In Depth

A history of Royals who stepped back from their duties

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are by no means the first to break away from the monarchy

The Royal Family has faced a “bumpy path” over the past 12 months, as the Queen acknowledged in her Christmas Day Speech - and 2020 has got off to an equally rocky start.

The Royals are said to be “hurt” and “deeply disappointed” after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced that they intend to step back as “senior” royals and and want to “become financially independent”.

Although the news has come as a shock to many, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are by no means the first royals to break away from the monarchy.

Here are other British royals who “stepped back” from the family.

Edward VIII

Arguably the most controversial royal figure in recent history, Edward VIII abdicated in December 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Lawmakers and other figures senior members of the family had opposed the union, arguing that a divorced woman would be unfit for the role of queen consort. 

After vacating the throne, he was succeeded by his younger brother, George VI  - Elizabeth II’s father.

Already facing criticism over his decision, Edward and his new wife’s public image was further damaged the following year by “a much-publicised visit to Nazi Germany, where they were warmly received by Hitler”, says History Extra.

“This has led to speculation that Edward was a Nazi sympathiser and might have played the role of puppet king had the Germans occupied Britain,” the site adds.

Diana, Princess of Wales

In 1993, Harry’s mother, Diana, announced that she was reducing her official engagements and would live a more private life. The news came just one year after the announcement that she and Prince Charles were to separate amicably.

Following their divorce, in 1996, Diana was stripped of her Royal Highness title and relinquished any future claims to the throne. Her renaming to simply Diana, Princess of Wales was “seen as a petty move on the part of the Palace”, according to USA Today.

The BBC notes that Harry referred to his mother when explaining his own decision to step back, saying: “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person.”

Sarah, Duchess of York

The ex-wife of Prince Andrew, Duke of York was reportedly “frozen out of the Royal Family when their marriage broke down”, says Birmingham Live, and now goes by the name Sarah Ferguson. The pair divorced in 1996, ten years after tying the knot.

Ferguson still regularly attends functions such as Royal Ascot with their daughters Beatrice and Eugenie, however. She was also a guest at the wedding of Harry and Meghan in April 2018.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

In a less scandalous royal withdrawal, Prince Philip announced in 2017 that he was stepping down from public engagements, owing to his advancing age.

The Prince, now 98, was said to have the full support of the Queen in the decision.

The longest-service royal consort in history, Philip reportedly gave a typically blunt response when mathematician Michael Atiyah told him: “I’m sorry to hear you’re standing down.” According to The Guardian, the Royal shot back: “Well, I can’t stand up much longer.”

Prince Andrew, Duke of York

Last year brought one of the most damaging scandals in royal history, after US businessman Jeffrey Epstein was convicted for a second time for sex offences. The case led to the exposure of a network of celebrities and high-profile public figures who had been in contact with the now-late paedophile, including Prince Andrew, the Queen’s son.

Following accusations that the Prince had taken advantage of his links with Epstein - including claims that the Royal had sex with a teenager coerced by the tycoon - Andrew attempted to clear his name in a TV interview with BBC Newsnight.

But the interview was, as The Guardian puts it, a “PR disaster”, and Andrew subsequently announced that he was withdrawing from public duties “for the foreseeable future”.

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