There have been times of crisis when the House of Windsor creaked and almost crumbled.
The tragic death of Princess Diana 21 years ago this month brought questions about how close the royals were to the feelings of the people they serve. And the gossip-laden ending of the marriages of Prince Charles and Diana and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, coinciding with the fire at Windsor Castle (all in 1992), made it feel more soap opera than stately.
But, after steadying the ship by agreeing to some modernizing changes, and, more significantly, permitting Diana’s sons Prince William and Prince Harry to marry Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, respectively (commoners whom they simply fell in love with), Queen Elizabeth has strengthened the institution she has led for 66 years.
“She’s ensuring the future of the monarchy by being open and flexible and adapting,” former palace staffer Colleen Harris tells PEOPLE. “She’s allowing it to rebrand.”
She notes how some people around the palace were “quite shocked” that William was marrying “an ordinary middle-class girl with no background in royalty or aristocracy,” when he wed Princess Kate in 2011. “People then sort of thought, an ordinary person can grow up and marry into the royal family. How exciting, how different! With [Meghan], that takes it even a step further.”
Harris, who was on Charles’ press team from 1998 until 2003 and was the first black member of the royal household, adds, “The Queen is allowing the royal family to modernize. We have come a real long way. They are not stuffy and immovable.”
It was Kate, for example, who was the prime mover behind the royals’ successful adoption of a strategy to tackle mental health challenges.
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Lorraine Heggessey, CEO of the Royal Foundation, which runs the charitable endeavors of the younger royals, says that the 36-year-old mom of three is “thoughtful, strategic and equally committed to bringing about change. And she often spots the nub of the issue or a critical thing that needs dealing with.”
Harris is one of dozens of friends of the family, historians, insiders and biographers to appear on The Story of the Royals – a two-night TV event from PEOPLE that airs on ABC on August 22 and 23.
The Story of The Royals, a two-night television event presented by PEOPLE, airs August 22 and August 23 (9:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on ABC.