 2011.
Shortly after he was photographed with Epstein in 2010 strolling in Central Park, New York following the American’s release from prison on charges of procuring a minor for prostitution, Andrew was removed from his position as international trade envoy and redeployed on other matters, including as a royal business guru with the Pitch@Palace initiative. Mayer believes that decision was symptomatic of a wish to sidestep the issue rather than confront it.
“The whole story is a genuine tragedy because of all the lives it has ruined,” she says. “But there is also a soap opera quality to it in that you see characters ignoring things, of trying to cover them up in the belief that they will make things better, and you, as the viewer, know that they’re going to get worse. I’ve had that feeling watching this.”
One problem, says Mayer, is that there has been no comprehensive strategy across the royal family on what to do. Although its members talk about the family as “the firm”, lending the idea of disciplined business entity, this, says Mayer, is a misconception.
“It has always been, and increasingly in latter years, not one institution but a series of institutions or courts and households frequently in conflict with each other,” she says. Royal observers note that staff working for Prince Charles and Prince William have briefed against Andrew. A mixture of the Queen’s protectiveness, the wary exasperation of other royal households and Andrew’s stubborn resistance to sound advice, left him to forge his own ad hoc strategy. It resulted in his fateful decision to put his side of the story across in the excruciating November 2019 Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis.
As a textbook example of how not to do damage limitation it is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. “You saw how completely untethered he is to outside reality,” says Mayer.
Looking back at that disastrously revealing encounter, it is notable how often the prince used Maxwell to try to put some distance between himself and Epstein (who hosted Andrew on many occasions and gave large sums of money to his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, and possessed 16 separate phone numbers for the prince). At one point he describes the financier as a “plus one”.
But now that Maxwell herself has been convicted of sex trafficking a minor, among other serious charges, it leaves the prince with no one to saddle with his poor judgment of character. In among a catalogue of evasions and failing memories, his one line of consistent defence is that he was not aware of anything untoward going on in any of the Epstein or Maxwell households at which he stayed. For Lacey, among many other observers, this is simply not a credible proposition.
“He consorted for 10 years with a couple whose lifestyle revolved around the sexual exploitation by Epstein of vulnerable women and underage girls, a number of them trafficked by Maxwell. The overtness of this predatory way of life was apparently inescapable. What do you imagine when you travel in a private plane nicknamed the ‘Lolita Express’? And then you invite these degenerates to stay at Balmoral?”
When challenged on his apparent blindness by Maitlis, the prince came up with an explanation that Mayer sees as a self-indictment rather than exoneration. He effectively said that he lived among servants all the time and was used to not taking any notice of them – even, presumably, if they were scantily clad teenage girls.
“It shows his extraordinary arrogance and disconnection,” says Mayer, “and he unintentionally spoke a truth that is deeply damaging to him and the wider institution.” In fact his brusque manner with servants is well-documented. A senior footman once told a reporter who worked undercover at Buckingham Palace said that on waking the prince “the response can easily be ‘fuck off’ as good morning”.
Of course, Andrew would not be the first obnoxious royal, nor the first dissolute prince. The institution’s history is full of badly behaved characters. But we are now living in the third decade of the 21st century, in a time of transition not just for the royal family, as they prepare for the prospect of a new monarch, but society at large.
Ten years ago, in the pre-#MeToo days, a movie mogul such as Harvey Weinstein could terrorise and abuse women with impunity. His friend Epstein all but got away with rape and sex trafficking thanks to the political influence he was able to exert.
And back in 2011 it may well have seemed that Giuffre’s allegations against Andrew were destined to remain the outlandish cry of an inconsequential person, an unprovable rumour that would fade along with all the other neglected claims made against the rich and powerful.
Even a photograph taken inside Maxwell’s home could be dismissed as fake – although how could a young woman get access to an image of the prince that no one else has ever seen to put it in a mocked-up picture?
It never did add up, and with the passage of time, the attempt to remove himself from that troubling scene in his friend’s house looks more and more like a desperate tactic. Just as the prince’s claim that he stayed with Epstein for four days to tell him that he could no longer be his friend out of a sense of “honour” was always far-fetched and miserably self-serving.
It seems unlikely after all these years that the prince will change his story, and if there is a settlement it will doubtless come with a non-acceptance of any personal responsibility. Yet this is unquestionably a watershed case. It’s hard to imagine that any royal will again be afforded the indulgence that has accompanied Andrew around the globe.
Although the monarchy will survive this current crisis, it may well do so in a more streamlined version with fewer passengers. The days of overgrown playboys trading on the family name in exchange for paid-for company and pay-offs to ex-wives should be numbered. And if they are it will be in no small part due to the efforts of a group of women from largely humble backgrounds who refused to back down in the face of their abusers.
“I am looking forward to vindicating my rights as an innocent victim and pursuing all available recourse,” Giuffre said seven years ago. “I’m not going to be bullied back into silence.”
As even Prince Andrew would have to concede, she has certainly not allowed that to happen.