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How the world has changed since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle decided to step back

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·7-min read

Watch: Harry and Meghan set goal to ‘build a better world’

A year ago on Friday, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle surprised royal commentators, correspondents and watchers when they announced they intended to step back from their role as senior royals.

They wanted to carve out a new role, they said, allowing them to both represent the Queen and achieve financial independence.

That goal was denied by the palace, who could not allow a half-in, half-out form of service to the Queen.

But a deal was struck at the so-called Sandringham Summit, and Harry and Meghan took some time in Canada to prepare for the next stage of their life together.

The royals would no doubt have had enormous plans for their future - but no one could have seen how much the world would have changed in 2020.

Read more: How Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are choosing to speak for themselves

COVID-19 was not even formally named as a disease when they announced the change they wanted to make in 2020, and there was little known about the strange illness spreading in a province in China.

But by the time they formally ended their royal duties, 31 March, the UK was in lockdown, and they’d had to make a last-minute dash over the Canadian border into the US.

One of the first occasions they were spotted out and about in Los Angeles, their temporary home, was to help with deliveries of food to people who needed to shield as coronavirus spread.

It was far from their original hopes of getting straight into a new charitable organisation.

Meghan’s first message after the change was also likely not something she planned. She addressed students at her former high school in LA, and found herself having to offer words of courage as the US was in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests.

She said: “What is happening in our country and in our state and in our home town of LA has been absolutely devastating.

“I wasn’t sure what I could say to you.

“I wanted to say the right thing and I was really nervous that I wouldn’t or it would get picked apart and I realised the only wrong thing to say is to say nothing, because George Floyd’s life mattered and Breonna Taylor’s life mattered and Philando Castile’s life mattered and Tamir Rice’s life mattered and so did so many other people whose names we know and whose names we do not know.”

Watch: Archie wishes ‘Happy New Year’ on Harry and Meghan’s podcast

Read more: How Meghan Markle reclaimed her voice - and started using it

Along with millions of other, Harry and Meghan found their travel plans scuppered as countries locked their borders down to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Only essential air travel was recommended throughout Spring and early Summer, meaning the couple could not return to Britain for things like the London Marathon or Trooping the Colour.

Of course both of those events were cancelled in their usual format anyway.

Ongoing travel restrictions have meant the divide between Harry and Meghan and the other royals has felt more noticeable than perhaps it might have if they had been able to travel to the UK.

It was previously reported that they had accepted an invitation to have a summer holiday in Balmoral with the Queen - something which would have proved there were no hard feelings between the couple and the monarch.

Instead, they have been 6000 miles away, their events very much on their own terms, and not representative of the Queen.

But that has meant they have been able to spend more time together as a family, with their son Archie.

In a video conversation with the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousefazi, they said they would have missed many moments with him in normal times, because they would have been travelling around the world.

Harry said: “We were both there for his first steps, his first run, his first fall… everything.”

Meghan added: “We are fortunate to be able to have this time to watch him grow, and in the absence of COVID, we would be traveling and working more externally and we'd miss a lot of those moments.”

The couple joined from the home they're staying in in LA. (QCT)
The couple at the home they stayed in in LA during the summer. (QCT)

Read more: 100 days on from Megxit, have Harry and Meghan got what they wanted?

They have also had to deal with the release of books about them, including Battle of Brothers, which chronicled the row between Harry and his brother Prince William.

Its author, The Crown expert Robert Lacey, said the rift between them could be worse than the abdication.

He said: “[Their rift] shows many parallels with the abdication of 1936 which was a battle between love and duty. In 1936, love won. In 2020, Harry is embodying love, that was the message he drew from the loveless marriage of his parents, while William is speaking up for duty, that is what has kept him going.”

The third lockdown in the UK has made it impossible to know if the royal couple will be able to make it over for the 12-month review of their deal with Buckingham Palace, due around 31 March.

But Harry has committed to being in London for the unveiling of the statue of Princess Diana, which is scheduled for what would have been her 60th birthday, in June.

Like many were glued to the news when Harry and Meghan announced their plans a year ago, the duke and duchess probably found it hard to switch off from the scenes in the US capital as riots took place when Joe Biden was being confirmed as the next US President.

Meghan hadn’t made a secret of her feelings about outgoing president Donald Trump before she became a royal, but she and Harry had stayed neutral during their time as senior royals.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 25: Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and their baby son Archie Mountbatten-Windsor meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe at the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation during their royal tour of South Africa on September 25, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Toby Melville/Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Harry and Meghan with their son Archie meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe during their royal tour of South Africa in 2019. (Toby Melville/Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage)

They were criticised during the late summer and autumn of 2020 as they weighed in on voting, encouraging Americans to “reject hate speech, misinformation and online negativity”.

It was seen as supportive of Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, though they never explicitly backed the Democrat pairing.

The couple will be keen to ensure they continue to uphold the values of the Queen, which will limit their future political endeavours. But they won’t shy away from encouraging political engagement.

Although a vaccine is now being rolled out around the world for COVID-19, 2020 showed how quickly the world could change dramatically, and there are no immediate guarantees about what 2021 will hold.

What might the world look like on the second anniversary of their constitution-altering announcement? If things go to plan, the brothers may finally have had the chance to bury the hatchet as they unite to remember their mother in London.

Harry and Meghan may also be able to return for events like Trooping the Colour, or to spend a summer in Scotland.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex arrive at the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey, London on Commonwealth Day. The service is their final official engagement before they quit royal life. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday March 9, 2020. See PA story ROYAL Commonwealth. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex arrive at the Commonwealth Service, their final official engagement before they quit royal life in March 2020. (PA Photo)

Archewell could be well underway, and they may have one of their first programmes on Netflix. Certainly they will have released far more of their podcasts, the first of which pulled in big names like James Corden, Sir Elton John and Tyler Perry to reflect on 2020.

Meghan will have been able to put the court case against ANL behind her. She is suing the publisher of Mail On Sunday and MailOnline for printing segments of a letter she wrote to her father after she married Harry.

She will hope it ends with a summary trial in the near future, but she could face a full trial in the autumn if the judge rules it’s necessary.

That would mean her father and potentially her friends, and herself, taking to the witness stand.

If international travel is back on the agenda this time next year, perhaps they will be able to invite some of their royal family members to stay with them in their Santa Barbara home.

They will certainly do their best to be committed to their charities and patronages on both sides of the Atlantic.