LONDON — Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, failed to get clearance from Queen Elizabeth II before announcing their unorthodox plan to become part-time, financially independent royals and divide their time between Britain and North America.
But the couple had been planning the move for months before it popped up, out of the blue, on their Instagram account Wednesday evening, electrifying social media, interrupting the BBC’s coverage of Brexit and elbowing aside news about the risk of war between the United States and Iran.
Soon after the couple issued a statement saying they planned to “step back” from their royal duties, they elaborated their thinking on a new, slickly produced website. The site was quietly designed by a firm in Canada with no input from Buckingham Palace, according to people with ties to the royal family.
It has swiftly come to symbolize what palace officials regard as a rogue operation by Prince Harry and Meghan, one that now threatens the unity of the House of Windsor and the future of two of its most popular members.
Yet the botched announcement is also a human story — of a recently married prince at odds with his older brother, Prince William; his American actress wife, isolated and unhappy in her cloistered new life; and a young couple enmeshed in a bitter feud with Britain’s aggressive tabloid press.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as they are also known, felt forced to disclose their plans prematurely after they learned that the Sun, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, got wind of the internal discussions about their status and was preparing a story, two people with ties to the family said.
The uproar disrupted plans for Prince Charles, the duke’s father and other family members to meet later this month to discuss how the couple might take on different roles — a conversation that has diplomatic, financial and tax ramifications. Still undecided is whether they can keep living rent-free in Frogmore Cottage, a recently refurbished house on the estate of Windsor Castle, owned by the queen.
“We look forward to sharing details of this exciting next step in due course, after collaboration with Her Majesty the Queen,” as well as his father, brother, “and all relevant parties,” the duke and duchess said in characteristically upbeat language posted on Instagram and their site.
That seems highly optimistic in the wake of headlines like the one in Thursday’s Daily Mirror: “They didn’t even tell the Queen.”
The latest drama began just before Christmas, according to one person with knowledge of the family. Prince Harry, who was vacationing with his wife and 8-month-old son, Archie, in Canada, called his father to propose a new arrangement, in which he and his wife would relinquish some of their duties, live part of the year outside Britain and seek to support themselves.
Prince Charles, this person said, asked for a written proposal from the couple, which would then form the basis for a longer conversation. The queen conveyed to Prince Harry that he would need his father’s support for her to give her blessing. Neither of those things happened, though the couple’s site presents several details about their new lives, as if they have been settled with the family.
The site’s genesis, people with knowledge of the family said, was in the couple’s new charity, Sussex Royal, which they created after Prince Harry broke away from a charity he shared with his brother. Sussex Royal, which has no connection to their official duties, has consumed much of their energy in recent months.
To design its site, the couple hired Article, a Toronto-based digital firm that designed The Tig, a now-defunct lifestyle blog that the duchess began in her acting days. When the Sussex Royal site went live Wednesday, it wound up being used as the vehicle for the announcement. That caught the couple’s communications team in Buckingham Palace by surprise, since they had no involvement in its creation.
The duchess also works with Sunshine Sachs, a public relations firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles. An official there said the firm was not involved in either the announcement or the creation of the site.
With gauzy photos and corporate-style language, the site sets out the couple’s rationale for scaling back their duties, defends their sources of funding and serves notice that they will no longer engage with the news media in the way Buckingham Palace traditionally has.
Among its features is an explanation of who pays for their upkeep, complete with a graphic showing how money flows from the crown estate through the Treasury and back to the queen. But it raises as many questions as it answers.
The couple say, for example, that they will forgo money from the Sovereign Grant, the public purse that pays for lodgings and offices for the royal family. But they note that it accounts for only 5% of their expenses. The other 95% comes from Prince Charles, through the proceeds he gets from the Duchy of Cornwall, a vast private estate established by King Edward III in 1337.
It is not clear that Prince Harry would be entitled to the same income from his father if he were not a full-time royal.
The same is true for their tenancy in Frogmore Cottage, which the queen offered to the couple after tensions between Prince Harry and his brother prompted him to request that they move out of Kensington Palace, Prince William’s official residence. The couple came under criticism after reports the cottage was renovated in 2019 at a cost of 2.4 million pounds ($3.1 million) in public funds.
The duke and duchess said their security was provided by Britain’s Home office and suggested that would continue. But the site says nothing about who would pay for their security in Canada or the United States, the two countries that could be potential second homes.
Nor does the site offer details about their plan to “work to become financially independent.”
Royal watchers said each could sign multimillion-dollar book deals or earn tens of thousands of dollars on the lecture circuit. But to do that, they would likely be asked to share behind-the-scenes details about the royal family that would make their positions untenable.
The duchess could resume her acting career, though that would set an even more startling precedent for a member of the royal family. As Meghan Markle, she starred in the legal drama, “Suits,” which was filmed in Toronto, which the couple are rumored to be considering as one landing spot.
Other family members who have tried to make money, like Prince Edward, the queen’s youngest son, and his wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, have had to give up their jobs after minor scandals. Prince Andrew’s ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, brought greater embarrassment on the family after getting involved in dubious moneymaking ventures and falling into debt.
“It’s very commendable that somebody in that position wants to try to earn their own living,” Philip Hammond, a former chancellor of the Exchequer, told BBC radio. But he said the intense news media scrutiny would “make it actually quite difficult for them to do so.”
The website also sets out new rules for engagement with the news media, which are sure to antagonize the tabloids. It says the couple will effectively boycott the “Royal Rota,” a four-decade-old arrangement that provides pooled access to the public activities of the royal family.
Four of the seven papers in the group are tabloids; Prince Harry’s contempt for them is palpable on the site.
“Britain’s Royal Correspondents are regarded internationally as credible sources of both the work of members of the Royal Family as well as of their private lives,” the site says. “This misconception propels coverage that is often carried by outlets around the world, amplifying frequent misreporting.”
The couple said they wanted to cultivate younger journalists and experts on the issues that animate their charitable work. Journalists who are members of the royal press said the real motive was to cut out newspapers with whom Prince Harry has long feuded over coverage. The vitriolic press reaction to the couple’s news suggests that keeping the tabloids at arm’s length may not shield them.
“We’ve known for a long time that Harry hates the media, and the tabloids in particular,” said Valentine Low, a royal correspondent at the Times of London. “It’s ridiculous to think that this will spare them. The tabloids will not feel constrained.”