LONDON —If life imitated Netflix, this year in the United Kingdom would have been fodder for a few particularly tumultuous episodes of “The Crown.”
Gathering around the telly for Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas message, this one her 68th since ascending the throne, is a holiday tradition in many British households. The 93-year-old monarch’s pre-taped broadcast address generally looks back on the waning year with a traditional dose of hope and cheer, perhaps a dash of veiled political commentary, sometimes served up with a soupcon of family complications —because what would the holidays be without those?
This year’s address, carefully parsed as always by palace-watchers, contained veiled yet pointed observations about the family and kingdom over which Elizabeth presides, roiled in 2019 by Brexit and royal scandal.
The queen has sometimes employed landmark speeches for unusually acerbic truth-telling, such as in 1992, when she used a wintertime address —although not her Christmas message —to lament an “annus horribilis” during which the marriage of her eldest son, Prince Charles, and his then-wife, Princess Diana, was disintegrating in very public fashion. Also, Windsor Castle caught fire.
This year’s Christmas address wasn’t nearly as striking a show of queenly discomfit as that speech, but Elizabeth did appear eager to counter some of the political divisiveness of recent months, and to offer reassuring images of an enduring monarchy.
Here are some of the highlights and lowlights of 2019 in Britain, as commented upon —or in some cases not —by Her Majesty:
BORIS AND BREXIT
This year saw bickering over Brexit come to a dramatic head with this month’s general election that swept Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to a commanding parliamentary majority. That means the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union is all but assured to occur on Jan. 31 —although the formal split will have a limited immediate effect, instead ushering in a tense 11-month period during which Johnson’s government will try to negotiate a complex accord with the bloc covering trade and a host of other matters.
Some of the language used by the queen appeared to refer to rancor over Brexit and perhaps to family troubles as well. “The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy,” she told her compatriots.
But she used historic references to point to a way forward. Invoking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landing at Normandy, Elizabeth spoke of seeing former “sworn enemies … putting past differences behind them.” Even there, though, another layer of meaning was possible: the end of World War II paved the way for a postwar order built on institutions like the European Union, which are credited with preserving peace for seven decades.
MEGHAN AND HARRY
The core members of the royal family gathered for Christmas, as they do every year, at Sandringham, the royal country estate in Norfolk. But the Duke and Duchess of Sussex —better known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle —took a step back from tradition, as they sometimes do, and instead spent the holiday in Canada with Los Angeles-born Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland.
In her Christmas message, Elizabeth declared herself “delighted to welcome” the couple’s 7-month-old boy, whom they named Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. But it’s been a tough year for Meghan —a biracial divorcee often singled out for racially tinged criticism, if not outright abuse —and for Harry, who is now fifth in line to the throne.
The couple are locked in a legal battle with British tabloids over privacy, and in a Sky TV documentary this year, the duchess spoke candidly of the struggles of a sometimes blinding spotlight. They both knew her entry into the royal family would be difficult, she said, but she and Harry have struggled mentally and emotionally.
The queen’s younger son Andrew, 59, failed spectacularly in a bid to extricate himself from the furor surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire financier who died in a New York jail while facing charges of sex trafficking and abuse of underage girls.
A longtime Epstein friend and associate, Andrew was in effect fired from his official royal duties after a disastrous BBC interview in which he displayed little or no empathy for Epstein’s victims. He also offered up what was seen as an extraordinarily unconvincing denial that he himself had engaged in any wrongdoing.
Though disgraced, Andrew did come to Sandringham for Christmas but avoided prominent photo opportunities like the family’s walk en masse to the day’s main Christmas services.
The queen’s sometimes irascible 98-year-old husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is in frail health. While at the wheel of a Land Rover this year, he was involved in a collision that left two people injured. He has retired from official duties and last week was briefly hospitalized but was released Tuesday in time to join the family Christmas gathering.
A king in waiting —but will his time will ever come? At 71, Charles is heir to the throne, though recent years have sometimes brought speculation that the line of succession could skip a generation to William. Still, Charles was credited as a steady behind-the-scenes hand in helping to handle fallout from his younger brother’s Epstein scandal. And the British public these days is largely accepting of Camilla Parker Bowles, the longtime love Charles wed after Diana’s death —though her envisioned role is that of a royal consort, not as queen.
Elizabeth’s holiday message touched on a subject that has long been close to the prince’s heart, climate change. Charles was once derided in some circles as something of a crank on environmental issues, but his obsession now appears prescient when it comes to urgent danger to the planet.
“The challenges many people face today may be different to those once faced by my generation,” said the queen. “But I have been struck by how new generations have brought a similar sense of purpose to issues such as protecting our environment and our climate.”
WILLIAM AND CATHERINE
The queen’s eldest grandson and his commoner wife, popularly known as Kate, enjoy warm public popularity and are now the parents of three young children. But William is reported to have had a falling-out with his younger brother Harry —who publicly acknowledged this year that the once-close pair had taken “different paths.”
The seeming rift comes as a blow to devotees of their late mother, Princess Diana. Many Britons old enough to remember her still recall, misty-eyed, the image of the two young boys stoically walking together behind their mother’s coffin, after she died in a 1997 car crash in Paris.