Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's 'tell-all' interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday night is one of the most anticipated TV events in years.
The Duchess says she feels liberated by speaking for herself. Buckingham Palace will be fearful of what she has to say.
Amid the accusations of bullying laid against the former actress and her anticipated revelations to the US queen of television, The National asked former members of the royal household what went wrong.
Bright start to life as a duchess
The life of a British royal comes with privileges few will ever experience. Public affection bordering on adoration, luxury, money and high esteem for arguably the most publicised family in the world.
It is close to being a celebrity but not quite. There are codes to be followed, clearly defined boundaries and a willingness to accept that your life is not entirely yours.
Meghan Markle was an actress who had experienced fame and recognition from the success of US TV series Suits. She was also a liberal from California entering a revered, centuries-old institution with a strict hierarchy.
Perhaps what happened next was predictable, but not many foresaw how quickly things would unravel after she married Harry in May 2018.
In the end, it seems, Meghan never fully understood or accepted life as a royal. As yet it is unclear when, but something happened in her short time as a royal that led her from marrying into the realm to fleeing British shores.
At first it appeared to Buckingham Palace that Meghan was an asset, someone different who could add a new perspective to the family. “She did some fantastic stuff like the Grenfell Tower cookbook,” said a former employee. “The patronages she took on were pretty chunky things, like the National Theatre, and they must have been both rewarding and interesting.”
Putting her weight behind the Grenfell Tower recipe book seemed to hit all the right notes, selling more than 130,000 copies, raising thousands for charity and helping a good cause. It also appeared to Meghan that she could turn private events into good publicity, perhaps acting on the suggestion of her American media advisers, who, it became apparent, were not entirely comprehending of the inner workings of British royalty.
But the new Duchess of Sussex was a big hit with the public. Her words, photographs and visits widely followed.
The first cracks appear
She continued with a successful tour of the Pacific in late 2018, starting on a high note with the announcement of her pregnancy shortly after arriving in Australia. Then a personal assistant left within six months of the wedding after an alleged falling out. Reports emerged of a less-than-warm relationship with Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge while sharing an office and premises at Kensington Palace.
Senior staff in Buckingham Palace became aware that there was “concern about the way people were being spoken to”.
Something was not working and Queen Elizabeth II agreed to the couple's request to form a new office at Buckingham Palace with their own staff. However, another request for an office independent of the palace was denied. The Queen had spent her life in public service and expected the same unwavering adherence to duty.
“Duty means being in the service of others,” the former palace employee said. “It's not about you, it's about what you're doing for other people. It's not about self-promotion. Royalty isn't celebrity, they're two very different things.”
There was a growing worry that those advising the couple didn’t grasp how the monarchy worked. “They have no real understanding of how things land with the public here,” the source said. “It might be very different in the United States.”
However, the Sussexes broke an Instagram record, reaching one million followers faster than any other account. There was a blip when environmental campaigners criticised their use of private jets for personal trips abroad, but it did not overshadow celebrations of the birth of son Archie in May 2019.
End of the Fab Four
The rumblings over the Sussexes seemed to contrast with the enduring popularity of the Cambridges, whose royal outings were conducted with humour and good grace. “Being a royal means that you can't have an off-day because people's expectations when you turn up is that you are going to be gracious and interested in them,” the source said. “For some people, it's the best day of their lives. Members of the royal family really understand that and that it’s not about them.”
Meticulous planning went into the couple’s next major foreign tour of Southern Africa, which was organised in great detail by one of those understood to be the subject of the bullying allegations that emerged recently.
The tour went extremely well with large crowds of well-wishers turning out. But then Meghan did an interview with the respected ITN newsreader Tom Bradby, who has been a friend and adviser to Harry and William for some time. When he questioned Meghan about the impact of royal life on her physical and mental health, she replied: “Thank you for asking, because not many people have asked if I’m OK.” Her discomfort was plain to all and came as a shock to Buckingham Palace.
“That tour was putting them back on a really fantastic path,” the source said. “Archie was very good-humoured. They were meeting interesting people, doing good things and then it was all blown apart when they did that interview.”
Other side of the Atlantic
Not long afterwards, the Sussexes departed for an extended stay in Canada and it was on their return in early 2020 that they made the shock announcement, via Instagram, that they were “stepping back” from duty as senior royals. The Queen hadn't been informed beforehand and she was upset. “A lot of people in the royal household were just very surprised that they didn't give it a bit longer,” the insider said.
After a major falling out with the British press and court cases against Fleet Street newspapers the Sussexes time left in England was running out and by June last year they were in California.
Media focus really turned on Meghan and Harry this week when, in the lead up to the Oprah interview, the allegations of bullying emerged with a report in The Times newspaper, and a Palace investigation is under way. Such complaints were not looked into at the time, however.
The National was told by another source that the royal household's human resources department was as professionally run as those of major corporations, although it was admitted that with two households – Buckingham Palace and Clarence House – this made things more complicated.
“It is a very professional operation,” a former Clarence House employee said. “The complaint wasn't picked up and it may simply have been a fact of people leaving and moving on. But you have to remember that when Meghan and Harry decided they were off, that became the priority to sort out over almost everything else.”
Royal staff get their defence in first
The suggestion is that someone in Buckingham Palace thought it would be a good idea to offer a counterpoint to the likely criticism that will come from Meghan on Sunday. Sadly, it appears to have hurt both sides' reputations, but the former palace employee said the British monarchy would remain largely unruffled.
“The great thing about monarchy is that it's bigger than any particular generation,” the source said. “It reinvents itself and takes on different relevance for different generations and Meghan and Harry have decided they don't want to be part of that. But the royal family will just keep on doing their duty because they understand that's what they’re supposed to do.”