They came, they charmed, they cheered, they shared kisses – and they made sure the cameras kept rolling.
In many ways, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s return to European soil was a big one. The Invictus Games in The Hague, Netherlands marked their first time back on the continent since their turbulent exit from royal life in early 2020 and in many ways they didn’t disappoint.
The 40-year-old duchess, flashing her trademark Hollywood smile, dazzled in a designer wardrobe and Harry dished out handshakes and hugs and lent his support to the teams.
The event, which is Harry’s number one passion project and was founded by him in 2014, holds a special place in the Sussexes’ hearts as they went public with their romance at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada.
This year’s event was about a lot more than the Games though: it was also a look at Brand Sussex in full swing. The couple were trailed everywhere by cameras for their upcoming Netflix documentary, Heart of Invictus, their first big commercial project to come out of their $100 million (R1,5bn) deal with the streaming giant.
It’s also the first show to be produced by Archewell Productions, their newly formed TV production company.
But it wasn’t long before controversy reared its head again. As the event kicked off, it emerged Harry and Meghan had stopped by the UK for a whirlwind visit with Queen Elizabeth – and an even briefer one with Harry’s dad, Prince Charles.
It was the first time Meghan had been in England since leaving royal life and Harry’s third to the country of his birth since Megxit.
Harry himself addressed the whistlestop drop-by in an interview that’s proved to be his most contentious since he and Meghan opened their hearts to Oprah Winfrey with devastating consequences in March 2021.
This time the interviewer was Hoda Kotb from NBC’s Today show in the US – and although the chat was far briefer than the wide-ranging Oprah tell-all, he managed to unleash a dose of damage and drama that has all but overshadowed the feel-good vibes of the Invictus Games.
Seeing his grandmother, who celebrated her 96th birthday days after his visit, was “great”, Harry said. “It was so nice to see her, she’s on great form,” he told Hoda. “She’s always got a great sense of humour with me.”
Then came the lines that had everyone up in arms. “We have a really special relationship,” he said.
And the real clanger: “I’m just making sure that she’s, you know, protected and got the right people around her.”
His comments triggered outrage considering Harry has spent the past two years abroad and been responsible for so much of the royal family’s recent unhappiness.
One well-placed palace source blasted it as “breathtakingly arrogant” and “an insult” to Charles and William.
The Mirror’s royal editor Russell Myers believes senior royals and palace staff would have “had their heads in their hands” over Harry’s willingness yet again to publicly comment on what are essentially private family affairs.
“His comments about ensuring the queen is protected are deeply damaging and insulting to his grandmother and senior royals around her,” one aide says.
“Charles and William are doing all they can to make sure the queen and the monarchy are in good hands. Harry chose to abandon his duty in favour of earning millions of dollars as a private citizen and yet he feels it’s his business to interfere in family matters while living on the other side of the world – and then broadcasting it to American TV.”
Charles, who Harry apparently met for just 15 minutes, is at the end of his tether, royal expert and author Robert Jobson told UK TV show GB News. The relationship between father and son has been strained for months and Harry’s willingness to talk about the family on TV wouldn’t have pleased his dad.
To make matters worse, Harry turned up late for the meeting, Jobson adds. “All families have problems but you don’t go blurting to your next-door neighbour as soon as you’ve had a meeting.
Harry’s refusal to comment on a question from Hoda about whether he missed his father and brother, Prince William, also raised eyebrows.
His answer? “Look, for me at the moment I’m here to focus on these guys [the Invictus Games competitors] and these families and giving everything I can to them to make sure they have the experience of a lifetime.”
The only time Harry mentioned William was when the subject of Princess Diana came up and he said he “felt her presence in almost everything that I do now”. He talked about his mother to his son, Archie, and there are pictures of Diana dotted around their home in Montecito, California.
“It’s almost as though she’s done her bit with my brother and now she’s very much helping me,” he said. “She’s got [William] set up and now she’s helping me set up – that’s what it feels like. He’s got his kids, I’ve got my kids. “She’s watching over us.”
The duke’s appearance on the show is likely to create a deeper rift between Harry and William, who was away on a skiing trip with his family when his brother popped by Windsor Castle to see the queen.
One royal staff member says it wasn’t clear what Harry’s intention was in doing the interview. “But he needs to start thinking before he opens his mouth.”
A wearied royal family are reportedly determined to treat Harry’s latest comments with a dignified silence for the sake of the queen, who is in her platinum jubilee year and battling mobility issues that are keeping her largely housebound.
Senior royals are also keenly aware that the queen is very fond of Harry and Meghan and eager to see her great-grandchildren Archie and little Lilibet, who she has yet to meet.
According to recent reports, she’s eager to have the Sussexes join her in June when a number of platinum jubilee celebrations will take place – although it’s not known how many events the frail queen will attend in person.
This year may well mark her last appearance on the famous balcony of Buckingham Palace for the annual Trooping the Colour.
Royal biographer Angela Levin says she’s quite sure Harry will not attend any of his grandmother’s jubilee celebrations. “It’s quite painful to watch him these days,” she says.
“The queen would love to see him more. She adores Harry. Yet it doesn’t seem to bother him.”
Harry himself remained non-committal in the interview on whether he plans to return for any jubilee events.
“I don’t know yet,” he told Hoda.
“There are a lot of things: security issues and everything else.”
He's currently embroiled in a legal dispute with the British Home Office over their refusal to provide him with elite police protection, which he had as a senior working royal.
Some royal experts believe Harry is using his royal ties as a PR exercise to boost interest in his and Meghan’s upcoming Netflix documentary – and his interview with Hoda is a clear case in point.
“I have no doubt it was all for their documentary,” says royal biographer Tom Bower, who’s currently writing a book about Meghan. “To enhance his credibility in America and for Netflix, Harry needs to play up a special relationship with the queen.”
Another royal expert, Richard Fitzwilliams, says the couple may be under pressure from Netflix bosses to produce content, especially royal-linked content, to help boost the streaming service, which has suffered the loss of 200 000 subscribers.
“When Harry and Meghan signed up to Netflix in September 2020, the company was riding high with a huge and expanding reach owing to the pandemic,” Fitzwilliams says.
The couple pledged to deliver documentaries, children’s programmes and feature films on causes close to their hearts. Last year, Meghan announced she was working on an animated kids’ series, Pearl, about the adventures of a 12-year-old girl inspired by a variety of influential women from history. So far, however, nothing has transpired.
“It is surely time Netflix had value for money,” Fitzwilliams says.
Harry also revealed some detail about his family life in California and spoke about how he and Meghan had been welcomed into their enclave in Santa Barbara.
“It’s home for the time being,” he added.
He also said he wanted to make the world a better place for his children. “Otherwise what’s the point of bringing kids into this world?
“It’s a responsibility I feel as a parent. And we can’t fix everything. We know that. But what we can do is be there for each other.”
Speaking about his and Meghan’s home life, he said Archie was a little busybody who liked to interrupt his parents’ work-from-home routine. “But he also gets us off them as well, so that’s also a nice thing.”
Harry added he’s loving parenthood. “The chaos, the learning, the reminder of just every element of yourself, your soul, right?”
And he and Meghan remain committed to a life of service, he said. “For the two of us, this is a life she signed up for and we are committed to doing this together as a couple forever.
“Because of the circumstances, we’ve now moved that life of service to the States and we’ll continue doing what we were doing before.”
He finds healing in helping others, he says. “And I think that’s what we should really be focusing on.”
Whether that includes his family in the UK remains to be seen.
MEGHAN’S DESIGNER WARDROBE
The duchess pulled out the fashion stops during her three-day visit to the Games.Her chic designer wardrobe, which totalled $62 000 (R961 000),stuck to her favourite neutral palette of white, cream and black.
Bright in white
For a pre-Games reception, the duchess chose a double-breasted Valentino pantsuit which she paired with Aquazzura heels, a Valentino bag and a necklace from jewellery designer Sophie Lis.
For the opening ceremony, Meghan stunned in a cream off-the-shoulder Khaite bodysuit with black trousers and Manolo Blahnik heels. Her jewellery included a Cartier necklace and Princess Diana’s famous diamond tennis bracelet.
She stepped out in a sophisticated wool-tweed Celine blazer styled with Moussy skinny jeans and Chanel cap-toe ballet flats for a Jaguar Land Rover event at the Games.
While out meeting competitors she wore her favourite skinny jeans with a belted white statement jacket by Brandon Maxwell. She added brown suede Manolo Blahnik heels and a pair of Valentino shades.
For an evening reception she chose a white Valentino mini-dress with a pretty floral design, paired with a Khaite handbag.
Sources: mirror.co.uk, dailymail.co.uk, mercurynews.com, express.co.uk, guardian.co.uk, people.com