The British royal family has long captivated the world with the air of class, mystery, and power. In recent decades, journalists have released numerous first-hand accounts that expose a darker side of this powerful legacy.
It’s 2021, and the England that Queen Elizabeth II now reins over is starkly different from the one she knew when she was crowned at 25. Despite the Queen’s reported sincerity and generally favorable image, she is faced with the burden of representing centuries of British imperialism and a fairly outdated institution — a constitutional monarchy.
The Queen of England, and much of her extended family, have a royal title. With the title comes influence, fame, and wealth: three things dangerous to undeserving people. There is no denying that the royal family has had its fair share of personal scandals over the past centuries. Following the departure of two senior royal family members, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, the royal family has received massive public backlash.
The couple announced their decision to step back from their high-profile roles in January of 2020, less than two years after their wedding. Meghan faced severe public scrutiny and was constantly attacked by the British media during that time. This treatment, paired with the family’s unwillingness to intervene, led the couple to step back from their official royal roles.
Fame was not new to Markle as she was already a successful actress, but after the news of her and Prince Harry’s relationship broke, paparazzi began to follow the couple’s every move. Her sudden rise to prominence coupled with the world’s obsession with the royal family, left her open to an onslaught of negative attention. The stress, she later revealed, had caused her to develop serious medical issues and suicidal thoughts while she was pregnant with her first child, Archie.
The press’ treatment of Meghan Markle is inexcusable. There are well-documented accounts of Markle being bashed for doing things that her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, got praised for, like holding her pregnant stomach or eating avocado.
Celebrity culture dictates that these famous women expect to be followed by paparazzi, but it seems that the tabloids worshipped Middleton and enjoyed picking apart Markle, the first woman of color to marry into the historically white family. Markle is also a divorced American, another trait that did not fit well with British royal tradition and further fueled the media’s scrutiny.
The contrast in press coverage reflects an attempt by the media to pit these women against each other. And for what reason? They are sisters-in-law. They were required to attend the same functions and events, and both Markle and Middleton always did so with a smile. In the highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey, released in March 2021, Markle stated that she has no issues with Kate, but that the media had a big hand in creating the negative controversy surrounding their relationship.
One recurring story really upset Markle. The tabloids claimed she made her sister-in-law cry days before her wedding to Prince Harry. Meghan asserts that the opposite happened. The details of the argument remain unclear. Some sources say it was over flower-girl dresses, and others state that Meghan wanted to use bouquets with flowers that Kate’s daughter is allergic to.
Either way, an issue came to be, and Meghan said that Kate’s words and handling of the situation upset her to the point of tears. When news broke claiming that Meghan was the one at fault, she was rightfully upset. She knew that Kate herself could not comment on the story, due to her lack of agency inside the institution as well.
The main issue for Markle was that “everyone in the institution knew it wasn’t true”, and yet, no one attempted to straighten the story. In fact, the institution had only commented on the media’s harassment once in a statement made by the Communications Secretary to Prince Harry where they denounced the public “wave of abuse and harassment” and the “racial undertones to comment pieces” that his then-girlfriend had to face.
The media attention was one thing to deal with, but as Markle revealed, her and her Harry’s reason for stepping back was because they felt trapped inside a family that was eager to control them. Markle admitted lacking agency, a voice, and the ability to do as she pleased while a part of the royal “system.” No one taught her royal customs or how to properly compose herself as a duchess. She confessed that she had no one aside from her very busy husband to confide in.
The harassment Meghan has had to endure is painfully similar to that of the late Princess Diana. The “People’s Princess,” as she is affectionally known, was married to Elizabeth II’s son, Charles, Prince of Wales. She died in 1997 in a car accident brought on by a mob of paparazzi. The international news media followed the young woman before, during, and after her stint as a part of the royal family. She had genuinely good intentions and spawned no real controversy, yet the press made a fortune off the creation of their own narratives.
It does beg the question — if Harry and Meghan chose to remain in the family, could Meghan have possibly met a similar fate? It’s certainly possible given the world’s obsession with the family and the incessant behavior of tabloids. But even the Prince admitted that his “biggest concern was history repeating itself,” alluding to his mother’s untimely death.
Given that experience, it makes sense for Prince Harry to view the press as a threat to his family. Diana lived through the rise of tabloid magazines and sleaze journalism, and while alive, was one of the most famous individuals in the world. In Meghan’s case, the press is still there, but she is living at the height of social media and online news. This coupled with “the outright sexism and racism” that underlie many of the web articles and comments written about Meghan, it seemed easiest to the pair to take a step back from their family.
For both women, speaking out against the royal institution and international press was a hard-fought battle — this family is far more complicated to distance oneself from than others are — but they wanted to prove that they could no longer be controlled. They also showed that even the most powerful of women can be silenced and unhappy. Meghan and Harry saw what happened to Diana and took necessary steps to ensure the safety of their own family.
As an outsider, it’s hard to see what a royal family member could be unhappy about. The family is wealthy, incredibly influential, and an integral part of British history and society. They are untouchable — members of the one percent whose grandchildren will inherit more money than any average family ever will. However, the pomp and frills can only blind us non-royals for so long. It’s troublesome knowing that one of the most powerful families in history, despite everything they have been through — wars, economic depressions, internal struggles, and media harassment, to name just a few, is and will forever be more interested in furthering their own agenda than they are in ensuring their family members’ happiness.
Cover photo courtesy Nathan Congleton.