On January 8, 2020, Great Britain woke up to the news that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle had made the decision to step down as senior members of the royal family, only one day after the couple’s first post-holiday public appearance. Shocking not only the British public but also the royal family themselves, who learned of the couple’s decision through their public announcement, Harry and Meghan promised to “work to become financially independent” from the family. In details hastened out in negotiations with the Queen over the following ten days, the Sussexes lost the right to use their royal titles and were informed they would be unable to officially represent the Queen in any capacity. In exchange, the couple would be granted “complete and absolute” freedom from having future commercial deals scrutinized by Buckingham Palace. In addition, they would be excluded from the Queen’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. The rapid departure has raised numerous questions over the future of the royal family, including whether the royals require modernizing and indeed where they stand in the face of an increasingly diverse and democratic Britain.
To say that the British public and press were left reeling in the aftermath of what was popularly coined as “Megxit” is an understatement. “It is unique, mostly because to be royalty is to live the royal life. It’s not a choice,” explained Lidia Plaza, a Ph.D. student at Yale specializing in early modern British history.
Just over a year and a half earlier, the couple had married in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle watched by up to 1.9 billion worldwide. Together with Prince William and Kate Middleton, the “Fab Four” were expected to inject the Royals with a much-needed dose of youth and diversity. This plan now appeared to be in tatters.
In the aftermath of the couple’s shocking move, the British press expressed their incredulity, with headlines describing it as ‘petulant,’ ‘rogue,’ and an ‘atrocious lapse of judgement.’ The decision not to inform other royals of their decision was particularly surprising. “They probably didn’t want to be talked out of it,” explained Plaza. “I imagine the decision was very much a long time coming.”
Modern-day Britain has never seen royals in senior positions making the active decision to relinquish their duties. The closest situation Plaza could relate it to was Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman. Yet, in contrast to the couple’s entirely voluntary departure from the royal family, Edward VIII’s choice to leave the royal family was precipitated by a constitutional crisis (the King was legally the Head of the Church of England, which at the time did not allow divorced women to remarry if their former spouse was alive). Catherine Tourangeau, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University specializing in British history, further brought up the example of Princess Diana “abandoning” the royal family by divorcing Charles in the 1990s, yet her departure was met with less incredulity given she was not born into the family. As Tourangeau pointed out, Harry and Meghan’s move was one that “differs greatly from the norm.”
The aftermath of the announcement left many questioning what contributed to the couple’s dramatic decision. “Most obviously, I would point to the couple’s relationship to the media,” explained Tourangeau. “Harry, more so than his father or his brother, has always been highly critical of tabloids.” Indeed, Prince Harry appeared to put the blame for the split at the media’s doorstep, stating that the media was a “powerful force” that forced him to take decisive action to protect his family.
Harry’s relationship with the British media has been long and protracted—in the last year alone, he put much of the responsibility for his mother’s death on the media (who were engaging in a paparazzi chase during Princess Diana’s fateful car accident), and has shown increasing disdain towards the “royal rota” of journalists that traditionally travel with and report on the Royal family. Yet the focus of his anger has been on the British press’s treatment of Meghan Markle.
“Meghan has been treated particularly harshly by the British press and in social media,” claimed Tourangeau.
Honor Thompson, a Yale sophomore from London, agreed with Tourangeau, stating, “the way the media has been treating Meghan, particularly in comparison to Kate, is very disrespectful.” As Thompson discussed, Meghan has had significant flare-ups with the British media. Last October, it was revealed she was taking legal action against The Mail on Sunday and its parent company, Associated Newspapers, for publishing a private letter to her estranged father.In mid-November, she filed another lawsuit against The Mail for making up ‘untrue’ stories to portray her in a negative light.
Meghan Markle’s background has long been a point of contention in the media. She and Wallis Simpson, the woman Edward VIII abdicated to marry, share striking similarities: both are divorced American women, traits that the Royals themselves would until recently have looked upon unfavourably. It was not until 2002 that the Church of England, of which the Queen serves as the head, allowed divorced people to remarry under certain conditions.
Tourangeau, meanwhile, argued that much of the press’s hounding of Meghan was racially biased. “A lot of the articles published about her carry a certain hostility to her as a Black woman… Meghan herself is frequently described as “exotic” and “racy,” while one BBC journalist compared her son Archie to a ‘chimpanzee’”.
Plaza further picked up on the media’s unflattering comparisons between Meghan and Kate Middleton, stating, “the kind of media attention she [Meghan] got was so much more vitriolic than another that other women in these positions received.” In recent years, Kate has often been perceived as a model English princess, the epitome of modesty and charm. Both Plaza and Tourangeau commented on the correlation between the press’s and public’s hostility to Meghan and the rise of nationalism in the wake of key political decisions like Brexit. Since the key vote in 2016, the number of hate crimes in Britain has risen by over 40 percent in an increasingly polarized political climate, with the rise of nationalist groups such as the Brexit Party fuelling anti-foreign sentiment in parts of the country. As Plaza noted, “Meghan Markle is very much a part of the British royal project, and for the public to reject that is really poignant.”
Lucia Cornwall, a British medieval history writer, emphasized differences in culture in explaining Meghan’s struggles to get to grips with the British press. “Being a foreigner means you don’t necessarily understand the culture the same way.” Indeed, the perception of the royal family has long been one of high-class and moderation, a glamorous yet noble reminder of Britain’s glory days. While Meghan undoubtedly endured an unprecedented level of negative media attention, she received much criticism for breaking royal protocol in a number of ways. Whether she was hosting an unexpected baby shower, ignoring royal dress code rules by wearing clothes deemed inappropriate, or even closing her own car door, Meghan broke numerous long-standing royal traditions, no matter how insignificant. “There is much more of a personality cult among American celebrities, and Meghan is clearly a strong-willed woman who is used to having her way,” explained Cornwall. “As hard as it is to be a royal, her personality might have made that harder.”
Regardless of Meghan’s personality conflicting with the Royals, there is little doubt that her and Harry’s sudden departure from the family raises questions about the relevance the British monarchy holds in a modern-day society. “Harry and Meghan’s move could certainly mean a weakening of the monarchy, or it could force the royal establishment to undergo a renaissance,” explained Tourangeau. “Only time will tell.” As an inherently unmeritocratic institution, the Royals already face questions about their birthright privileges, matters that are being pressed further home by the departure of a foreigner who many believe was never truly accepted as a member of the family. “The Royal family’s conservative values never matched her beliefs or origins,” Thompson put bluntly.
Worsening matters, in today’s age, the Royals face unprecedented media attention. Life was not always like this for the royal family. There was in fact no coverage of the Royals’ everyday life until the late 1940s. Now, they are under close scrutiny at all times.” Tourangeau argued that it is this that could force the greatest pressure on the royals—indeed, it is much harder to be seen as a modicum of “righteous and upstanding behavior” if their every decision “down to their favorite brands and their choice of breakfast foods,” is closely monitored. These questions all come in the face of perhaps the most significant threat to the Royals, that being their future in the aftermath of the Queen’s death.
“The Queen has enormous popularity, and she’s very loved,” explained Cornwall. “Charles does not share that same public enthusiasm.”
Yet for all the talk of the Royal’s waning influence, it is true that they still hold significant influence in the country’s affairs. “The main purpose of the royal family is to represent the country as a whole,” stated Cornwall. “The point is that it’s the one thing that everyone can relate to, regardless of your political party or where you were born.” Indeed, polls have claimed that over two-thirds of Britons remain monarchists, suggesting public fervour for their presence has not diminished significantly in the modern era.
The royal family furthermore retains significant political influence. “It exists outside of party divisions and ensures a degree of stability in political proceedings,” Tourangeau said. The country is in dire need of this perhaps now more than ever as Brexit continues to divide the country.
Thompson added, “Britain is at a time when they need somebody to unite the people and tell them that it’s going to be okay, and I don’t think Parliament can do that due to the distrust in politics.” The royals also continue to promote great foreign interest in the UK—a 2011 study found over 60% of overseas visitors coming to Britain visited places associated with the royals.
While the Royals clearly seem to have enough support from the British public and political system to remain a powerful force, Meghan and Harry’s departure has undoubtedly left them in somewhat of an impasse. For many, the marriage of the two was representative of a modernised British family, a step forward that increased both diversity in the family as well as introducing a forward-thinker who promised to use her position of privilege to help those most in need. Meghan and Harry’s departure has forced a rethink of what modernising should mean for the Royals. Plaza said, “The cruel irony of the situation in which the Royal family finds itself is that in order to survive they will have to adapt, but their biggest supporters are very much against their adaptation. It might become a breaking point.” Cornwall reiterated this point: “There’s a big danger in change. Modernisation is a very ambiguous term.”
Indeed, while modernisation has been a byword for the Royals for decades, given the fact that it remains an extremely traditional and conservative institution, the question of how that would manifest itself remains a mystery. “Nobody has a clue what a ‘modernized’ royal family is supposed to look like,” explained Tourangeau. For some, modernization means to become more in touch with the values of a liberal democratic Britain, including breaking away from traditional customs promoting royal elitism, promoting socially progressive policies and accepting people from different social and cultural backgrounds. Princess Diana was the first modern royal that championed such causes, leading campaigns against landmines and homelessness and raising awareness for AIDS amongst other achievements. Tourangeau noted that her son Prince William and his spouse Kate Middleton, a young and relatable royal couple, have seemed to take up her mantle, engaging extensively in charity work and numerous mental health causes. “For a time, Harry and Meghan seemed to be following in Kate and William’s footsteps.”
Ultimately, “Megxit” is a decision that creates more questions than answers. The move raises significant queries about the media’s right to intrude in private life and the British press and indeed the public’s hostile and often racist portrayal of Meghan Markle. Above all, it has forced a discussion of what the Royals stand for in the modern day. While undoubtedly an institution still adored by millions and one that maintains significant political and economic power, the question of what a progressive modern Royal family looks like remains in the balance. For many, that image was Harry and Meghan, a prince who had followed after his mother in campaigning for social causes and a Duchess that would bring much-needed diversity to the family and a platform for change. Yet, as Plaza duly noted, “people want change until it actually happens.” Until the Royals can prove they can modernize effectively, and indeed until the British public and press have shown they can accept these changes, the future of the institution remains a pressing question.