On Monday, with just three words, the Queen suggested that she would strip “Harry and Meghan” of what would have been an invaluable and utterly unique asset as they head out into the cold realities of the marketplace; permission to refer to themselves as His or Her Royal Highness (HRH).
Forget the few million from Prince Charles.
Forget the million-dollar security bill (which Canada has sportingly said it’ll pick up, a good bit of anyway).
These sums are chump change compared to what an HRH could make in a few hours of well-chosen speaking engagements.
Ironically, for such a progressive couple, the archaic British title, which confers on those who hold it the priceless patina of the anachronistic institution of royalty, is the key to their fame.
While the tone of the statement appeared prima facie to be gentle, loving, and forgiving, the studied informality of referring to Harry and Meghan as, well, “Harry and Meghan,” masked what many today are suggesting was Her Majesty’s real purpose; to quietly, devastatingly, and with a minimum of fuss reduce Their Royal Highnesses to the status of mere “Sussexes” as she called them elsewhere.
So is Meghan still a duchess? Well, yes, but being a duchess, even of Sussex, isn’t what it once was; don’t forget, Sarah Ferguson is still a duchess, despite having divorced Prince Andrew and been filmed trying to sell access to him to a News of the World reporter dressed as a sheikh. The title doesn’t appear to have done her business career much good.
Could it have just been an accidental slip? Will we wake up tomorrow to a series of briefings that the couple, who announced last week their intention to step back from royal life and move overseas, are to keep their HRH title after all? It’s possible, given the chaos at the heart of the institution right now—but what an accident it would be.
In over two decades of trying to decode these kinds of statements from the palace, I can’t recall an announcement or statement that hasn’t referred to a member of the family as His, Her, or Their Royal Highness at least once.
Actively not doing it three times (they are referred to twice as “Harry and Meghan” and once as “the Sussexes”) would seem positively careless, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.
But the idea that the Queen would let Harry’s abdication go unpunished was always fanciful. Whenever a European monarch abdicates, we royal correspondents ring up the palace and ask if the Queen is minded to do the same.
The answer, for many decades, has been as follows: We are tartly informed that, in a speech on her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth as she then was, promised that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” The courtier adds that the words “whole life” are the relevant ones.
Harry and Meghan clearly have other plans for their whole lives, and who could blame them, but don’t think you get to stick two fingers up at the Queen’s most cherished concept—duty—and ride off into the sunset with your royal title intact.
The announcement was the culmination of a day of extraordinary drama, aimed at de-escalating the first abdication crisis to hit the U.K. since the departure of the Queen’s uncle, King Edward VIII, in 1936 on the arm of Wallis Simpson.
The dramatis personae began to assemble when Harry arrived at Sandringham at around 11:20 a.m, in a Range Rover that was sighted driving into the back gate of the Norfolk estate. Just a few minutes earlier, Prince Philip, 98, and rumored to be seriously unwell, had left the main house. He was spotted being ferried to Wood Farm, perhaps to remove the possibility that the duke, who is said to be furious at Harry, might have his blood pressure raised by an encounter with his grandson.
It is believed that Harry had lunch with his grandmother and father, who arrived earlier, and the trio were joined by Prince William (who had just been forced to deny bullying Harry and Meghan) shortly before the meeting started at 2 p.m.
The Daily Mail reported that it took place in the Long Library at Sandringham House, a room where, in happier days, Harry and his brother William used to come for high tea as boys.
By 4 p.m., it was all over—and the relative brevity of the meeting suggests that many of the important issues, perhaps even the text of the statement, had largely been hammered out beforehand.
The foursome had a cup of tea and a biscuit to conclude matters and shortly thereafter departed in separate cars—just as the statement was being issued.
It was a masterpiece of faux clarity.
In it, for example, the Queen said both that she was “entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family” but also added, “we would have preferred them to remain full-time working members of the royal family.”
The statement said that Harry and Meghan “have made clear they do not want to be reliant on public funds” but did not specify whether that included giving up the substantial stipend they receive from Prince Charles’ vast private fortune, assembled largely through royal privileges.
It said they would live between Canada and the U.K for the time being but didn’t say whether they would repay the estimated $3m of public funds used to remodel their British home, Frogmore Cottage, or pay rent for the property now that they are private people.
It said there would be a “period of transition in which the Sussexes will spend time in Canada and the U.K.” but didn’t say where they will actually live.
It said they would remain “a valued part” of Her Majesty’s family but didn’t say if they will have any royal role going forward.
Often, in British life, what is not said is more important than what is.
And many remain convinced that the most important missing words in this statement are those denoted by the celebrated, feudal palindrome, HRH.
Time will tell if those suspicions are correct.