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Welcome, dear readers, to The Royal Tea’s look back at 2020, which will undoubtedly be remembered as a defining year in the modern history of the British monarchy.
As we all know, the year started off with an explosion of royal news when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (aka the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) announced via Instagram on Jan. 8 that they would be “stepping back” as senior members of the royal family. They launched a website laying out a proposed plan that would allow them to work for money (and stop receiving taxpayer funding) while continuing to represent the Queen as “members of the royal family with financial independence.” There was just one problem: None of the other senior royals — including the Queen — had signed off on this plan.
In a series of responses, the Queen made it clear that nothing had been settled yet. And that Harry and Meghan had jumped the gun by announcing it themselves.
The tabloid coverage of “Megxit” had me thinking about how UK outlets have covered Meghan versus how they have covered Kate Middleton (aka the Duchess of Cambridge) — specifically after the two women became official members of the royal family. Spoiler alert: There were big differences.
In the end, very little of what Harry and Meghan had initially proposed was accepted. Despite the fact that other members of the royal family further down in the line of succession are able to have independent jobs and represent the Queen at events, the Sussexes were forbidden from doing so — and barred from using the word “royal” in any of their future endeavors. While they retained their titles as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they could no longer use their “Royal Highness” titles. The Queen made it very clear: The Sussexes would always be beloved members of the Mountbatten-Windsor family, but they had chosen to remove themselves from the royal family.
Harry was openly frustrated and unhappy with how negotiations had worked out, but he emphasized that the decision to “step back” had been entirely his, made for the good of his wife and son. Weeks after the decision, he and Meghan carried out their final events as working members of “the firm,” dazzling the UK press but also making very visible the tensions between them and the rest of the royal family.
And then the pandemic struck and everything changed. The world went into lockdown. Harry and Meghan quickly relocated from their temporary base in Canada to Los Angeles. The Queen left London to quarantine in a safer location. Prince Charles and Prince William (aka the Duke of Cambridge) both contracted the coronavirus. The in-person engagements that make up the bulk of the royal family’s official schedule — as well as the huge, traditional annual events, like Trooping the Colour — was canceled. No overseas tours. No state visits. None of those widely photographed events that keep the royal family on the front pages of newspapers around the globe happened.
And yet the speed with which the royals were able to adjust their work to cope with the COVID-19 crisis was pretty impressive for an institution so historically resistant to change.
The Queen delivered the fifth special address of her 68-year reign, a message of hope and strength to the UK and Commonwealth nations.
The members of the royal family spoke with frontline workers, charities, National Health Service medical staff, and many other groups via Zoom. Will and Kate even called bingo for a nursing home via video call — and, in one of my favorite unscripted royal moments of the year, were later told by one resident that they “did a bloody shitty job,” causing the duke and duchess to burst into laughter.
In a significant departure from previous years, the Cambridge children — Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis — were a visible part of the monarchy’s response to the pandemic. With their parents, they made and delivered packages of homemade food to people at high risk who were quarantining at home. They participated in the national “Clap for Our Carers” and appeared in a BBC special honoring NHS workers.
The restrictions forced the royal family to find new ways to support the country without leaving their homes. Personally, I think the best royal initiative this year was Kate’s “Hold Still” community photo project. The duchess (who is a patron of the National Portrait Gallery in London) asked people across the country to submit photographs of their lives during the pandemic to create "a unique collective portrait of the UK during lockdown.” One hundred winning images were chosen for display from more than 31,000 submissions, and the final collection is incredibly powerful.
It’s not just that the royals were finding ways to continue their work during the pandemic. They became really good at sharing their work and their lives with the public via social media in an accessible way.
The Cambridges, in particular, shared more family images — and videos — and did so in a way that seemed natural and spontaneous as opposed to a carefully staged press release. Kate took questions via Instagram about her projects. We started to see more emojis in their captions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this change started after Will and Kate hired Harry and Meghan’s former social media manager.
Will and Kate weren’t the only ones to embrace the “new normal” of quarantine. Like many couples around the world, Princess Beatrice and her fiancé Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi married in a small ceremony as opposed to a large, lavish party.
In other happy royal news, in September Beatrice's sister Princess Eugenie announced that she and husband Jack Brooksbank were expecting their first child in 2021. Then, in December, Princess Anne's daughter Zara Tindall announced that she and her husband Mike were expecting their third child.
Meanwhile, half a world away, after settling in California, the Sussexes spent a lot of the year doing many of the same things as the working, taxpayer-funded royals back in the UK. They stayed in touch with charities via Zoom, volunteered in person when they could, and delivered meals to people quarantining.
Meghan delivered a speech about the Black Lives Matter movement to her former high school, and both she and Harry urged Americans to vote in the 2020 election. All the while, they were planning their next steps, including the launch of their foundation, Archewell.
Having to give up their @SussexRoyal Instagram account and its millions of followers, Harry and Meghan began forging a new way to connect with the public by granting interviews to select publications and releasing family images through the social media accounts of certain charities to raise the organizations’ profiles. In a New York Times op-ed in November, Meghan wrote a heartbreaking first-person account of a miscarriage she had in July.
As the year draws to a close, the Sussexes are once again in the news. They debuted their first post-royals project on Tuesday by launching a Spotify-exclusive podcast company, Archewell Audio, with a special holiday episode, featuring a special appearance by their son Archie. The couple also signed a multiyear production deal with Netflix.
With the end of the pandemic finally in sight, it remains to be seen what royal life will look like in a post-coronavirus world. And what will a world with Harry and Meghan living in public look like when members of the royal family also return to work?
Nobody knows. But I will, of course, be here for whatever happens.
If you have any questions about the royal family or royal things that you’d like answered in a future ~ serving ~ of The Royal Tea, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we end 2020, I want to thank each and every one of you for subscribing to this newsletter. Writing The Royal Tea and corresponding with readers has been a true professional joy in a year of terrible news and tragedy.
Be safe. Be healthy. Be well.
I remain, as ever, your faithful royal correspondent,