It may be hard to remember through the fog of everything that followed, but when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they were stepping down from their roles as senior members of the Royal Family last January, it was a shock.
2020 was a year when the word “unprecedented” started to lose its meaning, but for such high-profile British royals to reject their position in favour of privacy and independence was something that had truly never happened before.
This week marks one year since the couple made the announcement on their now-inactive Instagram account, writing that “we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution.”
They intended to split their time between the U.K. and North America, they wrote, a move which “will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter.”
The pandemic curtailed their geographic freedom, at least somewhat. But their decision to leave meant they were free of many of the rules that had bound Meghan since she started dating a royal, and had restricted Harry since birth.
Here are some of the things the Duke and Duchess of Sussex did in the past year that they wouldn’t have been allowed to do before.
They spent a few months in Canada
They visited B.C. in late 2019, before their big announcement, and stayed there until late March. While working royals travel when they go on royal tours, and vacation occasionally, they don’t typically spend months at a time in another country for leisure.
The couple has a long connection with Canada. Meghan spent seven years in Toronto when she was on “Suits.” Their first public appearance together was at the Toronto Invictus Games in 2017. (They were secretly already engaged at the time, according to Finding Freedom.)
This time, they opted for the west coast, spending time in Victoria and on other parts of Vancouver Island. Meghan visited Vancouver, where she surprised the staff at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, but otherwise they stayed in quieter and more remote Victoria, where for the most part they could avoid the prying eyes of the paparazzi.
They moved to California
After all our careful analysis of how they might immigrate to Canada and how they’d interact with B.C. privacy laws — not to mention squabbles over whether or not Canada would have to pay their security fees — the couple moved back to Meghan’s home state, California, in mid-March.
When the couple announced in 2017 that they planned to marry, it went without saying that Meghan would give up her job and home to live in London as a full-time royal. But her mother Doria still lives in L.A., where she grew up, and where she evidently wanted to return.
About a month after getting back to the U.S., the couple relocated to quieter Santa Barbara, about an hour and a half west of L.A.
They made their own money
One of the couple’s main goals when they announced their big change was financial independence. Royals get money from three sources: the Sovereign Grant provided by the government, income from the land and assets of the Duchy of Cornwall, and income from the Queen’s own income and assets. Senior working royals — including the Queen, Prince Charles, and Prince William and Kate Middleton, are not allowed to earn money because doing anything commercially is seen to conflict with their duties, royal correspondent Katie Nicholl told Vogue.
Last year, renovations to Harry and Meghan’s home, Frogmore Cottage, cost British taxpayers more than CAD$4 million. After the cost caused a scandal, the couple promised to pay the money back, which they did in September. (Harry’s cousin, Princess Eugenie, and her husband, Jack Brooksbank, moved into Frogmore in the fall, but moved out six weeks later, prompting some creative royal watchers to wonder if the house is haunted.)
Meghan did voiceover work
In the spring, Meghan returned to film for the first time since she became involved with Harry. She narrated the documentary “Elephant,” which was released on Disney Plus in April.
And no, it turns out Harry wasn’t pitching his wife’s voiceover skills to the CEO of Disney when they met at the London premiere of “The Lion King” in July 2019. She had already agreed to take on the work, and Harry was simply singing her praises, as any loving husband would.
They signed a deal with Netflix
The Duke and Duchess earned comparisons to the Obamas when they signed a major deal with streaming giant Netflix in September. They’ll be producing movies, scripted TV shows, documentaries and children’s programming in the multi-year deal.
“Our focus will be on creating content that informs but also gives hope,” they told the New York Times. “As new parents, making inspirational family programming is also important to us.” Several projects, including an animated series about inspiring women and a new nature docu-series, are already in development.
Unfortunately for fans of “Suits,” though, Meghan said she has no plans to return to acting.
They encouraged people to vote
In another move that would have been a massive breach of royal etiquette, Meghan and Harry both encouraged Americans to vote in the lead-up to the country’s November election.
Meghan, in particular, spoke about the importance of voting in several public appearances in the late summer and early fall, including a conversation with legendary feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Meghan didn’t endorse any candidate, or name U.S. President Donald Trump. But she did speak generally about the problem of voter suppression and the importance of women’s rights, with an emphasis on how the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote 100 years ago, but specifically left out women of colour.
“If you’re not going out there and voting, then you’re complicit,” Meghan said.
Even without endorsing a specific candidate, she manage to rile up a lot of Trump supporters and royal watchers, in the U.S., the U.K., and around the world. A municipal politician in London said she and Harry “should be stripped of their Sussex titles” because they were “obviously no longer politically neutral.”
It’s true that working royals don’t comment on politics, which was likely a difficult ask of Meghan, a biracial American who’s spoken about her experiences with racism and who supports many causes related to women’s rights. By stepping down, she’s now able to be more vocal about her political conscience.
Queen Elizabeth has, in fact, encouraged people to vote as well. But The big difference was timing. The Queen was urging people to take voting seriously as a general practice, while Meghan was encouraging people to vote before a big election.
In 2003, a month after a Welsh election that saw just 38 per cent participation, the Queen told the Welsh people that “it is vital to the health both of the United Kingdom and of Wales that our democratic institutions flourish and adapt.”
“Elections are the fundamental means by which everyone can participate in the business of government,” she said. “I share your concerns that we must encourage all our people to exercise their right to vote. This is a real challenge now before us all.”
This shift will have ramifications for Harry, too: royals aren’t forbidden from voting, but custom says they never do it. Meghan told news outlet The 19th that her husband “has never been able to vote.” It will depend where the couple resides permanently, but if he becomes an American citizen or if they return to the U.K., he may be able to vote for the first time ever.
Meghan opened up about her miscarriage
The essay Meghan wrote in the New York Times about the grief she felt after experiencing a miscarriage in the summer was deeply vulnerable. It was likely hard to share, given the intense criticism she receives from tabloids anytime they think she’s “seeking attention.” But it connected with a lot of people who had had a similar experience with pregnancy loss, and many of them expressed their gratitude that she was so open about how it felt.
Other royals have talked about miscarriages, but no one as high-profile as Meghan. Zara Tindall, whose mother is Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter Princess Anne, has opened up about her pregnancy loss too. “You need to go through a period where you don’t talk about it because it’s too raw but, as with everything, time’s a great healer,” she told the Sunday Times in 2018.
Meghan is now a startup investor, announcing in early December that she invested in Clevr Blends, a woman-run company that makes instant lattes using ethically-sourced ingredients. She even got her new neighbour, Oprah Winfrey, involved.
They started a podcast
Two weeks after announcing they had signed a deal with Spotify to host and produce podcasts, they released a special holiday episode featuring a star-studded lineup of inspirational figures and Sussex friends, all reflecting on their 2020 experiences through audio diaries. Their debut episode even included a guest appearance by their son, Archie, who provides the most wholesome little giggle — and, adorably, causes his dad to break into laughter, as well.
We can look forward to a completed series from Meghan and Harry at some point in 2021 — likely along with more proof of how much they value their independence.