When Prince Harry announced his engagement to Meghan Markle, people were delighted but also curious. Not only was she American and an actress – far from typical for a royal romance – but she was also a divorcee. Merely by proposing to her, the prince had destroyed a long-standing protocol. Of course, that would prove to be far from the only tradition the new royal couple would break. But when Christmas approached, the Queen made a surprising announcement about Markle.
In November 2017 Clarence House and Kensington Palace delivered some happy news. Prince Harry was going to wed his girlfriend Meghan Markle. The newspapers went wild with speculation. The bride-to-be had already been married and divorced once, so how would the royal family work with that?
You see, the British royal family is famously anti-divorce. Whoever is the monarch is also the head of the Church of England, which strongly disapproves of broken marriages. The abdication crisis of 1936, where Queen Elizabeth’s uncle King Edward gave up the throne, was partly brought about because of the divorce problem. Edward opted to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson rather than remain King. Now that’s love.
Since then, many royals have gotten divorced from their spouses; Harry’s parents, Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, are a prime example. But even then, the Queen’s official position is “no divorce.” The biggest exception to this rule came about in 2005, when Prince Charles remarried to Camilla Parker Bowles, herself a divorcee. The Queen, however, was not present at the civil ceremony.
And the Queen could have chosen not to attend Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, either. In the post-engagement interview with the BBC, Markle revealed that she had met the Queen and described her as “an incredible woman.” But even though their relationship had started well, if the Queen had decided that the wedding was incompatible with the Church of England’s teachings, she could have stayed home.
Markle is also the first black woman to marry a British prince since at least the 18th century. When this subject was addressed in the BBC interview, Markle answered that although she found the racism she had already faced “disheartening,” she would always be proud of who she was.
After the news broke, The Washington Post wrote, “The royal family welcomes a divorced, biracial American. That’s a huge change.” And there was no doubt it was. Thankfully, many people welcomed what seemed to be an indication of a more modern and inclusive royal family. Even Markle’s choice of clothes for her first official photoshoot seemed to symbolize that the times were changing.
For the official engagement photography session at Kensington Palace, Markle had bare legs – previously, a big no-no. In fact, it’s said that the royals have a dress code that strongly encourages tights to be worn. Fashion is a big part of how the family presents itself to the world, after all. Even Prince George wears smart shirts and shorts when out in public, rather than the brightly colored clothes a young child might usually wear.
So Markle’s very first appearance as an engaged woman showed her as someone unlikely to be beholden to stuffy old rules. And when Christmas arrived, she bent another one. Or rather, the Queen bent it for her. Markle was, in fact, allowed to do something that even Kate Middleton wasn’t permitted to do.
Markle joined her new fiancé and his grandmother for Christmas at the Queen’s estate in Norfolk in 2017. This was highly unusual, because she hadn’t actually married in to the royal family yet. Kate Middleton was not invited in 2010, even though she was engaged to Prince William. Likewise, Mike Tindall never got to accompany Zara Phillips there until they had tied the knot.
Considering the complexities of royal protocol, this was a fairly big deal. Notably, Markle didn’t get an invite to Pippa Middleton’s wedding in April 2017, even though Prince Harry did. The unofficial rule among the family, one etiquette expert told People, is “No ring, no bring.” As with most things for the royals, it’s all very different to what regular people do.
But, of course, Markle did have a ring; it was just an engagement one. Royal expert Richard Fitzwilliams talked to the Daily Express about the Christmas arrangements in December 2017. “It is expected Meghan will join Harry and the rest of the Royal Family for Christmas on the Queen’s estate in Norfolk this year,” he said.
“In 2010 Kate was not invited to do so after her engagement to William,” Fitzwilliams went on. “Only spouses and close family are usually invited.” The royal Christmas celebration – which takes place at Sandringham House – is more of a formal royal affair than an actual family get-together and includes a church service on Christmas Day.
The royal expert went on to explain the change in plans. “However, Harry and Meghan will be living together at Nottingham Cottage at Kensington Palace, and her family are in the United States. The monarchy relies heavily on precedent and tradition but it also makes its own.” It was quite sweet, really, that they didn’t want her to be alone.
But Christmas among the royals is a complex affair, and it would have been especially so for Markle who had no experience of it. Everyone arrives at the estate in order of rank: Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles apparently are supposed to show up last. Then, reportedly, the guests are given timetables to let them know where they need to be and when.
Even among family members, rank is important. That sounds bizarre to most of us, but for the royal family it’s always been part of their reality. As Markle was not technically a royal yet, she would have been outranked by most of the people she was spending Christmas with. Luckily, though, she only had to curtsy to the Queen.
Christmas with Her Majesty is a very grand occasion, and Markle would have brought plenty of outfits and accessories with her when she traveled. She would have needed evening gowns and jewels beyond even what an actress wears on a red carpet. In fact, at dinner, when most of us like to be in our stretchiest pants, Markle would have been wearing a dress and most likely a tiara.
She also had to be fashion-conscious for the Christmas Day church service. Photographers were out in force, since all the royal family members – apart from the Queen – walk to church instead of being driven. It’s customary for women to wear a hat on this little jaunt, and in this instance, Markle did conform. Well, sort of. The fashion world appeared to be divided over what the accessory actually was. In the end, ELLE.com decided that Markle had worn a “fascinator-ish hat.”
No matter what Markle wore over Christmas, one thing was certain: people wanted to buy it. Just like the “Kate effect,” where anything Kate wore was quickly snapped up by the general public, a “Meghan effect” also started. For her official engagement photos, Markle wore a Line the Label coat, and so many people went to their website that it crashed.
The Queen has to walk a very fine line between maintaining royal protocols and keeping everybody, including her own family, happy. And despite everything that has changed for Harry and Meghan since Christmas 2017, it must still be nice to know that the reigning monarch bent the rules especially for you.
After all, if you marry into the royal family, history suggests that you should at least try to maintain a cordial relationship with the Queen. You won’t get your head chopped off for poor behavior any more, but one of her famous frowns is reportedly almost as bad. Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle will never reveal the most intimate details of their respective relationships with the monarch, but people can put the pieces together. And it seems the head of state has very different bonds with the two women.
The Queen is pretty involved in the relationships of her children and grandchildren. In fact, her closest descendants need her literal permission to get married. Ever since 1772, British law has decreed that the monarch must approve all royal marriages. This was amended in 2013 to cover only the first six people in line to the throne.
So if you’re one of the six people in line to the throne, you’d better cross your fingers that the Queen likes your intended spouse. Just ask Prince Charles, who is of course the direct heir. He’s had two marriages, the first an ill-fated one with Lady Diana. Then, after her death, he wed the woman with whom he’d had an affair: Camilla Parker Bowles.
It was rumored the Queen disliked Camilla at first and was not particularly willing to bless the relationship between her and Prince Charles. According to the 2018 Tom Bower book Rebel Prince: The Power, Passion and Defiance of Prince Charles, the Queen even called Camilla a “wicked woman” in private, having had a few drinks first.
The Queen actually didn’t attend the first part of her son’s wedding to Camilla. Her position as head of the Church of England made things difficult, because the faith generally disapproves of divorce. But she did attend the blessing ceremony afterwards, indicating that yes, she was okay with the marriage.
Camilla isn’t the only person in the royal family to be a second spouse. Princess Anne has been married twice just like her brother: first to Captain Mark Phillips and then to Sir Timothy Laurence. It seems the Queen does approve of Laurence though, as in 2011 she made him a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
And the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew is also divorced, having very publicly split from his wife Sarah Ferguson in 1992. The Queen hated that three of her four children ended up divorcees. In fact, she famously dubbed those 12 months her annus horribilis and in November of that year she gave a speech saying, with classic understatement, that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”
Only one of the Queen’s children has never been divorced: her youngest son, Prince Edward. His wife since 1999 is Sophie, Countess of Wessex, and reportedly she’s the Queen’s favorite daughter-in-law. The two appear to share a very close bond, and Sophie is apparently trusted with many important royal duties.
So it seems the best advice for Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle has always simply been this: try and be more like Countess Sophie. And apparently that’s exactly what Kate is doing. According to royal insiders, the Duchess of Cambridge has engaged Sophie as a mentor and a supporter for her projects.
Though Sophie might still be the favorite among her generation of commoners-turned-royals, Kate is reportedly also very close to the Queen. The monarch first met her back in 2008, at the wedding of Prince William’s cousin Peter Phillips to Autumn Kelly. William himself observed that the pair liked each other instantly.
After Prince William announced his intention to marry Kate, the Queen had to give her formal consent, and she seemed happy to do so. The notice she signed gave blessing to the union of, “Our Most Dearly Beloved Grandson Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales, K.G. and Our Trusty and Well-beloved Catherine Elizabeth Middleton.”
And after the marriage, Kate seemed to settle into her new role very well. Throughout 2012 she made several appearances with the Queen, and she never put a foot wrong. In the photographs taken of the two women they seem to be relaxed and friendly, just as you’d expect of a grandmother and granddaughter-in-law.
Kate has of course had children of her own with Prince William. This makes the Queen a great-grandmother, and every time a new Cambridge child has come along the Palace has released a statement from the monarch. On each occasion the Queen was said to be “delighted.”
As the granddaughter-in-law of the Queen, Kate gets to enjoy an envious privilege: she’s allowed to wear jewelry from the monarch’s private collection, so long as the Queen permits it. The Duchess has been spotted wearing many extraordinary pieces that have been in the possession of the royal family for generations.
The Queen in fact lent Kate the gorgeous tiara she wore for her wedding to Prince William. The piece is called the Cartier Halo, and it was given to the Queen as an 18th birthday present from her parents. So it being handed over to Kate, even if just for a day, was a big deal.
And that’s far from the only piece that the Queen has allowed Kate to wear. The Duchess of Cambridge has also worn the monarch’s Bahrain earrings, a gift from the ruler of that country; a fern-shaped brooch the head of state was gifted in 1953 and the Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara which was also a favorite of Princess Diana.
Kate’s not in a position to present gifts as grand as that just yet. But during 2016’s British TV documentary Our Queen at 90 she revealed that when she was a newcomer to the family she put a lot of work into finding a good first Christmas present for the monarch. Eventually she decided to give her something homemade.
The Duchess of Cambridge said on camera, “I thought back to what would I give my own grandparents. And I thought, ‘I’ll make her something.’ Which could have gone horribly wrong. But I decided to make my granny’s recipe of chutney.” And luckily, the Queen seemed to like it very much.
Kate remembered, “I was slightly worried about [the chutney], but I noticed the next day that it was on the table. I think such a simple gesture went such a long way for me and I’ve noticed since she’s done that on lots of occasions and I think it just shows her thoughtfulness, really, and her care in looking after everybody.”
According to royal insiders, the relationship between Kate and her grandmother-in-law has only improved over the years. In April 2019 a source told Us Weekly magazine, “Kate and the Queen have always had a special bond, but they developed a deeper friendship after she and William moved from Anmer Hall, Norfolk, to Kensington Palace, which is within walking distance of Buckingham Palace.”
The anonymous person went on to say, “Sometimes they’ll casually catch up over afternoon tea. But other times, they’ll have more formal meetings, where the Queen will give intense one-on-one training about taking on the crown.” Remember, when William eventually takes the throne after his grandmother and father, Kate will become his Queen consort.
Apparently the Queen has come to rely on Kate more and more, especially when the royal family went into lockdown during 2020 in the light of recent global events. In August another source told Us Weekly, “These are strange times for everyone, senior royals included, and having Kate as her rock has made it so much easier for the Queen to adapt to her new life at Windsor.”
The source continued, “Her Majesty sees the Cambridges as the future of the monarchy and trusts Kate and William’s judgment implicitly. Kate asks for advice about speeches she’s due to make, whom she can depend on most within the Palace and protocol dos and don’ts. The Queen’s more than happy to impart her wisdom – she’s proud to be Catherine’s go-to adviser about royal life.”
So things are all good with Kate. But what about Meghan? Well, the monarch’s relationship with Ms Markle was always going to be more complicated. Harry’s choice of life partner was American, divorced, and unlike Kate she would almost certainly never be a queen, as she was marrying a prince too far down the line of succession.
People noticed at the time that there was a significant difference between the Queen’s notices of consent for Kate’s marriage and Meghan’s. When giving her formal blessing to William and Kate, the monarch called the future bride “trusty and well-beloved.” But interestingly she didn’t say the same things about Meghan.
Still, it seemed there may have been a reason for this. Royal journalist Emily Nash said on Twitter, “For anyone wondering why Meghan is not described as ‘most trusty and well-beloved’ like Kate was, it’s because that term is only used for citizens of Britain or the Queen’s overseas realms. Meghan is not yet a British citizen.”
And by all accounts Meghan didn’t see this as a snub – she seemed to get on very well with the Queen. In her and Harry’s 2017 post-engagement TV interview with the BBC, Meghan described the Queen as “an incredible woman” and Harry pointed out that the monarch’s all-important corgis had taken to Meghan too.
In fact, the Queen and Meghan seemed to bond over a shared love of dogs. Just before the wedding of Meghan to Harry, the Queen was spotted in a car heading to Windsor alongside Meghan’s dog, a beagle named Guy. And you don’t agree to dogsit for somebody you don’t like.
And after the wedding, Meghan’s first solo outing with the Queen went well too. The new Duchess of Sussex traveled with her grandmother-in-law on the royal train – they would have slept overnight on it – in order to attend events in Chester. In every photograph of them, they seemed to be enjoying spending time together.
In 2018 a source claimed to Us Weekly that Meghan and the monarch had bonded quickly. The person said, “[The Queen] has a brilliant sense of humor. That’s one of the first things that brought her and Meghan closer. It’s that warm side of her that has made Meghan feel so at ease.”
And when Meghan gave birth to her and Harry’s son Archie in 2019, the Queen released a statement exactly the same as the one she had released for the births of Kate’s children. Once more she was simply said to be “delighted with the news.” She almost certainly must have congratulated Meghan in private, but the wider world will never hear about it.
But unfortunately, the tide turned not long after that. In January 2020 Prince Harry and Meghan announced via Instagram that they planned to step down as working royals and become financially independent. Needless to say, this led to an absolute storm – both in the media and reportedly in the Palace as well.
At first, the Queen made no public statement, so newspapers had to rely on insiders to find out what was going on. After the news hit the Daily Mail newspaper ran the headline, “Queen’s fury as Meghan and Harry say: we quit,” and The Daily Telegraph claimed the whole royal family were “deeply disappointed.”
Yet when the Queen did release a statement on the matter – a rare thing for her to do under any circumstances – it didn’t sound furious. She had been in negotiations with Harry and Meghan about which steps to take. Her statement began, “Today my family had very constructive discussions on the future of my grandson and his family.”
The Queen’s statement went on, “My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family. Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working members of the royal family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life… while remaining a valued part of my family.”
A few days later the Queen released another statement, and this one indicated she had no quarrel with Meghan at all. The monarch said she was “particularly proud” of her granddaughter-in-law and the way she had “so quickly become one of the family.” She wished both Meghan and Harry “a happy and peaceful new life.”
In March 2020 Harry and Meghan took part in their last official royal duty, attending the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey. The Queen was there, as were the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. But once the day was done Harry and Meghan returned not to a royal estate but to Canada, where their son was.
The family still seem to be a part of each other’s lives. In April 2020 the Queen celebrated her 94th birthday and she received a video call from Harry, Meghan and almost-one-year-old baby Archie. The Sussex family had called in from Los Angeles, where they had established a new home.
But reportedly the Queen was distressed when Harry and Meghan signed a deal with entertainment giant Netflix later on the same year. An anonymous source told The Sun newspaper that Harry “did not inform” his grandmother of this, but “the Queen will know there would have been little chance of talking Harry and Meghan out of it.”
Meghan is becoming more involved in American politics now as well. Royals aren’t supposed to do this – but since Meghan has stepped down, some believe the Queen wouldn’t actually mind. In September former royal butler Grant Harrold told the Daily Express newspaper he believed the Queen would tell Meghan “to do as she pleases.” But the monarch herself has yet to say anything.