How Meghan Markle Has Forever Changed the Royal Family

She came, she saw, she gave Britain's royal family a much-needed jolt—and then took Prince Harry back to her side of the pond.

By Natalie Finn Aug 04, 2020 10:00 AMTags
Related: Meghan Markle Says "George Floyd's Life Mattered"

Suffice it to say, Meghan Markle's 39th birthday is looking very different from her 38th.

And not just because of the pandemic that's put a fork in most well-laid plans for celebrations this year.

In 2019, the word was that the Duchess of Sussex, marking her first birthday as a mom, and husband Prince Harry would be taking tea with the queen at Balmoral. She was on maternity leave from royal duties but keeping busy, collaborating on a capsule collection for charity and guest-editing the September issue of British Vogue.

In 2020, Meghan can't even go around calling herself the Duchess of Sussex. There are some reports circulating that she wanted to have a small getaway in Montecito, about an hour's drive from Los Angeles, but the couple's rep certainly isn't sharing any details on what would be a super-private party.

But what a difference 12 months makes.

All of Meghan Markle's Final Royal Outfits

Excerpts are pouring forth from a tell-all book about Meghan and Harry that's coming out on Aug. 11, each revelation juicier than the last. The couple are in the middle of a lawsuit that's playing out in London, battling for not just their own right to privacy but that of their friends and loved ones. And, in case it didn't register already, they're in California, where they now live.

Technically they still live in Britain, too, at Frogmore Cottage, in the realm of Windsor Castle. But they haven't stepped foot in England since their farewell whirl as senior royals in the beginning of March, and their now nearly 15-month-old son, Archie, hasn't been in the country of his birth at all this year.

On March 31, they officially stepped down, the terms of the agreed-upon, months-in-negotiating split including that they not trade in any way, for business or for charity, on their HRH titles or status as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Which doesn't change the fact that everyone still wants a piece of them because of the titles they've agreed not to use. But it's a whole new, albeit recognizably comfortable, world for these two.

Tim Rooke for Shutterstock

Harry and Meghan's decision to socially distance themselves from the royal family for reasons that had nothing to do with preventing a virus from spreading is not the most world-rattling scandal to plague the House of Windsor either this century or last. No lines of succession have been altered, no bonds forever broken (though Harry and Prince William should really sit down over a few pints as soon as possible lest their fraternal connection fray any more).

But there's no question that the family isn't the same as it was in 2018, when Meghan married into it—let alone 2016, when Harry first fell in love with her, months before anyone even knew he had a girlfriend.

There are at least two sides to every story (and far more than that to this one), whether you believe the least flattering dispatches or the more glowing takes on how Meghan came, saw, didn't like what she saw and skedaddled. More likely you sense, correctly, that the truth is a complicated melding of all the sides.

But there are no two ways about the fact that the course of the royal family has been forever altered by the addition of Meghan to its ranks:

Bachelor Prince, Seeking Single Female

Prince Harry generally made for a happy trio with his big brother, Prince William, and sister-in-law Kate Middleton, but by 2016 Harry had been open about wanting to start a family of his own. He had never wanted for girlfriends, but finding The One was proving to be a tall order.

"I don't think you can force these things," Harry told Sky News during a tour of New Zealand in May 2015, about a week after his niece Princess Charlotte was born back in Britain, when asked whether he was ready to settle down. "It'll happen when it's going to happen. Of course I'd love to have kids right now, but there's a process that one has to go through...Tours like this is great fun, hopefully I'm doing alright by myself. It would be great to have someone next to me, sort of to share the pressure. But you know, the time will come and whatever happens, happens, I guess."

Happy, Hasty Harry

A year later, he found someone to share the pressure with!

He and Meghan met for a drink in London, set up by mutual friend Violet von Westenholz, and it was practically love at first sight—or at least second sight, Harry feeling as early as date two the very next evening that "they would be together," a friend told Finding Freedom authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand. "She was ticking every box fast."

Harry finding love sent a warm wave of happiness straight to the top of the royal food chain, Queen Elizabeth II always having had a special place in her heart for her roguish red-haired grandson.

However, also according to the book, William, who dated—and, at times, dangled—Kate for years before marrying her in 2011, urged his brother to really think it through, worried he was moving too fast. And that didn't sit well with Harry at all.

"Harry could see through William's words," a friend told the authors. "He was being a snob."

A Secret Engagement

In general, royals wait a beat before sharing engagement news with the world, the actual proposal always taking place somewhere private (after the queen has been alerted and her approval acquired) before the announcement goes out. In this day and age, with so many Internet sleuths on the case, you'd think that Meghan would have set off major alarms by wearing a white button-down called the "Husband Shirt" from her designer friend Misha Nonoo's collection on a date with Harry to the Invictus Games in September 2017, more than two months before they revealed their betrothal.

But no. Meghan's smart white shirt and somehow-still-elegant ripped skinny jeans flew under the radar.

Uncharted Territory

The young royals are an increasingly progressive bunch, and their charity work in their own country and others reflects that. But Britain's royal family hadn't had much cause for discussions about race as it pertains to their own family. So it was the beginning of an eye-opening new era when Harry was compelled to entreat the public in November 2016 to respect more than his not-so-new-by-then girlfriend's privacy.

Harry was aware that there will always be fascination with his personal life, read a statement released on his behalf by the palace, "But the past week has seen a line crossed. His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public—the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."

And so began a struggle with the U.K. press and many of its citizens, famous and not, that continues to this day over whether there's a racial component to the way the media treated (and continues to treat) Meghan, the daughter of a white father and Black mother. Most people see it, that headlines such as the Daily Mail's "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton" from 2016 are inexcusable. But of course those who have endlessly criticized her (she spent too much money on this, she disrespected Kate, she disrespected the queen, how dare she take a 48-hour trip and leave a 5-month-old baby with only his father and staff to look after him?!) insist that nothing has anything to do with race.

Looming Father Figure

While plenty of people were on the bride's guest list when Meghan and Harry got married at St. George's Chapel on May 19, 2018, including Serena Williams, Priyanka Chopra and the cast of Suits, and the uplifting sermon by an American pastor and music from a gospel choir represented the culture that Meghan was bringing to the union, she only had one family member in attendance, mom Doria Ragland.

Her father, Thomas Markle, who has never met Harry in person, had supposedly been planning to attend, but then he had a reported heart attack and Meghan's half-sister (who's older and whom Meghan never lived with much as a child) started attacking her on Twitter...and on Good Morning Britain...and through whichever avenue was available...

Harry and Meghan's wedding day was undeniably glorious, and Prince Charles was happy to escort his incoming daughter-in-law down the aisle, but these royal occasions are usually packed to the gills with relatives members from both sides, no matter how much drama (see: Diana and Charles, 1981) is weighing down the family tree.

And the strange, often vicarious back-and-forth between Meghan and her father continued, and she and Harry ended up suing the Daily Mail for publishing a letter she wrote to her dad. 

Remarkable Royals

Meghan and Harry's tour of Africa in October 2019, their first official trip as parents, was memorable for more reasons than their raw interview with Tom Bradby for ITV in which they admitted just how miserable they felt being picked apart by the press. Though that was pretty darn memorable, as well as the beginning of the end of their time as senior royals, though no one else knew it yet.

Rather, the (mainly American) press that always talked more consistently about how Meghan was revolutionizing the monarchy focused on her connection with the people they met, how she told an audience at The Justice Desk, a non-profit that provides education and job training in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, that she was speaking to them "as a woman of color and as your sister." 

Harry has spent a lot of time in Africa, particularly in Lesotho and Botswana where his Sentebale charity, which aids families affected by HIV/AIDS, operates. But as Meghan talked to the people, and took time off the official itinerary to visit a memorial erected for murdered student Uyinene Mrwetyana, her commitment to human rights and empowering women was palpable to observers around the world. And in a roundtable discussion about women in education at University of Johannesburg, the Northwestern University graduate mentioned that she was only able to attend college due to financial aid and "families chipping in."

"In a world that that can seem so aggressive, confrontational, and dangerous, you should know that you have the power to change it," Meghan also said during another engagement, per CNN. "Because whether you're here in South Africa, at home in the U.K. or the U.S., or around the world, you actually have the power within you to change things, and that begins with how you connect to others."

It's Been Real

On Jan. 8, 2020, approximately 14 years ago in pandemic time, Harry and Meghan announced they planned to take a step back from full-time royalty, become financially independent from the Crown and start splitting their time between North America and the U.K.

As it turned out, that wasn't going to work exactly as they might have hoped. In meetings with the queen, dad Charles and brother William (both future kings), it was determined that independence means exactly that—that Harry and Meghan were free to make their own way, but they would no longer be representing the monarchy in their endeavors, on occasion or at all.

Don't Blame Her

It was a surprise for most longtime royal watchers, as well as close friends and confidantes, when Harry committed to being a full-time royal at such a young age in the first place. Some thought he'd want to settle down in Africa for awhile and focus on his Sentebale charity, or perhaps continue on in the military. 

"Meghan simply emboldened him to make the change," Finding Freedom authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand contend in their book. "She supported him no matter what."
A source told them, "Fundamentally, Harry wanted out... Deep down, he was always struggling within that world. She's opened the door for him on that."

A Tyler Perry Production

While there was good reason to think the couple might perch in Canada for awhile, because Toronto had become Meghan's second home while she filmed Suits and she and Harry had some good times there, they answered the siren call of Los Angeles instead.

Tyler Perry offered them the use of his Beverly Hills estate, and that's where they've been waiting out the COVID-19 quarantine with their staff and, lately, Meghan's mom, whose home is now a short drive away from her only daughter and grandchild.

Though there's been a hold-up with their application to trademark Archewell, the proposed name of their new foundation, they've been making virtual appearances on multiple continents and having video meetings with everyone ranging from business associates to the queen. They only venture out under a veil of secrecy, such as when they delivered meals to the home-bound over Easter weekend and the world learned about it later, but they have been speaking up publicly on poignant issues from their home.

Black Lives Matter

While they gave an unusually raw glimpse at the toll that life under the microscope can take on one's psyche, even a royal psyche, it's the general consensus that Meghan and Harry simply wouldn't be as free to truly speak their minds as they have in recent months if they had remained full-time employees of "the Firm."

"I wasn't sure what I could say to you," Meghan said in a video message addressing the May 25 death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis cop, since charged with second-degree murder, held his knee to Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. "I wanted to say the right thing...I realized, the only wrong thing to say is to say nothing."

Which is basically the exact opposite approach that the royal family has historically taken with so many things, matters big and small.

On July 1, sitting down virtually with young leaders from The Queen's Commonwealth Trust, both Meghan and Harry spoke frankly about racism and inequality. Calling the ongoing protests and seemingly increased awareness all over the world "a moment of reckoning," Meghan said, "In that self-reflection, it's acknowledging what mistakes we've all made,. Each of us, individually, what have we done in our past? … So many people go, 'I need to own that.'"

Then again, so many people also do not take any responsibility whatsoever for what plagues society.

"When it comes to institutional, systemic racism, it's there and it stays there because someone, somewhere is benefiting from it," Harry said. "We can't deny or ignore the fact that all of us have been brought up and educated to see the world differently, however, once you start to realize that there is that bias there, then you need to acknowledge it." 

Meghan added, "It's not just in the big moments, it's in the quiet moments where racism and unconscious bias lies and thrives. It makes it confusing for a lot of people to understand the role that they play in that, both passively and actively."

The Firm may not have ever thought of opening a satellite office in Los Angeles, but it's open, it's running, and it's already the headquarters for a whole new way of doing business.