As news breaks of Harry and Meghan's decision to step back from the royal family, was the writing on the wall as early as their engagement announcement?


It was a cool, crisp London day, with the sun struggling to break through the clouds.

This was classic British weather but the grey skies stood in contrast to joyful news coming out of Kensington Palace: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were engaged.


After a relatively whirlwind 18-month relationship, much of it conducted long distance, the couple was set to wed.

Harry and Meghan's iconic engagement portrait. Pihoto / / AAP
Harry and Meghan's iconic engagement portrait. Pihoto / / AAP

For a nation – indeed, a world – who had watched an 11-year-old Harry walk behind his mother's funeral cortege, our hearts collectively breaking, it was the ultimate happy ending.

Harry – the party prince, the former soldier, the lost soul – had found his partner, a woman whose independence, career and activism stood her in stark contrast to his former paramours.

Two years on and the fairytale has soured.

While Harry and Meghan released a previously unseen photo from their 2018 wedding on Instagram this week, they were nowhere to be seen given they are currently taking six weeks off from royal duties. (They are widely expected to spend some of this time with her mother Doria Ragland in the United States.)

That the couple so badly needed a break from the rigours of full-time royal life is highly significant.

The last two years have seen them weather a series of ever-worsening PR storms, from the controversy over Meghan's New York baby shower to the more recent accusations of hypocrisy over their private jet usage and many in between.

So, how did things go wrong – and so fast?

Cuddling up at Christmas did little to dispel rumours of a rift. Photo / / Mega
Cuddling up at Christmas did little to dispel rumours of a rift. Photo / / Mega

The Fab Four

On February 28, 2018 when William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and Meghan took to the stage at the first Royal Foundation forum, the reaction was positively rapturous.

Smiling, laughing and exuding megawatt charisma, this was money-can't-buy good PR. Here was the next generation of the royal family, united in their commitment to do good, damn good looking and bursting with energy.

Come May of that year and Harry and Meghan wed in front of a TV audience of 1.9 billion and they started married life awash in goodwill and popularity.

Then the cracks started to appear.

Reports started to circulate suggesting the two couples were not only not close, but had been feuding. It was Kate vs Meghan! No wait, it was Harry vs Wills! Jumbled and contradictory stories claiming to explain the cause of the rift spread like wildfire.

The perception that there was no love lost between the Cambridges and the Sussexes only grew when it was revealed that Harry and Meghan had decided to trade life at Kensington Palace for Frogmore Cottage in Windsor.

According to a Vanity Fair report from that time, the army veteran was concerned that his new wife was facing intense scrutiny.

"Harry doesn't like it, and he's keen to protect Meghan from being too much in the public eye," a friend told reporter Katie Nicholl.

"Kate and Meghan are very different people and they don't have a lot in common but they have made an effort to get along. Any issues are between the brothers," the same source said.

A source told The Sun: "The initial plan was for Harry and Meghan to move out of their cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace and into one of the main apartments. But there has been a bit of tension between the brothers. Now Harry and Meghan don't want to live next to William and Kate and want to strike out on their own."

Meghan, Harry and Archie. Photo / Getty Images / Chris Allerton / SussexRoyal
Meghan, Harry and Archie. Photo / Getty Images / Chris Allerton / SussexRoyal

By the time Christmas rolled around the royal family deployed their annual public walk to church to try and dispel the chatter.

Meghan and Kate pointedly walked side-by-side, smiling and chatting, as they made their way to St Mary Magdalene.

While this might have temporarily dampened speculation, come the New Year the Sussexes again found themselves in the eye of a media storm.

Baby shower blues

In February, Meghan sparked global debate after heading to New York for a baby shower thrown by a number of her famous friends, including Serena Williams.

Reports swirled about the glam shindig, which was held at the exclusive Mark Hotel.

For days on end, stories about the celeb-filled event dominated headlines and prompted debate about whether it was suitable for a member of the royal family to enjoy such a public and allegedly ostentatious celebration.

Public relations problems

The birth of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor on May 6th should have been a sure-fire PR boon for the couple, however, confusion over the official announcement slightly tarnished the good news.

The controversies kept coming. In June it was revealed that renovations to Frogmore Cottage had cost about $4.5 million in taxpayer funds. The next month, it was reported that fans had been barred from taking photos of the Duchess when she went to Wimbledon with friends.

(Similarly the unexplained number of chairs left empty around the royal also sparked much discussion given other members of the family generally sit alongside other patrons.)

Then came Archie's christening.

Contentiously, the new parents decided to bar the media from the event. (Traditionally, a very small and select number of photographers and camera people record the family entering and leaving the chapel. The service itself is always private.)

The Sussexes' sparked even greater public argument when they revealed they would not be publicly disclosing the names of Archie's godparents.

Then, came the summer months during which the couple holidayed in both Ibiza and the South of France, travelling to and from the glamorous destinations via private jet.

Given the Duke's focus on climate change, charges of hypocrisy were soon levelled at them.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visit Totaranui Campground in the Abel Tasman National Park. Photo / NZME
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visit Totaranui Campground in the Abel Tasman National Park. Photo / NZME

Along the way, the Royal Foundation started by Wills and Harry years before was split, officially cleaving the brothers' professional lives for good.

Meghan's guest editorship of the September issue of Vogue brought renewed global scrutiny.

Was she leveraging her platform in an innovative and powerful way to support women or dragging the royal family perilously close to sensitive social issues?

Calling in the lawyers

By the time the couple, with baby Archie in tow arrived in Africa in September, the Sussexes were in need of a broad image boost. After days of cheering crowds and a powerful speech or two, their brand was reinvigorated and their popularity was ascendant.

Then, they stunningly announced that Meghan was launching a court bid against the Mail on Sunday and its parent company for publishing a letter she had sent to her estranged father. Days later, Harry said he was two other newspapers over alleged phone hacking.

Why, after such glowing coverage, the duo had decided to unleash this legal salvo left many royal watchers scratching their heads.

Later that month, Harry and Meghan took part in an emotional documentary, Harry & Meghan: An African Journey.

He seemingly confirmed the lingering rumours of a rift with William. She fought back tears and spoke about the toll the intense coverage had taken, saying: "Not many people have asked if I'm OK, but it's a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes."

Soon after it was announced that they would be taking six weeks off and would not be spending Christmas with the Queen and the Windsor family.

What next?

In only two years, we have witnessed a stunning turnabout with the couple going from media darlings to polarising personalities.

While Prince Harry's popularity remains relatively buoyant (he is regularly voted on the most liked royals), only 41 per cent of Britons had a favourable view of Meghan as of late October.

As the year draws to a close, we have seen a dramatic escalation in the tension between the Sussexes and the media.

Meanwhile, a number of reports have suggested that duo is increasingly isolated from his family.

What comes next remains to be seen.

Will 2020 see them return happily to the spotlight, reinvigorated, passionate and ready to win hearts and minds? Or will it see them retreat even further after a bruising 24 months? Will their pugnacious legal approach see the tabloids back off or merely result in even more aggressive coverage?

The question of whether they might spend more time in her homeland, the US, refuses to go away too.

Looking back at that photo of Harry and Meghan on the day they announced their engagement is highly poignant.

That couple has so much love and happiness to look forward – and so much criticism to endure and so many brickbats to bear.

All that said, there is one unquestionable thing they got in 2019 that is an incontrovertible joy.

I'm guessing he is by now a bit more than two-feet long and has just started on solid foods (if the reports are to be believed).

And here, finally is one thing I'm confident the whole world (and maybe even Harry and Meghan too) can agree on: A little brother or sister for Archie.

This story was first published on December 1, 2019