It was a shocking announcement, and one with several layers: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were stepping back as senior members of the royal family. Basing themselves in both the United Kingdom and North America. Starting their own charity, and becoming financially independent. “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,” they wrote. “Please accept our deepest thanks for your continued support.”
How did we get here?
Anyone whose clicked on a celebrity gossip website or flipped through a tabloid magazine could have told you that all has not been right in House of Sussex for some time. After their spring 2019 wedding—which had drama of its own—the rumors rained down: the Duchess was difficult; she and Kate were feuding; brothers Harry and William were feuding. The couple were criticized, it seemed, at every turn, whether they took vacation, hosted a baby shower, or held a private christening for their new son. (As a U.K. editor put it to Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo: “The British press’s attitude toward the royals could be summed up as:We pay for you, and you just have to suck it up.”)
Meanwhile, the Duchess was a true champion of female empowerment. The Duke advocated for the environment. And then there’s the societal significance of Markle herself: a biracial royal who spoke proudly of her heritage and represented so much for so many. But there was just too much noise. “They felt besieged, harassed, and abused,” royal historian Sally Bedell Smith tells Vogue. “They felt the ability to do all the things they set out to do was impeded by the press. “
The couple admitted it was a struggle. “Any woman, especially when they’re pregnant—you’re really vulnerable,” the Duchess told reporter Tom Bradby about the constant media coverage. “So that was made really challenging. And then when you have a newborn, you know? It’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.” In October, the couple announced legal action against multiple British tabloids for breach of privacy and the publishing of “deliberately derogatory” stories. “There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious,” the Duke said in a statement. Come mid-November, they took an extended break from royal duties, and spent the holidays in Canada.
During this idyllic getaway, the Queen made her annual Christmas speech. In it, she admitted that 2019 was “quite bumpy.” (This could describe both the country’s Brexit-induced turmoil and her family: The Sussex stuff was nothing compared to the well-deserved outrage over Prince Andrew. The Prince gave a disastrous BBC interview about his ties with convicted sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein in which, among many egregious errors, he failed to show remorse for the victims.) On the Queen’s desk were four very visible pictures: one, of her father King George. Two, her husband Prince Philip. Three, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Four, the Cambridge family. Her grandson Prince Harry and his new wife were missing.
A mere two weeks later came the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision, which they said was the result of “many months of reflection and internal discussions.”
Did the Queen know this was coming? The BBC reports that Buckingham Palace was “disappointed.”
“Discussions with The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage,” the palace said in a statement. “We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”
We’re very much in unprecedented waters: Sure, the Duke of Windsor abdicated in 1936, but he was king. And Prince Harry and Meghan Markle aren’t stepping down. They’re stepping back. Part-time British royals is a new concept. “I think the jury is really out on whether or not they can combine those two roles,” says Bedell Smith. “Usually, with the royal family: you’re either in it, or you’re not.”
So how will things change? For starters, the Duke and Duchess will likely get more privacy. As they implied in their statement, their new North American base won’t be a highly-publicized one like Frogmore Cottage. “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,” they said.
Then there’s the matter of financial independence. Right now, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are funded by two different measures: the taxpayer-funded Sovereign Grant, and the profits from Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall. They, however, want to make their own money: “They value the ability to earn a professional income,” reads an entry on their website. “Under the current structure and financing arrangements, they are prohibited from earning any income in any form.” At this time, they have not announced any future profit-making projects or plans. “No one really knows—until they explain it—what that’s going to be,” says Bedell Smith. “What this suggests is that they are going to work in the private sector.”
They do, however, mention a new charity, with details to be revealed in “due course.” Their new website, Sussexroyal.com, was launched shortly after their announcement, hinting that news may come sooner rather than later. On their homepage, they use terms like “serving the monarchy” and “strengthening the Commonwealth.”
In fact, it seems they’re only poised to get more popular. While the couple will be part of fewer public appearances and official portraits, expect more Instagrams: their new website states that they will be opting out of the “Royal Rota” system, which means they will be able to release more photos directly on social media. “They believe that their updated media approach will enable them to share more, with you, directly,” the website explains. The world wants to keep up with Harry and Meghan, and that’s about to get a lot easier.