What happens next? Do they relinquish their titles? Why were taxpayers asked to fork out £2.4 million ($5 million) to renovate their Frogmore Cottage home when they will not even permanently live there? The statement poses big questions but offers few answers. Royal commentators are united in their assessment that this represents a near-unprecedented crisis in modern royal history, certainly the worst since King Edward VIII left the throne to marry his divorced lover Wallis Simpson.
Astonishingly, Buckingham Palace or Clarence House – the royal household of Harry’s father, Prince Charles – did not know the statement was about to be distributed. In a terse press release that barely concealed the Queen’s displeasure, the palace said its talks with the young couple were in the “early stages”.
Dan Wootton, the executive editor of The Sun, predicted via a front page story in Britain on Wednesday that the split was imminent. Clearly close to the couple’s thinking, Wooton later said last week’s release by Buckingham Palace of a photograph of the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and six-year-old Prince George was the last straw and sent a message to Harry and Meghan that they apparently did not figure in the royal family’s future.
Wootton also claimed the Queen is deeply upset by the pair’s effective resignation and Prince Charles and William are “incandescent with rage”.
In a sign of the massive logistical challenges the pair could face outside the umbrella of the royal family, Buckingham Palace on Wednesday warned their desire to take a different approach raised “complicated issues that will take time to work through”.
On a new website that went live after the shock announcement, Harry and Meghan say they will relinquish their access to the Sovereign Grant, the annual taxpayer-funded payment that covers some costs of maintaining the royal family. But they also note they plan to keep Frogmore House as their home when in the UK. They will also continue to receive a taxpayer-funded security detail. Financial independence seems more of an official term than a practical reality.
Graham Smith, the chief executive officer of the Republic organisation, said Harry and Meghan’s remarks were “crass and self-serving” and claimed the saga highlighted how an outdated family no longer represented Britain or the Commonwealth. But it would be premature to suggest this shock announcement poses any real threat to the monarchy.
With the exception of the annus horribilis that followed the death of Princess Diana, the British public generally likes the royal family – Princes William and Harry in particular. Harry has always been a special favourite: the naughty but lovable rogue who served on the frontline in Afghanistan and grew into a sensitive man who dragged the royal family into the 21st century by introducing to it its first mixed-race member.
The couple will doubtless enjoy plenty of support. But in shielding his wife from the spotlight and splitting the royal family, Harry may inadvertently make her a figure of public hatred. Brits feel they “own” a slice of the royals and an outsider seen to be breaking up the club won’t go down well. Neither will their shabby blindsiding of the Queen, who has welcomed Meghan into the fold. The backlash has already begun.
They have just made themselves prime target.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.