The Road to Sussexit

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Yesterday was another marathon day for the Royal Family as they negotiate new roles for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The Queen’s statement made clear that details are still being sorted, and in the meantime, the rest of the family is handling intense media scrutiny as they go about their daily business.

For starters, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have now both been photographed driving their children to school, a task they try to handle every day, usually without incident. That there are now photographers waiting for them at Kensington Palace’s gates is indicative of current interest in the Sussex situation, but also a warning of what could come. Without the Sussexes balancing out royal duties with the Cambridges, there’s potentially a lot more expectation concentrated on two adults and their three young children. I think we know enough about William to know he is not pleased.

And I don’t blame him. No six-year-old needs to leave for school every day with flashbulbs going off. I think this is temporary, and I hope it dies down quickly.

Anyway. Today, I want to dig into two articles published by The Times over the weekend that discuss what’s been going on behind-the-scenes in the House of Windsor since Harry and Meghan married. My desire to do this is based on the fact that I think these two articles are pretty comprehensive and both come from reliable journalists. The other reason is that both reference dynamics and rumors that I’ve either barely mentioned here or which have changed my thinking.

On any given day there are a slew of negative stories about Kate and Meghan (and other royals) to pick and choose from. They run the gamut of Kate being pregnant with triplets every other week to the Queen abdicating in favor of William six times a year to Philip and Camilla battling rare diseases. None of it’s true and all of it’s just noise. I made a decision around the time of the wedding not to cover the Markles based on the rationale that their increasingly hysterical interviews really had nothing to do with the monarchy. When it comes to smaller stories re: royal households, I take it on a case by case basis, but generally, unless there’s some sort of confirmation or professional implications, I ignore it. I occasionally deviate from that if a situation has created a media firestorm, but mainly because I like to cover the RF’s relationship with the media, and so my focus becomes about that.

There’s obviously been intense coverage of Meghan over the last three years. My choice of what to focus on is usually driven by what I think the motivation is and whether there are enough points on the board to speak to a trend. Rumors about William and Harry falling out, for example, have certainly been covered. That article about Meghan liking avocados and therefore personally causing the human rights violations associated with their production – not so much. As a woman and an outsider marrying into the Royal Family, Meghan inspires quite a bit of stupid and sexist tabloid articles. Such is true of Kate, Camilla, and to a lesser extent, Sophie. Most “royal watchers” anticipate this and ignore accordingly.

I say all of this to say that there are a couple narratives I have ignored on those grounds that haven’t gone away, and in light of recent news, I think may have some truth at their core. In the below, I’m going to respond to pulled passages from the two Times articles, and will note those instances accordingly. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

The first article I want to over-analyze is Tom Bradby’s piece, mentioned in yesterday’s post 😉 Bradby is considered a friend of both William and Harry; he interviewed Harry and Meghan for their ITV documentary last autumn, and he actually handled William and Kate’s engagement interview back in 2010. As such, I consider him a pretty reliable source and his take on the situation interesting.

“The fallout began at the time of the wedding in 2018. Really damaging things were said and done. The atmosphere soured hard and early, but few meaningful attempts were made by anyone to heal the wounds. It is pretty clear to me from conversations with both sides that this exit could suit everyone, at least in terms of narrow self-interest. But there is no doubt Harry and Meghan feel they have been driven out.”

The fallout Bradby is referring to is between the Sussexes and the rest of the RF. There were a number of articles that came out in the weeks after the wedding that cast Meghan as a bit of a bridezilla and Harry as overbearing. I ignored most of it at the time, because by all appearances, relationships looked okay in the spring of 2018. William and Harry were pictured getting on, while the Sussexes joined Charles and Camilla for an engagement in-between their wedding and honeymoon, and just weeks later, Meghan joined the Queen for an away day. Everything appeared rosy. Two specific rumors I remember are that Kate and Meghan got into an argument about Princess Charlotte’s bridesmaid dress that left Kate in tears, and that Harry and Meghan were very upset when the Palace vetoed Meghan’s first choice of tiara. Both of those anecdotes have been re-raised in recent days, which indicates to me that even if those specific incidents are exaggerated or even false, they speak to there being some truth to the idea wedding planning didn’t go smoothly.

I didn’t really believe these incidents at the time, because, well, they’re so incredibly stupid. I understand that weddings can make people a little crazy, but…I also really don’t understand that. If we accept that royal waters were foreign waters for Meghan, then I can’t wrap my head around why she wasn’t stepping very gingerly. But, of course, that’s me.

“Much of this was swirling in the background of the documentary I made with the couple in Africa last October, which contributed to it being among the most psychologically complex few weeks of my working life. Since the couple were accused of having complained about their own lot in the programme, while surrounded by poverty and neglect, I should probably explain that the blame — if that is the right word — lies mainly with me. The documentary was my idea, and they were consistent from the start in wanting it to be primarily, and preferably entirely, about their work in Africa. I said that, worthy as that was, I thought it would be odd for the public to tune in for an hour and discover nothing of how the past year had been for them personally. It took a great deal of persuasion to get them over the line.”

This is important context, because the ITV documentary being a mistake is something most of us agree on. Indeed, that’s one issue from last year where even I couldn’t find a rationale for excusing their behavior. The fact that the idea came from Bradby is significant, but it’s also not an excuse. Harry, at least, still should have known better. I don’t think it would have been “odd” for people to tune in for an hour on the Sussexes’ work, though it would have been less of a get for Bradby. And if a personal update was considered necessary, then the Sussexes should frankly have offered a series of white lies. For example, the media attention has been challenging, but we’re excited to be back to work and honored to introduce Archie to a region so close to our hearts, blah, blah, blah. That it’s. Done.

As such, the blame most assuredly doesn’t lie with Bradby, noble though that line may be.

“Indeed, I think they only finally made up their minds after a long and private heart-to-heart I had with Harry, overlooking a river at the Halo Trust bush camp in Angola. I’d describe the results — his admission that he had not got over his mother’s death; Meghan’s revelation that she was really struggling with the limelight — as qualified honesty. And I suspect the purpose was twofold: to prepare the ground for exactly the announcement we saw last week, and to act as a pressure release valve, in the hope that this, of itself, might alter the dynamic within the royal family.”

I think Bradby is probably correct on this point, but zooming out a bit, we’re basically saying that the Sussexes used the documentary as a wee bit of a temper tantrum to get attention from the RF. There’s no excuse for that. I also think we need to be clear that we’re using “Royal Family” in a very general way here – yes, it means specific family members, but it also means their households, and thus their staff.

“Certainly, when I inquired if Meghan was ‘OK’, I took her reply — ‘Thanks for asking, as not many people have’ — to refer to the family itself, rather than the public or the media.”

So did most people. Oddly enough, I didn’t – I took it very generally to mean people in the couple’s personal life, which could encompass Harry’s family, but could also include friends who assumed Meghan was riding high in her new royal life. I certainly didn’t take it to mean the public or media, because when exactly are those entities meant to personally check in? If we accept Meghan meant the Royal Family, then that’s probably a fair complaint. An observation from outsiders close to the family that’s withstood generations is that they have a very strange dynamic. While nuclear families may well be close, how the extended family interacts is odd. For example, when Charles as a young man returned from a trip abroad, he would come home to an empty palace and be told by staff where everyone was, and if he wanted to see his mother, he would schedule a meeting. Indeed, if anyone wants to see the Queen, they have to schedule a meeting. There’s not a lot of day-to-day interaction and each royal is raised to exist very independently. Royals are not just family members, but also co-workers. The older they get, the more they are the latter. 

As such, Meghan would probably find it strange that William, Kate, or Charles weren’t checking in when they saw the deluge of media coverage. From their perspective, it wouldn’t have occurred to them, and by the summer of 2019, if relationships were soured, they may not have thought it would be welcomed.

“When I got back, in many conversations, I repeated the same mantra; that I hoped the couple would take some time off and that, in the interim, everyone might take a deep breath and step back from the brink. And I was far from alone in these sentiments. Most people who had known and worked closely with William and Harry over the years felt the same and relayed similar messages. My understanding is that William did try, but the impression I have, for the moment at least, is that things have gone too far to be retrieved.”

I have seen similar reports of William trying to patch things up after the ITV documentary elsewhere, so I’m inclined to believe this. The general consensus is that he reached out, even trying to visit the couple at Frogmore Cottage, and was rebuffed.

“To state the blindingly obvious, we just don’t know what comes next. If their co-operation in the ITV documentary was qualified honesty, what would the real deal look like? I have some idea of what might be aired in a full, no-holds-barred, sit-down interview and I don’t think it would be pretty. I suspect the royal family would carry British public opinion still — perhaps only just — but its international standing is a key part of its value to the British state. If that were to be tarnished, it could be very damaging indeed.”

This was quite the pull quote over the weekend, but rumors of an interview being used as soft blackmail have been pointedly rebuffed. I think if they did go this route, it would be a disaster – not just for the RF, but for them as well.

The second article I want to focus on is from Roya Nikkhah called, “Seven years ago he had it all. Now Harry hates life as No 2 prince.”

“Many were quick to blame the latest royal crisis on the most important change in Harry’s life since his time as a bachelor war hero. He is now a married man, thrilled with being a father, so hordes of royal-watchers agreed that the changes we have seen to his princely demeanour must surely be the fault of his wife. The headlines spoke of Megxit. However, while there’s little doubt that Meghan’s influence was part of the messy, and overly antagonistic, manner of the Sussexes’ departure, it would be a mistake to conclude that Harry’s disenchantment is entirely down to his wife. Tensions in Harry and William’s household appeared long before Meghan’s arrival.”

I think this is probably true, and if I knew this once upon a time then I’ve subsequently forgotten. I don’t recall there being reports of strife between William and Harry from this era, but it makes sense. It also changes the narrative from one that most of us, including me, have accepted – up until very recently William, Kate, and Harry have happily worked together and the current break was and is startling. Based on the above, it sounds like it was inevitable. If we accept that, then I think it’s all the more problematic that the “Fab Four” was positioned as such in early 2018.

Everyone, from the royals to staff, should maybe have considered taking a beat and letting everyone settle in. With the benefit of hindsight, a better tactic might have been announcing that William, Kate, and Harry would continue leading the charge of their foundation, while Meghan took a year to focus on introducing herself to the UK, the British charity world, and acclimating to married life. Such was the excitement for her that so long as she was carrying out engagements, I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye. Doing so would have left room for the couples to split more gracefully

“They were never going to end up equal. For a while Harry’s star outshone William’s as he went to war and came back full of ideas for helping fellow veterans, launching charities and trying to make a difference. Yet the unbreakable restraints of the royal pecking order were certain to prevail. ‘Harry felt frustrated that he was having to run things by William and sometimes not take things on, or scale things back, so as not to outshine his brother, which was starting to happen,’ one source close to both brothers told me. ‘There were clashes over territory on things like conservation and the military. Harry wanted to crack on with new ideas and not feel restricted by William and having to do things a certain way.’”

Ok, so this I think is the meat of the issue and this passage is why I wanted to flag this article. On its face, I think it’s very easy to read this and feel sympathy for Harry. It sounds absurd and unfair that one man’s ambition is checked so as not to outshine his brother. It beckons one towards asking why William, the heir, wasn’t doing more. And if the above is true, then I acknowledge that it would have been frustrating for Harry. But there’s a broader context to this, which is that from 2014-2016, William was in his own period of transition and he had different priorities.

From William’s perspective, he loses more and more freedom with each passing day. As such, he has ferociously protected his and his family’s privacy and independence, which included taking time in the first years of his marriage and while his children were very young to live with one foot in and one foot out of the royal world. That desire should now sound very familiar to Harry. Now, we can all argue until we’re blue in the face (and God knows I chimed in on this enough back in 2017) as to whether William and Kate in their mid-30s should still have been part-time royals, but they were, and there was a reason for it, and it’s a logical one, even if you disagree.

So, the Cambridges opted to live for three years primarily in Norfolk, while still carrying out royal duties. This allowed Kate to devote herself to raising her children, and William to continue working part-time as an air ambulance pilot. That time was important to them, and in light of the fact they will never retire, their workload will increase with age, and William will one day wear the crown and carry all that entails, I think that’s understandable. And yes, because William will one day wear the crown, his master plan trumps Harry’s.

That same period corresponded with a good bit of negative press for the Cambridges, while Harry returned to civilian life. He was the fun brother, the rogue bachelor, and charmingly more candid and informal compared to William, who was increasingly viewed as remote and privacy-obsessed. But William had a lot more at stake thanks to his family – again, a dynamic Harry should now understand well. Of course the Palace couldn’t have Harry pursuing an aggressive royal agenda that outdid William. And of course that’s unfortunate for Harry. But that dynamic wouldn’t have – and didn’t – last forever, so once again I’m left with what I said last week: where is the patience?

“William’s wife, Kate, conscious of growing tensions between the brothers, suggested that the three of them collaborate on their Heads Together mental health campaign. It unified them, at least publicly, for a while. When Meghan arrived, she is also said to have struggled with the royal pecking order and the deference required to more senior members of the family.”

The Heads Together bit sounds about right since we do know it was Kate’s brainchild. With regards to the couple’s struggle with the royal pecking order, this has come up quite a bit in the last two years and I’ve always waved it away. My take was that this dynamic was hardly new to Harry, so it made no sense to me that his feathers would be ruffled by it. And Meghan is a smart woman – what does she have to gain from making enemies right out of the gate? As such, I have regularly argued against claims that the couple were trying to compete with the Cambridges and vice versa. And yet…look at what’s happened. I have to concede that by all appearances the Sussexes are insisting on doing what they want, regardless of whether that damages the rest of the family. I don’t know if that stems from an unwillingness to share star power – I hope not – but I do think there is a willful refusal on the Sussexes’ part to work with the rest of the family, and an apparent resentment about that from at least William, if not Kate and Charles.

“There was another element to the rift: William and Kate were often described in glowing terms by the media, compared with the scepticism that accompanied some reporting of Meghan and Harry. Friends of the Sussexes felt that William also had faults and comparisons between the couples were unfair. Harry had become deeply sensitive to issues of status and pecking order. When Harry and Meghan moved their office from Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace last year, he was no longer the junior brother in the building. He talked about becoming ‘the most senior MRF [member of the royal family] at Buckingham Palace after the Queen’, a source said. The distinction clearly mattered to him.”

Let’s focus on the first half of this – the media disparity – because I think this is an incomplete picture. As I mentioned above, the Cambridges have seen their fair share of negative press over the years. Indeed, when Meghan first entered the picture, Kate was roundly criticized for only just becoming a full-time royal in 2017 and then announcing a third pregnancy. Quite literally, critics rolled their eyes that she would be taking another extended maternity leave and saw it as a way of shirking work. Meghan, in contrast, was new and shiny and lauded for entering the RF with a robust CV of philanthropic work and a clear work ethic. The recent praise of Kate, which I discussed in her EOY recap, has built in the last year and is in many ways in reaction to the Sussexes’ growing unpopularity. These things cycle through and this won’t last forever.

I don’t know if Harry has become status-obsessed, per the second half of this passage, but if he has then it makes sense based on the dynamics discussed earlier. That quote rings true to me, actually, because of its use of the acronym MRF – an outsider wouldn’t use that. The other thing that catches my ear is the use of “senior royal,” which to be clear, isn’t an official designation. That phrase was used in the Sussexes’ statement last week, and it was as meaningless to say they are resigning from that position as it is to hold that position within Buckingham Palace.

“The Sunday Times broke the news in 2018 that the so-called Fab Four — the brothers and their wives — were splitting their households. “Harry was very opposed to it at first,” a source close to the brothers told me. ‘He saw it as the opening of a chasm between him and his brother. William was also concerned. He never wanted to cast his brother adrift, but they couldn’t go on as they were. They were constantly clashing on their style and approach.’ […] Not long before last week’s announcement, a source told me they were aware that simmering tensions were coming to the boil. ‘I’m trying to encourage the institution and their advisers to let both feel less trapped,” the source said. “I worry about Harry. There’s a lot of anger there.’”

I also believe this because it was widely reported when the news first broke that William was the instigator behind the split. Bear in mind there are a few different splits going on – the household split, which is to say the separation of their offices, and then the physical move to Frogmore Cottage and the division of their foundation. The above refers to the first of those three and as such shouldn’t be read as William banishing Harry and Meghan to Windsor. If Harry was as against the initial split as this indicates, then that may well explain part of why he’s still so angry, and why the Sussexes’ current attitude appears so irrational. Their stance could be something along the lines of, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

“In the end, the royal institution didn’t move fast enough for the Sussexes. ‘There is a real feeling of “us against the world” with Harry at the moment,’ another source said. ‘It is a real shame that they are so divided now. What the royal family needs more than anything is unity.'”

Again with the impatience!

“However, a friend of the Duke of Sussex added: ‘Harry is so stubborn and determined. He’s in that frame of mind — “I’m standing my ground. I’m a man of conviction and we’ve been saying we’re not happy, so now we’re off.” At some stage it will dawn on him what he’s giving up. He can’t possibly understand what he’s doing to his family. He’s always adored “Granny”, but the Queen will be really wounded by this.’”

Here’s the thing – the Sussexes’ happiness is not a world-stopping priority, and I think that’s where a lot of the Sussexes’ fans, who are younger and often American, get tripped up. It’s easy to say that no one should be trapped in an unhappy situation, and it’s easy to say that the institution is old-fashioned and to blame. That’s an easily digestible narrative for a lot of people, because who doesn’t love stories of the underdog besting the behemoth? But the institution is also one that the Sussexes want to remain a part of, but on their own terms, so how much do they actually hate it? They don’t. They appear to enjoy the trappings of it and the platform it gives them, but they want to exist independently of its necessary pecking order. If you are unhappy at work, you have the right to leave; you don’t have the right to begin selling your own product, while insisting you keep your salary.

“The prospects of reconciliation do not look promising. I remember being told of a leaving party for one of William and Harry’s closest aides, held at Kensington Palace one balmy summer evening, not long after Harry and Meghan’s wedding. ‘It was really telling,’ a guest at the event revealed. ‘William and Kate were there from the start, going to great lengths to show their appreciation for everything this person had done for them. Harry and Meghan turned up late, and when they finally arrived, instead of mingling, they sort of stood by a pillar and stayed there, just the two of them.’ William went on to give ‘a really touching and affectionate speech, with lots of amusing anecdotes that included Harry, and he was obviously trying to include him in the evening. But Harry and Meghan were literally off stage. It was so odd.’”

I vaguely remember hearing about this at the time, so I’m inclined to believe it’s true, but do with it what you will.

“A source who has been close to the brothers for years concluded: ‘What William really cares about now is the preservation of the monarchy and limiting the damage that is done to it. For the time being, William has decided to put as much distance between the Cambridges and the Sussexes as possible, to limit any damage by association.’”

There was a quote earlier this year that William had “dropped” Harry for which he was roundly accused of abandoning his brother during a dark time. Based on that and what we’ve actually seen, I do believe William purposefully distanced himself from Harry and Meghan over the last year – professionally and personally. Protecting his own brand may seem cold – and I suppose it is – but bear in mind that protecting the Royal Family is protecting the crown, which he’ll someday wear. Even more, William now owes more allegiance to his wife and children than to his brother, and this is an institution to which they belong, and which George will someday lead.

I’m going to leave it there for now. There’s more to come as this situation unfolds, and there are still some issues that warrant further discussion, but I thought these two articles offer insight on a situation we’ve all been watching play out piecemeal for years now, and I hope you do too. In the meantime, we’ll be abruptly switching gears tomorrow as William and Kate carry out their first engagement of 2020 by visiting Bradford. I’m sure they’re looking forward to it…

8 thoughts on “The Road to Sussexit

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and moderate coverage of this story. It’s so sad to watch a family falling apart, like too many families around the world. I have been wondering: Can you explain the relationship between the RF and the tabloids in particular (which have been so nasty to Meghan)? I don’t understand why low-brow rags like the Daily Mail would affect them at all. Why does the RF care what the tabloids say? Why are they even aware of such publications—do they consider the tabloids the “voice of the common man” or something?

    1. Those are really good questions. I’ve been toying with writing a post on this topic for a while, and I think this decides it for me, so keep an eye out for something this weekend or early next week!

  2. Michelle

    Wow! What interesting analysis of all this, and what a LOT of effort you put into this for us, Rebecca. Your blog is one of the few things I can bear to read about this sad situation because it is so intelligent and fair-minded. I really admire your work. Thank you very much.

  3. I couldn’t agree more – all of it! I’ve been a bit irritated with people writing about the situation because they seem to be placing the blame on the RF for the entire thing. Here’s the thing though – the RF wasn’t asking for anything to change so why is their fault? They’ve been a fairly known entity for a very long time and the way that they do things is very established. Harry grew up knowing how things are done. H & M are the ones asking for a lot of change and (IMHO) throwing mini-temper tantrums because things aren’t moving fast enough, didn’t occur like they thought they would or simply because they don’t like them. If they had actually slowed down a bit, they may have realized this would be an issue before the wedding and could have started this process much, much sooner. Part of me has to wonder if the timing of this wasn’t just so they could get ‘the trappings’ (ie house, titles, wedding) before declaring their real intentions. I hope not. I really do…but part of me really worries about that.

    1. I agree – Harry and Meghan seem to be asking for a lot of change very quickly from an institution that isn’t known for alacrity. I’m not sure when they first had this idea, but some outlets are reporting conversations began in May 2019, which would mean the Sussexes began thinking this through before Archie’s birth and thus less than a year into marriage. That’s a lot of change concentrated in a very short period of time.

  4. LEW

    Very interesting. If Meghan may be involved in the “when” and “how”, perhaps the “why” is of longer standing.

    I don’t think for a moment Charles intended Harry to be sidelined in the slimmed down version of the RF he seems to envision. I looked at the balcony pictures for the Diamond Jubilee and thought it actually seemed most odd to have Andrew/Anne/Edward, the actual children of the Jubilee girl, missing when William AND Harry were there (and rather churlish to exclude more minor members who actually do a fair bit of the drudge work) It also looked a bit sparse, frankly. The Wales children are many years from any kind of public role and I would have thought there would have been an infinite number of useful and actually rewarding things Harry and Meghan could have done, with a high profile (if that is a factor) perhaps in the Commonwealth.

    Unless something catastrophic has happened (and I do struggle to believe that 2 near middle aged men, famously close, fell out catastrophically about a toddlers bridesmaid dress, I really do) I don’t think they have given it all a fair try and themselves time to adjust.

    Thank you for your analysis Rebecca, much food for thought!

    1. I agree re: the Jubilee balcony. I’m not opposed to Charles streamlining the monarchy, but given that it was a celebration of the Queen’s reign, I think it would have been appropriate to have all of her children present (and her cousins!) up there flanking her on that particular day.

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