LONDON — Prince Harry and Meghan’s shocking announcement that they plan to become part-time royals caused a painful rupture in his family. But it has also forced Buckingham Palace to confront the changing nature of British royal life as the era of Queen Elizabeth II draws to a close.
On Friday, the palace convened an emergency meeting to address the couple’s proposal that they “step back” from their royal duties, seek financial independence and live part of the year in North America. The goal, according to people with ties to the palace, was to find a quick accommodation with the couple, who have become dangerously isolated in the House of Windsor. That could come in a matter of days, they said.
Meghan, also known as the Duchess of Sussex, flew to Canada alone after the announcement to care for the couple’s 8-month-old son, Archie, who was staying there with a friend. Her hasty departure suggested that, however the palace chooses to respond, things are not going to return to normal.
While Friday’s meeting was aimed at easing the crisis and finding a new arrangement for Harry and Meghan, people with ties to the palace said it would have broader implications. Whatever concessions or stipulations Buckingham Palace agrees to could potentially be applied to other members of the family, since the royal family has always been guided by precedent.
Private secretaries for the queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry all took part in the session. William had a particular interest, one person close to the palace said, because his younger children, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, will face the same predicament as his brother — unlikely ever to sit on the throne, but still highly visible members of the family.
Charles, the longtime heir and Harry’s father, has taken charge of the response to the crisis, much as he did last November after his brother, Prince Andrew, gave a calamitous interview to the BBC about his dealings with the disgraced financier, Jeffrey Epstein. Under pressure from Charles, the queen essentially stripped Andrew of his official duties.
Charles has long spoken of his desire to streamline the family during his reign, raising questions about how many members would continue to carry out official duties or receive funding from the state.
The queen, 93, has already reduced her public schedule. With the banishment of Andrew and the self-exile of Harry, the number of royals who shoulder the family’s heavy schedule of charity events, diplomatic ceremonies and hospital visits would dwindle to a small, possibly overburdened, circle.
For all the bruised feelings, experts on the royal family said they did not expect the queen to lash out against the duke and duchess. Unlike Andrew, who was an increasingly peripheral figure, Harry and Meghan, along with Archie, have come to symbolize the family’s future — global stars, with a multiracial family that has appeal throughout the Commonwealth.
“The queen is the first one to admit that she wants an amicable solution,” said Dickie Arbiter, who served as a press secretary for the queen from 1988 to 2000. “It’s important not just for Harry and Meghan; it’s important to prevent the fracturing of the monarchy as an institution.”
Still, the hurdles posed by the couple’s plans are formidable, ranging from how they will earn a living to who will pay for their security. Many of those have implications for the public funding of the monarchy, which is based on the idea that the royal family is devoted full time to public service.
They have not ruled out spending part of the year in Southern California, where the duchess was raised and where her mother, Doria Ragland, lives. Even in Canada, a member of the Commonwealth, their immigration status would be an issue.
The duke and duchess explained their thinking in a slickly produced website they had designed by a Toronto firm over the past several months without any input from Buckingham Palace. They excluded their own palace staff from the announcement, leaving them uncertain of even keeping their jobs.
At Friday’s meeting, Harry and his wife were represented by their chief of staff, Fiona Mcilwham, who served as ambassador to Albania and is viewed as a rising star in the British diplomatic service. Senior members of the family typically draw their top advisers from the ranks of diplomats. Clive Alderton, the private secretary to Charles, served as ambassador to Morocco.
Their similar backgrounds and pedigrees could help the advisers smooth out the ruffled feathers between their bosses. But the Sussexes have served notice that they are willing to go outside the normal channels. There were rumors Friday that Harry would soon leave to join his wife in Canada.
Britain’s news media continued to subject the couple to scathing coverage, with the Daily Mail noting, “Meghan Flees to Canada” and the Sun pointing out, “They’ve Left Archie in Canada.” The Daily Telegraph listed all the concessions it said the queen had given the couple, concluding, “they still wanted more.”
As the spectacle has unfolded in days of breathless headlines, there are emerging cultural fault lines, which break in the same way as the fraught national debate over Brexit. Tabloids like the Daily Mail and the Sun, which championed leaving the European Union, have tended to be more critical of Harry and defensive of the monarchy, as have pro-Brexit papers like the Telegraph.
Left-of-center papers like The Guardian, which opposed Brexit, have tended to be more sympathetic to Harry and his American wife, even if they season their coverage with disdain for the entire royal enterprise.
Marina Hyde, a columnist at The Guardian, drew a parallel between Harry and King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in 1936 rather than give up his dream of marrying a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson. The couple, she wrote, probably had little choice but to make an end-run around the queen.
“The move does look like the action of two people who know that if you consult others on things, they only try to stop you,” Hyde said. Maybe, she added, Buckingham Palace “can Skype the Sussexes in Canada?”