Revenge of the Sussex survivors’ club: The inside story of how a fairytale turned into a nightmare

It is the one royal group that no one wants to join. Referred to only half-jokingly as the ‘Sussex Survivors’ Club’, its membership is sadly rising.

But its select band of members have one thing in common: all have worked for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and lived to tell the tale.

Joking aside, some even believe they may have a form of post-traumatic stress, defined by doctors as an anxiety disorder caused by distressing or frightening events.

Such experiences, of course, are now widely acknowledged not to be limited to soldiers who have undergone traumatic experiences on the battlefield, but also to people at work.

Even if that work is in a palace.

And today, many former palace staff look back on the moment that Prince Harry introduced to the world his beautiful, intelligent and passionate bride-to-be as the beginning of one of the most traumatic periods in their lives.

Let us be clear: Harry is a complex man but one with a strong sense of natural justice and charity, given to acts of compassion and kindness.

‘He wears his heart on his sleeve and genuinely wants to do good in the world,’ one admirer tells me.

But he is also equally capable, say those who know him well and like him, of behaving ‘like an absolute brat’.

Aides at the centre of palace intrigue

Melissa Touabti (right) is pictured with Robbie Williams' wife Ayda for whom she previously worked

Melissa Touabti (right) is pictured with Robbie Williams' wife Ayda for whom she previously worked

Melissa Touabti (right) is pictured with Robbie Williams’ wife Ayda for whom she previously worked

PA WHO QUIT AFTER WEDDING:

Melissa Touabti, the duchess’s former personal assistant, had previously worked for Robbie Williams and Madonna.

She played a key role in preparations for Meghan and Harry’s wedding in May 2018, but quit after just six months.

The Frenchwoman, 41, took a job with the billionaire Livingstone family – owners of the stately home Cliveden. 

THE AMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR:

Jason Knauf joined the royals in 2014, having acted as a ‘crisis management expert’ at the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The 36- year-old American, who completed his master’s at the London School of Economics, served as communications secretary to the ‘Fab Four’ of William, Kate, Harry and Meghan before the Cambridges and Sussexes created separate offices in March 2019.

Mr Knauf now heads William and Kate’s charitable foundation. 

THE AMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR: Jason Knauf (left) walks behind the couple at the Invictus Games in Toronto

THE AMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR: Jason Knauf (left) walks behind the couple at the Invictus Games in Toronto

THE AMERICAN SPIN DOCTOR: Jason Knauf (left) walks behind the couple at the Invictus Games in Toronto 

Simon Case in Dundee in 2019

Simon Case in Dundee in 2019

Simon Case in Dundee in 2019 

THE WHIZ-KID WHO RUNS WHITEHALL: 

Simon Case became the youngest head of the civil service for over a century when he took the post at the tender age of 41.

The Cambridge history graduate – a noted fan of tweed suits and Barbour jackets – had previously been the principal private secretary to successive Tory prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May. He also worked at spying centre GCHQ as a ‘director of strategy’.

His most recent role before becoming Cabinet Secretary last year was serving as private secretary to Prince William.

THE TOUGH TALKING AUSTRALIAN: 

Formerly the Queen’s assistant private secretary, Samantha Cohen had planned to quit Buckingham Palace in 2018. Instead, she agreed to stay on and help the duchess through her first months in the Royal Family.

The well-liked but tough-talking Australian became the Sussexes’ private secretary, but left in 2019 to work for the environmental charity Cool Earth. 

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Queen Elizabeth II (accompanied by Samantha Cohen) attend a ceremony to open the new Mersey Gateway Bridge on June 14, 2018 in Widnes, England

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Queen Elizabeth II (accompanied by Samantha Cohen) attend a ceremony to open the new Mersey Gateway Bridge on June 14, 2018 in Widnes, England

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Queen Elizabeth II (accompanied by Samantha Cohen) attend a ceremony to open the new Mersey Gateway Bridge on June 14, 2018 in Widnes, England 

THE PRINCES’ HR HEAD HONCHO: 

Experienced human resources director Samantha Carruthers worked for De Beers and investment bank Lazard before joining the royals.

Head of HR for Prince Charles and Prince William until 2019, she is now deputy chairman of the board of trustees for child bereavement charity Winston’s Wish. 

Samantha Carruthers worked for De Beers and investment bank Lazard before joining the royal

Samantha Carruthers worked for De Beers and investment bank Lazard before joining the royal

Samantha Carruthers worked for De Beers and investment bank Lazard before joining the royal 

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It had been clear for years to anyone he came into contact with that he wasn’t happy working with the palace machinery – or, particularly, the British media (sometimes understandably so).

He was, they say, always capable of self-destructively ‘pressing the nuclear button’ on his royal life.

Meghan, they stress, was simply the catalyst.

But the result was more toxic, more personally harmful, than anyone could ever have imagined.

To begin with, however, the atmosphere at Kensington Palace was heady and exciting.

Here was a glamorous couple, clearly deeply in love. Meghan was the missing piece of the jigsaw that poor, motherless Harry had been searching for all those years.

Famously she once paid for an ice cream stand for her new staff at Kensington Palace, with the event later – surprise! – being breathlessly revealed in People, a ‘pro-Sussex’ American magazine, as the ‘best day of work, ever’.

More than that, they were a couple determined to do good on a world stage – at the same time sprinkling a little stardust on Britain’s ‘fusty’ old Royal Family.

And their small team of loyal staff believed in them – until, that is, the scales fell from their eyes.

Notoriously, within a few weeks of Meghan’s arrival in England and the announcement of the couple’s engagement in November 2017, word was leaking out about the couple’s ‘autocratic’ and ‘difficult’ behaviour.

Occasionally it slipped into print: that Meghan (a claim robustly sourced by the Mail) had refused to wear a hat on her first official engagement with the Queen in Chester, despite being strongly advised it would be appropriate and respectful to do so.

Then came the famous row over which tiara she wanted to wear to the couple’s wedding, resulting in Harry publicly admonishing one of the Queen’s most senior members of staff, Angela Kelly: ‘What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.’

There were also claims that the Duchess of Cambridge had told Meghan she shouldn’t speak to her staff so dismissively and that there was so much friction at a pre-wedding bridesmaid fitting that Kate was left in tears.

The Times has reported that the ‘febrile’ atmosphere within Kensington Palace saw staff, on occasion, weeping. Two say they were bullied by the duchess, a third that they had been ‘humiliated’ by her.

The paper quotes one aide, who was anticipating a confrontation with Meghan, as saying: ‘I can’t stop shaking.’ At first, my sources tell me, Harry tried to keep the peace, gently placating his wife and quietly apologising to staff.

On one occasion described to me by several sources, he even gently admonished Meghan about the way she behaved with palace staff – many of whom work long hours for relatively little money out of pride for the institution – after a particularly explosive encounter.

The details are subject to conjecture (and have become something of a palace legend) but resulted in Harry speaking to one of his close protection officers, who confirmed his fiancee’s behaviour.

But as the weeks went on, the prince became increasingly hostile to his once-loyal aides.

Rebecca English with Prince Harry to learn about the work of his new charity Sentebale in Lesotho in 2006

Rebecca English with Prince Harry to learn about the work of his new charity Sentebale in Lesotho in 2006

Rebecca English with Prince Harry to learn about the work of his new charity Sentebale in Lesotho in 2006

The Times has claimed Harry knew of a complaint made by the couple’s former communications secretary, Jason Knauf, that Meghan had driven two personal assistants out of the household and was undermining the confidence of a third staff member. Harry is said to have had a meeting with Mr Knauf in which he begged him not to pursue it. The Sussexes deny this.

They also describe the allegations as ‘old’, ‘distorted’ and aimed at ‘undermining’ Meghan. It has been suggested by others that staff may have ‘misunderstood’ Meghan’s more direct, American style. But I have personally witnessed more than one member of staff driven to tears by the treatment they were subjected to by the duke and duchess before the couple acrimoniously quit as working royals.

One person sobbed down the phone to me after a particularly harrowing day. They clearly felt emotionally broken and could no longer cope with the pressure they were being subjected to.

Others have indicated to me they were being asked to behave in a manner they did not feel professionally comfortable with, particularly in their dealings with the media. Several aides have also told me that Meghan in particular was very good at ‘drawing’ staff into her confidence, flattering them as if they were the only person in the world she could trust and asking them to help her with various duties.

Often these were things that were far beyond the scope of their normal work – in one case being instructed to make plans for her father Thomas to be flown from his home in Mexico before the wedding and taken to a fully-stocked ‘safe house’ in LA for a few days in order to fool any waiting media.

And then, when things didn’t go to plan, the sun would no longer shine on them. It was made ‘horribly clear’ they were out of favour.

Toxic, hostile, distrustful, poisonous: all words I have heard regularly used over the past few years to describe people’s experiences working in the Sussexes’ household.

The Times reports matters became so bad that Mr Knauf, an experienced PR operator who cut his teeth defending the bank RBS at the height of its financial scandal, decided to put his strongly held concerns in writing.

He made clear in October 2018, little more than six months after the couple married, that he believed the duchess had already driven two members of staff out and another was being targeted.

‘I am very concerned that the duchess was able to bully two PAs out of the household in the past year. The treatment of [redacted] was totally unacceptable,’ he wrote.

‘The duchess seems intent on always having someone in her sights. She is bullying ‘Y’ and seeking to undermine her confidence. We have had report after report from people who have witnessed unacceptable behaviour towards Y.’

The Times has chosen not to match incidents to individual names, but the members of staff leaving the Sussexes’ employment were all women and all seasoned professionals. A well-placed source said: ‘[One woman’s] job was highly pressurised and in the end it became too much. She put up with quite a lot. Meghan put a lot of demands on her and it ended up with her in tears.’ One member of staff, a seasoned professional, was initially said to have left on good terms.

But I have since been told that this popular aide was deeply unhappy about her experience working for the duchess and had been ‘desperate’ to get out as long as she could professionally put a brave face on it. Likewise a third member of staff. Mr Knauf makes clear in his email, as reported by The Times, that he was also concerned about the couple’s hugely experienced deputy private secretary, Samantha Cohen. She had worked for the Queen for more than 20 years and was personally persuaded by the monarch to stay on and help the couple navigate their first few years of royal life.

He indicated that she was experiencing extreme stress and said: ‘I questioned if the Household policy on bullying and harassment applies to principals [the term used to refer to a member of the royal family].’

One source tells me wryly, with an eye to Meghan’s much-hyped championing of female empowerment: ‘Note that everyone concerned was a woman.’

Another adds: ‘Sam always made clear that it was like working for a couple of teenagers. They were impossible and pushed her to the limit. She was miserable.’

The Times also makes reference to an incident during the couple’s tour to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga in 2018, which was a particularly difficult one for all concerned, Meghan included. She was, of course, pregnant at the time.

The newspaper reports how Meghan cut short a visit to a market in Fiji because she was concerned about the presence of a UN organisation promoting women, with which she had worked before and made clear she no longer wished to have anything to do with.

At the time officials had suggested that it was because it was humid and the crowd was oppressive in the market.

I was there at the time and witnessed Meghan turn and ‘hiss’ at a member of her entourage, clearly incandescent with rage about something, and demand to leave.

I later saw that same – female – highly distressed member of staff sitting in an official car, with tears running down her face. Our eyes met and she lowered hers, humiliation etched on her features.

At the time I was unable to document anything as I couldn’t conclusively link the two incidents together, despite my suspicions. I have subsequently found out from other sources that my instincts were right.

It should be stressed that lawyers for the duchess said she met other leaders from UN Women later on the tour and denied she left for the reason alleged.

So why has this all come out now, you might ask?

The Times makes clear that these aides have ‘hit back’ before Meghan’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey this Sunday.

The newspaper says it was approached by sources because they felt ‘only a partial version had emerged of Meghan’s two years as a working member of the royal family and they wished to tell their side’.

They were also concerned at how such matters were handled by the palace.

One source put it more succinctly to me yesterday. ‘Those concerned are fed up with the sheer hypocrisy of it all. The suggestion that they [the Sussexes] were being bullied and forced out when others were experiencing that very treatment at their hands!’ exclaimed the source.

Another insider told me they believed some staff had even sought psychological therapy over their experiences – something that Harry, who moved the nation when he revealed how he had himself sought professional help to cope with the emotional fall-out over his mother’s death and has long campaigned on mental health issues, should know all about.

‘People have been broken by this, genuinely so. Absolutely traumatised,’ I am told.

Lawyers for the duchess say she wished to fit in and be accepted and had left her life in North America to commit to her new role.

What a sad, sorry mess.

The irony, another source says, is that no one wanted a battle. But the Sussexes have waged this war and enough is enough.

Those aides who have broken the royal omerta say they refuse to sit by and watch Harry and Meghan’s ‘duplicitous’ behaviour, especially when ‘good people and brilliant professionals’ are having their reputations unfairly traduced. One source warns: ‘The royals cannot fight back. ‘Never complain, never explain.’ But they can.’

A spokesman for the Sussexes has told The Times that they are the victims of a ‘calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful information’.

They have said the duchess is ‘saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself and is deeply committed to supporting those who have experienced pain and trauma.’

Wedding gems from ‘murderous’ ruler 

Meghan Markle was criticised last night for preaching about human rights in Saudi Arabia yet wearing priceless earrings from its rulers.

She was photographed wearing the earrings, a wedding gift from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, three weeks after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death the prince has accepted responsibility for.

Meghan was claimed to have been ‘unaware’ of the global outrage at the time about reports the prince had ordered the murder. She wore them at a dinner in a visit to Fiji in October 2018.

Her staff told journalists the jewellery was ‘borrowed’, without stating from whom.

Meghan has campaigned for women in Saudi Arabia to be allowed to drive, appearing with Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who has since been jailed. 

Lawyers for the duchess denied to The Times that she had misled anyone about the provenance of the earrings. 

Meghan Markle wears the earrings at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji, on October 23, 2018, three weeks after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul

Meghan Markle wears the earrings at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji, on October 23, 2018, three weeks after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul

Meghan Markle wears the earrings at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji, on October 23, 2018, three weeks after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul

The Duchess of Sussex was again seen wearing the earrings one month later on November 14, 2018 as she was photographed leaving Kensington Palace to attend Prince Charles's 70th birthday party at Buckingham Palace

The Duchess of Sussex was again seen wearing the earrings one month later on November 14, 2018 as she was photographed leaving Kensington Palace to attend Prince Charles's 70th birthday party at Buckingham Palace

The Duchess of Sussex was again seen wearing the earrings one month later on November 14, 2018 as she was photographed leaving Kensington Palace to attend Prince Charles’s 70th birthday party at Buckingham Palace

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