It must be positively hellish to find the right gift for a member of the royal family. What the devil do you get for someone who lives in a palace (or a grand stately home at the very least), has access to a trove of tiaras and whose Gan Gan has the keys to the Crown Jewels?
Lucky then that the Queen has a few tricks up her Angela Kelly-designed sleeves and can doll out the perfect, money-can’t-buy token: Her patronages.
Pretty much this time two years ago, way back in the distant past that was 2019, it was her new granddaughter-in-law Meghan Duchess of Sussex’s turn to be on the receiving end of just such a regal pressie.
See, the arrival of the former actress and entrepreneur in the royal fold coincided with the decision being made that perhaps a nonagenarian should not be expected to hold more than 600 patronage. Shall we, the thinking went, transfer a few to her more able-bodied family and let her put her feet up a wee bit?
Thus, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall took on the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Barnado’s while Kate Duchess of Cambridge got the plum gig with All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts Wimbledon.
And, when it came time for Meghan, then still a newly minted duchess, the Queen decided to hand her the particularly plum role with the Royal National theatre, a patronage the sovereign herself has held since 1974.
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This was big news – big! In passing this baton directly to her dazzling granddaughter, this was Her Majesty very publicly signalling her considerable pleasure and happiness with how the Windsors’ newest recruit was faring.
Jolly good show Megs! Here, I got you perhaps the most prestigious theatre troop in the world as a sign I think you are doing a bang up job!
For an organisation that traffics in symbols and gestures, for the Queen this was a freighted step – she doesn’t just hand out patronages like boiled sweets to a fractious great-grandchild intent on teasing the dorgis during tea.
(At the same time it was announced that Meghan would also be taking on patronages of the Association of Commonwealth Universities; Smart Works, an organisation which helps vulnerable women get back into the workforce; and Mayhew, an animal welfare charity.)
Sadly, as we all know, the Harry’n’Meghan honeymoon phase within the royal family did not last much longer into 2019, in the months that followed the patronage announcements the wheels truly started to come off.
As the plethora of Sussex-related biographies that came out last year argued, while in public the duo was met by vast seas of adoring crowds and were nearly universally hailed as the best thing to happen to the royal family since they stopped marrying their first cousins, behind palace gates things were far less rosy.
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Harry, allegedly, was growing frustrated with being forced to assume perpetual second place behind his brother and faced regular galling reminders of his ‘spare’ status. Meghan, meanwhile, came up against a frigid royal machine disinclined to make any concessions towards the way she wanted to do things and who were reportedly largely resistant to her West Coast up and at ‘em pep.
Thus, only a year after Meghan took over the National Theatre role from Her Majesty, in January 2020 she and husband Harry announced they wanted out, triggering the particular crisis known as Megxit. In the wash-up of the Sussexes’ ‘divorce’ from the royal household, as questions over titles, security costs and military roles were made, it was decided that both Meghan and Harry would retain their patronages, per a Buckingham Palace statement, “with The Queen’s blessing.”
(The Sussexes also acceded to no longer using their stylings as His/Her Royal Highness and Harry giving up his precious honorary military role including as Captain General of the Royal Marines, a role he had taken over from his grandfather Prince Philip in 2017.)
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However, just how practical is it, now that the duke and duchess (and their young son Archie who turns two-years-old in May) are finally settled in Santa Barbara, for them to maintain the patronage status quo?
To be clear: Their unwavering commitment to, and passion for, the UK-based organisations they work with is unimpeachable.
In the wake of Megxit last year, the theatre’s Artistic Director Rufus Norris reaffirmed their relationship with their royal patron, “She is still very engaged, the conversations are regular and ongoing, there are ideas we are exploring.
“There has been no indication at all from her that her engagement with us would be anything other than business as usual – she has proven to be a very engaged patron, and we look forward to working with her.
“She’s less interested in coming here and going to a string of press nights.
“It’s a really in-depth engagement with the range of work we do.”
Throughout 2020, they time and again demonstrated their steadfast support for a vast number of the groups they work with by undertaking meetings and engagements via Zoom and video chat.
Just feasible, though, is this state of play longer term when their zeal, passion and enthusiasm for their patronages collides with the reality of their new lives?
Being a royal patron is essentially acting as a very well-dressed publicity magnet thus regularly corralling Fleet Street and social media’s attention onto a particular issue or NGO to generate awareness, interest and even funding.
Even once the pandemic comes under control and Harry and Meghan are able to regularly dart back to London for engagements, just how realistic is it that they can fulfil that function given their “forever home,” as Finding Freedom author Omid Scobie has put it, is 7,500km away?
There is also a vexing issue of boring old time. Because, just how much can they humanly pile onto their plates as their Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street projects pile up?
In the last four and a bit months, they have announced a huge deal to create TV series and documentaries for Netflix, reputed to be worth $130 million; a $50 million podcast deal with Spotify; debuted Archewell, their brand spanking new charitable entity, while in late December, Meghan was ‘outed’ as having dipped her toe in the entrepreneurial world and it was revealed she had invested in a vegan latte brand.
For the seemingly indefatigable couple, the question is how do they balance the UK-based charity roles and patronages that are clearly deeply important to them and a source of great pride with the demands of their new life?
To be fair, at the time when the Queen handed Meghan the patronage of the National Theatre in 2019, the last time Her Majesty had actually visited the theatre was in 2013. If six year gaps in between visits are considered totally acceptable, then maybe Meghan can simply pencil in a jaunt there in 2022 (when we are all vaccinated against the pandemic) and get on with deciding which artisanal hummus brand next she should invest in next.
But, would Meghan, a woman who is driven, dedicated and has the sort of work ethic which would even put royal workhorse Princess Anne to shame, be happy with such a spasmodic arrangement?
At the heart of all this is the possible conflict between Harry and Meghan’s seemingly outsize hunger and determination to make a difference in the world and the demands and practicalities of their lives.
In March, the 12-month review period agreed to by both the Sussexes and the palace about Megxit arrangements will reportedly be up. In late December, the Sun reported that “royal aides will pore over the Netflix and Spotify deals … to ensure they meet ‘the values of Her Majesty.’
“Harry and Meghan are said to be keen to hang on to their royal patronages, despite taking on more commercial commitments in the US. Sources say those roles remain on the negotiating table.”
Here’s one more niggling unknown to leave you with. This year on August 4th, Meghan will hit the big 4-0. Just what the dickens will the Queen get her now that royal patronages are off the list?
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.