LONDON (AP) -- Prince Harry and his wife Meghan were taking the first steps into their new independent life thousands of miles apart on Friday, as a friend of the couple pushed back against accusations they blindsided Queen Elizabeth II with the announcement they would be stepping down from royal duties.
As Meghan flew back to Canada, where the couple spent a six-week Christmas break out of the public eye, Harry stayed in England, where the royal family sought to contain the crisis sparked by the couple's decision to effectively quit as senior royals.
The queen moved quickly to take control of the situation, ordering royal courtiers to sort out a future role for the couple within days. British media reported Friday that the monarch, who is at her Sandringham estate in eastern England, held a conference call with her son Prince Charles and grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry.
The royal family is said to be "hurt'' by Harry and Meghan's decision to step down from their royal role, with reports claiming they were not told of the statement beforehand. But the queen, Charles and William have told their teams to work with government and the couple to sort out a solution.
In the meantime, Buckingham Palace confirmed Friday that Meghan had returned to Canada, where the couple and 8-month-old son Archie spent the holiday season at a secluded luxury home on Vancouver Island. The former actress is American but has longstanding ties to Canada, having lived in Toronto while filming the popular TV show "Suits."
The crisis talks were triggered by the pair's "personal message" Wednesday evening saying they were stepping back from being senior members of Britain's royal family, would work to become financially independent and would "balance" their time between the U.K. and North America.
Harry, 35, is sixth in line to the British throne, behind his father, older brother William and his brother's three children. The former British army officer is one of the royal family's most popular members and has spent his entire life in the public eye.
Before marrying the prince in a wedding watched around the world in 2018, the 38-year-old Meghan had carved out a successful career as an actress and lifestyle "influencer" with a popular blog, the now-defunct The Tig.
A friend of the couple, broadcaster Tom Bradby, said Harry and Meghan were made aware while in Canada over the holidays that the monarchy's future focus would be on those at the top of the line of succession. An image of the queen and the three next in line to the throne -- Charles, William and his son George -- underscored the message of who the Windsors see as their core members.
"It had been made clear to them in their absence there was going to be a slimmed down monarchy and they weren't really a part of it," said Bradby, an ITV television anchor who filmed revealing interviews with Harry and Meghan while they were in Africa last year.
Bradby described the royal split as inevitable. He said the wish by the couple, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, to leave the grind of front-line royal duty had been known, though the timing of their announcement was not.
"It's certainly not true to say the palace were blindsided by this," Bradby told ITV.
The royal rift has exposed more divisions within the British monarchy, which was rocked in November by Prince Andrew's disastrous television interview about his relationship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Andrew, the queen's second son, has relinquished royal duties and patronages after being accused by a woman who says she was an Epstein trafficking victim who slept with the prince.
Harry and Meghan have faced a barrage of criticism from the British press over their decision. They have long complained of intrusive media coverage and accused some British media commentators of racism towards the biracial Markle. This week they slammed the country's long-standing arrangements for royal media coverage and insisted that from now on they prefer to communicate directly with the public through social media.
Many in Britain, though, expressed sympathy for the royal couple. Labour Party lawmaker Clive Lewis told backers Friday at his campaign launch that he understood their decision.
"It is extremely unfortunate and a sign of the media we have that they feel they have to do this,'' he said. "I know it is not the only reason. But if you look at the intrusion on their lives, if you look at the racism that Meghan Markle has experienced in the British media, then I can understand why.''
The couple's statement on Wednesday left many questions unanswered -- such as what they plan to do and how they will earn private income without tarnishing the royal image. At the moment, they are largely funded by Harry's father, Prince Charles, through income from his vast Duchy of Cornwall estate.
The couple said they plan to cut ties to the British taxpayer support given each year to the queen for official use, which currently covers 5% of the costs of running their office. But commentators have questioned whether the royal couple have misunderstood their true cost to the country, arguing their statement doesn't appear to cover some of the expenditures embedded in royal life, such as security.
Harry and Meghan have considerable assets of their own. Harry inherited an estimated 7 million pounds ($9.1 million) from his late mother, Princess Diana, as well as money from his great-grandmother. Meghan has money from a successful acting career.