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Meghan Markle and the Persistent Myth of the Manipulative Royal Wife

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their decision to step back from the royal family, The Sun plastered a portmanteau in its sensational headline: MEGXIT.

(That’s Meghan, plus Brexit.) Within a few days, the term was everywhere. It was in the global papers and a trending hashtag on Twitter. It was on mugs, T-shirts, and iPad cases sold on Amazon.

It was in the dictionary—the Collins English Dictionary named it one of 2020’s words of the year. It even got its own Wikipedia page (complete with its own section on etymology).

On a surface level, Megxit was just some wordplay that, thanks to its clever combination of current events, developed cultural, even comical, cache. (Who didn’t laugh at Brad Pitt’s Megxit joke at the BAFTAs?) Yet it contained an innate, misleading implication: that it was Meghan who was solely responsible for their royal departure. “The use of Meghan’s name has been taken in some quarters as identifying the Duchess as the instigator of the withdrawal,” Collins explained. Just this month, in fact, an anonymous source told the Times of London that the Duchess of Sussex had ulterior motives: “She wanted to be the victim because then she could convince Harry that it was an unbearable experience and they had no choice but to move to America,” they claimed.

During the couple’s recent tell-all, Oprah With Harry and Meghan, Oprah Winfrey addressed this Megxit narrative by showing a barrage of headlines and TV interviews that “blamed Meghan for the decision.”

This pervasive viewpoint was said to irk Harry. Why? Because, as we know now, he was the one who made the final call.

The duke’s unhappiness with royal life, as well as his ultimate choice to retreat from it, first surfaced last year in Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand’s book, Finding Freedom. Then, the duke confirmed it in person last month to James Corden, calling his situation “toxic.”

“I did what any husband and what any father would do—I need to get my family out of here,” he told the talk-show host.

He then stressed again to Oprah that it was his choice to leave the monarchy, rather than his wife’s. The duchess explained further: “He ultimately called it—he was like, ‘We’ve got to find a way for us,’” Meghan said. Then she thanked her husband: “You made a decision that certainly saved my life. And saved all of us.”

So, yes, the adage of “it takes two” seems to be accurate in the case of Meghan and Harry. Why, though, did it get so twisted?

Turns out, the myth of the manipulative royal wife is far from a new one.

In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson. During the crisis, and for years after, newspapers cranked out sensational coverage about the ordeal. Much of it focused on Simpson: an American divorcée, who, in their eyes, had swooped in on their beloved public servant. She was called a temptress, a social climber, a nymphomaniac who learned ancient Chinese skills at a Shanghai brothel that she then supposedly employed to entrap the king.

(It was even rumored that a dossier of such exploits existed. This has been denied by historians.) The public opinion responded in kind. According to Alexander Larman’s book A Crown in Crisis, Scotland Yard received an anonymous letter that said: “If that Yankee harlot does not get out, we will smash her windows and give her a hiding.” That eventually did happen—newspaper reporters threw bricks at her London home. “No-one has been more victimized by gossip and scandal,” Winston Churchill once observed.

In reality, it was the duke who pushed for the two to be officially together. In fact, Simpson said she was “content with the simple way”—meaning remaining his mistress. Edward, however, pushed for her to become his wife. When it became increasingly clear that the monarchy would not allow Edward to marry her and retain the throne, Simpson gave a press statement that she was willing to stand down.

But Edward wouldn’t. “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love,” he said in his December 11, 1936, radio address. He stressed that this was his choice: “I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone.

This was a thing I had to judge entirely for myself,” Edward said. Then, he absolved Simpson of any culpability. “The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course.”

From all accounts, the two spent their life very much in love. During an interview with the BBC in 1970, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor told journalist Kenneth Harris that, yes, giving up the monarchy was worth it: “We’ve been very happy,” Simpson said. Edward grabbed her hand in response. “We have,” he said.

Just over 50 years later, Oprah Winfrey asked Meghan if her story with Prince Harry has a happy ending. “Greater than any fairy tale you’ve ever read,” she replied.

This article originally appeared on Vogue US and is compiled by Elise Taylor.

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