“That’s a first for the royal family. I don’t think Harry was ever going to marry a nice upper-class girl from the [English] counties — it’s just not him. He’s found a great match in her.”

By Erin Hill
April 13, 2018 05:04 PM

This article originally appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of PEOPLE magazine.

During a surprise visit to Belfast on March 23, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle held hands as they worked their way in tandem through the crowds. When one fan asked to see Meghan’s three-diamond engagement ring, the royal bride-to-be happily showed it off — and couldn’t help but gush about her fiancé. “It was the sweetest moment,” Meghan, 36, said of Harry’s Kensington Palace proposal. “He’s the sweetest guy.”

The guy he is today, of course, has been 33 years in the making—and is a long way from the impulsive young man who once shied away from commitment and nearly lost himself following the 1997 death of his mother, Princess Diana. For years Harry had a reputation as a royal rebel, partying too hard and making tabloid headlines for bad behavior, including an infamous game of strip billiards in Vegas. But even after finding purpose and discipline in the British Army, Harry was still searching for the missing piece—an equal partner with whom he could share his life and passions.

“Being a royal has been a romantic curse for him,” says Diana’s former biographer Andrew Morton, the author of a new biography of Meghan. Unlike Harry’s previous girlfriends, who have struggled under the glare of the spotlight, Meghan — a successful Hollywood actress, activist and influencer before she met Harry — shines under it. “She is definitely the one wearing the trousers in their relationship,” says a royal insider. “She is a strong, opinionated woman who has her own ideas about things, and that’s one of the things he loves about her.”

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Of course, Harry has always held his own and even as a kid could command a room as the impish counterpart to his more dutiful big brother, Prince William. “You’d be a guest at Kensington Palace, and you’d see a plastic rifle come round the corner and a boy dressed in an army uniform,” Morton says. “He used to help the chauffeurs clean the cars and turn hoses on people. He was cheeky.”

His world was shattered at just 12 years old when he lost not only his mother but also the chance to grieve her privately. He and William, then 15, were forced to walk behind her coffin, and “the sound of people wailing and sobbing will always remain with them,” says Morton. Of that dark time, Harry told Newsweek in 2017, “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances.”

Exacerbating his pain, the young prince didn’t get the support he desperately needed from his dad. “Prince Charles was a loving father, but he would never discipline his kids,” says Morton. “He would say to an official, ‘You deal with it,’ and put his headphones back on and listen to opera.”

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Just before her death, Diana had also been worried about Harry, who had been held back a year in school. “Diana called William because he was concerned that all the attention would be on Harry because he had been kept down a year at Ludgrove [preparatory school],” Morton says. “He was concerned there would be a lot of pressure on Harry.” Whereas William had always been the studious older brother, Harry “wasn’t particularly academic,” says a Palace source. “Looking back, he was grieving quite a bit, but nobody really recognized it that way. He was quite sad and masked it with this naughtiness, but there was a vulnerable little boy in there.”

By his 20s, Harry’s struggles became even more apparent. “He was a troubled, angry, damaged young man,” says Duncan Larcombe, a former royals reporter who traveled with Prince Harry throughout much of the early 2000s and is the author of the new biography Prince Harry: The Inside Story. “He had a circle of some friends who weren’t a particular good influence on him.”

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Meghan Markle and Prince Harry on March 8

In 2005 Harry’s picture was splashed on front pages around the world showing the then-20-year-old wearing a Nazi uniform at a costume party. He made headlines again after naked photos emerged from his strip billiards game in Las Vegas in 2012. But behind the scenes he had spiraled even further than anyone realized. He only recently admitted that after two years of “total chaos” he came close to a “complete breakdown. My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to think about my mum,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2017.

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As he finally began to cope with his grief, he also started to find a sense of order through his decade of service in the British Army, including two tours in Afghanistan. “He went into the army a young, angry, reluctant prince and came out an accomplished pilot and a leader of men,” says Larcombe. Harry’s service led him to found the Invictus Games, his annual Paralympic-style competition for wounded warriors. “You’d be getting changed in the locker room at Invictus and Harry would suddenly appear and say, ‘Let’s have a selfie!’ while you’ve got your underwear on,” recalls one veteran. “He gives you time, and he speaks honestly to you. I’ve heard him say a few times, ‘I always get an honest answer off a squaddie [i.e., soldier].’ That’s the sort of bloke he is.” “My area of interest will always be the veterans,” Harry told People in May 2016. “For me it’s the difference between being helpless and being able to help.”

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His newfound sense of purpose brought a stability he had long lacked. “Harry’s drinking days are over,” says a source. “All of his best friends have settled and had children, so he’s had fewer people to go out and play with. He realized he was getting a bit older and that it was time to settle down a little bit.” Adds Larcombe: “He desperately wanted to get married and be happy. He sees his brother has found that. The fact that Meghan arrived when she did completes it for Harry.”

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A star following seven seasons on the USA hit Suits, “Meghan was established before she met Harry,” says the insider. “That’s a first for the royal family. I don’t think Harry was ever going to marry a nice upper-class girl from the [English] counties — it’s just not him. He’s found a great match in her.”

Today, Harry “is able to talk about how troubled he was and how he sought counseling—in no small way, I imagine that’s Meghan’s influence on him,” says Larcombe. “His antics over the years mean that everyone can identify with him. He is a reluctant royal because he is a prince of the people. The public feel a connection with Harry for all those reasons that they probably don’t feel for any other member of the royal family.”

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In Meghan, he has found a trusted copilot with whom to move the monarchy forward. “Meghan is going to be a force,” says a palace source. “She will help him really define his role and relate to the public in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to do before. It was worth the wait.”