It was supposed to be a quiet day off in the countryside until my phone went berserk—the staccato buzz I set for palace correspondence almost sending it off the table. “His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince Harry to Ms. Meghan Markle,” the November 27, 2017, email read, followed by a note inviting royal correspondents to join the couple for a special photo call to mark the occasion. A few road rules may have been bent to make the 80-ish mile drive from Oxfordshire to Kensington Palace—in traffic—but it was worth it. Standing by the lily-covered Sunken Pond as Harry shared his joy at finally finding his teammate, it was the perfect start to a chapter that would finally bring the royal family into the 21st century.
Over the months and years that followed, I closely shadowed the work of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, getting to know the couple better through their humanitarian endeavors, engagements, and overseas visits. Their high-energy work ethic and passion for social justice attracted a new, more diverse demographic of royal watcher to the scene. As a young(ish), biracial royal correspondent, the change was exciting. And as their popularity grew around the world, so did a new golden era for the House of Windsor.
Never did I expect that less than two and half years later I would be standing in one of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace as the Duchess of Sussex emotionally bids much-loved aides farewell, with her flight “home” to Canada leaving in a matter of hours. But then, neither did the couple. After starting the year with a formal proposal to move into part-time working royal roles, and bring some much-needed privacy and safety to their family life, Harry and Meghan’s hopes were quickly dashed by an institution seemingly unable to accept change as a viable option (even though some royals across Europe—and even other members of the British royal family—have succeeded in balancing duties to the crown and individual careers).
To say they were crushed is an understatement. It’s a decision that the couple still feel wasn’t necessary, but also wasn’t a surprise, given the lack of support they received as they were relentlessly attacked by sections of the British press with almost daily mistruths and hateful commentary. While recent tabloid coverage has made it seem like the Sussexes’ half-in-half-out bid was about wanting it all, the reality was a couple who were left with no other choice but to create their own change after being left to fend for themselves against impossible circumstances—even during her pregnancy. They knew something had to change, but they also didn’t want to stop supporting the queen. One can’t help but wonder if things might have been different if a family member or two had stood up for them during the darkest times.
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Despite the pain and difficulties behind the scenes, work has continued to be a priority for the duchess, who is excited to be carrying over her four royal patronages into the Sussexes’ new chapter. It’s also the reason why I was at Buckingham Palace’s 1844 Room on Monday, having been invited alongside two other journalists to cover Meghan’s final engagement as a senior working royal: meeting 22 students who have received scholarships from the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). As their royal patron—a role she took over from the queen in 2019—Meghan will continue to prioritize the organization even after officially stepping back on March 31, especially given her position as the vice president of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and a former scholarship student herself. In fact, Meghan’s time at Illinois’s prestigious Northwestern University, where she majored in international relations and theater, is what drew her to the ACU in the first place. “The value and importance of higher education is why it should be accessible to everyone, no matter your background,” she says.
For Commonwealth Day, March 9, the ACU brought together some of their brightest minds for a private meeting with the duchess, ahead of their attendance at Westminster Abbey’s Commonwealth Service, where some would bear the flags of their countries. The students are all studying masters or Ph.D.’s in the U.K. after receiving scholarships from the ACU’s three programs—Commonwealth Scholars, Chevening Scholars, and the ACU Blue Charter Fellow. “That’s what so powerful,” says Meghan, a long-time champion of the importance of universal access to higher education. “This incredible union and the ability to gain so much knowledge and to be able to take that back home.”
Chatting with the scholars, the duchess is eager to hear more about how their studies will contribute to tackling the many challenges our world faces today. As she talks with the students, it becomes clear that she’s already done her research on why each guest was invited. It’s inspiring to seeing someone so prepared for these types of engagements, as opposed to just showing up for the photographs. But Meghan doesn’t know any other way of doing it. “I think it’s so important to actually engage with people,” she explains. “I care about these things!”
The ACU has seen over 90,000 scholars come through their administered programs, and those invited to Monday’s meeting represent 11 Commonwealth countries in total. Halima Ali, a lawyer from Kenya who is currently studying for her masters in energy and natural resources law at London’s Queen Mary University, says Meghan’s role as patron is hugely important. “For Commonwealth and also African countries,” she says, “to see her, her interest, her participation, means a lot to us.”
“It’s so important to actually engage with people,” Meghan says. “I care about these things!”
Meghan seems particularly impressed as she chats with Archana Kaliyaraj Selva Kumar, a chemistry student at Oxford University, who has devoted much of her time to using her research to create a new sustainable energy-storing battery that can help communities back in India without wired power. She is also an advocate for helping more women get into science. “What an incredible role model you are,” Meghan tells her. “And seeing is believing. Others see you and … seeing someone in that space is so inspiring.”
During a conversation with a female Ph.D. student from Kenya, Meghan’s eyes light up when the subject of sustainable travel comes up. “That’s something my husband is incredibly passionate about,” she tells the Sheffield Hallam University student. “During our travels to Botswana and different parts of Africa, we’ve seen the link between tourism and how much money is going outside of the country instead of back to communities. There has to be a symbiotic relationship.” For her own travels with Harry, Meghan prefers to move around in a way that allows them to integrate with the locals. “When we go to Botswana, we grab a backpack and pitch a tent!” Meghan laughs. “It’s not much, but that’s how we like it!”
Standing at the side of the room, I spot Secretary General of the ACU Joanna Newman looking on proudly. She came to know the duchess well from their numerous ACU engagements and meetings together, and is excited about their relationship continuing long into the future.
“She has been a fantastic amplifier of ACU messages to much broader audiences for us,” she tells me, adding that her patronage has given the ACU coverage in places they could have never reached before, including Harper’s BAZAAR. She calls Meghan a powerful spokesperson, recalling how she started public conversations about the lack of Black professors and even period poverty. “The headlines haven’t been about what our patron is wearing or the official engagement started at this time and ended at that time and there was a cup of tea in the middle, it’s about why we are doing what we do and why ACU exists. She’s been a real champion of the work that universities do.”
The ACU meeting came at the end of what Sussex aides have nicknamed a “farewell tour” for Harry and Meghan—a chance to tie up loose ends at the palace while taking on a slew of final royal engagements. The itinerary has been packed, starting when I joined the Duke of Sussex in Edinburgh, Scotland, on February 26 as his sustainable travel initiative, Travalyst, entered its next development phase. The ambitious project will be a key component of the Sussexes’ philanthropic portfolio, and it’s become extremely clear just how important the cause is to Harry, who regularly takes part in meetings behind the scenes. Chatting with him one-on-one recently, I was struck by how knowledgeable he has become in this field; his many trips to Botswana inspired the beginnings of the initiative more than a year ago. As one of the attendees at the Edinburgh work summit whispered to me after his speech, “He’s about to change the game for good.”
Reuniting after five days apart, Harry and Meghan’s showstopping arrival at the Endeavour Fund Awards served as a reminder of their ability to command the world’s attention. “Nothing to see here, just Meghan Markle showing the fuck out during her final round of royal duties,” wrote a Twitter user, as the pictures of the couple beaming under their umbrella went viral around the world. Inside the ceremony, the focus was firmly on the veterans being honored, all speaking highly of the duke, or Captain Wales, as he’s better known in the veteran community. It’s that mission to support servicemen and servicewomen that has seen Harry pledge to continue to support the community in his new non-working royal life, not just in the United Kingdom but in North America too. The first task? Bringing the work of the Endeavour Fund and Invictus Games, both of which he helped establish, closer together. Harry’s lifelong commitment is why Saturday’s Mountbatten Festival of Music was a particularly difficult moment, wearing his Captain General of the Royal Marines uniform for the last time. Giving up his royal duties has resulted in his military honors coming to an end—a particularly tough pill to swallow and something that has been just as difficult for his wife to witness. It is, a source close to the couple tells me, a wound that will take time to heal for Harry.
Meghan’s surprise appearance at an East London school for International Women’s Day and more traditional royal engagements such as Harry opening an immersive British motorsport museum alongside Lewis Hamilton (“There’s nothing better than officially opening a building that is very much open,” the duke joked about the Silverstone Experience, which first opened its doors in October 2019) rounded out what has been a roller coaster of a farewell visit for the Sussexes. Getting on with the work has always been what it’s been about for Harry and Meghan, but behind the smiles of the photos has been a vulnerable couple who are still very much hurting.
Keeping the family, most importantly Archie, safe is what will make all of this worth it.
Back at Buckingham Palace, the ACU students now en route to Westminster Abbey and Harry quietly slipping through the door to say hello, the reality—and the emotions—finally set in as I give Meghan a goodbye hug. She’s flying back to Canada on the last commercial flight of the day, eager to be back in Vancouver Island by the morning before Archie wakes up. For a couple who only ever wanted to focus on their work and bring good to the world, it seems like an unnecessarily cruel ending to their royal lives. Forced to give up roles they’re incredibly proud of after sacrificing so much to get there.
At this point, the 1844 Room is almost empty and tears that the duchess had been bravely holding back are free to flow among familiar faces. As she embraces some of the loyal staff she will most likely not see again, I can’t help but feel sad for the dedicated team members whose tireless efforts—to promote the couple’s work, launch landmark projects, and deal with the near-daily crises brought on by tabloid lies—have come to an abrupt end. Compared to other royal households, it was a smaller operation, with less resources than the more sophisticated offices at Clarence House and Kensington Palace, but in the short space of a year since setting up, Team Sussex had become like a family, looking out for the couple as much as they could.
While the weeks and months ahead will no doubt present new challenges for the Sussexes, the couple genuinely feel a sense of excitement about what’s to come, which includes the freedom to work at a pace that suits them, no longer weighed down by protocol or threatened by toxic agendas. And while much has been (incorrectly) speculated about specific commercial endeavors they might be taking on, both Harry and Meghan are eager to get stuck into their work, which will still revolve around their humanitarian efforts and helping amplify the voices of young people around the world on a wide gamut of issues.
“The terrain may be a little different but their priorities are exactly the same as before,” a well-placed source tells me. “Keeping the family, most importantly Archie, safe is what will make all of this worth it.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.