How Harry and Meghan’s Royal Exit Led to an Unexpected Happy Ending

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On January 8, 2020, with an Instagram post that captured nearly as much global attention as their wedding almost two years prior, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their decision to “step back” from their roles as senior royals. Celebrated upon their wedding as global figures and symbols of a modernizing monarchy, the Sussexes followed up their announcement with posts on a newly established website that criticized “frequent misreporting” and “misconceptions” about their financial situation.

The most hyperbolic coverage compared it to the 1936 abdication crisis, when King Edward VIII gave up the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. But even the publications who usually shy away from the royals couldn’t help but examine the apparent end of the fairy tale. As the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead asked a few months later, “How bad must being an H.R.H. be in order to make someone want to quit?”

As frenzied as the response was outside the palace, reports soon emerged painting an even more chaotic scene inside, as staff and the royal family were caught completely off-guard. Privately, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles were said to be upset and disappointed by the couple’s behavior. Prince William was said to be livid and apparently felt that his brother was being reckless and putting the future of the monarchy at risk. Relations were so strained between the once close royal brothers that, at this point in 2020, they reportedly were barely on speaking terms.

Yet one year later, some of the worst predictions about Harry and Meghan’s royal exit haven’t come true; the Windsors have avoided an existential crisis, even as the rest of the world has been plunged into a different one. With Harry and Meghan establishing new lives, a foundation, and even a podcast from their home in California, the remaining core group of eight senior royals have remained visible—and surging in popularity—throughout the coronavirus pandemic. And as much as Meghan faced criticism for the British press for her use of social media and relationship with the press, the remaining royals seemed to be following her lead, from changing the names on their social media profiles to sharing personal, heartfelt messages throughout the national lockdown.

As for the Sussexes, an insider told People that they have no regrets about leaving. Though the year was difficult for the couple, with a tabloid court battle and a miscarriage in addition to the stress of the pandemic, according to a source who knows them well, their marriage is thriving. “What they have been through together has brought them closer,” the source recently told Vanity Fair. “They are very much a partnership.”

The strength of Harry and Meghan’s partnership might explain why they decided to leave in the first place. Though the tabloids somewhat pejoratively dubbed it the “Megxit,” the move last January was Harry’s idea, according to sources close to the duke. “It came to the point where he wanted a different way of life,” says a source who knows Harry well. “Meghan was simply the catalyst.”

And though the January 8 announcement last year was a bombshell, it wasn’t a complete surprise for royal watchers. Rumors of family feuds had proliferated for months, and in an October 2019 documentary special, Harry conceded to ITN’s Tom Bradby he had his brother were on “different paths,” while Meghan admitted she had tried and failed to adopt a “stiff upper lip” about the press scrutiny. The next month, Meghan and Harry took a six-week sabbatical and spent the holidays in Canada, all as they worked on a plan for the future that might make their lives more livable.

According to Robert Lacey, royal historian and consultant for The Crown, the frenetic pace of the January announcement didn’t reflect what had really been going on behind the scenes for months. “Harry and Meghan had put a great deal of thought into trying to create something that would work for both sides, but that was all blown when their plans were leaked to the press,” he says. “Harry was trying to get Charles, William, and the queen to approve a plan, which they wanted in writing. Harry wanted to talk face-to-face because he was worried it would leak. Reluctantly, he did put it in writing, it did leak and that led to the Sussexes making the announcement.”

On January 7, Meghan and Harry returned to the UK from Canada for an event at the Canadian embassy in London, where they thanked the country for their hospitality. Later that day, the Sun ran a report claiming that Harry and Meghan were planning to quit Britain for a new life in North America. The leak was the catalyst for the Sussexes to take matters into their own hands. The next afternoon, they released the statement to Instagram, and launched the website soon thereafter. By the end of the day, Meghan had boarded a plane to reunite with Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, the couple’s young son, who had stayed behind in Canada with a nanny.

On the website—designed by the same firm who made The Tig for Meghan years before—the couple outlined a plan seeking much more freedom. “After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution,” it read. “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.”

Though there was surprise and anger that they had jumped the gun by announcing the news before a plan had been agreed to, the queen demanded that the situation was resolved speedily before any further damage was done to the monarchy. She invited Charles, Harry, and William to meet at the Sandringham Estate on January 13 for a summit where they would decide on Meghan and Harry’s future. William was so furious with his brother’s handling of the situation that he refused to join Harry and the queen for lunch before the discussion. “I can’t trust my anger sitting down with my brother,” William said at the time, according to Lacey, who spoke to sources close to the meeting for his recent book, Battle of Brothers.

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