Prince Harry and his wife Meghan will "step back" from senior roles in Britain’s royal family and spend more time in North America, they said on Wednesday evening, an announcement that appears to have taken his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, by surprise.
After a turbulent year which saw a widening rift with the media and reports of differences with elder brother Prince William, Harry said the couple hoped to become financially independent and set up a new charity, while continuing some royal duties.
“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,” said Harry, sixth in line to the throne, and former actress Meghan in a statement.
“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.”
The couple said they would share full details of “this exciting next step” soon as they discussed the move with the queen, Harry’s father Prince Charles and William.
But the timing of the announcement appeared to have wrongfooted family members, including the queen, a senior royal source told Reuters.
“Other members of the family were not consulted on the content,” the source added.
Buckingham Palace said discussions with Harry and Meghan were at an early stage.
“We understand their desire to take a different approach but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through,” it said in a statement.
The 35-year-old Harry, the youngest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, with his ginger hair and beard has become one of the royal family’s most popular members.
Before marrying the prince in a royal wedding watched around the world in 2018, the 38-year-old Duchess of Sussex was an American actress known as Meghan Markle and a star of the TV show “Suits”. The couple’s first child, Archie, was born in May 2019.
In their statement, the couple did not reveal where in North America they plan to make a second home, but they cited their baby as a reason why they decided to live part of their time outside Britain.
“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,” it read.
Harry and his family skipped the queen’s traditional Christmas gathering at her Sandringham country estate last month to visit Canada and to see Markle’s mother, who lives in California. Meghan grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Toronto while filming “Suits”.
The message about the couple’s plans also appeared on their official Instagram feed, along with a link to a website, sussexroyal.com, where followers could find more information.
The website elaborated on why they are seeking financial independence from the monarchy’s funding mechanism, known as the “Sovereign Grant”. A page on the site states the grant they are forsaking covers just 5% of the costs for the duke and duchess and is used for their official office expenses.
Meghan and Harry “value the ability to earn a professional income, which in the current structure they are prohibited from doing”, the website states. “Their Royal Highnesses feel this new approach will enable them to continue to carry out their duties for Her Majesty the Queen, while having the future financial autonomy to work externally."
Harry and William received more than 5 million pounds from their father, Prince Charles, last year and it was not immediately clear how Harry and Meghan would achieve financial independence.
Last year, it was reported that Harry would be executive producer of a documentary on mental health with US television mogul Oprah Winfrey for Apple’s video streaming service.
Relationship with media sours
As an actress and a human rights activist, the duchess was accustomed to media attention before her marriage, but she has made no secret that the transition to being a global celebrity and part of Britain’s royal family was difficult.
The royal couple particularly took issue with their treatment at the hands of the British tabloids, whose aggressive coverage of all things royal is legendary.
In October, Meghan sued a newspaper for copyright infringement for publishing a letter she wrote to her estranged father. Later that month, Harry brought his own claim against two of the most popular tabloids over alleged hacking of phone voicemail messages.
The prince also lashed out at the British media for its treatment of Meghan, accusing the press of hounding his wife the same way it did his mother. Princess Diana died in a 1997 car crash while trying to elude paparazzi in Paris.
“My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces,” Harry said.
The royal couple revealed their struggles with the media during an ITV documentary “Harry & Meghan: An African Journey”, which followed them on their autumn tour of Southern Africa. Both said they had struggled with the spotlight and that much of what was printed about them is untrue.
The duchess told ITV that her British friends warned her not to marry the prince because of the intense media scrutiny that would follow in his country. But the US television star said she “naively” dismissed the warnings, because as an American she didn’t understand how the British press worked.
“I never thought this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair. And that is the part that is hard to reconcile,” Meghan said. “But (I) just take each day as it comes.”
The duchess said the pressure was aggravated by the fact that she went quickly from being a newlywed to being pregnant and then a new mother.
The British media have also made much of an alleged rift between Harry and his older brother, Prince William, who is second in line to the throne. Harry and Meghan last year opted out of living at Kensington Palace in London, where William and his family lives, and moved to a Frogmore Cottage at Windsor.
In the ITV interview, Harry acknowledged there have been some differences between him and the 37-year-old William, although he said most of what has been printed about a rift between the two brothers has been “created out of nothing”.
“Part of this role and part of this job and this family being under the pressure that it’s under, inevitably stuff happens,” he said. “But, look, we’re brothers. We’ll always be brothers. We’re certainly on different paths at the moment, but I will always be there for him, as I know he’ll always be there for me.”