The last time Meghan, Duchess of Sussex made her way along Windsor Castle’s Long Walk, the circumstances could not have been more different.
The sun shone, crowds cheered and an actress from a middling cable drama had just wed Prince Harry and joined the world’s most famous family, in the most outrageously wonderful Cinderella story in history.
In the early hours of Sunday morning Meghan and husband Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex made a surprise return to the Long Walk when they joined his brother and sister-in-law, William and Kate, the Prince and Princess of Wales, to view the sea of floral tributes left to left for their late and truly great grandmother, the Queen.
This was a tableau no one had expected to see, perhaps ever again; the two couples walking side-by-side as they went about the business of royalty. In fact, the last time the foursome undertook anything remotely similar it was during the Sussexes’ final turn as working HRHs in March 2020. Their rictus sour faces and Meghan’s artificial plastered-on grin have long become the stuff of legend.
What a world of difference two and a bit years and one Oprah interview can make.
In Windsor on Sunday when the doors of one the Royal Family’s sea of black Audis opened, it was not just the new prince and princess who appeared but also the entirely unexpected Sussexes too.
The inclusion of the duke and duchess was entirely down to William, with a source telling the Telegraph, that the Prince of Wales had “invited” the Sussexes because he “thought it was an important show of unity at an incredibly difficult time for the family.”
However, despite some quarters of the press suddenly starting to throw around words like ‘reconciliation’ and the genuinely worn-out ‘olive branch’, let’s all settle down a bit.
The Times has reported that “the [Wales and Sussex] camps required extended negotiations behind the scenes beforehand, delaying their arrival for the walkabout by 45 minutes.”
While crowds cheered for the Montecito-based couple, none of those pesky boos being reported that they faced back in June when they joined his family at St Paul’s during the Platinum Jubilee, the hundreds of images and live TV footage could not mask the awkwardness of the whole affair.
It was only two weeks ago a stunning, confident Meghan appeared on the cover of New York’s The Cut magazine clad in myriad chic designer outfits for another royal gauntlet-throwing session. (I really must count one day how many we are up to now.)
There was the duchess telling journalist Allison P. Davis “just by existing, we were upsetting the dynamic of the hierarchy. So we go, ‘OK, fine, let’s get out of here. Happy to” and her delivering what sounded suspiciously like a threat of more revelations with the line, “I can say anything. I have a lot to say until I don’t.”
Bold words indeed, but then it’s easy to issue forth audacious sound bites from the safety of being continent and an ocean away from her husband’s family.
Oh fate, you can be a cruel mistress indeed.
Instead of the Sussexes enjoying whatever it is they might normally do on a weekend (make their own oat milk? Update their dream journals? Ignore calls from Netflix execs wondering where all their shows might be given their huge cheque has long since cleared?), Harry and Meghan have found themselves dumped back in the lion’s den. No one could have predicted that instead of spending this week giving self-involved speeches, they have instead been forced to come face-to-face with the very people they have so energetically and publicly assailed.
(I’d be tempted to say something here about karma but I’ll refrain.)
Is it anyone then that on Sunday in Windsor even Meghan, a professionally trained actress who has years of experience pretending for the cameras, looked decidedly uncomfortable?
Sure, the quartet all travelled there together in the same SUV with William behind the wheel, but the minute they stepped out the dynamic between them appeared unmistakably awkward. Meghan fiddled with her hair and at some points seemed to remain a little further away from the group.
Then, as the Waleses and the Sussexes made their way towards the waiting public the two women remained very much apart. Despite some early-morning, coffee-fuelled searching, I have not been able to find one skerrick of an indication that Kate and Meghan really interacted at any point during the roughly 40-minute outing. Little wonder there perhaps given that the duchess told Oprah and a global audience of an estimated 50 million people about how Kate had allegedly made her cry.
For Harry and Meghan, the way the last few days have played out look like a humiliating example of one’s chickens coming home to roost, writ on a global scale and with TV cameras constantly watching.
When news of Her Majesty’s declining health broke on Thursday, the Queen’s children and William rushed to be by her side in Scotland, travelling by private jet. Initially, it was announced that Harry and Meghan would be dashing north too.
The Daily Mail’s royal editor Rebecca English has reported that Buckingham Palace was left “incredulous” when this news was announced.
“Charles told Harry that it wasn’t right or appropriate for Meghan to be in Balmoral at such a deeply sad time,” a source told The Sun. “It was pointed out to him that Kate was not going and that the numbers really should be limited to the very closest family. Charles made it very, very clear Meghan would not be welcome.”
Within hours, only Harry flew to Scotland, with conflicting reports about whether the duke was offered a seat on the royal family’s plane. Harry was still in the air when the Palace chose to release the news of the Queen’s passing. A scant 12 hours after he arrived at Balmoral, he was seen making the return trip to Aberdeen airport to fly back to London on his own.
If Harry and Meghan had hoped that the post-summer, return-to-work period would be their time to shine, the events of recent days have seen those plans fall apart at lightning speed. This week’s episode of her Archetypes podcast has been postponed while an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show scheduled for after Her Majesty’s funeral has been cancelled.
There have been no indications what the death of Her Majesty might mean for the publication of Harry’s memoir, which had reportedly been set to hit shelves by Christmas, or their debut Netflix series, which has alternatively been described as an “at home” docu series and a “documentary” about the duke and duchess’ “love story.”
What is abundantly clear is that ground has shifted tectonically under the Sussexes this week.
With William and Kate’s elevation to the Prince and Princess of Wales, their stock and seniority has jumped stratospherically; meanwhile the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their campaign of anti-Palace prime time rhetoric has never looked more ill-conceived and shortsighted.
William’s decision to include Harry and Meghan in Sunday’s event is not only kind but canny – it makes him look like the bigger man, willing to put personal hurts aside at a time of British mourning and in honour of their grandmother.
Harry and Meghan might be back in the royal fold through sad circumstances but the appearance would seem to be that they are being tolerated.
What was that someone once said about them “existing … upsetting the dynamic of the hierarchy”? Exactly.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.