LONDON — Britain's Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, made a surprise announcement Wednesday night: that they would "step back" from their roles as senior members of the royal family and work to become "financially independent," in the United Kingdom and North America.
Harry is a grandson of 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II and sixth in line to the throne. And before she became a royal, the American Meghan Markle was an actress best known for her role in the television legal drama “Suits.”
The globally famous couple — friends to Oprah Winfrey, Elton John, George Clooney and the Obamas — have complained bitterly of being pursued by the British tabloids.
In a post on their Instagram account, the couple said they made the decision to distance themselves from palace life “after many months of reflection and internal discussions.”
“We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honor our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth and our patronages,” they wrote.
A statement from Buckingham Palace prompted speculation that the queen may not have been fully informed of the decision before the announcement.
The palace statement read: “Discussions with The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”
That sounded to many as if the queen was miffed.
The couple did not say where, exactly, they would spend time now.
Meghan is from Los Angeles, and she is close to her mother. She is estranged from her father, who is retired and living in Mexico.
Before she and Harry got together, Meghan lived and worked in Toronto, where “Suits” is filmed. Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, might make an appropriate part-time home.
On Tuesday, the couple visited Canada House in central London, where they thanked the Canadian high commissioner for the hospitality they received during a recent stay in her country. Harry, Meghan and their baby, Archie, spent Christmas in Canada and were spotted on Vancouver Island.
As far as their “financial independence,” in a Q&A on their new website, SussexRoyal.com, Harry and Meghan said they would no longer receive money from the taxpayer-funded Sovereign Grant, which they said has covered 5 percent of their expenses.
They said they “value the ability to earn a professional income,” which they weren’t allowed to do while tied to that funding mechanism.
However, they implied that they might continue to accept money from the estate of Harry’s father, Prince Charles, which they said has covered 95 percent of their costs.
The royal family is estimated to be worth $88 billion, according to Forbes. But many of those assets are tied up in inherited land, jewels and palaces, which are not for sale.
Harry and Meghan said they saw themselves carving out “a progressive new role within this institution.”
The headline in the Telegraph newspaper Wednesday night? “Prince Harry and Meghan quit the Firm.”
Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the queen, said it was unclear what Harry and Meghan’s new roles would look like, as there is no precedent for senior royals stepping back in this way.
“It doesn’t put them out of control of the royal machine, but it does put them slightly on the outside,” he said.
Prince Andrew, the second son of the queen, was recently forced to step back from royal duties amid controversy over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and accusations from a woman who said Epstein forced her into sexual encounters with Andrew. Andrew denies those accusations.
Going further back in history, Edward VIII famously abdicated the throne so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée.
But Harry and Meghan said they would expect to continue some royal duties, including official overseas visits.
Arbiter said that “nobody knows” how they will, in practice, continue to support the queen and manage their charitable affiliations.
Meghan has taken on four patronages, including Smart Works, a nonprofit organization that provides support for unemployed women. Harry, meanwhile, is a patron of 20 organizations, including the Invictus Games, a sporting event he created for wounded service members.
“Maybe they come back and do things for the charities for a [three- or four-month] window,” Arbiter said.
On their Instagram account, Harry and Meghan also teased the launch of a “new charitable entity,” but said they would share those details later.
Since the couple announced their engagement in 2017, there have been questions about whether they would help to modernize the monarchy. Many Britons welcomed the idea that the royal family would have a senior member who called herself a feminist and spoke proudly of her biracial identity. They wondered whether she would continue to advocate for women’s rights and other causes, or whether becoming a royal would compel her to rein in her activism.
Meghan guest-edited British Vogue’s September edition, highlighting women who are “forces for change,” including the climate activist Greta Thunberg and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The Sun tabloid criticized her for paying tribute to women known for “leftie views.”
Although Harry and Meghan framed their decision Wednesday as a progressive one, some royal watchers wondered whether they would have played a more transformative role if the pair stayed more engaged.
“I’m disappointed they have taken this decision,” Arbiter said. “They were doing good work, Harry was doing exceptional work, and this takes them out of the mainstream.”
In a documentary that aired in October, Meghan talked about the media pressure she has faced.
“Not many people have asked if I'm okay,” she said. “But it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.” When asked if it would be fair to say that things had been “a struggle,” she said yes.
She said that when she first met the prince, “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.’ And I very naively — I’m American, we don’t have that there. . . . I didn’t get it.”