Having your girlfriend stay over may not be that much of a big deal for your average 32-year-old. But when you are Prince Harry, it means a whole lot more.
On Thursday this week, as the rest of the world digested the news of America’s unexpected election results, Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s new girlfriend, sauntered coolly down Kensington High Street to the local branch of Whole Foods.
Whether or not she knew that Harry’s media bête noire, the Daily Mail, has its offices above the organic food hall, we may never know. But her presence was noted upstairs. A few minutes later she was photographed walking into the official side gate at Kensington Palace, which adjoins a public road, with two bulging shopping bags in hand.
In the pictures, which appeared in the Mail on Friday, Prince Harry’s basketball cap was pulled down over her head, but there had been no real effort to hide her presence at KP.
And thus she became the first girlfriend of a senior royal to openly stay over at a royal residence prior to marriage.
Presidents may come and go; the British Royal family, by contrast, has shown a remarkable facility for hanging on to power (and popularity) in the UK over the past thousand years or so.
Part of the trick has been carefully balancing the twin and often competing demands of tradition and evolution.
And the way in which Harry is choosing to conduct his relationship with Meghan Markle represents an important high water mark in that evolutionary cycle.
If the Queen thought Harry growing and keeping a beard was a little unusual, it is now very clear that this was just the first article of a new personal constitution: he’ll be respectful, he’ll do his duty, but Harry’s relationship with Markle makes it clear that he is claiming the right to conduct his private life his own way.
His moving declamation of the Rupert Brooke poem ‘The Soldier’ at Armistice Day celebrations on Friday—just hours after leaving Markle at KP—confirmed his ability to inhabit the two roles of Royal figurehead and private man.
Harry’s determination to follow his heart is likely to have received much encouragement from a perhaps unlikely quarter—his father, Prince Charles, whose life was blighted by being told he could not marry his one true love, Camilla Shand, but must instead wed a ‘suitable young girl’ such as, ah, Lady Diana Spencer.
Charles always complained that he was then rushed into marriage by his father, but the truth is that royal life is not well-suited to long courtships. Much as Harry may dislike the media habit of marrying him off to every woman he meets, the fact is that the relationship with Markle will probably move swiftly in the direction of the altar if it moves forward at all.
Markle’s age—at 35 she is three years older than him—means she is unlikely to wish to hang around, but, on a practical level, police protection cannot be extended to Markle unless they become engaged.
As the controversial and unprecedented letter issued on Harry’s behalf by the KP press office this week, urging critics and media to back off, made clear, ‘protecting’ Markle from danger is one of Harry’s priorities.
Penny Junor, a well-connected and informed British writer whose authoritative biography of Harry, “Prince Harry: Brother, Soldier, Son” is widely considered the definitive work on Harry, told the Daily Beast, “Poor Harry has lost the last two girls in his life because of media intrusion, it’s as simple as that. Now he has met Meghan, he clearly likes her, and he doesn’t want this one seen off too.”
Asked if she thinks Markle’s trip to the shops was a deliberate signpost as to the status of the relationship, Junor says, “It might be. To be fair, he was actually out that day. But it does seem unlikely—having had the media camped on her doorstep—that she would think she would just pop out to the shops from one of the most famous addresses in London unnoticed. Maybe this is a gentle way of saying, ‘This is my new girlfriend.’”
Christopher Andersen, the author of several books on royal life, told the Daily Beast that the letter represents Harry, “throwing down the gauntlet in a major way,” adding, “Harry was making it clear that this relationship with Meghan Markle is serious, and he is reinforcing that by having her openly stay with him at Kensington Palace.”
Andersen believes her casual stroll was, “definitely a calculated move, ripping off the bandage, so to speak.”
Within the British press, however, where Harry is generally regarded as being handled with kid gloves, many took a more cynical view of the letter and the Whole Foods trip.
One royal commentator who wished to remain anonymous told the Daily Beast the statement was a, “histrionic rant of epic proportions…made worse by the suggestion that she was in danger, debunked by her by walking to Whole Foods on her own.”
However the commentator added, “I think he wouldn’t have sent the letter out if he wasn’t serious about her. On the other hand, given that where they live, it is up for debate how well he actually knows her. In long-distance relationships a few dates can become ‘months’ very easily.”