In all her life, we can't imagine Queen Elizabeth II has ever served as opening act.
Kidding. Even those whose interest in the royal family begins and ends with new episodes of The Crown are well aware that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry agreed to share their truth with the queen of all media in a primetime special that drew the inevitable comparisons to Princess Diana's 1995 BBC tell-all with British journalist Martin Bashir. (And not just because Meghan chose to wear her late mother-in-law's bracelet for the interview.)
While she has every intention to keep her upper lip as stiff as ever, the Queen was said to be none-too-pleased with the idea that the planned virtual Commonwealth Day celebration, airing in place of the annual in-person service, would be upstaged by her family airing their incredibly legitimate grievances.
Which begs the question, now that Harry and Meghan have strayed so far from the family's never complain, never explain motto, just how is her royal majesty feeling about her beloved grandson and his pregnant bride these days?
The answer: Okay-ish. Fine, really.
The 94-year-old monarch is still dutifully playing the role of grandmother and Gan-Gan, connecting with 22-month-old Archie the way of distant relatives the world over in 2021. "Both my grandparents do," Harry told pal James Corden when asked if the Queen knows her way around Zoom. He and Meghan have signed on for chats with her and Prince Philip "a few times," he continued in his Feb. 25 The Late Late Show segment. "They've seen Archie running around." Though he noted that his grandfather has a habit of simply shutting the laptop instead of hitting the "leave meeting" button.
But the idea that the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen have slammed the door on their relationship with their now-California-based kin? That's as loosely based in reality as The Crown's storylines.
Sure, the Sussexes are no longer sharing the same Windsor Castle acreage as the Queen and her consort, and they gave her a firm thanks, but no thanks in regards to returning to their positions as senior royals. So fair to say they're not quite as close as they were when the Queen offered to let Meghan's rescue beagle Guy hitch a ride with her to their 2018 vows.
But she still gamely shipped over a waffle maker for her great-grandson to open at Christmas ("Archie wakes up in the morning and he just goes, 'Waffle?'" Harry told James) and the Sussexes absolutely checked in to inquire about his grandfather's condition since Philip's recent hospitalization, with Meghan revealing to Oprah she'd placed a call directly to the Queen. Not to mention, COVID-permitting, Harry has every intention of being balcony-side when the Trooping the Colour festivities commence this June, he and his wife always planning to commute in for major family events.
So there's that.
Admittedly, her majesty was not super thrilled about the couple speaking so candidly about the treatment the endured during their time as senior royals.
But the Queen, who has weathered far tawdrier royal scandals in her seven-decade reign and even a freaking world war, has built an entire legacy on her ability to keep calm and carry on. And she is in no way writing off the Sussex crew, having "made it absolutely clear that they would always be welcome back if they had a change of heart," as royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams told Us Weekly.
Really, her palace door has been pretty wide open from the start.
By the time Harry and Meghan's successful blind date set up went public just after Halloween in 2016, they had pretty much decided on forever with Harry telling James that all the time spent shielding their romance from the public meant "we went from zero to 60, like, in the first two months." And yet there was a not small group of people who felt the two would never be able to drive off into the sunset together.
The issue as they saw it, was that the Queen—who has final veto power in royal marriages that could potentially impact the line of succession—would simply never approve of her grandson marrying a divorcée, never mind one that was an American actress three years his elder who happened to be the daughter of a white lighting director from Pennsylvania and a Black social worker from Ohio.
And yet when Harry asked his grandmother for her official blessing ahead of his late 2017 proposal, "she gave it without hesitation," Harry: Life, Loss and Love author Katie Nicholl told Entertainment Tonight. "I was told by one of the Queen's closest aides shortly after the engagement announcement that the monarch was genuinely delighted that Harry had found someone who made him so happy. Despite rumors to the contrary, there was no issue over Meghan's racial heritage or concerns that she was older or divorced. Exceptionally close to her grandson, the Queen trusts Harry."
She trusts first impressions as well and by all accounts Meghan, a Northwestern-educated, well-traveled activist and philanthropist, had made quite the good one.
Their first meeting—an impromptu moment after lunch in Windsor—went exceptionally well, a source told Us Weekly at the time, predicting it was "the first of many encounters."
Because in addition to impressing the monarch with her advocacy and charity work (and presumably her curtsy skills, the future duchess receiving a crash course before the big moment, not realizing she'd be expect to genuflect in such an informal setting), Meghan also won over her treasured pack of Corgis, Harry later joking in their joint engagement interview, "I've spent the last 33 years being barked at. This one walks in, absolutely nothing."
Of course it was Harry's adoration that mattered most. And her grandson's happiness sold the Queen on Meghan from the start. "Everything I heard from the sources I spoke to was that she really felt from the outset that Meghan was a positive person in Prince Harry's life," Nicholl told ET. "That she made him very happy and that she was really very supportive."
So supportive, in fact, that not long after the two announced their engagement in November 2017, the Queen brushed aside years of no ring, no bring tradition and extended an invite for Harry's future bride to join in the festivities at the family's three-day yuletide extravaganza at her Sandringham estate.
Though Kate Middleton didn't receive an official invite until after her 2011 wedding to Prince William, "Harry asked the queen for permission," a source told Us Weekly at the time, "and she is delighted to have Harry bring his fiancée. It is a family occasion, after all, and Meghan is very much family now."
Three years on, she still is, Meghan and Harry seemingly intent on making clear that they haven't left the family business so much as they've set up a California annex.
Sure, they caught pretty much everyone off guard with the Jan. 8, 2020 statement that they were quitting their positions as senior royals, a post you don't so much leave as you retire from—ideally at some point in your 90s.
But, as Harry explained to James Corden, "It was never walking away—it was stepping back, rather than stepping down." Between the nonstop press scrutiny and the restrictions on what they were and weren't able to do to defend themselves, "It was a really difficult environment, as I think a lot of people saw," Harry continued. "We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health. I was like, This is toxic. So I did what any husband and what any father would do, is like, I need to get my family out of here."
Still, he stressed, "We never walked away. And as far as I'm concerned, whatever decisions are made on that side, I will never walk away. I will always be contributing."
Though both he and Meghan have fully committed to a life of service, going freelance required some intense negotiations with their boss, who's particularly adept at separating her feelings about family from crucial business decisions.
After days of ardent and breathlessly reported upon negotiations last January, the Sussexes were given a year to think things over while they tried their hands at other ventures in the private sector (sans their His and Her Royal Highness titles, but not the clout that comes with being a duke and duchess). But some six weeks ahead of the Mar. 31 deadline, they handed down their final final decision:
"The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have confirmed to Her Majesty The Queen that they will not be returning as working members of The Royal Family," read the Feb. 19 Buckingham Palace statement. "Following conversations with The Duke, The Queen has written confirming that in stepping away from the work of The Royal Family it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service."
In other words, as much as Harry and Meghan enforced in their own statement, released moments later, that they "remain committed to their duty and service to the U.K. and around the world," if they wanted to fill their days producing content for Netflix and Spotify, they were going to need to hand over the patronages and honorary military titles once bestowed upon them by the Queen.
It's a decision the couple didn't exactly love, a source telling Vanity Fair they were "disappointed" to lose those roles. But they respect the Queen's view that they can't have one well-heeled foot in royal life and the other in Santa Barbara.
And the official separation does afford them loads more flexibility when it comes to weighing in on the news of the day, diving too much into politics or public policy issues not allowed from a perch high atop the line of succession. Even their recent calls to get out the vote or support for the Black Lives Matter movement would be considered out of bounds if they were still official employees of The Firm, so reclaiming their voices is no small benefit.
"It's something I look forward to being a part of," Meghan said in August of having the opportunity to engage in any number of issues currently dividing her native country, from civil unrest and racial inequality to economic anxieties. "And being part of using my voice in a way that I haven't been able to of late."
Part of using that voice includes sitting down with their new Santa Barbara neighbor to talk through exactly what went down behind palace walls. "The interview is going to shine a light on what they have been through," a source told E! News. "Meghan and Harry are relieved they are away from it all."
No longer official royals, they technically didn't need to give the palace a heads up about their big interview, a source telling Vanity Fair that Buckingham was very much not consulted despite the couple having been in contact with the Queen to work out the details of their exit.
To Meghan and Harry, the no-holds-barred chat was a chance for them to "tell the truth and their side of the story about what really happened," an insider explained to a mag. And, frankly, Meghan told Oprah she's not all that worried about what the palace might have to say afterward. "I don't know how they could expect that after all of this time we would still just be silent," she explained in the Mar. 7 CBS special, "when there is an active role that the Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us."
They absolutely did not hold back about how awful that period was, with Meghan revealing at the lowest point she experienced suicidal ideation because "I just didn't want to be alive anymore. And that was a very clear and real and frightening and constant thought."
The two gamely spoke about some of the more fraught relationships within the family, with Meghan opening up about the perceived feud between her and Kate and Harry revealing just how frosty things have grown between him and dad Prince Charles. But they each had nothing but good things to say about the woman at the top of the chain.
Harry told Oprah he's "spoken more" to his grandmother "in the last year than I have done for many, many years," including the aforementioned Zooms featuring Archie. "My grandmother and I have a really good relationship, and an understanding," Harry continued. "And I have a deep respect for her. She's my colonel in chief, right? She always will be."
Though, we're guessing that next Zoom will be an interesting one.
(Originally published Mar. 6, 2021 at 12 a.m. PT)