Mystery behind Meghan Markle’s ‘bloodsoaked’ earrings from Saudi prince – and why royal staff were too scared to ask why she was wearing them – is unravelled by new book
- A new book by Valentine Low details allegations that Meghan bullied staff when working as a Royal
- On a walkabout during a tour of Australia, Meghan allegedly said: ‘I can’t believe I’m not getting paid for this’
- Staff were reportedly kept in the dark about earrings given to her by Saudi prince Mohammed Bin Salman
On their tour of the South Pacific, Harry and Meghan were going down a storm. Massive crowds turned out to see them, and the Duchess’s refreshingly informal approach was proving a hit.
Behind the scenes, however, it was a different story. Although she enjoyed the attention, Meghan failed to understand the point of all those Royal walkabouts, shaking hands with countless strangers.
According to several members of staff, she was heard to say on at least one occasion during the 2018 tour: ‘I can’t believe I’m not getting paid for this.’
Palace officials knew that a lot was riding on Meghan Markle. Her racial background – she has a black mother and a white father – and the fact that she had a successful career as an actress also meant they couldn’t afford to repeat the mistakes made with Princess Diana.
Back then, the Palace hadn’t done enough to make Diana feel welcome or to understand her needs. But lessons had been learned, and perhaps people tried harder to help the latest addition to the Royal Family than Meghan has acknowledged.
Meghan wears earrings given to her by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman – just days after his regime admitted killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi
The chandelier earrings had been a wedding gift from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman
The Duchess of Sussex attends Prince Charles, Prince of Wales’ 70th Birthday Party wearing the earrings in 2018
A new book by Valentine Low claims that during the royal tour of Australia in October 2018, Meghan did not understand why she had to shake people’s hands or do walkabouts
While touring Australia, Meghan Markle’s staff reportedly heard her say: ‘I can’t believe I’m not getting paid for this’
Before her wedding to Harry, she had a meeting with Miguel Head, William’s private secretary, who told her that the Palace would do everything it could to help her.
There was no need to think she had to take on her new role in a particular way, he said. She didn’t have to be straitjacketed.
As Meghan had already made it clear she had no wish to carry on her acting career, they spoke about related work she might do – as a producer or director, for instance, or a writer – and whether she might work in the charitable sector.
What Head was telling Meghan was: none of this is closed off. We can talk about it.
Meghan thanked him, and said she wanted to concentrate on her humanitarian and philanthropic work, and to support Harry as a member of the Royal Family.
As one source said: ‘The entire place, because of everything about her, and because of what Harry’s previous girlfriends had been through, was bending over backwards to make sure every option was open.’
Since then, it’s been suggested that it was only when things started going wrong for Meghan and Harry that their advisers scrambled to find a solution. Not so: long before any kind of crisis, senior courtiers were making considered and imaginative attempts to help them navigate the next few years.
Sir David Manning, the former Ambassador to the US who was William and Harry’s foreign affairs adviser, had actually been drawing up proposals before Harry and Meghan got married – indeed, before Manning had even met her.
Aside from Royal duties, he felt, there should be time for them to pursue their own philanthropic and other interests. Harry’s love of Africa and deep-seated interest in conservation should be built into the programme. And Meghan should have private time to keep in touch with her roots in the US.
So far, so obvious, perhaps. But Manning had another thought.
Soon after the Queen and Prince Philip married, they’d lived in Malta, while William and Kate had started married life in Anglesey. Harry and Meghan could also go away for a while, said Manning. A year in South Africa seemed the obvious choice.
A paper was written outlining the options, and the couple were said to like the idea of a year in Africa.
In the end, however, the idea never took off. Money and security were probably the two big problems that scuppered it.
‘It ran into the sand,’ said Manning. ‘The problems were real, and there was not a willingness to find the resources.’
The Queen had also been keen to help. At her request, the Lord Chamberlain, Earl Peel, the most senior figure in the household, met Meghan to explain how the Palace worked. While this Royal tutorial was probably of limited use, Manning, Head and others were doing their best to help her.
What they hadn’t bargained for, however, was Meghan and Harry’s growing sense of frustration – coupled with their suspicion of the Palace establishment.
In the Sussexes’ view, the efforts of well-meaning courtiers – even back in 2017 – just weren’t good enough. This was a pattern that would be repeated time and again.
What royal staff hadn’t bargained for was Meghan and Harry’s growing sense of frustration – coupled with their suspicion of the Palace establishment
Samantha Cohen (right) warned staff members to stay away from Harry and Meghan after she was ‘screamed at’ during their Australia tour in 2018, a source claimed
A few days after Meghan and Harry got married, Buckingham Palace announced that Samantha Cohen, the Queen’s former assistant private secretary, would be stepping in as their interim private secretary.
At the time, Cohen had been planning to leave after 17 years at the Palace, but the Queen, who had a high regard for her, had asked her to stay on to help the newlyweds.
This was not the Queen imposing her own stooge on them. Instead, she was coming to the rescue by persuading one of her most valued members of staff to guide them through their first six months of married life.
Harry knew Sam Cohen well, as did William, and was very fond of her. The feeling was reciprocated, and she was determined to make her new job work.
She was soon to discover, however, that making Harry and Meghan happy was a bigger challenge than she had anticipated. One source said that Cohen was bullied.
Another said: ‘They treated her terribly. Nothing was ever good enough. It was, “She doesn’t understand, she’s failing.” ’
In fact, the source said Cohen was ‘a saint’ and the best organiser of Royal tours they had ever known.
In autumn 2018, she accompanied the Duke and Duchess on an official trip to Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. On the journey from Tonga to Sydney, Cohen was said to have had a particularly torrid time, according to one source. ‘Sam had been screamed at before the flight, and during.’
After that, Cohen warned other staff to stay away from Harry and Meghan for the rest of the day. And that evening, her colleagues tried to arrange matters so she didn’t have to see the couple any more than was necessary.
According to one source, Sir David Manning – always a reassuring presence on tours – would say: ‘You are dealing with a very difficult lady.’ He wasn’t referring to Cohen.
In February 2021, the Duchess’s lawyers denied that Cohen had been bullied, saying the couple were always grateful for her support and dedication and that she ‘remains very close’ to them.
Harry and Meghan embarked on a 15-day tour of Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand in October 2018. Pictured: Meghan meets the Prime Minister of Tonga
During their tour, Harry and Meghan spent 48 hours in Fiji. On the first night, they attended a state dinner hosted by the president, at which the Duchess wore an eye-catching pair of diamond earrings. Kensington Palace said they were loaned, but refused to say from whom. Even by Palace standards, this struck reporters covering the tour as unnecessarily unhelpful.
The reason for this reticence would not become apparent until more than two years later, when I revealed that the chandelier earrings had been a wedding gift from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. At the time of the wedding, there was nothing controversial about the gift. However, on October 2, 2018, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a leading dissident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered and dismembered before his body was disposed of. In the run-up to the Sussexes’ tour, the murder was a major international news story.
As early as October 12 – four days before the start of the tour – suspicions were growing that the Crown Prince had personally ordered the killing. Then, on October 20, three days before the dinner in Fiji, Saudi Arabia admitted its officials were responsible for his death.
The idea that Meghan would, at a state occasion, knowingly wear earrings given to her by a man accused of having blood on his hands was surprising – to say the least. Meghan’s staff, in particular, were bemused that she should wear them, given her previous public advocacy for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. So the Kensington Palace briefing that the earrings were loaned had been misleading. But who was responsible?
Sam Cohen told colleagues at the time that the earrings had been borrowed from the jeweller Chopard. This, one presumes, is because it’s what she had been told. It was not true, however.
A couple of months after the dinner, a sharp-eyed reader of a blog called Meghan’s Mirror spotted that they were from a collection by the Hong Kong jeweller Butani. So, not Chopard, and not borrowed from the jeweller. Was it an honest, if surprising, mistake? Or was someone lying? And if so, why?
The earrings were given another outing three weeks after Fiji, when Meghan wore them to the Prince of Wales’s 70th birthday party at Buckingham Palace on November 14. At that time, Cohen still appeared to be under the impression that they’d been loaned by Chopard. However, others knew the truth.
When the earrings had first appeared in photos, London-based staff responsible for registering details of all Royal gifts had recognised them and alerted Kensington Palace. A source said: ‘We made a decision not to confront Meghan and Harry on it, out of fear for what their reaction would be.’
After the Duchess wore the earrings for a second time, an aide took up the matter with Harry. He is said to have looked ‘shocked’ that people knew where the earrings came from, although the Sussexes’ lawyers deny that he was ever questioned about their provenance.
Later, Meghan’s lawyers, Schillings, said: ‘At no stage did the Duchess tell staff that the earrings were “borrowed from a jeweller”, as this would have been untrue and therefore any suggestion that she encouraged them to lie to the media is baseless.’
Two days later, Schillings added: ‘It is possible she said the earrings were borrowed, which is correct, as presents from heads of state to the Royal Family are gifts to Her Majesty the Queen, who can then choose to lend them out to members of the family.’
But that is not convincing: if the earrings were loaned by the Queen, staff would have said so. And no one in normal conversation would ever have referred to them as being loaned; they were a wedding gift for Meghan, to use as she liked.
Meghan’s lawyers also argued that she had no idea about Prince Mohammed’s suspected involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. But by the time she wore the earrings for a second time, this claim was even harder to sustain.
Meghan was no airhead princess: she kept up with current affairs. She once told a gathering for International Women’s Day that she read The Economist because she sought out ‘journalism that’s really covering things that are going to make an impact’.
Between mid-October and early November 2018, The Economist ran at least two articles examining the role of Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The new book details incidents of Meghan and Harry’s fractious relationship with staff. Pictured: The couple during their tour of Australia in 2018
On the day that Harry and Meghan flew from Tonga to Sydney, their communications chief Jason Knauf reportedly wrote an email saying the tour was ‘very challenging’ and ‘made worse by the behaviour of the Duchess’
That wasn’t the end of the Duchess’s problems in Fiji. The day after the state dinner, she paid an official visit to a market to see the work of Markets For Change, a project run by UN Women.
According to her timetable, Meghan was due to spend 15 minutes there talking to female vendors. However, after just eight minutes, she was rushed out.
The Kensington Palace press office was immediately sent into a panic, with sources initially claiming that the decision to leave early was because of ‘security’ fears. That was later changed to concerns about ‘crowd management issues’.
The real reason for her premature departure only emerged two years later, when I was told it was because Meghan was concerned about the presence of UN Women, an organisation promoting the empowerment of women, which she’d previously worked with as an actress on the TV series Suits.
Before her visit, the Duchess had told her staff she would only go to the market if there was no UN Women branding, a source said. So before Meghan arrived there, staff did their best to reduce the visibility of the organisation.
However, footage of the visit shows her surrounded by women in blue tops bearing the UN Women logo. At one point, the Duchess, with a fixed smile, can be seen whispering to a member of staff, who grimaces.
Meghan reportedly told an aide: ‘I can’t believe I’ve been put in this situation.’ Moments later, she was ushered out.
In the resulting chaos, Meghan ended up travelling to the next engagement by herself, while Sam Cohen had to go in the back-up car. A staffer remarked at the time: ‘That’s insane. She is nuts.’
One stallholder said: ‘It is such a shame, as we were all very excited to meet her. We started preparing for the visit three weeks ago… but she left without even saying hello.’
Afterwards, the member of staff whom Meghan spoke to at the market was seen sitting in an official car, tears streaming down her face.
It’s not clear why the Duchess had such strong feelings about UN Women. In 2015, she had accepted an invitation to be a UN Women Advocate for Women’s Political Participation and Leadership. But by 2018, she appeared to be less happy to be associated with them.
Meghan’s lawyers said in 2021: ‘This is completely false. The Duchess is a keen supporter of UN Women and has never objected to their branding. The only reason the Duchess was evacuated from the [Fiji] event was due to safety concerns.’
Meanwhile, Sam Cohen was continuing to have a tough time.
On the day that Harry and Meghan flew from Tonga to Sydney, their communications chief Jason Knauf – who had been in daily contact with the couple’s staff from London – wrote an email to his immediate boss.
The tour, he said, was ‘very challenging’ and ‘made worse by the behaviour of the Duchess’. He also expressed concern about Sam Cohen: ‘I raised the very real possibility that she could be struggling with severe stress and could have to walk away from her position.’
Insiders have alleged staff were bullied while working for the Sussexes. One source said: ‘‘We bent over backwards to try to accommodate them’
The growing rift between William and Harry, coupled with allegations that Meghan had bullied staff, accelerated a major shake-up at Kensington Palace to split their joint household.
First, a decision had to be made about what the Sussexes’ household would look like, and where it would be based. It was a battle, and one that would come to typify the couple’s relationship with Buckingham Palace. The Palace wanted to set them up with an office within Buckingham Palace itself. They felt they were being pretty generous. ‘We bent over backwards to try to accommodate them,’ said one senior Palace official. ‘We gave over half of… what was known as the Master’s Corridor to allow them to have a very effective office.’
But it wasn’t what Harry and Meghan wanted. They preferred to have their own set-up, probably at Windsor Castle, near their new home of Frogmore Cottage.
They wanted complete independence. If they were stuck in Buckingham Palace, subservient to the whole Palace machine, they’d be no better than other lesser Royals such as the Duke of York or the Earl and Countess of Wessex.
There was no way, however, that the Palace would fund the establishment of a completely separate satellite operation. And this was a decision taken not by the men in grey suits but by the Queen and the Prince of Wales, both keenly aware of the need to avoid unnecessary extravagance.
While unhappy about this, the Sussexes did, at least, get a big team, which included a new communications secretary, hired in early 2019. Sara Latham, a sharp, fearless redhead, was a dual US-British citizen, and completely in tune with the values espoused by Harry and Meghan.
It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off.
The spring and summer of 2019 saw a series of battles with the media, and some spectacular own goals by Meghan and Harry.
First, the Palace put out a statement saying that the Duchess had gone into labour, only for it to emerge that she had, in fact, given birth eight hours before the statement went out. Later, when Archie was christened, the couple refused to let the godparents be publicly named, a decision that lost them even more sympathy.
Sam Cohen ‘was at her wits’ end’, said a friend. ‘She was constantly having to battle on Harry and Meghan’s behalf, while taking all this abuse from them.’
Cohen also found herself getting far more involved in arranging their private lives than would normally be appropriate for a private secretary, who – despite the job title – is just there to look after their official lives.
Having stayed on longer than the six months she’d promised, she was clearly delighted when she finally left her job. A source said: ‘Sam always made clear it was like working for a couple of teenagers. They were impossible and pushed her to the limit. She was miserable.’
That summer, after Harry had given a barefoot address about the need to save the environment, he and Meghan took four flights on private jets in less than a week to visit Ibiza and the South of France.
This prompted accusations of hypocrisy, and rows with Sara Latham, who had advised Harry against taking private jets. Relations between the couple and their media adviser became increasingly tense. Close colleagues began to wonder if Latham would even make it to the end of the year.
By August 2019, things were ‘awful and tense’ within the Sussex household. Staff were increasingly aware of the background presence of Meghan’s business manager, her lawyer, her agent and her US publicist.
The American team had been busy on Meghan’s behalf, working on deals not only with Netflix – for an animated series about inspirational women – but also with the now-defunct streaming service Quibi.
Her Los Angeles team also handled Harry’s deal for his mental health series for Apple+ with Oprah Winfrey, and Meghan’s voiceover for a Disney film about elephants.
One insider revealed: ‘The team in America did pose problems for staff at KP [Kensington Palace]. There was always quite a lot of secrecy surrounding the couple’s conversations with the US.
‘Certain people would be in the know about what was going on with things like Quibi, while others wouldn’t have a clue.
‘Discussions that had been quite public would then suddenly go underground, into the “private” space. It was all quite difficult to manage at times.’
Relations between Meghan and her senior advisers were now unravelling fast. They felt their advice wasn’t being listened to, and that they were there just to execute strategies they’d had no part in drawing up. Instead of trust and openness, there was suspicion.
By the time the relationship had deteriorated completely, Harry and Meghan’s team would refer to themselves as the Sussex Survivors’ Club. The core members – Sam Cohen, Sara Latham and assistant press secretary Marnie Gaffney – came up with a damning epithet for Meghan: that she was a ‘narcissistic sociopath’.
On repeated occasions, they would say: ‘We were played.’
© Valentine Low 2022
Adapted from Courtiers: The Hidden Power Behind The Crown, by Valentine Low, to be published by Headline on Thursday at £20. To order a copy for £18, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before October 15. Free UK p&p on orders over £20.
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