On January 8, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they planned to "step back as senior members" of the royal family and move toward financial independence.
Along with baby Archie, the couple will live between the U.K. and North America.
This shocking announcement leaves many questions in its wake.
Let January 8, 2020 be remembered as the day Prince Harry and Meghan Markle broke the internet. In an official post on their website and Instagram, Harry and Markle announced their decision to "transition" out of their posts as "senior royal members." Per the statement, the couple, along with 1-year-old Archie, will split their time between the U.K. and North America. Further, the couple intends to "work to become financially independent."
Unsurprisingly, the Sussex Royal website crashed after the post went live. Harry and Markle have written another chapter in the ever-unfolding book of the Windsor family history. Naturally, the world wanted to read along.
According to the BBC, the royal family was getting the news in real time, too: "No other member of the Royal Family was consulted before Harry and Meghan issued their personal statement tonight, the Palace is understood to be ‘disappointed.'"
Harry and Markle’s decision to step back from royal duties isn't exactly a plot twist—not for those who have been following the couple's movements carefully the last few months. From their decision to celebrate Christmas with Markle's family in California to the inciting battle against the U.K. tabloids' invasive coverage, the royal couple's efforts to challenge convention have ramped up in the past few months.
Though they've been doing just that–challenging the norm–ever since their first date. As an actress, a Black American, and an older divorcee, Markle was always an unconventional match for the English prince. Simply by marrying Harry, Markle was poised to modernize the royal family. They continued that legacy ever since, in gestures both subtle (Markle's dark nail polish) and significant (speaking candidly about their struggles in a documentary).
“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. 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. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment. We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages. This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity. We look forward to sharing the full details of this exciting next step in due course, as we continue to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge and all relevant parties. Until then, please accept our deepest thanks for your continued support.” - The Duke and Duchess of Sussex For more information, please visit sussexroyal.com (link in bio) Image © PA
A post shared by The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (@sussexroyal) on Jan 8, 2020 at 10:33am PST
Unfortunately, this has led to vitriol from conservative-leading media, and by certain swaths of the British public. "Meghan has not been made to feel welcome in the United Kingdom by virtue of the horrible press coverage," royal expert Marlene Koenig told OprahMag.com. “It’s the ultimate finger to the mainstream tabloid press in the United Kingdom. This is their way of controlling their story."
Bogged down by rumors and constrained by tradition, Harry and Markle decided to break up with royalty and, fueled by international support, forge their own path. But what will that path look like? And how much of their new life will they share with the public?
Royal experts Koening and Victoria Howard helped us answer some of the biggest questions on our mind, but reminded us the story is all just beginning. “This is the start of the story. It’s an announcement and we don't know much," Koening said.
Is there precedent for a decision like this in the royal family?
In short: Not really. Per their announcement, Harry and Markle are starting to "carve out a progressive new role within this institution." Essentially, they're planning to go where no royal has gone before, negotiating between duty and independence.
Though there have been royals who have left the royal fold—including Harry's mother, Diana, after she divorced Prince Charles.
"However, Diana had fully left the royal family and had been stripped of her HRH style, so it is not the same scenario by a long shot. This is a new path and scenario for the royal family," Howard said in an email.
Another notorious incident comes to mind. Back in 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American socialite.
But Koenig emphasizes the vast distance between these two cases. For one, Edward VIII's abdication required an act of parliament, whereas the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made this decision on their own. In the aftermath, the royal family has released a fairly terse response: "Discussions with the Duke and the 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."
The real difference comes in the royals' lives after their duties change. "Edward was exiled and had no royal duties. He and Wallis lived well in France, but had no real purpose," Koenig said.
Harry and Markle, on the other hand, appear to seek freedom precisely so that they can better fulfill their missions. The announcement teases the "launch of a new charitable entity" in their future.
"The Sussexes are making their own purpose," Koenig said.
Will the Sussexes keep their royal titles?
As working members of the royal family, they will maintain their titles of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. "Nothing has changed in this regard, unless the couple decide to renounce their titles," Howard said.
The language in the announcement says as much: The Sussexes plan to "honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages," and will work with the queen. Further, their website still refers to them as the "Duke and Duchess."
Going forward, the Sussexes will maintain their tie to the royal family—and to Koenig, that makes perfect sense. "Would they be the same as Harry and Meghan Mountbatten-Winsdor? No. Their cache would be lost, I think," Koenig said.
In addition to keeping their titles, the Sussexes will sustain other elements of royalty. "They'll still live in Frogmore House. They'll still have their security because it's mandated by their positions. It's sort of like the best of both words," Koenig said.
Is the decision proof of tension between the Sussexes and the royal family?
According to the BBC, Harry and Markle made the announcement without consulting the royal family first. Other senior royals are "hurt" by the announcement.
To Howard, the way this announcement was unfurled is evidence of discord between the family units.
"It's quite frankly shocking. Big decisions like this are always ran by the queen for approval first, as she is head of the family. This move seems to confirm a lack of communication between offices, and tensions behind the scenes," Howard said.
Is it evidence of a rift between Harry and William, specifically?
Tabloids have swarmed with rumors about in-fighting within the Windsor family, especially between brothers Harry and William. If the brothers have, indeed, been growing apart, Koenig said, then it's the result of their circumstances.
"There’s a definite tension between the two different brothers and how they perceive their royal duties. William has no choice—he's going to be king. Harry has more leeway and he's decided to make this a lot more leeway," Koenig said.
Their different career paths, so to speak, have shaped their lives from childhood. Footage in the documentary My Mother Diana show a young William, very aware of his legacy, and Harry, freer to goof around.
This is just to say: Whatever happened between Harry and William is likely more complicated than romantic choices. "This division has ben happening a long time. It's not because of a marriage," Koenig said.
How will the Sussexes new lives be funded?
For Koenig, this is the most pressing question of them all—and the answer will determine Harry and Markle's success in establishing themselves as independent public figures, adjacent to the crown but not reliant on it financially or beholden to its rigid strictures.
The "Funding" portion of the Sussex Royal website outlines exactly what "financial independence" means, in this context. The office of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex receive 95 percent of its income from the Prince of Wales, generated through the Duchy of Cornwall.
But this announcement concerns the other 5 percent, which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex receive through the Sovereign Grant, or "the annual funding mechanism of the monarchy that covers the work of the Royal Family in support of HM The Queen including expenses to maintain official residences and workspaces."
The Sussexes will no longer be receiving funding from the Sovereign Grant. Why is this significant? For one, it frees them up to earn an income, which they had been prohibited. Now, they're joining the other members of the royal family who have have jobs.
Importantly, the Sovereign Grant is not used for private expenditure. In essence, the announcement only entails 5 percent of their office's income, not their own. It appears that for the Sussexes, "financial independence" is code for a push toward personal independence, and forging symbolic distance from the family.
This won't plunge the royals into hardship since Prince Harry and Markle remain financially comfortable. When Harry turned 30, he came into his full inheritance (around £10 million pounds) from his mother, Diana, and had already received an inheritance from the Queen Mother. Meghan Markle has an estimated network of $5 million and received $450,000 a year while she was on Suits.
Still, the lines are undeniably blurred—even for royal experts. "I am still not fully clear as to how they will support the queen and their current royal patronages whilst being financially independent...there is overlap here I don't think they can get away from," Howard said.
Will the way they interact with the press change?
Notably, Harry and Markle used their own platform to deliver the news of their new royal status. This is significant: Going forward, Harry and Markle plan to work with journalists in a different capacity, bypassing the royal rota used to disseminate information about the royal family to the public. In what appears to be a nod to the biased British tabloids, the Sussex Royal website reads that the Duke and Duchess will "provide access to credible media outlets focused on objective news reporting." Now that Markle and Harry have a child, their desire for independence has seemed to take on greater urgency.
Will Meghan Markle go back to acting?
Markle rose to fame as an actress on Suits and later, as a blogger for her site, The Tig. When Markle chose to marry Harry, she also chose to give up many of the hallmarks of her identity.
Now that she's taking a step back from the royal family, her old life may be more open to her again. But Koenig finds a full return to acting unlikely for Markle. "She could become like Grace Kelly and do poetry readings," Koenig said.
Or maybe, like Amber of Netflix's Christmas Prince, also an American who marries European royalty, she can blog about the entire experience to her denizens of supporters. We can get her started with the first entry: "How I Got the Prince, Got Free of the Tabloids, and Got My Groove: The Meghan Markle Story."