Wherever you stand on the rift between the Sussexes and Buckingham Palace, there’s no denying that the (not-so) civil war between royal households seems to be reaching a crescendo.
The latest accusations, those of bullying from former staffers by the Duchess of Sussex, are emotionally-charged: that they had been personally “humiliated” and left “completely destroyed” are some of the descriptions of the emotional impact of the Duchess’ alleged behaviour on employees, as reported by the Times.
The accusations have only added fuel to the fire of the toxic infighting between the two houses since the Sussexes stated their bombshell wish to leave the royal family in January last year.
The Duchess denies the allegations of the former staffers, saying she is “saddened” as a bullying victim herself and saying it is part of a “calculated smear campaign”. Speaking to Oprah last night, she went on to reveal how the pressure of scrutiny impacted her mental health and made her have suicidal thoughts, among other bombshell revelations.
Last week, the Palace said it was “very concerned” about the claims and “will not tolerate bullying or harassment in the workplace”. The monarchy’s “men in grey suits” were accused in the Times report of doing “absolutely nothing” to protect the alleged victims, despite being aware of the allegations.
So who are the key figures in the claims and counterclaims of bullying? From ex-Sussex squad members coming forward to the Hollywood dream team fighting the Duke and Duchess’ PR battle from LA, these are all the major players in the royal drama.
First, an explainer. The term “The Firm” has been banded around in royal coverage a lot this week after the Duchess of Sussex talked about the “active role that the Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us” in her interview with Oprah.
The term has long been used to refer to the royal institution and was reportedly coined by Prince Philip to describe the family he was marrying into. In the film The King’s Speech, King George VI is heard claiming, “We’re not a family, we’re a firm” and given recent events within the royal family, it’s not hard to see why a more business-like label might sometimes seem appropriate.
In December, The Queen reportedly formed a “Firm of eight” senior royals chosen to make public appearances together - the Sussexes were, notably, not included, despite their departure yet to be reviewed at the time. Included in the eight were The Queen herself, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, Princess Anne, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Edward and Sophie Countess of Wessex.
The Duke of Edinburgh, who has retired from royal duties, and Prince Andrew, who stepped down as a senior royal after last year’s Jeffrey Epstein scandal, were also excluded from the list.
Former communications secretary to the Sussexes and the Cambridges
Knauf, 36, wasn’t a stranger to crisis management when he joined the royal household in 2015. The LSE graduate had previously worked at the Treasury and RBS, the bank that had been bailed out following the 2008 financial crash. But it was after Prince Harry married Meghan Markle in 2018 that his skills were truly tested, becoming communications secretary to both the Cambridges and the newlywed Sussexes.
It was Knauf who is said to have advised the Duchess on writing the infamous letter to her father that was at the centre of her now-successful Mail on Sunday privacy case. And it was Knauf who reported the alleged bullying to the HR department in October 2018, according to the Times. Knauf has never claimed to be at the receiving end of any mistreatment himself, but reportedly complained about the treatment of three female colleagues: two personal assistants who he claimed had been driven out of the household by the Duchess, and a third staffer whose confident he felt had been undermined.
In an email to colleagues, he is said to have called the alleged treatment “totally unacceptable” and also expressed concern about the stress being experienced by Samantha Cohen, the couple’s then private secretary. Sources claim the Duke pleaded with Knauf not to pursue it but the Sussexes’ lawyers deny that the Duke would interfere with any staff matter or that any meeting took place. Knauf handed in his notice a month later. He now works solely for the Cambridges, as head of their Royal Foundation.
Former Head of HR for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
Carruthers was reportedly the first person Knauf took the complaints to in October 2018. The HR guru, who was based at Clarence House, had previously worked for De Beers and investment bank Lazard before joining the royals in 2013.
She is said to have “agreed with [Knauf] on all accounts that the situation was very serious” and she left the job less than a year later in August 2019. She is now deputy chair of the board of trustees at childhood bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish.
Former private secretary to the Duke of Cambridge
Case has been dubbed “the most important man in politics you’ve probably never heard of”. At 42, he now works in government as Whitehall’s youngest ever Cabinet Secretary, but his time in the royal household certainly trained him for politics. Case was reportedly the second person Knauf took the bullying accusations to after conversations with Carruthers.
Although he worked for the Duke of Cambridge and had no managerial responsibility for the staff mentioned in Knauf’s complaint, he is said to have taken it seriously. He reportedly ensured emails were sent to HR and took a personal interest in the wellbeing of the staff member still employed by the Sussexes.
Former PA to the Duchess of Sussex
French national Toubati, 39, joined the Sussex household as the Duchess’ PA having reportedly worked for Madonna and Robbie Williams’ wife Ayda Field. She is said to have played a central role in preparing for the Sussexes’ wedding in May 2018, but quit six months into the job (her predecessor also left the job shortly after Meghan arrived).
“Meghan put a lot of demands on her and it ended up with her in tears,” a source reportedly said shortly after Toubati’s departure. Both PAs signed non-disclosure agreements. Lawyers for the Duchess stated that she had no knowledge of the agreements. Toubati is now believed to work for the Livingstone family, the owners of Cliveden House.
Former private secretary to the Sussexes
Cohen, a “well-liked and unstuffy” but “tough-talking” Australian, spent 17 years working as a secretary to The Queen but left the job in 2018 to work for the Sussexes on a temporary agreement. She is said to have been tasked with putting Meghan through six months of “Duchess training” after hers and Harry’s engagement and reportedly helped the Duchess with her first official event alone with The Queen. She also joined the royal couple on their first tour abroad, including a stop in her home country.
The Duke was said to have been “fond” of Cohen but sources later claimed to the Times that she was also a victim of the Duchess’ bullying. One alleged the Duchess “treated her terribly. Nothing was ever good enough. It was, ‘She doesn’t understand, she’s failing.’” Lawyers for the Duke and Duchess say they remained close to Cohen and deny bullying her. Cohen is now co-chairman of the board of trustees of the charity Cool Earth and CEO of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.
Former assistant private secretary to the Duchess of Sussex
Previously senior communications officer for the Cambridges and Duke of Sussex, former RBS staffer Pickerill joined the Duchess of Sussex as her assistant private secretary after the couple’s engagement in November 2017. When she left the role in May 2019, a Kensington Palace source reportedly confirmed she would stay in touch with the Duchess and be available for advice in the future.
The journalism graduate now works as Director of The Earthshot Prize at the Cambridge’s Royal Foundation.
Former head of communications for the Sussexes
The British-American PR hotshot counts Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among her ex-employers but she swapped Washington for royalty when she joined the Sussexes ahead of Archie’s birth.
The savvy former Freuds partner was poached by Harry and Meghan after their wedding but was one of 15 staffers made redundant when the couple announced their move to Canada last year. She’s since been snapped up by Buckingham Palace, advising the Queen’s private office on special projects.
Head of communications for the Sussexes in California
Before joining the Sussexes in California, Schirmer, 42, worked as head of communications for Pinterest in Silicon Valley. The English and French-speaking media exec studied journalism at Northwestern University - the same US university as the Duchess - and has since worked at Apple.
A publicist who knows Schirmer told the Daily Mail: “Christine is the real deal. She’s widely respected in the industry as one of the best and smartest there is”.
Press secretary for the Sussexes in California
Ex-footballer Holness used to work for New York’s education department and joined the Sussexes from a job in corporate communications and marketing for a video company in LA. “I get to help people tell their stories for a living,” she writes in the bio for her private Twitter account, where she describes herself as “she/her/hers” and uses the hashtag #Fighton.
Her private Instagram account has more than 800 followers with a bio reading: “And in this moment, I swear we are infinite” with emojis of a key, anchor and four-leaf clover.
UK head of engagement and communications for the Sussexes
Holt started his new role in September, having previously worked in political PR for the Cabinet Office, Liberal Democrats and 10 Downing Street, then as senior communications office for The Royal Foundation.
The Clapham-based PR guru now looks after the Sussexes exclusively and reports to Schirmer in the US. On Twitter, he describes himself as an “occasional runner” and “regular volunteer”.
Chief of Staff for the Sussexes in California
Canadian communications exec St Laurent used to work for Bill and Melinda Gates. She landed the job of Chief of Staff in April and also serves as Executive Director of the Sussexes non-profit organisation Archewell.
The English and French-speaking Montreal-native is understood to have met the Sussexes through their Canadian connections including the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie. According to her private Twitter account, she has two children and enjoys travelling, spinning and yoga - another of The Duchess’ keenest passions.
Lawyer for the Sussexes in California
Harvard graduate Genow has long been one of the top attorneys in Hollywood - he is a founding partner of California law firm Stone, Genow, Smelkinson, Binder & Christopher and he’s represented actors including Sir Ben Kingsley and Greg Kinnear.
Power lawyer Genow has long been an adviser of the Duchess and is believed to have been kept on behind-the-scenes to help handle her legal affairs.
Private secretary to the Queen
Young, 53, joined the royal household in 2004 after a career in finance and now serves as the Queen’s top aide. Insiders say he played a key role in planning the Queen’s diamond jubilee and engineering her famous James Bond parachute stunt at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.
But according to The Times last year, he seems to have become something of a scapegoat for the rising factions between the Windsor families. Princess Anne and Prince Edward are believed to be among the senior members of the royal family who have accused Young of failing to get a grip on the Prince Andrew scandal, and he has been accused for failing to prevent the “civil war” that led to the Sussexes leaving for Canada.