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Edward, Earl of Wessex, pops his head around the door of the room in St James’s Palace and chuckles at the numerous cameras set up for the interview. “Do you have enough?” he laughs.
The Queen’s youngest child, 57, seems to be in good spirits on this glorious summer day in London despite the occasion. Thursday would have been the 100th birthday of Edward’s father, Prince Philip, and he is marking the date by reflecting on the Duke of Edinburgh’s legacy and his eponymous Award program.
But there is an elephant in the room. Hours before CNN’s US exclusive sit-down with the Earl, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were forced to deny a report in the British media that they had not consulted the Queen about using her childhood nickname of Lilibet for their newborn daughter.
Headlines probing the relationship between the Sussexes and the rest of the family have been frequent since the couple relinquished their roles as working royals last year and relocated to California. Responding to a question about current family tensions, the Earl says the situation is “very sad.”
“Listen, weirdly we’ve all been there before – we’ve all had excessive intrusion and attention in our lives. And we’ve all dealt with it in slightly different ways, and listen, we wish them the very best of luck. It’s a really hard decision,” Edward says.
Harry and Meghan have often spoken about the pressures of royal life and being constantly scrutinized by the media. In a bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey in March, the Duke said the relentless scrutiny was one of the deciding factors in the family’s move to the United States. In her discussion with Winfrey, the Duchess also revealed she had contemplated suicide during her first pregnancy and that there had been questions over the skin color of their then-unborn son, Archie.
Edward says he hopes the couple are happy before returning to the subject of the rift, suggesting disagreements happen in every family.
“It’s difficult for everyone but that’s families for you,” he says.
For several reasons, it’s been a challenging few months for Britain’s royal family, who are still mourning the loss of their patriarch in April. Due to Covid-19 measures at the time, the funeral arrangements were considerably scaled back by royal standards, and the number of attendees limited to just 30 people.
“It was an experience that so many other families have had to go through during this past year or 18 months and so in that sense, it was particularly poignant,” says Edward. “There are an awful lot of people who haven’t been able to express the respect that they would like to have done. I think many people would have liked to have been there to support the Queen.”
The Queen carries on
Following the Queen’s lead, as always, senior royal family members have since returned to their duties and are once again fulfilling a busy schedule of video calls and in-person engagements.
Asked how the 95-year-old monarch is faring following the loss of her husband of 73 years, Edward responds that she is “actually doing remarkably well.”
“I think that it was a fantastic partnership, but over the last couple of weeks, life has got considerably busier. Things are beginning to open up more, there are more activities so weirdly that sort of fills any particular void,” he said.
“I think there are going to be other times further along the year where I think that it will become a bit more poignant and a bit harder. But at the moment, thank you very much indeed for asking, I think that everybody’s in pretty good shape really, and just working rather too hard.”
“Rather too hard” may be something of an understatement. The monarch – despite her advancing age – has consistently maintained a demanding diary in recent years. Even before the coronavirus upended life in the UK last March, she had conducted 296 engagements between 2019 and 2020.
Unable to do everything herself, the monarch leans on several generations of close family members to complete more than 3,000 engagements both at home and abroad each year.
President Biden and Queen Elizabeth to meet
Edward and his wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, are increasingly playing a more active role in supporting the Queen following Harry and Meghan’s relocation to California, as well as Prince Andrew’s withdrawal from public duties over his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
“Trying to be there as a friendly ear at times is, absolutely, is really important,” Edward says.
One important meeting on the Queen’s books this week is her first face-to-face with US President Joe Biden, who is in Britain for the latest G7 summit. Their meeting on Sunday will be the first between the two leaders since Biden took office in January – and he will be the 14th US commander-in-chief with whom she’s met.
Edward says the get-together is a “perfect opportunity” for the pair to meet.
“We’ve all, as a family, had very close links with America. We spent or we used to, not so much now, but we used to spend a lot of time going backwards and forwards, maintaining those links, the connections, the heritage … (we’ve) been through a lot together. And that’s what really good friendship is about.”
What the pair will discuss is anyone’s guess, including his. The fact that conversations with the monarch stay private in this day and age “is a bit strange,” Edward says.
“People really do respect the fact that this is a genuinely private, off-the-record conversation so they really can talk about things and get to the heart of things and in a very genuine fashion, because they know it’s not going to come out.”
Philip and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award
Instead, what the royals have always made sure to champion publicly is their commitment to public service, an area in which Prince Philip was something of an innovator. Arguably his greatest achievement was his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – a youth development program he established in 1956.
“It’s a framework of activities. It was said to encourage young people and adults to get involved in non-formal activities or out-of-classroom learning,” Edward says. “And of course, it empowered both adults and young people to take control of their destinies, and it doesn’t matter where in the world that young person or that adult is, it’s the same.
“And hence the reason why I think it’s spread to 130 countries, and it’s doing particularly well in the States. It was a bit of a late start over there but it’s brilliant. And what’s really exciting about what’s going on in the States is that nearly 50% of the people involved are from what we would call at risk or marginalized, disadvantaged young people, which is, which is brilliant because those are young people that can really benefit from this.”
Many of the program’s alumni speak fondly of their experiences.
“What I really liked about it is that the award is so diversified, there’s so many different components to it,” says Kristina Ayanian, a 24-year-old senior listings analyst at NASDAQ, who holds a Bronze, Silver and Gold Award from The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award.
“One of the highlights that I had was volunteering at my local food pantry from my Bronze Medal Award, and seeing how food insecurity is so prominent in our lives. That connection to giving back to my community really stayed with me.”
Ayanian has since continued her work with hunger relief, setting up a food drive in Boston when the pandemic struck, working with local businesses and individuals to support shelters and hospitals in the city.
“I partnered with corporations, distributors, restaurants, and dedicated individuals really to do our part in helping our community during these trying times. But it all stems from this award and the impact that it really made on my life,” she says.
‘It was about other people’
Ayanian says the program’s present-day international reach is an important part of Prince Philip’s legacy.
“He has made such a impact on, not only youth in the UK, but globally, and I think that that’s what’s so impressive with his work,” she says. “I truly believe in the Award, that it’s going to keep succeeding and keep having representatives to carry it on through future generations. And I’m proud to be a part of his legacy. It’s really an honor.”
One representative continuing his Award journey is 19-year-old Víctor Echániz. Part of the program for the past five years, the Berklee College of Music double major student is also currently serving as an Alumni Award Leader at the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award USA while completing his own Gold Award level.
“For me it’s one of the best things you can do as a young adult,” Echániz says. “You also go on these adventurous journeys where you get to work on your leadership, on your team building, and on your exploration, and seek out new passions.”
He says he’s grateful that the Duke of Edinburgh created the program. “He will go down as someone who has helped millions of young adults transform themselves and develop into better people and aware citizens.”
Edward, too, sees his father’s legacy in the many lives he quietly helped to change.
“He was always, always incredibly self-effacing wasn’t he? It was about other people. He just gave them the nudge, the encouragement and off they go,” he says. “And tragically, it wasn’t until he passed away that everybody went, Wow, that’s what he did. And of course, it’s too late – (he) never found out. But then, I suspect that if he had made it to his 100th birthday, a lot of that would have come out, and it would have been lovely to for him to have heard it himself.
“But then again, because he was just so self-effacing, he just wouldn’t have wanted the fuss and the bother … that wasn’t him, that was just not him at all.”
CNN’s Matthew Brealey and Luis Graham-Yooll contributed to this report.