If you weren’t familiar with the British term “gobsmacking” before, now you may get an idea of what it means after digesting the astonishing news that Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan of Sussex have decided they are not going to be “senior royals” anymore.
On Wednesday, they issued a “personal message” announcing they are stepping back from their roles as senior members of the British royal family, they’re working on becoming “financially independent,” and they’re planning to split their time between North America and the United Kingdom.
Then, an hour after thatcame another statement from the palace, this one from the office of the private secretary and communications director for Queen Elizabeth II, Harry’s grandmother. It suggested some in the palace were not amused.
“We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through,” the statement said carefully. Translation: Not so fast, Your Royal Highnesses.
By now, Americans unfamiliar with Brit-speak or the ins-and-outs of royal doings might be wondering: What? Have they quit being royals? Can they do that? And why would they?
Harry and Meghan are 'stepping back' as senior royals, will spend time in North America (Photo: Getty)
Sally Bedell Smith, the acclaimed American biographer of the queen and of Harry’s mother, the late Princess Diana, says it appears from these statements that Harry and Meghan have acted on their own and without consulting anyone in the royal family.
“You would think that Harry would know that you can’t just go off and make decisions without taking advice,” Smith said. “For them to have cooked this up all by themselves – I think is a real violation of the way the royal family is supposed to operate. “
“We are in unprecedented waters,” says British royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams. “It is extraordinary. What the hell is going on? What do they want to do? This is trouble!”
As Smith says, careful parsing of the Sussex statement produces more head-scratching than insight. Here are the salient sentences:
“After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. 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.”
Have they quit being royal?
No. Even Edward VIII, the king who abdicated in 1936, was still a royal Duke of Windsor afterwards and still a member of the family, even though there was little love lost between them.
A “senior” royal means someone close to the queen and high up in the succession. Harry is currently sixth in line. He will still be both those things despite his plans.
Bottom line: They’ll still be royals but they don’t want to work like royals, or not as much anymore.
Have they retired, like grandfather Prince Philip?
Not really. The Duke of Edinburgh is 98 and he’s earned his retirement. Harry, 35, and Meghan, 38, seem to be saying they’re not going to be doing their usual round of royal engagements but they haven’t explained exactly what they’ll be doing instead or whether they will do a combination of things, and how that would work.
What do they mean by “financially independent”?
Are they going to get jobs and if so, what kind? Will the former Meghan Markle go back to acting? Will they spend all their time raising money for charity?
“This creates an awful lot of problems because they seem to be setting up a situation of one foot in the royal family and one foot in some undescribed private enterprise they’re setting up through a non-profit, which will require them to raise a lot of money,” Smith says. “But the cache for that comes from being senior members of the royal family…the logic of all this seems muddy.”
The royal family gathered at church at Christmas 2017, including Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, Duchess Kate of Cambridge, Prince William, Meghan Markle, and her fiance Prince Harry, (Photo: Alastair Grant, AP)
Who supports them financially?
According to their Sussex Royal website, they will no longer take money from the British taxpayers through the Sovereign Grant that supports the queen and senior royals for their public duties. The Sussex office expenses are covered by the grant, amounting to 5% of their total costs. They “prefer to release this financial tie.”
Harry’s father, Prince Charles, has supported their private life and 95% of their office through his deep-pocketed Duchy of Cornwall income, which apparently will continue.
But they won’t be skint: Meghan made plenty of money as an actress on “Suits,” and Harry inherited a considerable amount of money from his mother which has likely grown since 1997.
“We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honor our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages. This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.”
What happens to Frogmore Cottage, their newly renovated Windsor home?
Frogmore Cottage will continue to be the property of the queen, the Sussex website says. They will continue to use it as their official residence “so that their family will always have a place to call home in the United Kingdom.”
In a rebuke of media criticism, the newly-updated Sussex website explained the renovation of Frogmore was funded by the queen through the Sovereign Grant, “reflecting the monarchy’s responsibility to maintain the upkeep of buildings with historical significance.” It was already under renovation when the queen offered its use to them and the renovations cost half what they would have spent if they had moved into the originally suggested official residence at Kensington Palace.
Prince Harry, Duchess Meghan and baby Archie in South Africa in October 2019. (Photo: Pool/Samir Hussein, WireImage)
How can they live both in the U.K. and in, say, Canada or America?
The climate-damaging flying requirement seems daunting at best. “This really is extraordinary as it will raise issues such as security costs,” Fitzwilliams says. (Security for the Sussexes is required by law, as they are classified as internationally protected individuals and the British government never discusses security issues for royals.)
What about the media scrutiny they so despise in the U.K? It’s hardly likely to be better over here. But Harry and Meghan’s relationship started under wraps and remained so for more than a year of dating, so they’ve demonstrated they can elude the paparazzi when they want to. They spent at least some of their year-end time-off period in Canada and were only spotted by a local paper on Vancouver Island at the very end.
“I don’t see them living in some sort of modest home in Laguna Beach,” Smith said. “Maybe they had a total transforming revelation while they were off for six weeks and decided they want to live in the wilderness.”
Is there a positive aspect to this announcement?
For Americans maybe it’s this: We might get to see the Sussexes’ 8-month-old baby, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, more often in America. Unless they plan to spend most of their time in Canada.
What happens next?
“We look forward to sharing the full details of this exciting next step in due course, as we continue to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge and all relevant parties. Until then, please accept our deepest thanks for your continued support.”
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