The royal Range Rover was already outside, engine running, waiting to take him off to his new, post-royal life. But even at the very last moment of his last formal engagement as a top tier member of the Royal Family, we had a brief parting glimpse of the old, cheeky, impish Prince Harry.
All through this Commonwealth Day service of celebration at Westminster Abbey, the Royal Family and other VIPs had followed the new abbey edict: No shaking hands.
It left everyone nodding away respectfully like a mass gathering of Japanese waiters (apart from the Prince of Wales, who offered all and sundry a palms-together ‘namaste’).
Seeing the funny side of it all, the Duke of Sussex could not resist breaking ranks at the end as he was introduced to one of the performers, pop singer Craig David. Sticking out his right arm, he gave him an ‘elbow bump’ greeting and then cracked a joke.
It was one of the lighter moments during an afternoon which, at times, left the duke looking pensive, distracted, even subdued. Understandably so.
Here in a church bound up with his family’s history all the way back to Edward the Confessor – and where, most notably, he had to endure the funeral of his mother in 1997 – he was signing off from all that he has known.
On arrival, Harry and Meghan had to slot in to that cast-iron dynastic pecking order – in this case entering after the Earl and Countess of Wessex but before the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
There was fleeting chit-chat between them but there will have been plenty of private time already for whatever farewells the Sussexes have in mind. The abbey was not the place for them.
Instead, it was a case of grin and bear it. The duchess beamed away all afternoon to the point of facial exhaustion. The duke’s mind frequently appeared to wander.
Come the end of the month, Harry and Meghan will park their ‘HRH’ titles and cross the dividing line from royalty to celebrity. They do so in the hope of becoming – in the jargon of their new transatlantic chums – ‘philanthropreneurs’ or ‘change-makers’.
Yesterday was their last public day as members of an institution that stands for continuity and leaves all that ‘change’ stuff to elected politicians.
However, the couple clearly wanted to leave with dignity and not in a sulk, as happened when they made their initial dash for the exit in January. Back then, they slapped down a list of demands on the table, took great umbrage when those were not accepted and sloped off to Canada after a somewhat petulant valedictory speech by the duke.
This time, they left on a high. No member of the Royal Family needs reminding how important the Commonwealth is to the Queen. It means a very great deal to its future head, the Prince of Wales, who has visited 20 Commonwealth nations in the past year alone. And it surely means a lot to the Sussexes, too.
They talked about it excitedly from the moment they got engaged; the duchess ensured that her wedding dress was embroidered with the flower of every single Commonwealth nation (a gesture that touched the Queen greatly); they both went on to accept a range of Commonwealth patronages.
In other words, the Sussexes more than any other royal couple have tied themselves to the 54 countries of the Queen’s ‘family of nations’.
And it is the Commonwealth that is going to remain a sort of royal umbilical cord, a link between the Sussexes’ future work and their past.
For though Prince Harry has had to relinquish his role as the Queen’s Commonwealth Youth Ambassador – for the simple reason that this was an official royal role – he has not severed his ties with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. That is a new charity which falls outside the immediate control of the Royal Household, the Government or the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Yet it carries the Queen’s blessing and authority in its quest to provide direct assistance at a local level to dynamic community projects run by the potential Commonwealth leaders of tomorrow.
Harry is its president, Meghan is its vice-president and it includes some of the Queen’s most able and respected former staff – including two former private secretaries – among its trustees.
Similarly, having succeeded the Queen as patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the oldest of its kind in the world, the duchess remains closely involved. Only yesterday morning, prior to the abbey service, she was holding a meeting with association staff at Buckingham Palace. These connections will continue and, it is hoped, mature.
Yesterday was a reminder of the quirkiness of the Commonwealth. As well as the glorious fusion of the abbey organ, the State Trumpeters and the Grenadier Guards, we also had Scottish dancers, a brilliant steel orchestra, African drummers and a brace of pop stars in both Alexandra Burke and Craig David.
The sermon came not from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead, it was Olympic and world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua who stepped up to the pulpit to deliver a thoughtful and rather moving address on being a very proud Brit who was equally proud of his Nigerian heritage
This service ended up at the abbey only because, in the early days, no other church would host such an overtly multi-faith event (most of the Commonwealth is non-Christian).
Yet the Queen was determined it should have a spiritual rather than a secular home. Since the abbey is a ‘royal peculiar’ that answers not to a bishop but to the Queen herself, she directed that the Commonwealth should be celebrated here. And so it has been ever since.
In a similar way, the Commonwealth now offers a useful means of leaving the door ajar for the two ‘royal peculiars’ of the House of Windsor as they start their new life. And no one will be keener to keep it open than the Queen.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Robert Hardman