Inside Harry And Meghan's Final Days As Senior Royals

When Prince Harry announced he was marrying American actor Meghan Markle, it was supposed to signal a significant shift for the royal family. Markle was not only a commoner, but a biracial American divorcée, and her welcome into the royal family meant it was no longer the stodgy, insular institution of old, but a modern, global one that reflected Britain's rapidly diversifying population. 

But not everyone was ready for this change. Tabloids unleashed a barrage of racist diatribes against Markle, and as some critics noted, even berated her for doing the exact same things her sister-in-law Catherine, Princess of Wales, had been praised for. And while Markle was a seasoned actor used to being in the public eye, the abuse proved more than she and Prince Harry could take. In January 2020, they broke with royal tradition again by announcing they were stepping away from their official royal duties — and much of their royal financial support. But between their announcement and their official separation from the royal family at the end of March 2020, they had a lot to do — both wrapping up their royal duties and setting the groundwork for their new, independent lives. Here's how their final days as senior royals unrolled.

Harry and Meghan threw an appreciation party for their staff before leaving

One of the perks of being a senior royal is having a paid staff to attend to your every need, from cleaning up after you to managing your schedule to sending out statements and press releases on your behalf. While Prince Harry grew up being waited on, he had the awareness to appreciate how hard his staff worked to make his lifestyle possible. He and wife Meghan Markle also knew they would be losing the privilege of their services when they stepped down — and that several of their loyal retainers would soon be out of a job.

To show their gratitude to their staffers, the couple threw a luncheon. This final get-together, which took place in early March at a luxury hotel down the street from Buckingham Palace, was an emotional event. "They've all been through so much together and the staff have been working around the clock to make sure this last visit was as seamless as possible. Meghan and Harry really wanted to show their appreciation, they know how hard everyone has worked," a royal source told Page Six.

Days later, Markle and Harry attended the Commonwealth Day service — their final royal engagement. When it was time to say goodbye to the tam once and for all, there was no shortage of tears. As Omid Scobie and Carolyn Duran shared in "Finding Freedom" (via the Mirror), Markle reportedly embraced one staffer and said, "I can't believe this."

They had plans in place for a new philanthropic initiative

For any royal who doesn't want to look or feel like a total waste of space, philanthropic activities are a must. In Britain's royal family, it's common for members to have patronages — ongoing relationships with charitable or civic organizations that they actively work with and promote. While patronages are often inherited, most are chosen by the royals themselves according to their personal interests.

As an active royal, Prince Harry had numerous patronages, mostly reflecting his interests in the military and sports. He served honorary leadership positions for several military units, and was a patron for the Rugby Football Union, among other organizations. Meghan Markle also acquired several patronages during her short tenure with the royal family. Their break from the family, however, meant losing these patronages. But it did not mean the end of their philanthropic activities. As royals expert Omid Scobie wrote for Harper's Bazaar, "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."

And they weren't about to lose momentum. "The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will spend the next few months focusing on their family and continuing to do what they can, safely and privately, to support and work with their pre-existing charitable commitments while developing their future non-profit organization," a royal spokesperson said in a final official statement (via Good Morning America).

Meghan had already relaunched her TV career in her last days as a royal

When Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, she assumed it would herald a permanent end to her acting career. But when life as a working royal proved unsustainable, she and Prince Harry had to start looking ahead to their future lives with neither royal responsibilities nor royal financial support. So while their break from the royal family wasn't officially announced until January 2020, in fall of 2019, Markle traveled to London to provide voiceover talent for the Disneynature documentary "Elephants," which debuted on Disney+ in April 2020.

It was a project that combined her old and her present lives, bringing her back to the familiar world of television while allowing her to promote elephant conservation, a cause that both she and Prince Harry actively supported. The pair had spent time together in Africa, where she grew fond of the elephants she got to see in their natural environments. "When you spend time connecting to them and the other wildlife, you really understand we have a role to play in their preservation and their safety," she said in a promotional clip for the film. To honor the premiere of the film – and perhaps to honor its narrator – Disneynature and the Disney Conservation Fund donated proceeds from the film's profits to Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based conservation group the couple has long supported.

Harry planned to return to England for a few future events

After years of invasive media coverage and tension with the rest of the royal household, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were more than happy to put royal life in the rear-view mirror. A trial separation — a six-week break in Vancouver Island with their newborn son in fall of 2019 — confirmed in their minds that leaving was the right choice. While the royal family had considered their first year away from royal duties a cooling-off period, by the end of February 2021, the couple informed the queen they would not be returning to active royal life. 

But this didn't mean a complete break from the royal family or royal responsibilities. Even as he was leaving, Prince Harry had plans to return to England for some ongoing obligations. One of his planned trips was in July 2021, for a formal unveiling of a statue of his mother, the late Princess Diana. An unplanned, but necessary, solo trip was for the funeral of his grandfather, Prince Philip, in April 2021. Meghan Markle did not join him for either. Her first trip back was in April 2022, when the couple returned to attend the Invictus Games, an international competition Prince Harry had founded for wounded military veterans.

Prince Harry also attended the coronation of his father, King Charles III, in May 2023. Once again, he went solo. The moment the event wrapped up, Harry got in a car and headed to the airport. 

Their royal roles didn't officially end until two weeks after their last public event

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle made their last public appearance as working royals at a Commonwealth Day commemoration on March 9, 2020. As far as Markle was concerned, this signaled the end of her royal obligations. As The Telegraph reported at the time, the moment the service was over, she promptly hopped on a plane to Canada to be with their son, Archie. 

But while Prince Harry was almost certainly relieved to be done with his public responsibilities, he still had work to finish up behind the scenes. He stayed behind in London to attend a series of private meetings about his future work in the country. He was not officially overstaying his welcome, either; the couple's responsibilities and privileges as senior royals were not to end for another two weeks. According to Hello!'s royal correspondent Danielle Stacey, this was to keep it neat and tidy on the accounting side of things. "31 March marks the end of the financial year for the royal family," Stacey explained. 

Queen Elizabeth hoped the couple would move to South Africa

It's no secret Queen Elizabeth II was not pleased with the Sussexes' desire to step down from their royal roles. From a practical public relations perspective, their absence would severely impact the royal family's ability to engage with the public. "There were plans for them to have a big role within the Commonwealth, and Harry no longer using his honorary military appointments is also a big loss because the armed forces is a community that he has such an affinity with," royal expert Victoria Murphy told ABC News.

But at some level, the queen understood where they were coming from. Early in her marriage to Prince Philip, they moved to Malta during his military service. There, she was treated as just a military wife, without royal expectations. This taste of freedom helped her return home ready to shoulder her royal responsibilities. According to Robert Lacey's "Battle of Brothers" (via Daily Mail), she thought Prince Harry and Meghan Markle could also benefit from a break, and she suggested the pair move to South Africa. As a Commonwealth country, it would make an appropriate base for the couple to work with charities while enjoying a welcome distance from palace intrigue. The couple seemed on board with the idea too, but it was not to be. "It was leaked to The Times newspaper and then that whole plan was scrapped because it became a public debate," Prince Harry said in the Netflix series "Harry and Meghan" (via Sunday Times). 

Meghan made several surprise appearances in her last days as a royal

As the end of their tenure as senior royals drew near, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle began focusing more on preparations for their future lives as private citizens. They knew that after losing the services of the royal public affairs office, they'd have to take charge of their media relations themselves. So they started doing so while still on the royal payroll. 

By convention, official appearances by royals are announced in advance by the palace and covered by predetermined media pools. While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had numerous official engagements in their final days that were announced in advance and covered as usual, Markle also made several surprise appearances that she managed to keep off the official royal calendar. One of these was a visit to an East London high school for an International Women's Day celebration, which was only officially announced the following day. "When we thought about what I wanted to do for International Women's Day this year, for me, it was incredibly important to be with the women of our future," she told the students, as reported by Elle

Another was a secret trip to the Immersive Storytelling Studio in London, one of Markle's duties as a royal patron of the National Theatre. There, she saw how the studio uses virtual reality and other new technologies to create more compelling media. This visit was only documented after the fact on the official Instagram account she shared with Prince Harry.

Harry and Meghan got a standing ovation at one of their last royal appearances

It's not a stretch to say Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had an acrimonious relationship with the press. And given the vitriolic tone of much of their media coverage, it was probably easy for them to believe that the overwhelming public sentiment towards them was loathing.

Despite all the hostile media coverage, however, the Sussexes still had their fans, and even some who weren't exactly fans still sympathized with their plight. In one of their final official appearances as working royals, a concert at Royal Albert Hall for the annual Mountbatten Festival of Music, they were fortunate to be welcomed by a crowd of supporters. As they entered the royal box seats at the theater, they were greeted by a standing ovation and a long period of applause. "The reaction they got from the audience when they arrived was very emotional," Warrant Officer Reg Sheen of the Royal Marines, a member of the royal greeting party, told The Guardian.

As Omid Scobie noted in Harper's Bazaar, it was an especially bittersweet event for the prince, as it was believed to be his final duty as Captain General of the Royal Marines. "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," Scobie wrote.

Body language experts sensed Harry's emotional conflict during his last royal appearance

For Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, their final public appearance as working royals must have been a loaded moment. For him, it would signal the end of the only life he'd ever known, while for her it meant both the end of the life she'd been trying to build and the return to a more comfortable and familiar lifestyle in North America. To casual observers, their final royal appearance looked like business as usual, with the polite smiles and waves to the public everyone expected. But eagle-eyed royal watchers and body language experts saw that not everything was going as smoothly as it appeared: Prince Harry sure looked to be an unhappy camper.

Among other things, observers picked up on Prince Harry's uneven, seemingly nervous smile during the Commonwealth Day service. As the Express noted, he also fidgeted with his ring, exhibited closed-off body language, and blinked a lot. And most notably, royal watchers noted how his purportedly tense, defensive posture seemed to soften as soon as his estranged brother, Prince William, left the event.

There were at least some moments of levity that day. According to Omid Scobie and Carolyn Duran's "Finding Freedom" (via Daily Mail), while saying one final goodbye to her staff ahead of the service, Markle quipped, "The last hat for a while, guys!"

They were reportedly miffed by a protocol snub in their last royal appearance

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle both understood that stepping down from their royal duties would mean losing a lot of royal privileges. However, they reportedly didn't expect things to change while they were still working members of the royal family. At their final official royal event, they were reportedly miffed at being excluded from the small group of high-ranking royals — which was to include Prince William and Princess Catherine, along with King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort — that would accompany Queen Elizabeth II into Westminster Abbey for a Commonwealth Day service. Instead, they were instructed to seat themselves before the royal party entered. 

It's unclear exactly why they weren't included in the queen's entourage, but the decision was made by the queen's office. According to the Daily Mail, Prince William decided that he and Catherine, Princess of Wales, would walk in and seat themselves with the Sussexes instead of entering in the queen's procession. Evidently, William sensed his brother was hurt. However, the gesture still raised some eyebrows, since the pre-printed programs for the ceremony listed Prince William as part of the queen's procession. 

The chasm was hard to ignore. Looking back on the day in Netflix's "Harry & Meghan" (via People), Harry said, "I felt really distant from the rest of my family, which was interesting because so much of how they operate is about what it looks like, rather than what it feels like."