- "Megxit" was the mic drop heard around the world. To tell the story in full, Insider spoke with royal commentators, correspondents, and palace sources.
- After a tumultuous early history, it finally seemed as though Harry had met his match with Meghan. But the couple encountered numerous roadblocks early on.
- Controversies continued to spring up around Meghan's pregnancy and the birth of their son, Archie. Meanwhile, rumors emerged of a rift between Harry, Meghan, William, and Kate.
- After the initial bombshell announcement, the terms of the deal were announced, and they were severe. Now, the world waits to see what kind of life the royal runaways will carve out.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
On January 8th, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, two of the royal family's most visible members, announced they were throwing in the monogrammed towel and decamping for the shores of North America.
The British Monarchy is, of course, no stranger to high drama. It endured King Henry's VIII's execution of two wives and his creation of a new church so he could divorce two more; photographs of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked while she sat by a pool; the abdication of Edward VIII to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson; and the tragic death of its most popular member, Princess Diana.
But this departure — Megxit, as it was dubbed within minutes — was unprecedented.
Never before had a prominent member of the world's most renowned royal family stepped back because they were unhappy with the job. For Meghan and Harry, the couple formerly known as Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, their only real job was being part of this family.
Insider spoke with royal commentators, correspondents, and palace sources who have witnessed the plot twists play out at close range to tell the story in full.
Meghan Markle's arrival appeared to be a 'new dawn' for the royal family
With its $88 billion net worth, castles, and closets full of tiaras, The House of Windsor may not always feel entirely relatable. But who — in those wretched weeks after the holidays, having been holed up together for days — hasn't considered "stepping back" as "senior members" of their own family? Especially if that family was, say, militantly committed to wearing nude tights in public and forced you to defer to your new husband's 93-year-old grandmother on all decisions?
How different and hopeful everything seemed on that blue-skied Saturday 21 months ago. Nearly two billion well-wishers — plus the Beckhams, the Clooneys, and Oprah — tuned in and turned up to watch the divorced American actress Meghan Markle walk herself down the aisle in St. George's Chapel.
"It felt like a new dawn for the royal family," Chris Ship, royal editor of the UK's ITV news, told Insider.
"She was bringing a totally new approach" to the Windsors, said Emily Nash, royal editor of the glossy Hello! magazine, which covers the family closely. "She'd had success on her own terms, and was already a role model before Harry met her."
As a woman of color, Meghan also helped bring "a whole new audience to the royal family … it did feel like an exciting moment and an overwhelmingly positive start," Nash said.
As a British expat based in Brooklyn for the past decade, I was fervently in favor of this sparky, independent, accomplished new addition to our antiquated, all-white House of Windsor. Her arrival felt like a breath of 21st century air blowing into the stuffy, dusty crevices of the monarchy — a breath clad in Givenchy, at that.
My best friend and I even threw a party in a local pub to celebrate, stringing Union Jacks around the place (entirely without permission, of course). We introduced our cardboard cut-out Prince Charles — almost as stiff as the human version — to local drinkers.
Less than a month after the bunting had been packed back in its box, however, whispers began percolating on both sides of the pond about tantrums over tiaras and unpleasant incidents with staff and wedding contractors. "But whenever rumours came up about rifts or splits, they were always dismissed," one royal insider who attends events at Buckingham Palace told Insider.
The palace did not respond to Insider's request for comment. A spokesperson for the couple declined to comment.
Amid a whirlwind courtship, Meghan faced scrutiny, rules, and racist treatment from parts of the British press
While the trouble started soon after the confetti had been swept from the steps of St. George's Chapel, the foundations were laid long before that.
The couple's courtship had been swift. They first met in London in July 2016, dating secretly for several months, and attempted, not always successfully, to swerve the salivating paparazzi. They eventually went public with their relationship that November, and became engaged one year later.
But when they initially confirmed their relationship, Harry issued a stern and unprecedented statement, admonishing the "wave of abuse and harassment" of his girlfriend by the British press.
The statement called out the racism that certain sections of the British press directed towards Markle. "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton," read one headline; later, Danny Baker sent a tweet comparing Meghan and Harry's newborn baby son, Archie, to a monkey, and was immediately fired from his prestigious job at BBC Radio 5 Live.
"She felt very shackled," Dickie Arbiter, the Queen's former press secretary, told Insider. "She'd always been able to speak her mind, to campaign, and all of a sudden, she wasn't able to do it anymore, because there are rules and regulations about what they can and can't do."
"Many of those of us who have regular contact with them have concluded that this [was] Meghan's decision, not Harry's," said one insider who knows Harry well, though he appeared to gallantly shoulder the blame at a private dinner last month. "[But] this is not to say that Harry doesn't support it," the insider added. Indeed, Prince Harry had reportedly been looking for a way to opt out of royal life long before he met Meghan.
Harry's tumultuous early history influenced his attitude about living in a royal 'goldfish bowl'
Following the frivolous missteps of his youth (leaked photos allegedly taken in the aftermath of a game of naked billiards) and the infinitely more serious incidents (his infamous Nazi costume), Harry had become one of the best-loved members of the royal family, even as he struggled to find his purpose within it. He spent ten years in the army, completing two tours of Afghanistan — a time he treasured for the anonymity it afforded him — before retraining as an Apache pilot.
But "he wanted to leave the royal family after he got back from Afghanistan, because he felt that he had no future in it," Angela Levin, author of "Harry: A Biography of a Prince," told Insider. "He couldn't bear living in a goldfish bowl — he wanted to go and live in Africa and look after animals."
A few years after his exit from the army, however, his grandfather, Prince Philip, retired from public duties, and asked Harry to take on some of his commitments, while the Queen likewise cut down on her engagements. "Harry said that he felt his duty was to the Queen and to his brother, and that he would stay and try and work a life around that," Levin said.
Harry had also long had a fractious relationship with the press, to whom he'd apportioned blame for the death of his mother. In April 2017, in the UK's Daily Telegraph, he spoke for the first time about the effect her death — in a car crash in Paris 20 years earlier — had had upon him, and how not dealing with the trauma had contributed to years of "total chaos" in his late 20s.
But by the time he met Meghan, Harry had seemingly found a way to work alongside the media. "He still wasn't its greatest fan, but felt he could use the platform for good," Emily Nash told Insider.
He also made no bones about his desire for a family of his own. "Everyone felt emotionally invested in Harry, and he'd talked about wanting to settle down for such a long time, so we were very excited when he appeared to have found The One," Nash said.
Meghan was used to the media spotlight, and shared Harry's interest in philanthropy
Meghan, meanwhile, was raised in Los Angeles. Her parents separated when she was young, and she lived predominantly with her mother, Doria Ragland, a yoga instructor and social worker. (Her father, Thomas Markle, is a former lighting designer in the entertainment industry.)
She eventually made her way into showbiz, and found a regular acting paycheck with a role on the legal drama "Suits." Offscreen, she dated producer Trevor Engelson for seven years before marrying him in 2011; the couple divorced in 2013.
When the prince met the actress, it seemed he'd finally met a suitable match who shared his passion for philanthropy and grassroots charity work.
After previously courting a parade of scrunchie-wearing posh blondes — including Cressida Bonas, Chelsy Davy and Florence Brudenell-Bruce, all of whom reportedly found the media scrutiny too much — here was a woman comfortable in front of the cameras, who appeared to know how to play the fame game. That, after all, was her job.
In the couple's engagement interview with BBC News in November 2017, a calm and confident Meghan revealed that they were roasting a chicken when he proposed, while Harry admitted that he'd never heard of her or "Suits" before they were introduced.
But in mid-October 2018, just five months after the wedding, the couple touched down in Australia for a 16-day tour. Royal correspondents on the tour agreed that this was the moment the mood discernibly began to shift.
"In spite of the very positive press coverage of the tour — they'd been able to talk about mental health, they'd supported farmers, looked at environmental projects — they just didn't seem to be enjoying it," Chris Ship told Insider. "Harry looked very unhappy some of the time."
The couple's pregnancy announcement brought a fresh bout of scrutiny and controversy
It may seem ironic, then, that this was also the tour on which, just hours after landing in Sydney, the couple announced that they were expecting their first child.
"As soon as she became pregnant, Harry became incredibly protective," Ship said. His concerns for Meghan's safety, compounded by his long-standing, deeply embedded trauma about the circumstances of his mother's death, appeared to be weighing heavily.
Over the next few months, however, barely a day went by in which the couple was absent from the headlines. In February 2019, Meghan's lavish New York baby shower, attended by friends including co-host Serena Williams, didn't exactly go down well in the UK, where baby showers — and even bridal showers — are still regarded with a suspicion bordering on contempt.
The same month, the UK's Mail on Sunday newspaper reprinted a handwritten letter from Meghan to her father, in which she begged him to "stop lying [and] creating so much pain." Meanwhile, Meghan's outreach efforts — photographed writing inspirational messages on bananas for sex workers in Bristol — drew mixed reactions from the public and the press.
Rumors of a rift between the Fab Four — Harry, Meghan, William, and Kate — soon grew louder
Then, in March, it was announced that the households of Harry, Meghan, William, and Kate had split, meaning they would no longer share staff or projects. While that may seem trivially menial to some, the split was stuffed full of meaning and portent for royal watchers, suggesting a serious rift.
Up to that point, the Cambridges and the Sussexes had shared one team working out of Kensington Palace, where they all also lived. Harry and Meghan had now chosen to set up a separate team of their own, working out of Buckingham Palace; they would also move into Frogmore Cottage.
Were the rumors about a rift between the Fab Four — basically the royal Beatles, but with bouncier blow-outs — true after all? Were we really to be cruelly denied the regular treat of live-comparing Meghan and Kate's outfits, plus the princes' thinning hair, as they shared stages and staged photos?
We all wanted to know the answer, of course, but we were also distracted by the imminent arrival of the 7th in line to the throne… wherever or whenever that might actually be. In April, the couple announced that they had "taken a personal decision to keep the plans around the arrival of their baby private," and that they would share the news once they had the chance to "celebrate privately as a new family."
The secrecy surrounding Archie's birth, from the photos to the christening to his godparents, created one media storm after another
No brand new mother is likely to be wild about being forced upright and into a dress in front of hundreds of photographers just moments after producing a royal heir, but the couple's decision to buck protocol did not endear them to the press or the public.
"The birth of Archie [in May 2019] was a complete disaster," Dickie Arbiter said. "The secrecy made a mockery of the whole thing."
In April, they'd launched their own Instagram account, @sussexroyal. The first official pictures were posted there, though critics sniffed that his face was obscured. Even after they caved in to a traditional photocall two days after the birth, the secrecy continued, and the couple refused to release details of Archie's christening or his godparents.
"They were given advice that they should have at least one camera at the christening, and it would be as discreet as possible, and nobody could then write that they wanted to do it privately," Chris Ship told Insider. "They ignored that advice. They were making a lot of decisions themselves, irrespective of what their private secretary or their communications director was telling them," he added.
A royal baby is an effective balm for most issues, though, and in his first public appearance, four-month old Archie was the star turn, gurgling as he was greeted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as Meghan and Harry kicked off their tour of Southern Africa in September 2019.
Maybe everything would be okay after all, I thought, clapping like a delighted seal in front of the first televised footage of Archie — who doesn't have a royal title, per the wishes of his progressive parents. (He's entitled to Earl of Dumbarton, should he decide he wants it.)
At the end of the tour, however, the couple announced they were taking the unusual action of suing the Mail on Sunday for its publication of Meghan's father's letter. Harry, meanwhile, launched an excoriating attack on the press, labeling their treatment of his wife "a ruthless campaign," speaking of his "deepest fear [of] history repeating itself."
"Their [communications] team were a bit head in hands at that point, but it appeared to be rather beyond their control," one witness on the tour said.
A bombshell interview foreshadowed the turmoil to come
Back in the UK, the second surprise dropped just weeks later in late October, with the airing of the documentary "Harry & Meghan: An African Journey." Harry spoke, for the first time, of growing apart from William, as well as his struggles with mental health. A tearful Meghan told interviewer Tom Bradby that her friends warned her not to marry Harry because of the intense press attention, and that, since she gave birth, "not many people" had asked if she was okay.
The day the documentary aired, Harry and Meghan — "tired and even burnt out," according to a piece by Bradby for the Sunday Times — announced they were taking a sabbatical from their royal duties.
They would head to the US for Thanksgiving, but were expected to return to the UK to spend Christmas at Sandringham with the Queen and the rest of the royals. But Christmas came and went, with no sign of the Sussexes, who were then spotted hiking near Vancouver. Were they ever coming back?
Harry and Meghan's royal split was the mic drop heard around the world
A full week of 2020 passed before Harry and Meghan surfaced, at London's Canada House, where they spoke of the country's natural beauty. But even attendees could not have predicted the portent in their praise.
Just 24 hours later, in the early evening UK time on January 8th, the couple released their incendiary, wholly unexpected statement: "After many months of reflection and internal discussions," they were "step back" as senior royals. They would work to become financially independent, and would split their time between the UK and North America. Mic drop.
The young man constructing my lunchtime bang-bang chicken sandwich in the deli at Winter Park, Colorado, was the lone witness to my (loud, sweary, high-pitched) reaction as my phone buzzed with the official announcement. I swiftly copied the news to at least 25 of my inner circle for immediate dissection.
But royal experts and insiders agree that what looked like a drone strike from the outside, was, in fact, the culmination of conversations that had been happening for some time.
As long ago as last summer, the couple registered the trademark "Sussex Royal," suggesting the plan to launch themselves as a separate brand was cooked up well before their January announcement.
"Harry had discussed their putative plans before Christmas with Prince Charles, who told him to come up with a plan," Dickie Arbiter said. The Prince of Wales, other reports said, wanted a detailed, written proposal, which could then form the basis of an in-depth conversation. The Queen, meanwhile, had told Harry she'd need his father's approval to sign off anything.
"The bombshell was really in the delivery," Emily Nash said. The dramatic statement, apparently not approved by the Queen or Buckingham Palace, "suggests the turmoil that was going on behind the scenes."
The statement also presented Megxit as a fait accompli. Not so, corrected a swift response from Buckingham Palace, which noted that discussions were at an "early stage."
The world held its breath as the details of the deal were hammered out
Meghan wasn't up for sticking around to unstitch and iron out the issues. On January 9th, she reportedly bought a budget flight to Vancouver and skipped the country, leaving her husband to thrash it out with the in-laws.
On January 13th, Harry, William and Charles all headed to Sandringham for dramatic crisis talks. It was seemingly the first time any members of the family had met in person since the body-blow five days earlier.
Royal watchers were agog, thirstily awaiting news out of the country estate. Finally, in a statement following the summit that night, the Queen spoke: "My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan's desire to create a new life as a young family," came the statement, adding that she had asked that a final decision be reached in the coming days.
"Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working members of the royal family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as family while remaining a valued part of my family," she said.
The terms of 'Megxit' were severe for everyone involved
Five long days later, the terms of the deal were finally released. Harry and Meghan would be "required to" relinquish their royal duties, including military ones, and would no longer be funded by the public. Most dramatically, they would also give up their HRH titles. As separation agreements go, it was severe.
"The deal doesn't at all reflect what Harry would have wanted," Angela Levin said. Indeed, according to Levin, he said as much a few days later, at a private dinner for his charity Sentebale.
Nobody, it seems, took any satisfaction in the terms of the "deal." The Queen will feel "very disappointed and let down," Arbiter said.
"But there was a real sense of: "What more could we have done?'" said one correspondent who works closely with the palace. "They wanted their own household, their own staff, to move out of Kensington Palace to Frogmore Cottage — and they were given all of it. The feeling is that they were given everything they wanted."
Perhaps, except the impossible: freedom from the shackles of even having to ask.
The revolutionary runaways may not find the quiet life they say they seek
And so the second act begins, holed up in a mansion on Vancouver Island as the rumor mills works overtime about their next move, with an official exit date planned for early April.
"Meghan has loads of opportunities — she will blossom," Angela Levin said. "She's got contacts and friends there, she can act again. But aside from the army, Harry's never had a job, and I don't know what he will do. It's going to be very hard for him."
Rachel Caggiano, Managing Director of advertising and PR firm Ogilvy in Washington DC, agreed. "Meghan had a brand beforehand and will probably take more naturally to recrafting her brand than Harry will. Harry, by contrast, has had the royal PR team actively hiding details about him for his whole life, from fighting in Afghanistan to getting up to mischief in Vegas."
Their reported intentions to build a philanthropic foundation has led to obvious comparisons with the Clintons or the Obamas, but Kennedy, a branding and marketing expert, believes their trajectory will be different.
"The driving force that you see in people who want to serve in public office is, I think, a very different driving force than what I see Harry and Meghan. You could say that they really want to change the world, but the jaded side of me says they really desire power," she said.
It remains to be seen how they will carve out careers that don't capitalize on any aspect of their royal status, especially now that the Queen has apparently rescinded their ability to use their brand Sussex Royal as a trademark for products, activities, and their foundation.
But their first engagement since leaving The Firm — an after-dinner speech hosted by JP Morgan in early February at Miami's 1 Hotel — prompted criticism over the financial giant's connection to the fossil fuel industry. (The couple has been vocal about environmental issues.)
In front of an audience that included Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, Magic Johnson, and Tony Blair, Harry reportedly spoke about his mental health and the recent decision to step down as senior royals. The pair were reportedly flown to Miami from Vancouver by private jet, and estimates have put their anticipated fee at $500,000-plus, before expenses.
The backlash demonstrates just how unlikely they are to find the quiet life they claim to seek.
"In the UK, there is an expectation of privacy that people can use to stop photographers becoming too intrusive," said a former paparazzi agent who now works with the royal press pack. "In the US and Canada, there's nothing like that sort of protection, and living a quiet life, with that level of fame, is virtually impossible."
Scrutiny from photographers aside, however, the culture of North America — where not every move is analyzed through the filter of royal history — is undoubtedly more welcoming than the UK.
"America has always been the place for rebels," Rachel Kennedy said. "We're a country of people that have broken away from England. So, in that sense, they are just being revolutionary."
Jane Mulkerrins is a British journalist and broadcaster who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She regularly writes for The Times of London, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Tatler, and others.
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