The announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they are to step back as senior members of the royal family follows a year of stress and uneasiness about their roles.
The ambition of Prince Harry and Meghan to plough an untested and unconventional path comes after much speculation that they were not completely comfortable with the status quo.
Related: Prince Harry and Meghan to step back from royal family
This new route, it appears, could allow them to capitalise on their international celebrity and still retain their HRH status.
The recent portrait of the Queen, with the Prince of Wales, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George, was a tangible reminder of the couple’s role as the monarchy’s “spares”. Prince Charles backs a slimmed down monarchy. The message this photographed conveyed was very clear – this was the nucleus of the royal family.
The statement followed “many months of reflection and internal discussions”, according to the website in the Sussex name. Plans are understood to be in their infancy. The couple’s six-week holiday in Canada, from where they have just returned, could have been a trial run.
The biggest clue that they were rethinking their role came, perhaps, in the television interview they gave to ITV’s Tom Bradby during their tour of South Africa late last year.
Meghan said of her role: “It’s not enough just to survive something, right? That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy. I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip . I tried, I really tried. But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
Her concerns appeared to weigh heavily on Harry. The prince has made no secret of his anger at the British press, and both of them are pursuing legal actions against newspapers. She has begun a lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday over an alleged breach of copyright and privacy, after it published a private letter between her and her estranged father.
Harry’s impassioned statement when he accused British media of waging a “ruthless” campaign of vilification of Meghan, and comparing her treatment to that of his mother, was an unleashing of his pent-up fury at the way they perceive they have been treated.
“I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces,” he said. He has filed his own proceedings at the high court against News Group Newspapers, which owns the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, and Reach Plc, which owns the Daily Mirror, in relation to alleged phone hacking.
Further signs of the pair’s wish to carve out new roles appeared when they announced they were going their separate way from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They decamped from Kensington palace to Windsor and moved their offices into Buckingham palace. They split from the Royal Foundation, run by all four of them together, and are now about to launch their own foundation. Harry told Bradby he and his brother “were on different paths”.
The couple’s decision to step back comes less than two years after their marriage. Since their wedding they have been criticised over their use of private jets, taking four such planes in 11 days; of Meghan flying to a luxurious private baby shower in New York; and for the £2.4m in public money spent on the refurbishment of their home, Frogmore Cottage.
Some have criticised their actions as a blurring of the lines between royalty and celebrity.
How they intend to become “financially independent” has not been disclosed in detail. On their website they say that in 2020 as they step back as senior members they will no longer receive funding from the sovereign grant. But the move will allow them to “continue to carry out their duties for the Queen while having the future financial autonomy to work externally” .
At present, they said, the sovereign grant covered 5% of their costs and was specifically used for their official office expenses. They added: “Their royal highnesses prefer to release this financial tie.” Up until now the remaining 95% of their expenses has been met by Charles from his income from the Duchy of Cornwall.
The couple do not, it seems, intend to relinquish their titles of “royal highnesses”, saying there is precedent for this structure; it applied to current members of the royal family supporting the monarch but also having full-time jobs external to that commitment.
In this new role they said they remained “dedicated to maximising Her Majesty’s legacy both in the UK and throughout the commonwealth”.
Though they intend to spend time in north America, they said they would continue to use Frogmore Cottage, on an estate that forms part of the larger Windsor estate, “so that their family will always have a place to call home” in the UK. When travelling on official duties overseas their expenses would be met by the sovereign grant.
Regarding security, they said they were classified as internationally protected people, which mandates the provision of armed security by the UK’s Metropolitan police.