Why Do Royals Get Away With So Much?

Prince Andrew’s entanglements with Jeffrey Epstein lack the usual excuse of affairs of state.

Britain's Prince Andrew leaves after speaking at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Bangkok on Nov. 3, 2019.
Britain's Prince Andrew leaves after speaking at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Bangkok on Nov. 3, 2019. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

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“Epstein did not act alone, so my next step is holding other people accountable, the people that were involved, the people that actually participated. … The monsters are still out there, and they are still abusing other people.”

These are the words of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, from a Netflix documentary about the late financier, socialite, and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. She says Epstein trafficked, raped, and abused her for years, before she finally escaped to Australia.

She has also accused Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, of being a participant in Epstein’s web of horrifying abuse.

As new documents emerge in the Epstein case, those accusations are a ticking time bomb for the British royal family. Andrew is not high in the line of succession, but the toxic world revealed by his ties to Epstein has already cost him and the rest of the House of Windsor dearly. The purpose of minor royals has long been as a glamorous tool in the world of international connections; with the rottenness of that scene exposed, their utility is more in question than ever.

“I can tell you categorically, I don’t remember meeting her at all,” the prince said of Roberts Giuffre. The casual dismissal—despite the photographic evidence—of his accuser is horribly revealing. Yet even before this scandal, there were numerous questions about Andrew’s activities, including his involvement in arms sales to corrupt and repressive regimes with long histories of human rights abuses, 12 separate meetings with the president of Azerbaijan that forced the prince to step down as a U.K. trade envoy, and allegedly corrupt behavior in securing a 385 million pound ($500 million) contract in Kazakhstan for Swiss and Greek clients to financially benefit himself.

Yet in securing arms deals and buttering up bigwigs, Andrew was in some ways only doing what was expected of him as a minor royal. The “spares” instead of the “heirs” have long been deployed as British diplomatic and trade tools, dispatched to bring a touch of glamor to some local tyrant or oil millionaire. Their charity work gets more attention—not least because the palace promotes it—but the glad-handing of terrible people is a critical part of royal diplomacy.

But the Epstein affair goes beyond that, not least because it stood outside the normal affairs of state. Friendship with Central Asian oligarchs and Middle East princes might be ethically dubious, but at least there’s the cover of governmental obligations. Andrew’s connections to Epstein, meanwhile, were purely personal. It didn’t help when his “car crash” interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis on Nov. 16, 2019, saw him deny ever having had sex with Roberts Giuffre because, he claimed, he was at Pizza Express in Woking with his daughter Beatrice. This gave birth to a whole new collection of memes and tweets mocking this very specific denial.

During the interview, he also admitted to residing in a Manhattan mansion belonging to Epstein for three days in 2010, despite Epstein’s conviction two years earlier for sex offenses against a minor. Andrew said it was a “convenient place to stay.”

Four days after the BBC interview, Buckingham Palace announced in a statement that Andrew would be suspended from public duties for the “foreseeable future,” with the consent of the queen. Soon after, he gave up his role as chancellor of the University of Huddersfield and stepped down from all of his 230 patronages. In January of this year, the Home Office recommended that the prince’s security detail be downgraded. All activities carried out by the Prince Andrew Charitable Trust have also been stopped. Andrew is now a permanently nonactive member of the royal family, with no public-facing duties required of him.

But that might not be enough. As events unfold in the United States, the legal questions around Andrew’s actions—and the fallout for the rest of the family—could be critical. A “Jane Doe #3” is listed in new papers as making accusations against him. That may be Roberts Giuffre again, or it could be another possible victim. And evidence is emerging backing her accusations—like the former employee of Epstein’s who has spoken about his time working at Little St. James, Epstein’s private island, and how he managed to identify Roberts Giuffre as the young woman seen topless with Andrew “grabbing her and grinding against her” circa 2004.

The FBI has claimed that Andrew has not helped in its investigations against Epstein and Maxwell and has publicly called for the prince to come in and speak to investigators. Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said during a press conference on July 2 that prosecutors would “welcome Prince Andrew coming in to talk with us. We would like to have the benefit of his statement.”

Sovereign immunity—the principle that states and the people who represent them, when acting in their state capacity, are not liable—has helped royals escape justice in the past. Take Abu Bakar, the Sultan of Johor, who, on visiting Britain in the 1880s incognito, struck up a relationship with a young woman, Jenny Mighell, whom he promised to marry. He left the country, and Mighell sued him for “breach of promise”—a serious civil offense in those days. Alas, since Johor possessed a navy, its own courts, and a post office, the British judges deemed it a state like any other and the sultan to have been acting in that capacity, leaving Mighell out of luck.

Such royal excuses won’t help Andrew, though. Despite his status, he doesn’t enjoy the same kind of immunity that his mother does as head of state. While that sovereign immunity can be extended to other royals, such as Prince Charles, when they perform formal diplomatic duties, informal ones like befriending uber-rich pedophiles don’t count in that function. The queen could go on a murder spree on Fifth Avenue and technically be impossible to prosecute; Andrew is out of luck—and must be quaking in his (properly tailored) boots at the moment.

The British royal family has survived more than its fair share of scandals, from illegitimate marriages to Nazi associations to the cover-up of murder—and that’s just Edward VIII. But it has never had a member hauled up before a criminal court, let alone a foreign one. The British government will be putting plenty of effort in behind the scenes to make sure that doesn’t happen. But if it does—or if the cover-up becomes clearer—Britain might start asking that hard question again: Why do the royals get away with so much?

Harriet Williamson is a journalist, mental health activist and artist. Twitter: @harriepw