On Tuesday, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle returned to royal duties after an extended, six-week break. The openly affectionate couple, holding hands, visited Canada’s High Commission in London to thank the country for its hospitality to them during their vacation there in British Columbia.
During their long break, Harry and the U.S.-born former TV actress enjoyed quiet family time with their son, Archie, in a $14 million oceanfront mansion on Vancouver Island. But behind the scenes, Harry, Meghan and his family were expected to figure out how the couple can continue to work within “the firm,” according to Daily Beast columnist Tom Sykes.
The Duke and Duchess enjoy global stardom and are clearly ambitious to use their celebrity to make an impact as philanthropists for worthy causes. But the couple also has faced criticism for behaving too much like celebrities — with their use of private jets for vacations, their need for a $3 million taxpayer-funded home upgrade and their general flouting of royal media conventions.
That leaves them and the royal family deciding if and how they can make the couple’s ambitions work within an institution where survival relies on the public will and on operating within certain necessary restrictions. This means that Harry and Meghan must decide whether they are “are prepared to toe the line or insist on continuing to forge their own path,” Sykes said.
At the beginning of 2020, the royal family has again found itself at a place where it faces questions about its survival. Queen Elizabeth, the monarchy’s resolute face for nearly seven decades, is 93 and reportedly handing over more and more of the day-to-day work to her son, Prince Charles, who has never enjoyed her level of public trust and popularity.
But these existential questions multiplied with the disgrace of Prince Andrew over sexual assault allegations related to his friendship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The scandal left even candidates for prime minister having to publicly respond to whether they believe the monarchy is still “fit for purpose.”
Amid the brewing Andrew/Epstein scandal, Meghan guest-edited British Vogue to mixed reviews — and reportedly without the royal family’s sanction. She and Harry also took legal action against the U.K. tabloids and complained about the stresses of royal life in an October ITV documentary. Harry moreover confirmed reports of a rift between him and his brother, Prince William, and Meghan suggested her in-laws had done little to help with her distress. A friend of the Sussexes audaciously proclaimed to CNN that the couple “had single-handedly modernized” the royal family.
Harry and Meghan “going rogue” with their media relations, especially with the Vogue issue and the ITV interviews, was especially upsetting to the royal family, according to reports.
“There was much general unhappiness in Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace last year at the way in which Harry and Meghan frequently flouted the unwritten rule that requires members of the royal family to get at least a verbal signoff from above before doing anything that might attract publicity, good or bad,” Sykes wrote.
Many royal observers say the monarchy last faced a serious existential crisis in the 1990s with Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce, and then with Diana’s death in 1997. But other observers have gone further back — to the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII on the eve of World War II — to compare the level of damage wrought by Andrew’s downfall and, to a lesser extent, Harry and Meghan’s tribulations.
But to understand the reported behind-the-scenes machinations over the past year’s controversies, it may help to realize that the royals modern template for survival was set under more dire circumstances more than 100 years ago.
World War I and revolution toppled centuries-old monarchies all over Europe, and the British royals were vulnerable on two fronts. The German background of King George V made the British public question his loyalty, forcing him to change the family’s German name to something more English-sounding: The House of Windsor.
George also had to decide whether to allow his tyrannical cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, to enjoy refuge in England. Fearing an anti-royal backlash, George refused entry to Nicholas, and the tsar and his family were brutally murdered.
“George consigned the House of Romanov dynasty to history, and his cousin Nicky to the firing squad, in order that the House of Windsor should survive,” said historian and author Piers Brendon in the 2017 Netflix series “The House of Windsor.”
“This decision to refuse asylum is characteristic certainly of the British royal family, which is pragmatic, realistic, but with a ruthlessness,” said Jane Ridley, professor of history at the University of Buckingham, in the documentary. “When their survival is at stake, they will make the decision to ensure they survive.”
It may seem overly dramatic to raise the specter of revolution and murder when discussing Andrew’s situation — or, yes, Harry and Meghan’s.
But Robert Hazell, an expert in European monarchies, explained how such comparisons are not out of line. In a blog post for the Constitution Unit in the political science department at University College London, Hazell said the monarchies that survived World Wars I and II did so partly because of geopolitical reasons but also because they were “quick to reject royals who step out of line, or in Prince Andrew’s words ‘let the side down.’”
“Modern monarchy depends ultimately on the support of the public, and it has to be keenly responsive to public opinion,” Hazell said. One way to be responsive is to “keep tight control of royal PR,” he added.
There are questions over the extent to which the queen sanctioned Andrew’s disastrous interview with the BBC, but the fierce backlash to Andrew’s comments and demeanor during the interview forced the queen’s survival instincts to kick in. She and Charles swiftly decided that Andrew had to go.
Now these instincts may guide how they can accommodate Harry and Meghan within their ranks. Charles has shown that he has “no compunction in firing family members who engage in freelancing if it goes wrong,” the Daily Beast said.
It’s been widely reported that Charles is committed to instituting “a slimmed-down” monarchy. This slimmed-down structure already appears to exclude Harry and Meghan from its “inner core,” royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams told The Daily Express last week.
“What appears more likely than a ‘slimmed-down monarchy’ is a smaller core limited to the line of succession including, in time, William and Kate’s family,” Fitzwilliams said.
Indeed, the royal family telegraphed this focus on Charles, William, Kate Middleton and their three children in several ways over the holidays. When the queen delivered her televised Christmas Day speech, referencing her “bumpy year,” the photos on her desk were limited to Prince Philip, Charles and Camilla, and William and Kate and their children. There were no photos of Harry, Meghan and Archie.
“The omission of their photograph … was a shot across their bows,” the Daily Beast’s Sykes wrote. “It showed, very visually, that no matter how much (the couple) may think they are invaluable and untouchable, the monarchy is perfectly capable of marching on without them.”
The royal family followed up by publicizing several portraits of the queen with her three direct heirs: Charles, William and 6-year-old Prince George.
William and Kate have also upped their public profile in recent months by sharing family portraits on Instagram and appearing on the family-friendly BBC cooking special, “A Berry Royal Christmas.”
But if the royal family don’t need Harry and Meghan, the Sussexes are popular enough that they could probably pursue their philanthropic endeavors outside the royal structure.
“Harry and Meghan know their own stardom, of course. They know their fans, and they market themselves to them directly,” the Daily Beast’s Sykes said.
“But no one is indispensable in a monarchy, and acting too grandly, or separate from the rest of the family, can be damaging,” Sykes added.
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