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Harry and Meghan’s decision to walk away has given the Queen a royal headache

(Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images) (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The British royal family had an awful 2019. From Prince Philip's car crash, in which two women were injured, to Prince Andrew's friendship with the US financier and alleged trafficker of underage girls, Jeffrey Epstein, coming under increasing scrutiny, the world's most famous family entered this new decade with numerous PR fires still raging.

On Wednesday night, their problems worsened. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex made the shock announcement that they would be stepping back from their roles as senior royals. "After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year," the couple said in a post on Instagram, adding that they hoped to "carve out a progressive new role within this institution."

While many were surprised, rumors that all was not well in the clan had been rife for months in Britain. From day one, Prince Harry and Meghan’s desire to do things differently irked many traditionalists. Their televised wedding in 2018 had so many personal touches that it stood in stark contrast to the relatively drab wedding of Prince William and Catherine just seven years earlier. Markle walked to meet her husband alone, with no man to give her away to another man. The couple left the chapel as a gospel choir sang Etta James’s version of “This Little Light of Mine,” a song synonymous with the American civil rights movement.

The couple's individualistic approach to royal life did annoy some, but was on the whole considered to be charming. Crucially, even in 2018, many British media commentators suggested the approach was driven by Meghan, and that Harry was simply giving her what she wanted.

At a cursory glance, this might make sense. Meghan's history of using her platform as a famous actor to speak out on issues ranging from gender equality to ending modern day slavery gives the impression of an independent woman. However, the idea that Harry -- a headstrong young man who had spent a decade in the British Army, marching to the beat of a very different drum to that of his older brother -- is merely living a life for the convenience of his wife is hard to believe.

Indeed, the qualities of both Sussexes -- and their very obvious public affection for one another -- suggests that they are very well matched.

The British media spent much of 2019 turning their fire on Meghan. She was painted by many as a whinging, out-of-touch celebrity who did little more than complain about how restrictive life in the clan was.

Much of this will be down to the fact that Meghan and Harry didn't engage much with the relationship that some of the British press have with the royal family, which is often criticized for being too transactional.

The Sussexes bucked this trend when their son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, was born in May last year. The couple were accused of being too private with pictures of their new child. They were then blasted for being overly protective when opting to make Archie's christening a private affair.

The press doesn't want to upset any royal, but the risk here was low. Harry is only sixth-in-line to the throne and Meghan is a US citizen. And yes, even in 2020, that somehow still seems to matter.

Stories began to appear in the press suggesting splits between Meghan and her sister-in-law Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. Over time, that morphed into differences between Harry and William, although the implication that Meghan was really the cause of all the trouble was lathered on thick in much of the coverage.

Whatever the personal differences were, everything spilled into the open in October, when Harry told a British reporter in a documentary that he and William were "certainly on different paths at the moment," but added "I will always be there for him, and as I know he will always be there for me."

Cue more media hysteria, as reports emerged that William was "worried" about his brother. Palace sources told the BBC at the time that rather than being angry with his brother, there was a view the couple were "in a fragile place."

Of course, brotherly concern is better than spitting blood. But the picture being painted by the palace was one of Harry and Meghan being a delicate couple, struggling to cope with the pressure of living in the spotlight, while William and Catherine were simply looking out for them.

The coverage of Meghan herself became increasingly toxic. One real low point was a British newspaper, the staunchly royalist Daily Mail, running a feature titled "How Meghan's favourite avocado snack -- beloved of all millennials -- is fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder."

In October, the couple sued the Mail's sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, for publishing a private letter that Meghan had sent to her father. Harry said in a public statement that "Unfortunately, my wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences." He added that he feared "history repeating itself," a reference to how the media treated his mother, Princess Diana, who it should not be forgotten died in a 1997 car crash in Paris while fleeing press photographers.

The direct line of succession -- the Queen, Charles, William, George -- is currently very strong. But the Sussexes' decision to take a back seat is a headache for the royals, especially the Queen. Prince Philip is now 98 and has officially retired from public life. Prince Charles, first in line, is far from being the most popular royal. Prince Andrew stands accused of having sex with an underage girl, provided to him by Epstein -- an allegation the royal vehemently denies. To borrow a sporting expression, the bench is looking light for the clan.

However, possibly worse for the monarchy, it will raise more questions about how happy a place the family is these days, and cause many to wonder why the fairytale of marrying into royalty is such a horror show that an independently successful, confident royal couple felt they had no choice but to walk away.