A year ago he made the biggest decision of his life and the repercussions are still being felt. Did Prince Harry make a grave error?
There’s a good chance that January 13 is a day that no one in the royal family particularly wants to remember.
Wednesday marked the first anniversary of one of the sadder chapters in the house of Windsor, a day that set in motion the final devastating act of Megxit and ultimately led to the departure of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, from the royal fold.
The repercussions from the dramatic – and historic – events of 12 months ago this week are still being felt, but in the aftermath one thing became abundantly clear: No one wanted the Sussexes’ royal fairytale to end this way.
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Things had started to go off the rails days earlier, on January 8, 2020, when Harry and Meghan had shocked the world by announcing via Instagram they were quitting as full-time members of the royal family. Instead, they would be “starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution” and that they had “chosen to make a transition”.
“We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the royal family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”
The palace was, seemingly, not amused, with one senior royal source telling the Daily Mail that Her Majesty was “deeply disappointed” while another source said the family was “shocked, saddened and downright furious” with the duo.
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As the world later learned, when the Sussexes posted their historic revelation via every bikini model’s favourite social media platform, it had not been signed off by palace powers.
That Harry and Meghan were struggling and unhappy in their roles was no surprise. In November 2019 it had been announced that the family would be taking a six-week sabbatical after a year that had seen them buffeted by a series of PR crises.
The Duke, at this stage, had already privately voiced his desire to change up the couples’ working roles, the biography Finding Freedom has reported, and that the duo “didn’t want to walk away from the monarchy; rather, they wanted to find a happy place within it”.
However, while they put together their plans and enjoyed the wilds of Vancouver Island where they were holidaying in a borrowed $A20 million mansion, their attempts to set up a face-to-face meeting with both Charles and Her Majesty to iron out the details were being stymied.
The first date the Queen could see them, per Freedom, was January 29. Harry, Freedom’s authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand report, “felt like he was being blocked”.
By the time the Sussexes landed back in the UK on January 6, 2020 such was their frustration that they had reportedly even considered driving straight from Heathrow to his grandmother’s Norfolk home Sandringham but ultimately decided against what would have been a stunning disregard for protocol.
Two days later on January 8, the Sussexes appeared at the Canadian embassy in London for a slightly head scratching outing to thank the nation where they had enjoyed their extended break. Hours later, news broke in The Sun alleging that they were set to return to Canada with the cheeky headline, “We’re Orf Again”.
With Fleet Street on the chase, Harry and Meghan went public with their plans via their bombshell Instagram post – and a new website that had been constructed clandestinely while they were in Canada – sending shockwaves through the palace and around the world.
“The family is very private and bringing it into the public domain, when they were told not to, hurt the Queen,” a senior member of the royal household has said. “The element of surprise, the blindsiding of the Queen, for the other principals who are all very mindful of this, rightfully, it was deeply upsetting.”
Vanity Fair reported at the time that “sources close to Her Majesty say that she is privately devastated by her grandson’s decision and disappointed by how he chose to do it”.
Despite this, the nonagenarian responded pragmatically, calling an emergency summit and telling all the parties that things needed to be sorted out “within days, not weeks”. The stage was set for a truly consequential showdown at Sandringham, like a sort of HRH version of the Yalta Conference sans moustaches.
January 13 started normally in London, with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, spied doing her usual school run. Meanwhile, in rural Norfolk, preparations were underway for the family to come together face-to-face for the first time since the crisis started.
Sandringham’s Long Library (which had once been the Georgian home’s bowling alley) had been readied for the confab, according to The Telegraph, and staff had been “banished”. Charles was already in situ, having arrived by helicopter the previous evening.
While the Queen had initially proposed all the parties should gather for lunch together, according to veteran royal biographer Robert Lacey’s Battle of Brothers, William refused.
“The Prince himself has not confirmed his friends’ speculation that William was so furious with his younger brother that he would not be able to endure the hypocrisy of smiling at him over lunch,” Lacey writes.
Instead, Harry arrived in a blacked out Range Rover and then dined with the Queen before the elder Prince arrived at 1.45pm for the appointed 2pm start time.
Going into the talks, the sovereign had reportedly wanted to persuade the Sussexes to stay put, with a royal source telling Vanity Fair, “I get the impression the Queen and the senior royals went into the talks hoping to convince Harry that he and Meghan are a very vital and much needed and loved part of the family.”
It was not to be.
The Queen reportedly told them that their proposed half-in, half-out model just would not work.
“It was untenable,” a palace source told Freedom’s authors. “If Harry and Meghan had been semi-working royals, there would have had to have been oversight in everything they did in their independent sphere, a committee to approve events and deals.”
“The Queen understood the difficulties they faced, but the rules don’t bend for anyone,” a senior courtier is also quoted as saying and that if the Duke of Sussex had believed he could secure what the couple wanted, “he was sorely mistaken”.
“They totally misplayed the negotiations but then so did the palace,” the courtier said.
Likewise, “the tragedy,” a royal insider told Lacey, “was that the Queen’s broader objective was actually to bring everyone back together, not to split them apart”.
Presented with having to choose between wholly committing to royal life or pursuing an independent existence, the Sussexes made their choice. Less than two years since their wedding, the fairytale had shattered.
For four days after the summit, aides from each of the four royals’ camps thrashed out the details before, on Saturday the 18th, the final agreement was made public: The couple would retain but not use their stylings as His/Her Royal Highnesses and Harry would give up his honorary military roles.
And it was this second part that is reported to have been particularly hard for Harry, with the armed services having played a central role in his life.
Not only had he earned the final rank of Captain during his 10 years of service, including two tours to the frontline in Afghanistan, he also held the honorary ranks of Captain General of the Royal Marines, Honorary Air Commandant at RAF Honington and Commodore-in-Chief of Small Ships and Diving in the Royal Navy.
The loss of his armed services roles was reportedly a blow for the Duke with The Times later saying that, according to a source close to Harry, “Those titles were something he was very proud of.”
The Duke revealed his disappointment over the outcome in a speech a week after the Sandringham Summit, telling the crowd at a charity dinner, “The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back, is not one I made lightly. Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the Commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.
“I hope that helps you understand what it had to come to, that I would step my family back from all I have ever known, to take a step forward into what I hope can be a more peaceful life.”
In the 12 months since the summit, the toll of the Sussexes’ unprecedented move has emerged with various reports alleging that Harry, who served two terms in the army on the frontline in Afghanistan, has been “really missing the army”.
In May, the UK Telegraph reported that “Harry has told friends he is missing the army as well as his military appointments. He misses the camaraderies of being in the forces. He has been telling friends that he still can’t believe this has happened, (that) his life has been turned upside down. He was happy in the army, then he met Meghan and since then life has been great. But I don’t think he foresaw things turning out as they did.”
Looking back, what makes Megxit so tragic is that both sides were left disappointed.
For the Duke and Duchess, they were pushed into forfeiting meaningful roles within the royal family which they clearly cared deeply about, with Harry having also said during that charity speech, “I was born into this life, and it is a great honour to serve my country and the Queen … It has been our privilege to serve you, and we will continue to lead a life of service.”
The palace, meanwhile, suffered a significant blow image-wise (the implication of Megxit being, what must life be like inside palace walls such that two people are willing to junk a life of privilege to get some breathing room?) and their two biggest stars. With Harry and Meghan gone, there are now only two working members of the royal family under the age of 55-years-old (William and Kate), leaving the HRH ranks much diminished.
In hindsight, both sides walked into the Long Library on that winter’s day last year hoping to get their way. Instead, they all lost out.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.