The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s last engagement as senior royals was marred by behind-the-scenes tensions over protocol.
It had been agreed that Harry and Meghan’s attendance at yesterday’s Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey with other senior royals would be a fitting farewell.
But the Daily Mail understands the couple were upset to learn that they would not be permitted to join the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the main VIP party.
Instead they were told they would have to make their own way to their seats at the front of the abbey before the arrival of other senior royals, alongside the Earl and the Countess of Wessex.
Fearing another highly public royal skirmish, William and Kate, it can be revealed, stepped in to defuse the situation at the weekend and offered to join ‘emotional’ Harry and Meghan as they waited for the Queen, Charles and Camilla to arrive.
But not before 2,000 orders of service had been signed off and printed which very clearly – and rather embarrassingly – placed the Cambridges firmly with the main royal party.
And it seems that their 11th-hour olive branch did not ease the ill-feeling between the feuding family.
As the Cambridges arrived to take their seats, the duchess, 38, in a favourite red Catherine Walker coat and a matching hat, appeared to blank Harry and Meghan, while the two brothers exchanged only the most awkward of hellos. Although Harry greeted his brother William with a smile, there was little interaction between them.
Meghan, 38, dressed in an eye-catching emerald green Emelia Wickstead dress with a hat by William Chambers, bag by Gabriela Hearst and Aquazzura heels, was seen to say ‘hi’ and then ‘hello’ to William when he didn’t appear to see her the first time, with a somewhat rictus grin on her face.
The prince, 37, did greet her with a smile and a quick hello on the second occasion, however. It was not clear whether any further exchanges took place off camera.
Throughout yesterday’s service – one of the highlights of the Queen’s calendar – Harry, 35, appeared pensive and ill at ease.
He and Meghan, who determinedly gave a mega-watt smile throughout, chatted animatedly with his uncle Prince Edward, who was seated on the same row.
Camilla, 72, elegant in navy, appeared to try to ease matters when she and Charles arrived, turning to smile warmly and greet Harry and Meghan, who were on the row behind her.
Meghan was seen to curtsey for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales when they took their seats.
The Sussexes clasped hands as they departed – in the same manner as they arrived – and could even be seen clutching each other in their official car as they sped away after the service to embark on their new life in North America.
Buckingham Palace last night attempted to put on a brave face, insisting there was ‘no set format for this annual service’ as it ‘depended on how many Members of the Royal Family are in attendance’. The Queen and senior royals are always the last to arrive and take part in a procession down to the front of the Abbey.
But the palace notably failed to address the issue of why the Cambridges were originally down in the official Order of Service to accompany the Queen, before changing their minds to take their seats ahead of the Queen’s arrival, alongside the Sussexes.
An aide said: ‘The Wessexes, Sussexes and Cambridges are all processing straight to their seats. The Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and The Queen are in the procession.
‘It’s not unusual for Members of the Royal Family to be travelling in Commonwealth countries during Commonwealth week. There is no further comment.’
The decision not to include the Sussexes was made by the Queen’s office directly, led by her private secretary Edward Young.
Harry and Meghan were understood to be particularly hurt as although it was to be their last public engagement, they will not formally step down until March 31. Until then Harry still retains the title, given to him by the Queen, of Commonwealth Youth Ambassador – of which he has been stripped along with his other official duties, as part of his royal stand-down.
He and Meghan will also retain strong links with the ‘family of nations’ because they will keep their roles as president and vice-president of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. The duchess will also retain her patronage of the Association of Commonwealth Universities which she took on last year.
‘It seems that they were quite sensitive and emotional about it,’ said one royal source.
Another insider added: ‘Although they are adamant about wanting to step down, they seem quite preoccupied with what status they will retain and the fact that Harry remains sixth in line to the throne, as they made a point of saying on their new website the other day.’
Last year the couple – Meghan pregnant with their now ten-month-old son Archie – took pride of place alongside the Queen and the other senior royals at the service, both in line with their status and their specific Commonwealth roles.
The monarch, who is Head of the Commonwealth and sees its stewardship as one of the greatest successes of her reign, personally asked them to be her flag bearers as she believed they would connect well with its young people.
The Commonwealth’s 54 member countries have a combined population of more than two billion, of which more than 60 per cent are under 30 years of age.
As for the Sussexes, it is understood their office plans to make a number of announcements about their future lives in the coming weeks but they have no official engagements scheduled in between now and March 31, when they officially step down.
The couple’s Buckingham Palace office will officially close on April 1, with all 15 members of their staff, as previously revealed by the Mail, losing their jobs as Harry and Meghan pursue their independence – and commercial careers – abroad.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Rebecca English