The reality is more dire for the royals as a family and as an institution. Familial and sibling ties were already frayed, but with their announcement Wednesday, Harry and Meghan upended their working and family relationships. They suggest keeping their titles and crown-owned home while largely stepping back from official positions, a balancing act that would test the role of the monarchy in a modern era.
Queen Elizabeth II, Harry’s 93-year-old grandmother, has had bad years, but 2019 brought some complicated challenges. Prince Andrew, her second son, was once again embroiled in questions about his relationship with financier Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender. Just as stories about the friendship were fading from headlines, the prince gave an interview in November that was so tone-deaf the queen quickly retired — translation: fired — him from public life.
Meanwhile, on a tour of southern Africa in October, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex opened up about their unhappiness with their royal lot. During a documentary interview, Harry said that he and his brother, Prince William, are “on different paths,” appearing to confirm months of rumors about a rift and suggestions that Harry resented the lack of palace pushback on media harassment of his wife. As he carries out his royal duties, Harry said, “every single time” he sees cameras he is reminded of how tabloid photographers hounded his mother, Princess Diana.
A tearful Meghan spoke of feeling particularly vulnerable during her recent pregnancy, as she faced constant coverage of her actions, clothes and friends. She had tried to adopt the British stiff upper lip, she said: “I never thought that this would be easy. But I thought it would be fair.”
Until recently, the Sussexes’ modernity had been an asset for the crown. The wedding of the biracial American actress to the soldier-prince, beloved since his childhood walk behind his mother’s coffin, captured the public imagination. From the birth of their son to this transition, the couple have shared news directly on social media. Meghan has a long history of speaking up, in contrast to the usual royal silence or platitudes. She often greets people with hugs instead of handshakes.
Their do-things-our-way approach had great potential to inspire. In South Africa last year, Meghan told a crowd that she was visiting not only as a member of the royal family but also as a woman of color and as a sister. On an earlier tour, she spoke about student loans and affordable education. She understands the world outside the palace. Her experiences could resonate with millions who might never have seen something relatable in royalty. But the couple felt bullied by the media and unsupported by other royals, and they departed Britain for a six-week private break over the holidays.
The palace, seeking to shift attention away from Prince Andrew and other negative narratives, ramped up image-control efforts late last year. To highlight the next generation, it released photos of the queen and the next three heirs making holiday puddings, with 6-year-old Prince George holding a spoon. Another image showed the sovereign and her successors elsewhere in Buckingham Palace. George and his younger sister, Princess Charlotte, then made their first appearance at the royals’ traditional walk to church on Christmas. Days later, Prince William announced an “Earthshot” prize to address the planet’s greatest environmental problems.
The message? Here is the royal family of the future. Watch them.
Harry and Meghan returned to public life this week and posted their bombshell announcement online. Their plans raise larger issues about what it means to be a working royal in modern times. Monarchy is an ancient tradition. Underneath the sparkling jewels and grand processions, it is a centuries-old institution that perpetuates a hereditary class system. The title “Their Royal Highnesses” makes a class statement in an increasingly egalitarian era. Redefining royal roles from full-time public service to just the duties the couple prefer could lead to debate over taxpayer funding. The crown system is weakened if the conversation becomes: If royals can choose only work they like, should those who fund them get a say in what they will and won’t support?
However the transition plays out, the Sussexes’ definition of royal life affects the rest of the Windsors. As it unfolds, Buckingham Palace is undergoing a long-delayed $490 million renovation. But the damage the monarchy most needs to repair appears to involve the royal family itself.