Why Prince Harry's Royal Future Was in Question Long Before He Met Meghan Markle

The couple may want to shrink their royal roles together now, but people close to Prince Harry suspected years ago that he might want to distance himself from the family popularly known as The Firm

By Natalie Finn Jan 09, 2020 12:00 AMTags
Watch: Prince Harry & Meghan Markle to Step Back as Members of Royal Family

Prince Harry, out.

In a startling turn of events, the 35-year-old and his wife, Meghan Markle, have announced their intention to "step back as 'senior' members of the royal family" and start splitting their time between the United Kingdom and North America—which means everyone who speculated that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were seriously considering jumping ship in order to chart their own course were absolutely right.

They stated that they made the momentous decision "after many months of reflection and internal discussions." With an eye on carving out "a progressive new role within this institution," they would "work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty the Queen."

"The geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born," they continued, "while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity."

All of which is a fancy way of saying they're over it. And the real question, actually, is why Harry ever bothered with "senior royal" status?

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It's not a difficult question to answer: Duty and loyalty to his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, as well as the desire to honor his late mother Princess Diana's legacy as a humanitarian who taught her sons to look beyond the palace walls and get to know the people outside. As much as Harry always had an independent streak, with almost any kind of work it can be easier to get things done if you're a member of a large Firm rather than a freelancer.

But there had been speculation for years before he ever met Meghan Markle—who's being simultaneously cheered and blamed for breaking up the band right this second—that Harry would conceivably want to distance himself from all the royal rigmarole. Not cut ties with the monarchy entirely, but forge an auxiliary path on his own, perhaps even on another continent.

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"He's a rich young man; he could decide to kiss goodbye to the whole thing," a friend of Harry's noted, per Penny Junor's 2014 biography Prince Harry: Brother, Soldier, Son. "He could say, 'I waive my rights to the throne, I waive my rights to any money, I'm not going to live in palaces, I'm going to look after myself and do my own thing.'

"He would be relatively in his rights to do so, so long as he paid for his own protection and all the rest of it. He's got enough money." It's been reported that Prince William and Harry each inherited $16 million from Princess Diana's estate on their respective 30th birthdays.

"Yes, they could work side by side," the friend said of the brothers, "but William's not going to be king for a really long time. It could be 20 years at least. Meanwhile, there's two of them on the same territory. So if Harry decided for five years to disappear off to Africa to focus on [his charity] Sentebale and being a helicopter pilot, if that's what he wants to do, and flying anti-poaching patrols or whatever, he could still come back x times a year and do his royal duties. He's got enough money to fly himself to and fro."

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Prescient, as far as talking about a young bachelor went. Harry had just served his final tour in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, and he was in the British Army until 2015. A year later, he met Meghan, a star of the USA drama Suits who was born in Los Angeles and lived part of the year in Toronto, where her show was filmed.

They were fixed up in London by a mutual friend and the rest is history.

And by then, Harry had assumed the cloak of his birthright, becoming a so-called senior royal with a full schedule of official duties in service of the crown. In 2017, as the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's untimely death approached, he and William sat down for unprecedentedly heartfelt interviews about losing their mother and their intentions to do the kind of work that would have made her proud.

"I spent many years kicking my heels and I didn't want to grow up," Harry explained to biographer Angela Levin for Newsweek. "I felt I wanted out but then decided to stay in and work out a role for myself."

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But he and Meghan had been married less than a year when word got out that they were considering a move, perhaps to Africa, a place close to Harry's heart since he was a boy, to blaze their own philanthropic trail away from the daily royal grind. Already, Harry and Meghan had left Kensington Palace for Frogmore Cottage in Windsor and then in June they formally parted ways with the Royal Foundation, which Harry had first formed with his brother in 2009, to form their own charitable organization.

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"Any future plans for The Duke and Duchess are speculative at this stage," Buckingham Palace said in response to the relocation rumor. "No decisions have been taken about future roles. The Duke will continue to fulfill his role as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador."

The report seemed shocking, and was widely interpreted as being a consequence of the unfortunately tough time a then-pregnant Meghan continued to have with the press—which, much as they treated Diana three decades beforehand, simultaneously loved her and loved to hate on her.

But once again, royal watchers may have been more surprised that Harry had returned to the fold full-time at all.

"Prince William's obviously got a very clear destiny," Sir David Manning, former British ambassador to the United States who was hired by the queen as a part-time adviser to William and Harry in 2009 and stayed with them for a decade, told Junor. "Prince Harry's destiny is much more open to discussion and much more open for him to decide. And so I think, although [they're] very close and in many ways passionate about the same things, like the military and wildlife and so on, Harry's got a field of maneuver that's much broader."

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Stuck with the spare heir tag at birth, Harry may have found certain things unfair—such as, why was his rowdy behavior as a teenager and young adult so scandalous while William's peccadilloes were so often overlooked?—but the unlikelihood of him ever being an heir apparent had its advantages.

"Harry's got freedom to choose; he can do all kinds of things," Manning predicted years ago. "He can be very much a central part of the royal family, a great inspiration to his generation and others, or he could just ride off into the sunset and do whatever he wants, whereas that isn't really an option for William."

Now comfortably ensconced at sixth in line to the throne, only to be knocked further down should William and Kate Middleton have a fourth child, or when their kids have kids, Harry's field of maneuver is extending all the way across the Atlantic Ocean—perhaps to Canada, which is part of the Commonwealth that his grandmother has reigned over for almost 67 years. He and Meghan spent a lot of time there during their courtship and most recently celebrated their son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor's first Christmas at a massive private estate on the western side of the country.

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Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, former private secretary to William, Kate and Harry until 2013, acknowledged to Junor that, sure, Harry had the freedom to be a part-time royal "who basically is not involved in the day-to-day business of The Firm, but I think you'll find he's very passionate and engaged. But I may be wrong. He has options. He doesn't have to give the kind of leadership in the future that his brother absolutely has to give, but my guess is that he will."

Turns out, he and Manning were both right.

Harry is passionate and engaged with the causes he champions, such as support for military veterans, the homeless and children and families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa, as well as mental health awareness and, more so than ever before, environmental conservation. By many accounts the young man whom his compatriots remember as a 12-year-old walking behind his mother's coffin in her funeral procession has indeed become a great inspiration to his generation.

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And he does possess a deep-rooted fealty to the crown. But he's also riding off into the sunset a bit—not just to "do his own thing," as those close to him surmised years ago, but also to protect his new family. If Meghan had had a better time of it, perhaps they would've kept the status quo and carried on, but since she didn't...perhaps Harry was just waiting for the opportunity to do what better suited his nature in the first place.

That rogue.

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Reports are already swirling that Harry and Meghan did not run their plan—or at least their plan to make this announcement—by the queen first, which is a shock, if the decision to beat a retreat from full-time royalty isn't.

"Discussions with The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage," read a statement from the Palace in response to the Sussexes' big reveal. "We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through."

And these discussions don't just involve the queen, of course, but also Prince Charles and Prince William, who recently have been taking more active roles in sorting out royal drama, such as the booting of Prince Andrew from his official duties in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein debacle. 

Harry's father and brother were both said to be concerned for him and Meghan after the couple got royal-grade raw about their struggles in an interview with ITV during their tour of Africa in October.


"It's hard," Meghan said about dealing with the press. "I don't think anybody could understand that, but in all fairness I had no idea, which probably sounds difficult to understand...I never thought this would be easy but I thought it would be fair, and that is the part that is hard to reconcile, but [I] just take each day as it comes."

Harry described his grief as a "wound that festers," a pain that's exacerbated every time a series of flashes go off in his face, reminding him of the paparazzi that hounded Diana literally to her death.

"I think being part of this family, in this role and in this job, every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash—it takes me back," Harry said.
"So in that respect, it's the worst reminder of her life as opposed to the best." Being in Africa, he felt connected to his mother as he walked in her footsteps, but it was sad at the same time.

"As I said, with the role, with the job, and the sort of pressures that come with that, I get reminded of the bad stuff unfortunately," he added.

After his interview with the couple, ITV's Tom Bradby wrote in the Sunday Times, "I couldn't quite shake a sense of sadness, too, at the powerful impression that this young family, happy in themselves, is struggling to adapt to life in the spotlight. Can you cope with this, I asked Meghan at the end? I don't know, her demeanor seemed to suggest, I just don't know. We are, she said, taking it one day at a time."

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Step Back as "Senior" Royals and Announce Move to North America

Diana herself felt mightily restrained as a member of the royal family while married to Charles, and while the media seemingly only gained interest in her after their separation, she felt freer once she was no longer expected to toe that particular line. She even gave up police protection in 1993, against the advice of many.

So, it's safe to say that security is one of those "complicated issues" that's going to need working out before Harry and Meghan move anywhere.

"The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy, but small steps can make a world of difference," the queen said in her annual Christmas address just weeks ago.

Charles has long championed the idea of a more streamlined royal family, one with fewer members making official appearances, fewer drawing from the public purse, and, ahem, fewer becoming fodder for scandal. And that seems to align with his sons' vision for the future.

"My job is to support my brother," Harry told Angela Levin in 2017. And neither of them—nor his sister-in-law Kate Middleton—wanted to just be out there waving to people and taking pictures.

Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

"We use our time wisely," Harry said. "We don't to turn up, shake hands, but not get involved. Nowadays because of social media and the internet you have to give so much more. We are incredibly passionate with our charities and they have been chosen because they are on the path shown to me by our mother. I love charity stuff and meeting people."

At the same time, "I am determined to have a relatively normal life and if I am lucky enough to have children they can have one too. We don't want to be just a bunch of celebrities but instead use our role for good."

Harry and Meghan aren't disappearing, by any means, but the imminent move, now that it's been announced, has still left people rattled.

"I think there will be some support, as well as backlash about the perception about wanting to be royal but not wanting to be a traditional royal," royal expert Marlene Koenig told E! News in an interview.

In an informational section of their website set up to address any immediate pressing questions, it was assured that the Sussexes are not "cutting ties" with the monarchy, and as working royals they "remain dedicated to maximizing Her Majesty's legacy both in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth. They will continue to proudly do so by supporting their patronages and carrying out works for The Monarchy within the UK or abroad, as called upon."

But the streamlining has begun, ready or not.

"Royal firstborns get all the glory," Princess Diana once said when her boys were little, "but second-borns enjoy more freedom. Only when Harry is a lot older will he realize how lucky he is, not to have been the eldest."