Harry and Meghan: How an Instagram post rewrote the royal rules that the queen has defended for 68 years
Harry and Meghan’s step away from the royals was a long time coming – but no-one seems to have told the palace, writes Camilla Tominey
By their own admission, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s shock decision to step back as senior royals was a long time coming, although astonishingly the palace appears to have had no warning.
Sources close to the couple have revealed their future royal role was on a “knife edge” before Christmas as they spent their six-week sabbatical in Canada deciding whether they wanted to remain in the royal family, or break free from the Firm. “It was a make or break. And they decided to break away.”
Amid talk of deep “disappointment” behind palace gates, Queen Elizabeth is likely to have been left devastated.
For Harry and Meghan have increasingly been operating in a silo that has been a source of mounting anguish among their nearest and dearest.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Suggesting they had made the move after “many months of reflection and internal discussions”, the seeds of the unprecedented step took root around six months after their Windsor wedding in May 2018.
Although the ceremony at St George’s Chapel went without a hitch, storm clouds soon began brewing amid reports of a falling-out between Meghan and her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, and rumours the couple had been demanding over the details of their big day.
There were even suggestions Harry had told palace staff: “What Meghan wants, Meghan gets,” following a row over a tiara that prompted an intervention from the queen.
News that a post-natal Kate had been reduced to tears over the argument during a bridesmaid’s dress fitting for Princess Charlotte, coupled with rising speculation that all was not well between the royal brothers, sparked rumours of a rift behind Kensington Palace gates.
Efforts were made to silence the chatter, with Meghan taking her first official outing with the queen a month after her wedding and later accompanying Kate to Wimbledon.
But then came the unexpected announcement in November 2018 that the royal household they shared with William and Kate was to split, with Harry and Meghan set to move to Frogmore Cottage in Windsor. The couple had been living in Nottingham Cottage on the Kensington Palace estate next door to the Cambridges’ 20-room Apartment 1A but, following the news they were expecting their first child in the spring of 2019 – announced on the first day of their tour of Australia – it was suggested they needed more space.
Royal insiders later revealed that the Sussexes had hoped to establish their own independent “court” at Windsor – only to be thwarted by the queen and Prince Charles, who jointly agreed that their household should remain under the auspices of Buckingham Palace.
As a well-placed source put it at the time: “Harry has always complained about being sidelined by William but now I think they see this split as an opportunity to really spread their wings. There is a sense that sometimes the Sussexes think the world is against them.”
Having enjoyed a relative positive press since news of their blossoming relationship first broke in October 2016, headlines surrounding tensions between the two couples refused to abate – fuelled by reports of a number of the Sussexes’ staff leaving in swift succession due to Meghan’s apparent penchant for sending 5am texts.
Clashing social media announcements, including the couples both releasing images of their 2018 Christmas cards on the same day, only served to fuel suggestions of a breakdown in communications – although the “Fab Four” did reunite for the festivities at Sandringham.
News that £3m had been spent renovating Frogmore Cottage in time for the Sussexes’ move there in April 2019 raised eyebrows – along with Meghan’s decision to have a much-publicised baby shower in New York, without co-opting the palace press office.
It came as a group of the former actress’s closest friends gave anonymous interviews to ‘People’ magazine in the US alleging that the negative publicity had put the pregnant royal “under a level of emotional trauma” and suggesting she had to endure “lies and untruths being written about her”.
The confidantes revealed how Meghan had written to her father, Thomas Markle snr, begging him to “stop victimising me through the media so we can repair our relationship”.
There was further criticism when the couple decided to keep the location of the birth of their son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, a secret in May 2019, along with the identity of his godparents. (The royal baby’s birth certificate later revealed that he had been born at London’s Portland Hospital, famed for its popularity among celebrity mothers.)
Two months later, Meghan revealed she was struggling with the scrutiny, telling singer Pharrell Williams at the premiere of The Lion King: “They don’t make it easy.”
Having reportedly “snubbed” the queen’s invitation to Balmoral last summer, apparently insisting Archie was too young to travel, the couple then courted controversy when it was revealed they had taken their son to Ibiza and the south of France. Their decision to travel in four private jets in as many weeks raised eyebrows – especially after Harry had appeared barefoot at Google’s climate change retreat preaching about the dangers of global warming.
But the final straw for relations with the press came when Mr Markle snr gave an interview in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ in October, publishing the letter Meghan had sent to him.
While they were undertaking their tour of Africa, they announced they would be suing the newspaper and accompanied the news with a statement attacking the media.
“Unfortunately, my wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences – a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son,” Harry wrote on the couple’s official website.
Days later, Meghan’s heartbreak was laid bare in an ITV documentary, filmed during the African visit, where she revealed that she had tried to adopt the “British stiff upper lip” but: “That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy.”
Holding back tears, she said, “Not many people have asked if I’m okay”, in an apparent swipe at her royal relatives. Harry also used the interview with Tom Bradby to confirm the rift rumours, saying he and William were “certainly on different paths at the moment”, while insisting that: “We’re brothers, we’ll always be brothers. I love him dearly.” It had been suggested that Harry felt William hadn’t been supportive enough of him and Meghan, although he added: “I’ll certainly always be there for him as I know he’ll always be there for me.”
Then came news of the couple’s sabbatical – along with the revelation they would not be spending Christmas at Sandringham, a move that struck some as selfish in light of the 98-year-old Duke of Edinburgh’s later hospitalisation.
The latest “personal message from The Duke and Duchess of Sussex”, like all their recent communications, posted on Instagram raises more questions than it answers about their ongoing role in the monarchy.
Suggesting they will become “financially independent” while continuing to “fully support her majesty the queen” will strike many as oxymoronic – and even a cake-and-eat-it attempt to enjoy all the privileges of royal life while taking none of the responsibility.
With the queen turning 94 in April and the Duke of Edinburgh’s health a source of worry, it had been expected that the Sussexes would “step up” and help to support the Prince of Wales’s transition to the throne.
The couple’s new website, suggesting sweeping changes to their relationship with the media, their funding, and the way they carry out their royal duties, is likely to send shock waves through the House of Windsor.
Last night, Buckingham Palace’s statement that “these are complicated issues that will take time to work through” appeared far from an endorsement of their “desire to take a different approach”.
The institution of monarchy has survived for centuries on a careful combination of tradition and modernisation – and since 1952 the queen has been the epitome of this delicate balancing act.
As sixth in line to the throne, I am not sure there will be much sympathy for the Duke of Sussex and his American wife trying to rewrite a royal rule book that the queen has spent the last six decades steadfastly safeguarding.