The inside story of the rift between Harry and Meghan and The Firm

Camilla Tominey
·20-min read
what happened meghan markle prince harry royal family the firm rift - Joe Pugliese/ Harpo Productions
what happened meghan markle prince harry royal family the firm rift - Joe Pugliese/ Harpo Productions

There was something distinctly familiar about the Oprah Winfrey teaser in which Prince Harry declared: "My biggest concern was history repeating itself."

The words, aired in US during the Duke and Duchess of Sussexes' tell-all interview on Sunday night, bore an uncanny resemblance to the statement released by Harry's communications secretary, Jason Knauf, in November 2016 after the Sunday Express had revealed that the Prince was dating the American actress.

Confirming that "his girlfriend Meghan Markle" had been "subject to a wave of abuse and harassment", the statement criticised the "racial undertones" of newspaper coverage, adding: "Prince Harry is worried about Ms Markle's safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her. This is not a game – it is her life and his."

The unprecedented salvo created two important narratives around the former Suits star – it formally confirmed her status as the woman in Harry's life but also positioned her, in the eyes of the palace and the public, as the victim at the heart of a media "storm". As the statement suggested, a line had been "crossed".

But the tirade "by the Communications Secretary to Prince Harry" also put Mr Knauf in a compromising position. How was the former director of corporate affairs for the Royal Bank of Scotland going to be able to handle media relations for a couple when the Prince had so publicly made plain their deep hostility towards the press?

Almost exactly two years later, the 39-year-old spin doctor would submit a a bullying claim accusing Meghan of driving two personal assistants out of the household and undermining the confidence of a third staff member.

The Sussexes have denied that Harry pleaded with Mr Knauf not to pursue it, claiming the couple are the victims of a calculated smear campaign based on harmful misinformation. They said the Duchess was "saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself and is deeply committed to supporting those who have experienced pain and trauma".

Those highlighting the "outrageous bullying" say they want to "tell the other side of the story" to the picture expected to be painted by the Duchess on the Oprah special of her "almost unsurvivable" time in the Royal family. "Anyone who is a victim can't bear to watch it," said one.

The couple's lawyers insist Buckingham Palace is manipulating the press to peddle a "wholly false narrative" –notwithstanding the fact that the complainants no longer work in the royal household and the lack of palace action has now prompted an internal inquiry.

The Telegraph has spoken to a number of well-placed insiders who witnessed first-hand the turmoil within the royal household from Meghan's arrival as Prince Harry's girlfriend to the couple's decision to stand down as working royals last year.

All spoke on the condition of anonymity amid claims they had been operating in a "climate of fear", where employees were routinely "humiliated" in front of their peers and repeatedly subjected to "unreasonable demands" by both Meghan and Harry.

Read More: The secret messages in Prince Harry and Meghan's Oprah interview

Unwilling to play a supporting role

It was not until October 2017, a year after Mr Knauf's unprecedented statement that Meghan gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which she declared of her relationship with Harry: "We're in love. I'm sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but what I hope people will understand is that this is our time."

The public did not have to wait long. Just a month later, the couple announced their engagement with a photocall in the sunken garden at Kensington Palace and an interview with the BBC's Mishal Husain in which Harry described his fiancee as "another team player as part of the bigger team".

Yet behind palace gates, it was quickly becoming apparent that Meghan had no intention of she and Harry being seen as the "supporting act" to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, despite their seniority in the royal pecking order.

That Christmas, determined to walk side by side with William and Kate to Sandringham's St Mary Magdalene Church, rather than several steps behind, they were pictured together as the so-called "Fab Four".

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex at Sandringham. - Getty Images Europe
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex at Sandringham. - Getty Images Europe

The Cambridges invited the Sussexes to spend the festive period at their nearby bolthole, Anmer Hall, an experience Meghan spoke of fondly afterwards. "Meghan was very positive about it," said a former aide.

Two months later, the quartet appeared at their first official event together at the inaugural forum of their Royal Foundation – a highly choreographed event described by one royal insider as "designed to send a message that they would be working as a team. It was all very carefully rehearsed beforehand".

Disagreements with the Cambridges

After Meghan showcased her years of previous work with "larger NGOs and smaller grassroots organisations", both William and Harry acknowledged that working so closely with loved ones had led to "healthy disagreements" over how to best guide the foundation's work.

"Working as a family does have its challenges, of course it does," Harry said. "But we're stuck together for the rest of our lives."

By now, Kensington Palace staff had already become familiar with a mantra that would come to characterise the run-up to the Sussexes' wedding in May 2018.

"What Meghan wants, Meghan gets" may have been shouted by Prince Harry to Angela Kelly, the Queen's personal assistant, following a row over a tiara – but royal aides were already well acquainted with the importance of meeting the Duchess's exacting standards.

"Everyone wanted her to be happy because they knew that would make him happy," said one. "Do whatever it takes to make it work for Meghan was the mantra. We all cared deeply about Harry. Contrary to this idea that they weren't supported, we were going to great lengths to accommodate their needs."

So much so that there was an extraordinary incident during the couple's first tour of Scotland when members of the palace PR team "body blocked" Meghan's former adviser Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne during a visit to an Edinburgh cafe in what one former aide described as "the most embarrassing moment of my professional career".

The Duchess had apparently expressed "a reluctance to make eye contact" with Ms Nelthorpe-Cowne, who was reduced to having to post an Instagram shot of her former close friend and client visiting the Social Bites cafe from a considerable distance. "Anyone from the past was a problem," observed the former aide.

Ms Nelthorpe-Cowne's name would later reappear in court documents accusing Meghan's close friend and stylist Jessica Mulroney of "putting pressure on her [Ms Nelthorpe-Cowne] to withdraw or change statements" she had made in an April 2018 interview with the Mail on Sunday.

Harry and Meghan
Harry and Meghan

The defence documents claimed the Sunday newspaper's features editor complained about the intervention to Mr Knauf, who allegedly responded by saying he would ensure "this does not happen again". In the piece, Ms Nelthorpe-Cowne described Meghan as: "Picky, not only when it comes to her clothes but also her colleagues, instantly dismissing those who didn’t share her 'vision'."

Describing how the Duchess had "given me a bit of a difficult time" after meeting Harry, she added: "Meghan likes to move on".

When contacted by The Telegraph, Ms Nelthorpe-Cowne declined to comment on the incident.

'Email bombardments'

As the world was gearing up for what the LA Times had billed as "a royal wedding for the 21st century", behind palace gates the atmosphere was becoming fraught.

Staff had grown used to "email bombardments" by Meghan and Harry, with one describing how "the last thing we'd do before going to sleep is reply to their messages and the first thing we'd do in the morning is reply to their messages. Weekends, holidays – there were no boundaries. They live on their phones all the time".

Despite publicly claiming they largely ignored the press coverage, in reality the couple were often consumed by it. "They're both very thin-skinned," said one former employee.

Meghan's supporters say staff members "who preferred a more genteel pace" could not keep up with the Duchess's "American work ethic" – with one close friend now suggesting the criticism was racially motivated. "Find me a woman of colour in a senior position who has not been accused of being too angry, too scary, too whatever in the workplace," the friend said.

Yet it was not just palace employees who found themselves on the receiving end of "inescapable screaming and shouting".

Much has been written about the bridesmaids' dress fitting, first revealed in The Telegraph in November 2018, that left the Duchess of Cambridge in tears.

Contrary to subsequent reports that the row concerned Princess Charlotte's tights, what actually happened was that the dress itself did not fit Kate's then nearly three-year-old daughter. According to a well-placed source, "demands were made about when subsequent fittings would be, and Kate left sobbing".

While Meghan's allies suggest that Kate did not make enough of an effort to welcome her future sister-in-law into the royal fold, allies of the Cambridges suggest she "tried to arrange social things" and invited her to watch tennis together but "there was a sense that Meghan never really wanted to be friends".

Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle at Wimbledon
Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle at Wimbledon

Those inside the palace concede, however, that the Cambridges can "appear standoffish" and are "often out of contact for extended periods".

Another former royal aide claimed the Duke, particularly, appreciated the "deflection" from his own occasionally demanding behaviour. "Bullying is endemic across all the households," the former aide added.

"The Meghan thing is a disgrace, but it's not in isolation. They cut you out, undermine you, talk down to you. One minute you're in – the next you're persona non grata. Some staff have special protection. I've never witnessed behaviour like it before. I wish I'd never seen behind the curtain."

A reprimand from the Queen

One member of staff afforded "special protection" is Angela Kelly, who has served as the Queen's closest aide since 2002. Rumours of Meghan being dubbed "Duchess Difficult" began to surface around the time it emerged that the Liverpudlian docker's daughter had been given a tongue-lashing by Harry.

Yet what was never accurately reported around the time of "Tiaragate" was that far from being denied the item from the Crown Jewels she wanted, Meghan was in fact given her first choice.

The argument erupted after the Duchess demanded that Queen Mary's Diamond Bandeau Tiara be produced for an unscheduled hairdressing appointment.

"Angela told Harry it was priceless and couldn't suddenly be handed over at short notice. He was furious and shouted: 'What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.' Suffice to say it didn't go down too well." So badly, in fact, that the no-nonsense 53-year-old, who has her own fearsome reputation among colleagues, reported the incident to the Queen, prompting a grandmotherly telling off for Harry.

Little did the Prince know at the time that staff had also given him a nickname: "The hostage".

According to one person with first-hand knowledge of the events: "They insisted that they had the same inflation-adjusted budget for the wedding as William and Kate – she got the choir she wanted, the dress, the carriage procession, the tiara – she got everything she wanted but it still wasn't enough.

"She was constantly looking for reasons to say she had been deprived. Also, she wanted drama from the very beginning."

According to one person with first-hand knowledge, the couple 'insisted that they had the same inflation-adjusted budget for the wedding as William and Kate' - Damir Sagolj/Reuters
According to one person with first-hand knowledge, the couple 'insisted that they had the same inflation-adjusted budget for the wedding as William and Kate' - Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Although the couple wanted their spokespeople to deny it, a story about Meghan requesting air freshener to be sprayed around the "musty" St George's Chapel was true, according to multiple sources.

Even The Kingdom Choir did not get off lightly after the couple changed their song 12 times before they were happy with the arrangement of "Stand By Me". As choir member Karen Gibson revealed: "Gospel music is all about the cherries on top and it's not about stinting on anything. But we got word back that they wanted something a little less, so we did a second version which had an Etta James arrangement but again we had word back that it wasn't right."

The group was then asked to meet Harry and Meghan face to face, before the couple finally settled on an arrangement after 11 previous attempts.

"The wedding was hugely stressful for everyone involved in it," said one former aide. "Staff were spending most of their time having smooth things over with suppliers."

Tears before the big day

The "Markle Debacle", when Meghan's father Thomas pulled out of the wedding at the last minute, only added to the tension as royal aides scrambled to "rescue" the narrative around the "big day" by having the Prince of Wales step in to walk Meghan down the aisle.

Despite Meghan later claiming to ITV's Tom Bradby that "not many people have asked if I'm ok", royal insiders insist they "rallied around" the couple – who were both in tears at times.

The Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who officiated the ceremony, is also understood to have given "psychological as well as spiritual" support. The principle leader of the Church of England caused hilarity among his staff by failing to recognise Ms Winfrey at the lunchtime reception at Windsor Castle, asking the US chat show host what she did for a living.

Oprah Winfrey arrives for the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan in 2018 - Ian West/AFP
Oprah Winfrey arrives for the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan in 2018 - Ian West/AFP

By the time the couple had returned from their honeymoon, relations between the Sussexes, the Cambridges and their staff became so bad that Harry and Meghan appeared reluctant to engage with anyone at the June 2018 leaving party for Miguel Head, William's former private secretary.

According to two separate sources, the couple "remained aloof" throughout the bash in the private garden at Kensington Palace. "It was a really convivial atmosphere with William giving a touching speech about Mig, but Harry and Meghan just remained on the outskirts and didn't mingle with anyone. They were the last to arrive and the first to leave."

Eyebrows were similarly raised when, having shared the news of her pregnancy at the Champagne reception following Princess Eugenie's wedding to Jack Brooksbank in October 2018, Meghan declined to attend the evening do. The bride was said to have been "upset" that Harry only "popped along for a drink without Meghan" – although they were due to fly to Australia for their first Commonwealth tour the day after.

During the 16-day tour, which also took in Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand, the couple appeared reluctant to engage with the press. Although Harry managed to be persuaded at one point to speak to reporters at the back of the plane, he told them: "Thanks for coming, even though you weren't invited."

Bullying claims emerge

On the same trip, it was claimed that Meghan had cut short a visit to a market in Fiji because she was concerned about the presence of a UN organisation promoting women, with which she had previously worked but now was no longer associated.

At the time, officials suggested that it was because it was humid and the crowd was oppressive in the market. After Meghan had been ushered away, a female member of her entourage was spotted sitting in an official car, looking extremely upset. Meghan's female personal protection officer left her post shortly afterwards.

Lawyers for the Duchess said she met other leaders from UN Women later on the tour and denied she left for the reason alleged.

Although Mr Knauf had not gone on the tour, he is thought to have been "deeply concerned" by reports of the couple's behaviour overseas.

"There was a sense that they were just refusing to take advice, and insisting on doing everything their way," said one royal source. "No one, from the most senior to the most junior employee, wasn't under constant attack," said another.

The Duchess of Sussex attends the unveiling of the Labalaba Statue in Nadi, Fiji, in October 2018 - Chris Jackson/Getty Images
The Duchess of Sussex attends the unveiling of the Labalaba Statue in Nadi, Fiji, in October 2018 - Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Matters came to a head in October 2018 following the departure of a second member of the Duchess's private office.

Mr Knauf emailed Simon Case, then William's private secretary and now the Cabinet Secretary, after conversations with Samantha Carruthers, the head of HR. Mr Case then forwarded it to Ms Carruthers, who is based at Clarence House.

The email read: "I am very concerned that the Duchess was able to bully two PAs out of the household in the past year. The treatment of X* was totally unacceptable. The Duchess seems intent on always having someone in her sights. She is bullying Y and seeking to undermine her confidence. We have had report after report from people who have witnessed unacceptable behaviour towards Y."

The email, which also expressed concern about the stress being experienced by Samantha Cohen, the couple's private secretary, concluded: "I questioned if the household's policy on harassment and bullying applies to principals."

While Mr Case was "very personally supportive" of the individual members of staff, Mr Knauf expressed his concern in the email that "nothing will be done". The palace is now holding an investigation, having been criticised for failing to act sooner.

It was not until a month later that it was reported that Melissa Toubati, the Duchess's former PA, had "quit suddenly", just six months into the job. The following month, it was announced that Ms Cohen would not stay in post after the Sussexes' baby was born.

The couple were apparently "furious" about reports of their high staff turnover, piling more pressure on their PR team to "try to turn negative headlines into positive ones".

According to one former employee: "What people fail to understand is Harry's hatred of the media is probably one of the most important things in his life. It is defining for him. So the narrative is always – it’s the press's fault, never theirs."

That Christmas, the Sussexes were once again photographed alongside the Cambridges on Dec 25 but opted to stay with the Queen at the "main house" rather than Anmer Hall.

It came after an awkward staff Christmas party in which "all mention of Melissa's name was banned", according to one royal insider. "It was as if she never existed." Some employees found it hard to reconcile the couple's erratic conduct with moments of genuine kindness, such as when Meghan would buy female staff members flowers or even jewellery.

Relations break down

By the New Year, relations within Kensington Palace had "irretrievably broken down," with Prince Harry no longer on speaking terms with Mr Knauf after he had failed to persuade him to drop the complaint against his wife. The Sussexes' lawyers deny any such conversation took place.

Sources close to the couple say Ms Toubati, who was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, was sacked for misconduct, pointing out neither staff member made complaints of their own to HR. Ms Toubati's friends deny she was sacked for misconduct.

With Harry and Meghan already operating in a silo – and increasingly consulting the Duchess's US team of advisers rather than palace officials – a split of the two households at Kensington Palace appeared an inevitability.

It was around the time that the couple moved to Frogmore Cottage in Windsor in March 2019 that Amy Pickerill became the third of the Duchess's staff to leave her role, having served as her assistant private secretary since November 2017.

Mr Knauf also stepped down to work as senior adviser to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. He is now chief executive of the Cambridges' Royal Foundation. Friends say he "bitterly regrets" not warning Sara Latham, who was appointed as the Sussexes' director of communications in April 2019, how difficult working for the couple could be.

Jonathan Knauf stepped down to work as senior adviser to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge - Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive
Jonathan Knauf stepped down to work as senior adviser to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge - Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive

The American PR supremo, who used to advise the Clintons, quickly worked this out for herself when the couple insisted on secrecy around son Archie's birth on May 6, while trying to maximise global coverage.

Around the same time it was falsely claimed that the Duchess had been prevented from doing an interview with CBS anchor Gayle King, Ms Winfrey's close friend. In fact, insiders say "the Duchess was calling shots throughout."

It came after Meghan had attended a high-profile baby shower in New York with Serena Williams and Amal Clooney, without being accompanied by any palace press officers. Concerns were raised behind palace gates when freebies started arriving at New York's Mark Hotel, causing consternation for staff back in the UK having to wrestle with the Royal family's strict rules on gifting.

Having courted controversy throughout the summer of 2019 for snubbing the Queen's invitation to Balmoral and taking four private jets in 11 days instead, relations with the media were at rock bottom at the start of the Sussexes' September tour to Africa.

Royal aides were then left dumbfounded when what had been a surprisingly successful 10-day trip with Archie was overshadowed by Meghan's interview with Mr Bradby, in which she revealed the "struggles" she had faced adapting to life in the Royal family.

Five thorny issues that could be raised during Harry and Meghan's interview with Oprah

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is interviewed by ITV's Tom Bradby.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is interviewed by ITV's Tom Bradby.

Duke's fears for wife

It came as Harry released an attack on the tabloid press as the couple announced they would be suing the Mail on Sunday over the publication of a letter Meghan had written to her father.

In a highly personal and scathing statement, Harry said some newspapers had "vilified her almost daily for the past nine months" and claimed they had published "lie after lie" at Meghan's expense simply because she was out of public view on maternity leave.

Referencing his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris while being pursued by the paparazzi, the Duke said: "Though this action may not be the safe one, it is the right one. Because my deepest fear is history repeating itself. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

The interview set the tone for their January 2020 announcement that they would be "stepping back as senior royals" to become "financially independent".

Once the world has seen the most highly anticipated royal television event since Diana's Panorama interview in 1995, it will be left to the viewers to decide which version of history represents the truth.

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