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Prince Harry And Meghan Markle 'Step Back' From Royal Family Roles

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Royal break, quitting the firm - that's how some British papers are describing the news that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle say they're stepping back as senior members of the British royal family. The duke and duchess of Sussex also said they intend to, quote, "work to become financially independent while continuing to fully support her majesty the queen." Joining us from London to talk about this is British historian Kate Williams.

Welcome to the program.

KATE WILLIAMS: Good afternoon, Audie.

CORNISH: So how surprising is this?

WILLIAMS: This is surprising. I think many of us who are royal commentators and experts expected something along the lines to come towards the idea of Harry and Meghan working for a global foundation. I mean, of course, we'll remember in the engagement interview that they actually talk then about global work. So I was expecting this. But I have to say I, and I don't think anyone else, was expecting it quite this quickly - this really - as you were saying, triple whammy of financial independence, stepping down as senior royals and also dividing their time between America and the U.K. So this is a big, big departure from what any other royal has ever done before.

CORNISH: Can you talk more about that? When you say any other, is it the financially independent part? Is the just kind of renouncing, saying, look; we're going to step back? What aspect of this is unprecedented?

WILLIAMS: It is unprecedented that they forge their way because, of course, you know, this is a big royal family that we have. There are lots of minor royals. For example, Princess Anne's children don't have titles. They are financially independent, but they do do royal work. They are still living in Britain. They come to all the royal events.

Harry and Meghan are really saying here they want to forge their own way. And there have been all kinds of people saying, what are they going to do? Is Meghan going to go back to acting? I don't think that's going to happen. What I do think they're going to do is I think they're going to set up a global foundation, as we sometimes see ex-presidents or ex-prime ministers do, and really create this big charitable effort.

And it - and they aren't going to be senior members of the royal family anymore. They're stepping down, and it will give them a great freedom. Harry has often felt rather constrained by what the royal family can and can't do and can and can't say. Now I think he can do the charity work and say what he really wants. It's a huge move. We really haven't seen anything like it.

We saw Prince Andrew stepping down from royal duties because he had to from the disgrace he caused the royal family - his sort of terrible actions last year. But we are now seeing two royals, really in the prime of their popularity, choosing to step down and do their own thing and really saying - you know, they're really - what they're saying is, the royal family isn't going to give us a platform to do what we want to do, and there are better ways outside of it. So it's very radical.

CORNISH: In our last minute, what's the reaction been like?

WILLIAMS: The reaction has been pretty shocked here in the U.K. It's been trending. People are in shock. All the newspapers are covering it. And there has - we know that Prince Harry's been very upset by the treatment of Meghan, by coverage of her. Some of it's sexist, some of it racist. And there has been a lot of very unfair criticism of Meghan. But I do hope that, you know, once the shock has subsided, people are going to sympathize with them and see that they're actually doing this for positive good.

CORNISH: That's British historian Kate Williams, author of "The Betrayal Of Mary, Queen Of Scots."

Thank you for your time.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.