Marrying into a monarchy to become a princess fulfills many young girls’ childlike fantasies, so with all the fame, fortune and privilege, why did Prince Harry and Meghan Markle leave the royal family?
Since going public with their relationship in 2016 after months of speculation, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been one of the most talked-about couples in the world. Still, all that attention, gossip in the tabloids and continuous public scrutiny took its toll over the years—not to mention added to tensions within the family bubbling just below the surface. “There’s a hierarchy in the family, there’s leaking, there’s also planting of stories,” Harry explained in the trailer for his and his wife’s documentary series Harry & Meghan, part one of which landed on Netflix on December 8, 2022. “It’s a dirty game… The pain and suffering of women marrying into this institution, this feeding frenzy.” Meghan added: “I realized they’re never going to protect you.”
In January 2020, an official statement from Buckingham Palace revealed the couple would “step back” from royal duties and “embark on a new chapter in their lives”. Among other things, they would no longer formally represent the Queen. This announcement would be dubbed “Megxit” in the tabloids, which is a play on “Brexit”—the word used to describe the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Here’s what you need to know about Meghan and Harry leaving the royal family.
Why did Prince Harry and Meghan Markle leave the royal family?
There are many reasons why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left the royal family. According to a statement from the late Queen Elizabeth II at the time of their departure in 2020, Her Royal Highness acknowledged “the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life.” Indeed, the focus of the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan almost solely focuses on this intense scrutiny and what would end up being their war against the British tabloids that persists to this day.
“There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious, and though we have continued to put on a brave face – as so many of you can relate to – I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been,” Harry wrote in a statement published by The Guardian in 2019, referring to his mother, the late Princess Diana, who died in a car accident in 1997 while being chased by photographers. “My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
In an interview with Good Morning America ahead of his explosive memoir Spare‘s launch, Harry said on January 9, 2023, that the late Queen Elizabeth II wasn’t shocked by his decision to step down from official royal duties. “My grandmother and I had a very good relationship. It was never a surprise to anybody, least of all her,” he said. “She knew what was going on, she knew how hard it was. She never said to me that she was angry. I think she was sad that it had got to that point.”
When he met Meghan in 2016, Harry recalled in his Netflix documentary Hary & Meghan that he “was terrified of her being driven away by the media—the same media who’d driven so many people away from me.” On the flip side, the concept of the monarchy was foreign to Meghan. She admitted during a 2017 BBC interview after their engagement announcement that she didn’t quite understand what she was getting into when she and Harry first met. “Because I’m from the States, you don’t grow up with the same understanding of the royal family,” she said. “I didn’t know much about him, so the only thing that I had asked [our mutual friend] when she said that she wanted to set us up, was, ‘Well, is he nice?’ Cause if he wasn’t kind, it just didn’t seem like it would make sense.”
In the early stages of their relationship and prior to having her own security detail, Meghan recalls being “stalked” by paparazzi in Toronto. She reached out to the Canadian police for help, as she described in Harry & Meghan. “I would say to the police: If any other woman in Toronto said to you, ‘I have six grown men who are sleeping in their cars around my house and following me everywhere that I go, and I feel scared,’ wouldn’t you say that was stalking?” she said in the second episode. Meghan said the police had agreed she was being harassed, but added, “There’s really nothing we can do because of who you’re dating.”
Press coverage became more vicious as time went on. Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland, told her daughter that she believed it was because Meghan was mixed-race. In a rare interview featured in the second episode of Harry & Meghan, Doria remembered: “I said to her—I remember this very clearly—that ‘This is about race,’” Ragland recalled. “‘You may not want to hear it, but this is what’s coming down the pike,’” she added. Indeed, much of the earlier coverage of Harry and Meghan’s relationship unapologetically made reference to her background or race. Tabloids said she was “from the wrong side of the tracks” and the Daily Mail ran a headline that read: “Harry’s new girl is (almost) straight outta Compton.”
Harry and Meghan were married in 2018 and the couple, particularly Meghan, continued to face public vitriol. Social media was awash with the hashtag #MeghanMarkleGoHome, while The Times ran multiple stories about her bullying royal aides and how her demands “left staff shaking with fear.” A Sussex spokesperson called the accusations “a calculated smear campaign” and Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay tweeted at the time: “Those British papers really cannot tolerate that Prince Harry loves a Black woman. They will never, ever stop trying to tear Meghan apart.”
During her pregnancy with Archie in 2019, Kensington Palace staff were put on high alert due to the rise in racist online abuse targeting the Duchess of Sussex. CNN reported at the time that software had been installed to filter out the n-word as well as the use of gun and knife emojis. Neil Basu, who was in charge of royal protection during his time at the Metropolitan Police, told Britain’s Channel 4 that “If you’d seen the stuff that was written, and you were receiving it … you would feel under threat all of the time… People have been prosecuted for those threats.”
Two years later, Harry and Meghan decided they’d had enough. Over the course of several weeks in what’s known as the Sandringham Summit, the couple negotiated their exit as senior, working members of the royal family. It was an unprecedented move that sent shockwaves through Britain. “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 a family while remaining a valued part of my family,” the late Queen Elizabeth II said in a statement at the time.
The move was dubbed “Megxit” by The Sun newspaper on January 9, 2020. The use of her name, rather than a collective term for the two of them, was interpreted by some as Meghan being the instigator despite it being highly publicized that it was a mutual decision. During a panel called the Internet Lie Machine in 2021, Harry explained, “Maybe people know this and maybe they don’t, but the term Megxit was or is a misogynistic term, and it was created by a troll, amplified by royal correspondents, and it grew and grew and grew into mainstream media. But it began with a troll.”
The war between Harry and Meghan versus the press continues. Following their departure from the royal family, the couple took out several lawsuits against major news publishers. For the invasion of privacy, they sued the Daily Mail for the unauthorized publishing of a private letter Meghan wrote to her estranged father. For defamation, they took The Mail on Sunday to court and won, when they published an article that alleged Harry had tried to keep secret details of his legal fight to reinstate his police protection.
Harry & Meghan is available to stream on Netflix now.
For more about Prince Harry, read his memoir, Spare. Told for the first time in his own words, the book takes readers through the Duke of Sussex’s life with the British royal family, from the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 to how the moment led to his decision decades later to move to America with his wife, Meghan Markle, and leave Buckingham Palace for good in 2020. “With its raw, unflinching honesty, Spare is a landmark publication full of insight, revelation, self-examination, and hard-won wisdom about the eternal power of love over grief,” the publisher’s description reads.
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