Can it really be the case that this time last year, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were full time working members of the royal family, all set on living out their lives of duty and decorum in a house on the Queen’s Windsor estate?
Coronavirus-induced lockdowns have played tricks on our temporal perception, but it does seem rather extraordinary to consider that it was only on January 8, 2020, that Harry and Meghan hit the button to make live a bombshell website which announced their intention to “step back” from royal life, and lit the touch paper on the biggest crisis to besiege the House of Windsor since the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
In the book Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family, which came out in August, it was revealed that the couple gave the Queen’s office just 10 minutes notice they were publishing their plans. They understandably felt they had to get their side of the story out to the public to thwart the monarchy’s spinners from controlling the narrative around their plans to leave frontline royal duties.
Immediately, Meghan was cast by xenophobic, racist and sexist elements in the British media and establishment as the cause of the trouble. The affair was termed “Megxit” and lazy comparisons were made between Meghan and another American woman whom the establishment failed to silence, Wallis Simpson.
Over the course of this year, it has emerged that it was Harry who drove forward the project to leave royal life. Meghan, if she did anything, simply gave Harry the courage to act on his convictions.
There is probably no way that Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the monarchy could ever have been amicable, but the website left courtiers aghast.
The palace was bounced by its publication into issuing its own brief statement, larded with displeasure: “We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”
A furious briefing war ensued, and by Jan. 10, Meghan and Archie had fled back to Canada and the isolated lakeside mansion in the wilds of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where they had been staying since November as they put the finishing touches to their plan and to that bombshell website.
On Jan. 13, Harry sat down with his father and grandmother at the so-called Sandringham Summit. Afterwards the Queen, in a public statement, made clear that she wanted the situation resolved in “days.”
Resolution implies compromise but there was none of that; the queen showed her ruthless streak and rejected out of hand Harry and Meghan’s aspirations to continue having reduced formal public royal roles whilst being free to earn their own money.
Harry and Meghan’s plan, as outlined on that initial website, was quickly kicked into touch.
They got their independence but the price was total. They got nothing of what they wanted; they were ordered not to use their HRH titles, they were stripped of all their royal appointments and associations, Harry was removed from his military roles and they were told they would have to pay for their own security. The Queen even ordered them not to use the word “royal” to describe themselves as they went out for hire.
This was a bitter blow to Meghan and Harry because their treasured Instagram account with 11 million followers was entitled, “Sussex Royal.” It would be closed down on the last day of March, Harry and Meghan’s last official day on the job as working royals.
On Monday March 9 Meghan and Harry made their very last appearance as fully fledged members of the royal family at the Commonwealth service in London.
Any hope that this would be an occasion of healing, or that either side would use the event to build bridges with the other was crushed when Harry and Meghan were not included in the procession in the official program.
In the event, William and Kate opted to skip the procession as well to avoid humiliating Meghan and Harry. Unfortunately, this dignified front could not be kept up, and in a childish display of royal pettiness, Kate and William ignored and cold-shouldered Meghan and Harry as they attempted to make small talk while seated in the pews before the service.
It was a desperately sad end to what had promised to be a whole new iteration of the royal fairytale. No wonder that after the service, Meghan angrily told a friend: “I gave up my entire life for this family. I was willing to do whatever it takes.”
The following day Meghan held a tearful farewell for her staff at Buckingham Palace and hopped on a plane back to Canada.
A few days later Harry joined her.
At the Commonwealth Day service, Harry had elbow-bumped instead of shaking hands and Prince Charles steepled his finger in the Namaste gesture, but no-one wore a mask. The coronavirus was still a novelty, something that happened to other people.
Three weeks later, on March 31, the day they officially ceased being working royals, coronavirus had the planet by the throat.
With cases spiking around the world, thousands dying and millions losing their jobs, Harry and Meghan wisely decided discretion was the better part of valor, and suspended plans to launch their new Archewell foundation.
A few weeks earlier, just hours before Canada and America had closed their borders on March 18, a private jet had lifted Harry, Meghan and Archie into the skies above British Columbia and made its way south to Los Angeles, where Harry and family set up home for the next few months in a mansion owned by her contact, Tyler Perry.
The mansion was, on paper, spectacular and luxurious but the reality was that Meghan and Harry had a miserable time living there because a public hiking trail ran adjacent to the home from where paparazzi photographers launched dozens and dozens of drone sorties on the family. Intrusive photographs were taken and shopped around the world, although the pointless cruelty of the photographers’ activities was exposed by the fact that none of the illegally-obtained pictures were purchased.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Meghan was likely pregnant for much of the time they spent at Perry’s house.
In early July, the family moved to Montecito, where Meghan miscarried the baby. It was not until the day before Thanksgiving that Meghan revealed her miscarriage in a moving and powerful op-ed for the New York Times.
Despite this personal tragedy Meghan and Harry continued to brightly advocate for a number of community causes, and also engaged in some high-profile public appearances distributing food to communities hard-hit by the pandemic.
Noble as much of this work was, the pandemic blew Harry and Meghan’s commercial plans out of the water.
The plan to quickly churn out a few high-earning engagements turned to dust and in the event only one speech that was paid for (to a crowd of J.P. Morgan investment bankers) was delivered in the whole of 2020.
The fact that it made the couple $1 million illustrates just how important a revenue stream speeches and personal appearances would have been for the couple, who now have huge monthly expenses given that they have to pay for their own security.
The pandemic did not completely poleaxe their plans, of course: Netflix signed them for a production deal which was widely reported to be worth $100 million.
Given that the productions so far announced involve an animated series about inspiring women, one wonders whether these two idealists really can make it as producers of lucrative television shows.
The deal was, however, undoubtedly a coup for Netflix, lending a halo to their big show, The Crown, the controversial fourth season of which came out in November 2020. On Dec. 15, Meghan and Harry announced they had signed a deal with Spotify to carry a new podcast by them. The terms remain unknown for now but are thought to have netted them another $30 million or so.
For the rest of the royals, like most of us, 2020 was a year oddly eventful and uneventful at the same time, due to everything being cancelled.
Prince Andrew’s scandalous association with dead pedophile Jeffrey Epstein meant he was sidelined from senior royal duties. He hopes this will not be permanent, but most observers think that until he co-operates with the American authorities any hope of rehabilitating his reputation is doomed.
Because of coronavirus, there were no tours, no pressing of the flesh, none of the funny, unscripted moments that make the royals actually come alive—just lots and lots of increasingly dull Zoom calls. Like the rest of us they were stuck at home, with nothing to do apart from, as Kate memorably put it in one interview, put up a tent in the garden for the children and take it down again.
Prince Charles and Prince William both contracted coronavirus, but while Charles revealed his diagnosis publicly, William kept his secret. It was only revealed several months later when he disclosed that he had had it in a meet and greet.
The Queen and Prince Philip isolated together for several months at Windsor Castle, and are said to have enjoyed spending a rare few months solely in each other’s company. It’s a rather wonderful silver lining of the dreadful pandemic year, given that she is 94 and he is 99.
Hopeful preparations are now being made for June next year, when Prince Philip is due to turn 100. If he remains in good health, and the vaccines have crushed the coronavirus menace, that should be one hell of a party.
The royals would do well to roll out the red carpet for Harry, Meghan and Archie—and put the disaster of 2020 behind them.