The announcement of their “resignation” dropped like a bombshell, effectively making real one of those once-in-a-generation scandals which the headlines constantly seem to promise but about which the more complex realities of royal machinery frequently render next to impossible.
Royal life – and the extravagant titles and sometimes-burdensome duties which go with it – is a sentence largely lived for life.
A handful are born to it, and on occasion some do it with with spectacularly modest flair. Some have no idea what they’re getting into. And some willingly walk into its grip. In the modern media age, the former Meghan Markle is unequivocally in the last category.
At the same time a handful – Diana, Fergie and, now, Meghan – wrestle with it. And for most of those, it is the institution which ultimately breaks them, not the other way around. In the ultimate aristocratic expression of you cannot have your cake and eat it too, you can always leave, but the titles, tiaras and the flag-waving adoration do not always go with you.
There are – in this rogue’s gallery of cabochon gemstone tiaras, quaint traditions and esoteric titles – few other outcomes.
Given the wording on their resignation post, not consulting the Queen might be seen as a surprising move by Harry and Meghan, given it is the Queen who sits at the apex of the institution the couple claim they hoping to reform. It’s a bit like embarking on a taxpayer-funded £2.4 million renovation of someone’s Grade II listed cottage and not asking permission first.
But not consulting anyone? That’s frankly astonishing.
Opinions on the couple are already divided, particularly over the uneasy dance of a taxpayer-funded life of luxury which demands its pound of flesh in exchange, and the uncomfortable marriage of “woke” politics and private jet travel.
To some, Meghan is seen as an ambitious American whose arrival and brand-focused Hollywood style has served to widen the gulf between Harry and his family. She has brought an American PR methodology to an antiquated British institution. That the system is rejecting change, like foreign antibodies in a blue bloodstream, is hardly surprising.
Nearly a century ago, in 1936, the then-King Edward VIII confirmed his plan to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was a different era, where social custom dictated that Simpson’s two previous marriages were a barrier to any thought of marriage to the reigning monarch.
The combination of political and religious tension over Mrs Simpson’s past, and what was perceived as her unpopularity in the United Kingdom once news of the planned marriage broke, led to Edward’s abdication and his journey into exile, initially in the Bahamas, and later in France.
It became a figurative soap opera of titles denied – Mrs Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor, but was denied the style of Royal Highness – and bitter recriminations. It was felt the ascent to power hastened the death of Edward’s brother, the Queen’s father, the late King George VI, for which the Windsors were never forgiven. And then, in Netflix’s The Crown, it became a literal soap opera.
But such comparisons are complicated by the fact that the destinies of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are substantially different. Edward was the King-Emperor, the centrepiece of a royal court which at that time carried a loud echo of the who-used-to-be-who and the what’s-left of the British Empire.
Harry and Meghan’s destiny, before or after their “resignations”, is substantially lesser. Born third in line to the throne, Harry’s stake on the centrepiece of royal power diminishes with each new birth in his family, a ghoulish algorithm which requires each generation elevate to regal power only on the occasion of a parent’s death.
Three Cambridge children later, Harry is now sixth in line and, as the children of William and Kate grow up, marry and have children of their own, the Sussexes will become the next generation’s Yorks, Wessexes, Gloucesters and Kents: royal cousins who serve as little more than bejewelled mannequins at state occasions.
Far from being the “snub” some sections of the media sought to believe it was, the absence of photos of Harry and Meghan from the Queen’s desk during her Christmas message was simply a statement about the power of continuity. The assembly of framed images – George VI, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, Charles and Camilla, and William and Kate – were an illustration of love, yes, but also of power.
And while the notion of an exiled Duke and his American wife might invite easy comparisons to the story of Edward and Wallis, in truth the more accurate historical comparison might be the story of Princess Patricia of Connaught who, in 1919, relinquished her royal titles so she could marry the naval commander Alexander Ramsay.
As the youngest child of an Earl, Princess Patsy – the Princess Diana of her day – instead took her husband’s title, effectively downgrading herself from a Royal Highness and Princess of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to the substantially lesser title of Lady Patricia Ramsay.
Their story, like Harry and Meghan’s, is substantially a love story. The romance between Princess Patricia and Alexander Ramsay was the stuff of Barbara Cartland novels, amplified dramatically by the media theatrics of a princess literally walking away from her title in the great cause of love. Had the script been written by Disney they would have churned out a billion-dollar blockbuster with it.
But quitting “the firm” is not as simple as announcing your resignation, either in a letter, or on social media. It required negotiation with the crown and government, and that Letters Patent – effectively, a royal “decree” – to be drawn up and signed by King George V, the current Queen’s grandfather.
And the consequences of getting out are not always easy to live with. While it could be said both the Ramsays and the Windsors lived happily ever after, it was the Windsors who were haunted by both the gulf which came to exist between the branches of the family, and the greatly diminished prestige of their new lives.
The machinery of royalty moves slowly, and such choices are not simply there to be made, or tweeted. They require legislation, or paperwork not very far removed from it, to become a reality. The implications of Harry and Meghan’s resignation are still to be considered and while many might think a social media platform is the last word, it falls well short of Letters Patent.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.