For the British royal family, that has meant slimming down to reflect more austere times — as demonstrated by the ever-decreasing numbers appearing on the palace balcony during national celebrations.
The Queen’s thinking was that those in the direct line of succession — Princes Charles, William and George — would retain the support of their siblings in carrying out their public duties, but not the many cousins that Elizabeth II and her predecessors were able to count on too.
The issue for William is that he is one of only two siblings. Which is why his brother, Prince Harry, was always seen as integral to the monarchy — the key burden-sharer of his generation.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s announcement wasn’t just a personal loss for the family; it disrupted the entire structure, strategy and brand of the Crown, which is a key pillar of British democracy.
All this at a time when the ageing head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, had been hoping to step back herself at the age of 93, allowing the next generation to pick up more of her duties.
Ultimately, the departure of the Sussexes capped off a seismic 12 months that proved the British monarchy needed its Queen more than ever, firmly dispelling any suggestion that she might soon retire.
A year of royal scandal
The Queen is mostly based at London’s Buckingham Palace during the week. As royal commentator Richard Fitzpatrick explained: “The Queen has been without her ‘strength and stay’ as [the duke] is based at Wood Farm on the Sandringham Estate [in Norfolk, 100 miles north of London], even though they reportedly speak every day by telephone.”
Fitzpatrick added that the absence of the long-time patriarch — who previously assumed the roles of “modernizer” and “pragmatist” — had been keenly felt this year.
It’s all part of the inevitable transition to a new monarch. But abdication is dismissed out of hand by aides who point to the Queen’s repeated commitments to “life-long service.”
Even the idea of a regency — where she retains the Crown but hands over all official responsibilities to Charles — appears to be off the agenda.
Sussexes dominate headlines
Meanwhile, another royal clash with the press was brewing.
Against this backdrop, the couple’s battle with the British media escalated.
All publications deny the couple’s claims and have vowed to fight them vigorously.
When the Queen came to the throne in the 1950s, the media was more limited and reverential in tone. Since then, the media landscape has changed dramatically, and the intensified scrutiny on her family has taken a toll on its younger generations — particularly the Sussexes.
“I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought that it would be fair,” the duchess said of her treatment by the media, in a documentary for CNN affiliate ITV News, which aired in October.
“I’ve really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip,” she said. “I tried, but I think what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
Asked how she was feeling, Meghan responded, “Thank you for asking because not many people have asked if I’m okay, but it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.”
After the program aired, a source at Kensington Palace told the BBC that the Duke of Cambridge was “worried” about his brother.
Rifts in the family
There followed a crisis meeting at The Queen’s Sandringham Estate, involving the monarch and Princes Charles, William and Harry.
But she also had the firmness of a leader, making clear that while the Sussexes were still much-loved members of the family, they were no longer part of “the firm,” as it is known.
Prince Andrew’s disastrous interview
Just months earlier, the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, also stepped back from public duties — though this was more an act of damage control, than a lifestyle choice.
Epstein had allegedly trafficked Virginia Giuffre — previously known as Virginia Roberts — when she was 17 years old, forcing her to have sex with his friends, including Prince Andrew.
Days later, Prince Andrew said in a statement that he did regret his association with Epstein and sympathize with his victims. But the damage had already been done, and he stepped back from his royal role, following a meeting with the Queen.
Multiple sources have made it clear to CNN that the Queen led on the issue of how to handle Andrew, just as she did during the Sussex crisis.
Amid all her family woes, the Queen was also tested professionally when Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked her to suspend Parliament for five weeks at the height of the Brexit political deadlock.
She rubber-stamped the request in line with her duty to stay out of politics and to act only on the advice of ministers.
But when the Supreme Court found the prorogation was illegal, it raised the uncomfortable question of whether the Queen had broken the law.
The Queen famously described 1992 as her “Annus Horribilis,” when three of her children endured marital strife and Windsor Castle almost burned down.
If that was the year she was tested personally, then the last 12 months are when she has been tested professionally.
The monarchy is still intact but it needs time to recalibrate. Elizabeth will be hoping that it’s allowed the time to do that, without any further disruption.
She remains firmly at the helm. But part of that recalibration continues to be transitioning her heirs into their new roles.