Was it a desperate escape from a racist, “poisonous” palace? An effort to force the royal family to allow them to leave on better terms than if negotiations remained secret?
Whatever drove Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, to announce last week that they plan to “step back” as senior members of the British royal family — a statement which apparently caught the palace off guard — their timing left 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II overseeing the transition amid global speculation.
“Constructive” talks between the queen, and princes Charles, William and Harry, have led to an agreement that the couple will live part-time in Canada, the monarch announced Monday.
In a statement, the queen wrote, “Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.”
Media reports following the couple’s announcement have widely mentioned that the queen has devoted her long life to the crown. As the queen’s schedule has been scaled back in recent years, long-haul travel assignments have shifted to her son and heir, Prince Charles.
No one doubts the queen’s devotion to duty. Indeed, when Harry previously considered exiting public life — which he admitted in a 2017 interview — the queen was his inspiration to carry on.
The transition the couple will make is unprecedented: Royals have traditionally worked full time, with public funding of their official duties. No senior royals have divided their lives between public and private roles. They’ve been in or out.
Britain’s head of state is about the only living royal who has experienced a close relative opting out of the family business. She is, ironically, best positioned to take the long view of both her family and the institution they represent.
With their announcement last week, Harry and Meghan effectively bookended the event that redirected the queen’s life in 1936, when her Uncle David — King Edward VIII — abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. The decision catapulted then-Princess Elizabeth toward the throne.
The queen alone knows the pressures felt by her parents, the new King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the bitterness that the abdication instilled in her relatives. The family’s subsequent emphasis on duty led her to pledge on her 21st birthday that her life, “whether it be long or short, shall be devoted” to royal service.
Nearly two decades after the abdication, the Windsors’ expectation that duty come before personal happiness led the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, to end her relationship with a divorced equerry, Peter Townsend.
Harry, as Prince Charles’s second son, was born the “spare” to his brother, Prince William, the heir. Ultimately, the duty he was born into was to help support his relatives. Approaching the discussions as direct heirs to the throne, Harry’s father and brother might in some ways be unable to see anything optional about royal service. They have to consider and likely want to protect their own futures in the institution. Had Harry waited until one or both of his grandparents died to opt out of this life, grief would further complicate a sensitive discussion. And an exit from royal life by a new king’s son or brother could also be seen as a signal about the sovereign.
Although the queen’s upper lip has rarely quivered in public amid her family’s many scandals, she has acknowledged some trials. Her Christmas speech, which came after Harry and Meghan made their unhappiness public, after months of rumors of family rifts, and just weeks after her scandal-plagued son Prince Andrew was retired from public life, summarized 2019 as “quite bumpy.”
The queen, who like Harry, grew up in the spotlight — she first made the cover of Time magazine at age 3 — has perspective from her nearly 68-year reign that other royals lack.
But changing Buckingham Palace is like redirecting a ship: Even if a new course is set, the movement has been more slow arc than quick turn. The Windsors are moving quickly to unknot complicated legal and financial ties about public funding, tax issues and security amid bruised feelings. The palace wants a swift resolution to get the story out of the headlines.
But like any complex family dispute, the transition will likely be “quite bumpy,” indeed.
Editor’s note: This piece was updated to remove a reference to Meghan participating in talks with the queen and princes Charles, William and Harry on the phone.