LONDON — It's been a send-off fit for a prince.
Since Prince Harry and Meghan returned to the United Kingdom from Canada for their final engagements as senior royals, they've been embraced by the very public they are leaving.
On Monday, the couple performed their last official royal engagement surrounded by Harry's immediate family, marking the end of a short era that saw the couple go from embracing their royal role to all-out rejecting it.
Clad in green, Meghan walked into Westminster Abbey with Harry ahead of Prince William and his wife, Kate, and were seated behind them. With the coronavirus on everyone's mind, there were no handshakes for any of the royal family as they greeted church leaders and politicians on their entrance to the service.
"It will be fascinating to see how it plays out," royal biographer Penny Junor told Reuters ahead of Monday’s ceremony. "I imagine everybody will be on absolutely best behavior. But goodness knows what they will all be thinking privately."
The Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey comes after four days of engagements oozing with glamour, as Meghan made her first return to the U.K. since the couple’s shock announcement in January that they intended to step back from their roles as senior royals.
The couple’s farewell tour has featured across the front pages of Britain’s tabloids.
“Harry and Meg's final salute” read the cover of the Daily Mirror. “Kiss and Meg up” the Metro wrote, referring to the couple meeting up with the queen at church Sunday.
Since returning to the U.K., Meghan and Harry have appeared at events celebrating causes they support — and have been greeted by cheering crowds along the way. On Sunday, the palace released details of Meghan’s solo visit to a school in Dagenham, where she marked International Women’s Day in the east London town where female sewing machinists from the Ford Motor Plant held a strike for equal pay in 1968.
In a speech, she asked for one of the young students in the audience to come up to the stage to share what he thought of the importance of the day.
When one 16-year-old bounded up, he prefaced his remarks with a tribute to Meghan, saying, “She really is beautiful, innit?”
On Monday, Harry and Meghan joined his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, along with his father, Prince Charles, brother and his uncle Prince Edward at the Commonwealth Service. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, boxing champion Anthony Joshua and singer Craig David, as well as a host of ambassadors, politicians, faith leaders and school children were also at the ceremony.
"I think it could well be awkward behind the scenes. I think they will do their best to put on their best public faces," said Chris Ship, royal correspondent for NBC News' British partner ITV News.
This year’s event stood in sharp contrast to last year’s when Meghan was pregnant, and the couple stood in the church side-by-side with William and Kate. And it’s just two years since the service — held during her engagement to Harry — marked the first time that Meghan appeared at an official event with the queen. At the time, Meghan was hailed for modernizing the monarchy and reflecting the reality of mixed-race families in Britain.
All eyes were on how Meghan and Harry interacted with the other members of his immediate family. After they took their seats, the couple chatted with Edward and his wife, Sophie. William said hello to Harry as he took his seat in front of them. There have long been rumors in the British press of a rift between Harry and William, which Harry alluded to in an interview broadcast in October, saying they were on “different paths.”
Their new role independent of the royal family begins this spring and will be reviewed in 12 months.
"The door has been left open for Harry to come back," Ship said. "This is a transition period they are entering at the moment. It is a 12-month period. If it works out, fine. If it doesn't work out, the door is open, they will have him back."
From their new base in Canada, the couple will no longer carry out official duties for the queen and won't use their royal highness titles or the word royal in the nonprofit organization they intend to establish. Although he is stepping away from royal duties, Harry will remain sixth in line to the throne, behind his father, brother, and William's children.
Although their January announcement was a surprise, it was no secret that the couple felt the strain of the constant media attention and negative headlines. In October, they filed suit against the Mail on Sunday's parent company after the tabloid published a private letter written by Meghan to her father last year.
Meanwhile, Meghan said in a documentary filmed while on tour in Africa that things had been challenging and that "not that many people have asked if I'm OK."
As the couple transition to a new life an ocean away, the exact details on their future plans are still unknown. What is known is that their new role outside the royal family is somewhat different to what they had originally planned.
"Our hope was to continue serving the queen, the Commonwealth and my military associations without public funding. Sadly, that wasn't possible," the prince said in a speech in January.
Other than the fact that they plan to establish the new nonprofit, they have said little about the causes they intend to focus on, how they plan to make money and even where in Canada they intend to live.
One thing is certain, however. Even without their royal trappings, Harry and Meghan will be making headlines wherever they are.