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Source: Vanity Fair
They said it wouldn’t last. “Are Prince Harry and Meghan doomed?” New York wondered in the run-up to the couple’s royal wedding in 2018. “I think she will bolt,” feminist writer Germaine Greer predicted on an Australian morning show of the then 36-year-old actor/activist bride. Not two years later, there is indeed a split under way, just not the one skeptics foretold. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are still together—“she’s the same woman I fell in love with,” he said in January—but they’ve effectively broken up with the 1,047-year-old monarchy.
With two of The Firm’s glitteriest global superstars ostensibly opting out, the royal brand finds itself in shambles. Queen Elizabeth II and company traffic in the presumption of magic and majesty—an assurance that, divinely and by birth, they are superior. Commoners are supposed to clamor at their gates, not marry in and then make a U-turn for Canada.
The monarchy already feels drearier without Harry and Meghan, who infused the whole operation with Big Celebrity Energy. The Sussexes had an estimated 1.9 billion viewers in their thrall at their royal wedding: Harry bit his bearded lower lip and appeared to whisper, “You look amazing” in what became a much-memed moment. Meghan, the first biracial duchess in modern history, blinked back, glowing. The royal family was, but for a fleeting moment, both inclusive and…sexy? This historically white and musty institution needed the couple to appear modern and relevant to survive into the 21st century. And January’s shocking news, dropped via Instagram, struck a House of Windsor already in crisis.
Last November, someone else had quit the Firm, when Prince Andrew relinquished royal duties “for the foreseeable future” amid allegations he was an abuser in Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring. (The prince denies these allegations.) In a disastrous BBC interview, the Duke of York minimized the late Epstein’s alleged child sexual abuse as merely “unbecoming.” And before even that unpleasant PR nightmare/disaster, there were the tabloid rumors swirling around Prince William, Kate, and their “Turnip Toffs” clique. It was only a year ago when 98-year-old Prince Philip tumped over in his Land Rover and that seemed like the worst kind of news coming out of BP.
The queen conceded in her annual Christmas address that 2019 felt “quite bumpy.” Not since her self-described “annus horribilis” of 1992—when a fire broke out in Windsor Castle and three of her four children (Princes Charles and Andrew and Princess Anne) split from their spouses in high toe-sucking fashion—has the state of the royal union seemed so shaky. Eagle eyes noticed that a photo of the Sussex family was absent from her desk. Two weeks later, Harry and Meghan announced they were stepping down, and it’s been nothing but tumult since.
“The monarchy, ideally, presents a cohesive front to the public,” said royal historian Carolyn Harris, author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. To her loyal subjects, the queen is the pearl-decked personification of the state, and the crown is “seen as a unifying force, a level of government that’s above party politics.” Disharmony in the gilded, British taxpayer-funded palaces defeats the purpose.
But more than bad optics, some now worry that the loss of Harry and Meghan as working royals could leave the royal family short-staffed (especially after Prince Philip’s retirement from public life in 2017) and diminish the monarchy’s international reach.
“The queen isn’t just queen of the United Kingdom,” Harris notes. She reigns over 16 Commonwealth realms, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Jamaica, to which she and members of her extended family have embarked extensively on royal tours to flex their symbolic power (see: Harry and Meghan getting lei’d on Bondi Beach in 2018; wee Prince George greeting a bilby with William and Kate in Sydney in 2014).
Fewer senior members of the family acting as brand ambassadors for the crown could lead to discord with, or, worse, defections among the Commonwealth states. Australia held an unsuccessful constitutional referendum in 1999; Jamaica and Barbados have, at various times, considered replacing the queen with a president. “If the royal family is less visible in the Commonwealth realms in the next reign,” Harris said, “the question of the future of the monarchy in these 16 countries might arise.”
So much for the dream of the first biracial duchess in modern British history ushering in a progressive new era. Instead, Meghan and Harry lasted just 19 months—a blip in a centuries-long reign.
A gospel choir had heralded “Stand By Me” at their royal wedding; perhaps never in Windsor Castle had an African American preacher quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and waxed poetic about the power of love (assorted kings entombed therein may well have rolled over). But the belief that, just by marrying Harry, Meghan could blow the mothballs off the monarchy—in the midst of a sharply divided post-Brexiting Britain teeming with nativism—may have been the biggest fairy tale of all.
“As far as I’m concerned, the monarchy really lost out,” says Kali Nicole Gross, the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of history at Rutgers University, who specializes in black women’s experiences in U.S. history. “You push aside that pomp and circumstance and what’s underneath is not pretty.”
One might have guessed that Harry and Meghan would gradually drift into their own royal/celebrity hybrid roles; he had a TV deal with Oprah; she designed a capsule fashion collection to benefit underserved women. They declined to give their son, Archie, a title. But the brevity of Harry and Meghan’s time as senior royals begs the question: How inhospitable must the royal mantle be to a biracial self-identified feminist and her rebel-hearted husband that they said goodbye so soon? The Irishman felt longer than Harry and Meg’s tenure.
“I don’t think it reflects well on the institution or its place in contemporary Britain,” Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish) & Equal to Everything, told V.F. “The big question when this engagement and this marriage was announced was whether a woman of color could thrive in the very specific context of the royal family.” Harry’s emotional statement that “there really was no other option” seems to provide a deflating answer.
There was what Harry called a “ruthless campaign” of “relentless propaganda” against her by the British tabloids, and bald gestures, like Princess Michael of Kent’s blackamoor brooch. “The royal family is ground zero for a history of white supremacy and imperialism that they’ve never acknowledged, let alone apologized for it,” Hirsch said.
Buckingham Palace’s onetime silence on the press treatment of the Duchess of Sussex now feels like a missed opportunity to have protected the first biracial duchess it initially seemed so pleased to claim. It was only as the two sides jockeyed over the public narrative, and attempted to iron out the terms of Meghan and Harry’s exit, that the queen took corrective measures. In a warm statement amid the Sussexes’ departure in January, Queen Elizabeth said she was “particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family.” But the show of solidarity may have been too little, too late.
Now, the remaining members of the royal family find themselves stuck in a “toxic relationship” with Britain, says Hirsch, submitting to vicious cycles of tabloid scrutiny in exchange for seasons of positive coverage. It’s a codependency Prince Harry knows too well. For all the suggestion that Meghan masterminded the couple’s relocation to North America, Harry’s own reasons to seek a more untethered life have been mounting since the death of his mother, Princess Diana, in 1997. “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person,” he said in a statement announcing a lawsuit against The Mail on Sunday last year. “I lost my mother, and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.” Diana never escaped the vicious cycle between the royals and the tabloids; Harry seems determined to try.
Harry remains sixth in line to the throne, and he and Meghan will retain their HRHs, though they won’t actively use the titles, nor the word “royal” in their foundation, according to a joint statement last week. But they’ve already decamped, via commercial connecting flight, to secluded Vancouver Island, where the technical prince is going on sandwich runs at the local grocery.
To others, the saga will only make the monarchy even more relatable—“royal families: They’re just like us!”—and, in turn, beloved. Her majesty’s January statement, referring not to the monarchy but to “my family,” is a parallel to 1997, when she spoke “as a grandmother” about Diana’s death. Reminding the public that the queen is also “Gan-Gan” goes a long way to humanizing the institution.
Just as she did in the wake of 1992, the queen and the remaining senior working royals will carry on with public engagements as normal “to make clear that the monarchy is not being paralyzed by any one disagreement,” Harris said. As the queen has said: “I have to be seen to be believed.”
“The royal family is only in danger,” says Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, “when nobody cares.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Afua Hirsch’s relation to the Booker Prize. Hirsch was on the jury for last year’s prize.
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