A day after their seemingly triumphant return to royal duties in an appearance at Canada House in London, where they thanked officials for the hospitality shown by the Canadian people during their six-week vacation, Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, threw an Instagram grenade: They announced via social media that they were stepping back from their roles in the British royal family.
“We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen,” the couple explained. “It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment.” The couple also declared a desire to split time between the United Kingdom and North America, although it’s unclear where on the continent the two intend to make their second home.
The move might seem severe, but for royal watchers, it’s been building for quite some time. Prince Harry is sixth in line to the throne. Prince Louis, his toddler nephew, has more royal significance than he does. His (and Meghan’s) ubiquity is due to their popularity — as polarizing as it has proved to be on both sides of the pond.
The royal family seems to have lost control of two of its most beloved family members. But ultimately, Harry is following a version of royal precedent.
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The royal family, meanwhile, seems to have lost day-to-day control of two of its most beloved family members. But ultimately, Harry is following a version of royal precedent. The monarchy is about the line of succession, as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles have chosen to emphasize again and again in recent months. Her Majesty displayed photos of direct heirs on her table during her annual Christmas speech and kicked off the decade with a portrait of the four living heirs.
That photo is the monarchy — and its future. Prince William doesn’t get to leave, and Prince George will receive his own waves of scrutiny in the decades to come. Harry and Meghan don’t have to stay — and more power to them. They’re not the first Windsors to chafe under the pressure, nor the first to complain about it, nor the first to follow joy by distancing themselves. Still, the couple say they seek to “carve out a progressive new role” from “within” the family. And that is completely new.
But it’s important to put this apparent familial tension into context. Consider first the couple’s desire to take a six-week end-of-year break in the first place. The plan was put forth after an ITV documentary in October, ostensibly covering their royal tour of South Africa in September, revealed in shockingly emotional interviews with anchor Tom Bradby how much the couple were struggling with the relentless media attention.
“My British friends said to me, ‘I’m sure he’s great, but you shouldn’t do it, because the British tabloids will destroy your life,'” Meghan said in the doc. “I’ve said for a long time to H — that’s what I call him — it’s not enough to just survive something, right? That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive. You’ve got to feel happy.”
Harry, meanwhile, compared the constant surveillance to the tragic death of his mother, Princess Diana, whom he will age past this year following his 36th birthday. “Every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash, it takes me straight back, so in that respect, it is the worst reminder of her life as opposed to the best,” he told ITV.
But even before the documentary premiered, it was clear that the couple were pushing back against the constant media barrage. After Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor was born in May, the pair sued The Mail on Sunday’s parent company for publishing a private letter Meghan had sent to her father. And then, in early October, the duke filed suit against the owners of The Sun and the Daily Mirror, alleging that they hacked into his phone. “Though we have continued to put on a brave face — as so many of you can relate to — I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been,” Harry said in a statement at the time.
Being associated with one of the most famous families on Earth has never been easy for Meghan. Bitter scrutiny greeted her — an American and an actress — as soon as rumors began circulating that she was Harry’s girlfriend circa 2016. While tabloid coverage of every serious and silly royal detail has been standard for decades, stories about Meghan ranged from veiled stereotyping — “Meghan Markle’s Messy Hair Criticized; Netizens Want Her To ‘Tie It Up,'” noted the IBTimes — to open racism. “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” the Daily Mail screeched in November 2016, alongside photographs of Meghan’s childhood home.
While tabloid coverage of every royal happening has been standard for decades, stories about Markle ranged from veiled stereotyping to open racism.
So intense was the attention that Harry, rather dramatically, released what has come to be known as a “love shield” in November 2016, confirming their romance while asking the media to stay away. “Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her,” it read. “This is not a game — it is her life and his.”
After fighting and fighting against the scrutiny — and after moving to Windsor and after breaking their charitable efforts and their offices away from those of his brother, the future king — Harry has taken this one last step. How will it work? It’s still too early to tell. But in tandem with their Instagram post, the Sussex duo released a widely updated website packed with explanations of precisely how they hope to function, down to their taxes and percentages of income.
Still, it feels like a big deal because of Wednesday afternoon’s reports that the royal family learned of their decision at the same time as the public and weren’t informed or involved in the planning. Buckingham Palace released a terse statement that seemed almost dismissive of the Sussex plans. Once again, the Windsors find themselves embroiled in capital-D drama.
But a happy ending might be possible yet. By stepping back, Harry can allow his brother, his father and his grandmother to shine, as they were born to do, while protecting his wife and their son from further pain (and his mother’s terrible fate). It seems most in his position would do the same.