Both sides of the proverbial “pond” were left shocked after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, announced last week their intention to “step down” from their senior roles in the royal family and spend time outside of the U.K.
Royal watchers were up in arms at the news, but if you’re completely uninitiated, here is a guide that will take you through the fairy-tale union and the controversial, messy family split.
In the beginning
Markle was born three years before Prince Harry, on Aug. 4, 1981, in Los Angeles. Her mother, Doria Ragland, was employed as a social worker and yoga teacher while her father, Thomas Markle, worked in television production as a photography and lighting director.
In a 2016 piece for Elle magazine, she described herself as a mixed-race female descended from slaves. “My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African American. I’m half black and half white,” she wrote. Markle’s parents split when she was 6, and she went on to attend Southern California private schools and Northwestern University for college.
She nabbed small roles in the years following her graduation, eventually starring in the Toronto-based TV show Suits as paralegal Rachel Zane in 2011. That year she also married actor and producer Trevor Engelson. They divorced in 2013.
On Sept. 15, 1984, Harry was born at the famous Lindo Wing of London’s St. Mary’s Hospital—where a bevy of royal babies have been brought into the world. His father, Prince Charles, is heir to the throne and his mother, Princess Diana, was born into British nobility and later dubbed the “people’s princess.”
After being educated at prep schools and Eton College, Harry underwent officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served in the British armed forces, spending over 30 weeks in Afghanistan until he left the army in 2015. Throughout the years, he dated around and had been in a few relationships—including romances with businesswoman Chelsy Davy and British actress Cressida Bonas.
Harry’s mother, hounded by the media in the time preceding and following her split from Prince Charles, died after a car accident in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. At the time, the paparazzi following the car were blamed as a contributing factor to the crash; a 1999 French investigation found that the driver had been under the influence at the time of the accident.
In an ITV interview in October 2019, Harry said his mother’s death was like “a wound that festers.” “I think being part of this family, in this role, in this job, every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash, it takes me straight back,” he said. “So, in that respect, it’s the worst reminder of her life, as opposed to the best.”
The now-Duke and Duchess of Sussex met on a blind date in 2016, with the prince telling BBC News in an interview that they were introduced through “a mutual friend.” Markle, in the same interview, recalled that they had “met for a drink” and hit it off right away. “I think very quickly into that we said, ‘Well, what are we doing tomorrow? We should meet again,’” Markle said. During their engagement announcement, Harry proclaimed that he knew Markle was the one “the very first time” they met.
A few weeks later, Harry invited Markle to accompany him on a trip to Botswana, where Harry said they “camped out with each other under the stars.” “Then we were really by ourselves, which was crucial to me to make sure that we had a chance to get to know each other," he said. Markle told BBC News that they had “a good five, six months almost with just privacy, which was amazing.”
Reports focused on Markle’s race started springing up at the time, with one headline declaring, “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton.” Another piece pointed out Markle’s “exotic DNA” and claimed she was “racy” and a “tease.”
On Nov. 8, the prince formally announced that he was dating Markle and denounced the “wave of abuse and harassment” she had received in the media after the news broke. “Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her,” the statement read. “It is not right that a few months into a relationship with him that Ms. Markle should be subjected to such a storm… This is not a game—it is her life and his.”
After trips to Jamaica, Norway, and Africa while maintaining their long-distance romance, the couple made an official royal appearance at the October 2017 Invictus Games opening ceremony in Toronto. That month, Markle also declared that they were “a couple” and “in love” in a Vanity Fair interview.
“I’m sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but I hope what people will understand is that this is our time,” she said. “It’s part of what makes it so special, that it’s just ours. But we’re happy. Personally, I love a great love story.”
Ring on the finger
The couple announced their engagement on Nov. 27, 2017, in a brief photo call, telling reporters that the proposal was romantic and they were “thrilled and happy” about taking the next steps. The next month, another royal—Princess Michael of Kent—caused controversy after wearing a racist blackamoor brooch to the Queen’s yearly Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace.
Harry and Meghan’s May 19, 2018 wedding at Windsor Castle was attended by royalty and A-list celebrities—including George and Amal Clooney, David and Victoria Beckham, and Oprah Winfrey. Only Markle’s mother, Doria, attended the wedding after her father—who caused her much embarrassment in interviews with the British press—skipped the event. She walked down half the aisle by herself and was accompanied by Prince Charles for the final portion of the walk.
The newly minted duchess also joined the Royal Foundation, the charity first established by Harry and his older brother Prince William. Markle, Prince Harry, Prince William, and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, were seen as “the fab four”—or the new generation of royals that would modernize the monarchy.
A new member of the family
On Oct. 15, 2018, Kensington Palace announced that the couple were expecting their first child and on May 6, 2019, Baby Archie was born. When the couple announced their child’s name, Archie notably had no royal title. BBC host Danny Baker was fired after he shared a tweet comparing Archie to a chimpanzee shortly after his birth. At the time, Baker claimed that the tweet was a “gag” joke about “circus animals” and the royals and it was misconstrued as racism.
Forging their own path amid scrutiny
Meghan and Harry began signaling their penchant for creating their own path even before Archie was born. News broke in November 2018 that the Sussexes would be moving out of Kensington Palace—where the Cambridges also lived—to Frogmore Cottage. That same month, reports surfaced that Markle made Middleton cry before the Sussexes’ May wedding over a bridesmaid’s dress for Middleton’s daughter, Princess Charlotte.
The couple then announced their intention to split their household from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, in March 2019—which would mean separate social-media accounts and a separate communications staff.
Three months later, the couple said they would break away from the Royal Foundation—seemingly putting the final nail in “the fab four” coffin. However, the Sussexes pledged to keep working on the Heads Together mental-health campaign with the Cambridges and a July 2019 report indicated that Baby Archie helped Markle and Middleton to bond.
Markle’s efforts to create charitable contributions of her own, like her support of the Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre and creation of the Hubb Community Kitchen cookbook, were met with scrutiny—with one report linking the mosque to terrorists.
The Sussexes took a royal tour of Africa from late September to early October 2019, and ITV cameras came along to make a documentary. Markle spoke candidly about the media criticism in an interview, stating that the entire situation was “hard.” “I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair, and that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile,” she said, adding that she didn’t heed warnings that the British tabloids would “destroy” her life. “So it’s, yeah, it’s been complicated.”
Harry also admitted to some increasing distance between him and his brother, telling ITV they were “certainly on different paths at the moment.” “We don’t see each other as much as we used to because we’re so busy, but I love him dearly,” he said.
The couple took their quarrel with the media to court, suing The Mail on Sunday and its parent company, Associated Newspapers, in October 2019 over their publishing of Markle’s private letter to her father. “There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behavior, because it destroys people and destroys lives,” Prince Harry wrote in a statement.
He added that “history [was] repeating itself”—referring to how his late mother, Princess Diana, was treated by the media. Harry himself also sued the owners of the Sun and the Mirror for allegedly hacking his phone.
After spending the holiday abroad in Canada, the Sussexes returned to London last week and thanked officials at Canada House in-person for their country’s hospitality. One day after their visit, the couple dropped the bombshell in a press release: In 2020, they intended to leave the royal burden behind.
“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,” the announcement read. “We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages.”
Predictably, the move didn’t sit well with the British media—which claimed it was “selfish” and “an atrocious lapse of judgment.” The timing of the announcement, one day before the Duchess of Cambridge’s 38th birthday, was also a target of reports.
The aftermath—so far
Buckingham Palace said discussions about the move were at “an early stage,” while reports claimed no royal family member was consulted prior to the announcement. A newly revamped Sussex Royal website revealed the couple had no interest in cooperating with U.K. royal correspondents in the rota system and wanted to be financially independent—but also wanted to use Frogmore Cottage as their official residence and to honor their duties to the Queen and their patronages.
A meeting to discuss and hammer out a deal agreeable to all parties featuring Harry, the Queen, and Princes Charles and William was set for Monday at the Queen’s holiday home in Sandringham, Norfolk, with Markle reportedly participating by phone from Canada.
Whatever happens, the effects of the family friction run perilously deep. According to the U.K. Sunday Times this weekend, William is said to have told a friend, “I’ve put my arm around my brother all our lives. I can’t do it any more.”
Tom Bradby, the ITV interviewer whose documentary captured the Sussexes’ anger and sadness last autumn, wrote in the paper that a “no-holds-barred” TV interview featuring Meghan and Harry would not be “pretty,” with courtiers fearing Meghan could brand the royal family as racist and sexist.