In the league of ghastly childhoods — with full-on warring parents, instability and emotional manipulation — Prince William’s and Prince Harry’s were up there with the worst of them. As adults, they have described publicly how their mother’s sudden death affected their mental health, but they have never mentioned the stuff that came before.
Any review of contemporary royal books needs a disclaimer: they all deal in the unverifiable, upmarket gossip of our favorite soap opera. That said, Robert Lacey is one of the better commentators, and he has written this from the credible modern perspective of two unhappy boys whose parents didn’t love each other and who fought excruciatingly intimate battles in public.
Lacey reinterprets the dark Charles-Diana fairy tale to fit his thesis that their sons switched characters as they grew up. William the heir, absorbing his destiny, mentored by the Queen, learned to manage his anger, while Harry the spare, the meek one, went off the rails.
The Princes and the Press
Both boys, he suggests, were forged by loss and conflict. Their first surrogate mother, their nanny Barbara Barnes, comforted them in the night and taught them to walk, talk and read, protecting them even as she parented their fragile mother, bandaging her arms when she self-harmed. However, when the boys were four and two, Barnes was abruptly removed from their lives, her bags packed for her, forbidden to say goodbye to them. Princess Diana had got jealous. Barnes’s replacement, Ruth Wallace, the adored Nanny “Roof”, lasted only three years. She walked out when things between the parents got “too unpleasant”.
The confrontations were toxic. “I f***ing hate you,” Diana screamed at Charles. In turn, William, impelled to take sides, would shout, “I hate you Papa. I hate you so much,” and ask him why he made his mother cry all the time. William was noisy, cheeky and defiant; Harry quiet. William, sent to boarding school at eight, was not yet ten when Andrew Morton’s 1992 book Diana: Her True Story came out. As if home life wasn’t bad enough, the boys then had to cope with every lurid detail made public. The book “was a deliberate and aggressive exposure of the family’s bad blood”, Lacey says, wondering how a mother claiming to be so devoted could do that to her children.
The public sniggered even louder when cringeworthy tapes of their parents’ conversations with lovers — Squidgygate and Camillagate — were released. Even if the boys, then aged 11 and 8, didn’t hear them, everyone else did, which was worse. Charles and Diana then separated and their father did his infamous TV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, publicly acknowledging his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Next up was Anna Pasternak’s syrupy book about Diana’s love affair with James Hewitt, informing the world that he had made love to their mother in a Highgrove loo while the boys were on the other side of the door. It also raised rumors about Harry’s paternity, comprehensively discredited, but public torment for the child.
Diana piled on the agony with her famous interview in 1995 on Panorama, seen by 22 million people, one of them her 13-year-old elder son in his housemaster’s study at Eton College. William was deeply upset by her revelation that she had loved Hewitt. He was found slumped on the sofa, eyes red with crying, and refused to take her phone call an hour later. Diana confided later how furious William had been, shouting and crying, rejecting her hugs. She had made a fool of herself and him. “What have I done to my children?” Diana cried to a confidante. What indeed. William considered his parents an embarrassment and stories circulated that he told them to their faces what he thought of them. Less than two years later his mother was dead.
Anna Pasternak’s syrupy book informed the world that James Hewitt had made love to Diana in a Highgrove loo while the boys were on the other side of the door.
Motherless Harry, passing into his teens, cleaved to his brother. At this point, Lacey’s theme goes, Harry’s role became that of a useful scapegoat, his reputation sacrificed to protect those of his brother and father. This, Lacey suggests, was what caused the two brothers to grow apart and lies at the roots of Megxit and Harry’s rebirth as a woke warrior.
When the boys were teenagers Charles created a “disco-rumpus room” for them and their friends, with a well-stocked bar, in the cellar at Highgrove. While their father was away, as he often was, 16-year-old William became the ringleader, Lord of Misrule. “The blue-eyed glamour boy at the centre of the so-called Glossy Posse” lured his 14-year-old brother into the group’s regular, serious drinking. When Charles came home, they decamped to the local pub, where cannabis was smoked.
By the time Harry was 15 his nickname was Hash Harry and he was getting stoned to excess. Soon, news of “Harry’s Drug Shame” broke, but in a masterpiece of damage limitation, William’s role wasn’t mentioned and Charles was eulogized with headlines such as “Courage of a wise and loving dad” for arranging his son’s visit to a drug rehabilitation center as a short, sharp shock (he didn’t).
Much the same game played out behind the scandal of Harry’s Nazi fancy-dress outfit. William was with Harry when he chose it and laughed all the way to the party with him, instead of warning him off. Again, hapless Harry was hung out to dry because it was the function of the elder brother, king-in-waiting, to be portrayed as perfect.
Harry’s role as useful scapegoat was what caused the two brothers to grow apart and lies at the roots of Megxit and Harry’s rebirth as a woke warrior.
Friends say “no-speaks” and a rift developed from those episodes. Harry felt unfairly treated, his sense of persecution grew. He hated the press even more. The brothers made up, but Harry understood that his brother would always be protected at his expense. The big split came over Meghan Markle: William urged caution, less from brotherly love, Harry suspected, than from concern about the reputation of the royals. When William involved their uncle, Charles Spencer, Harry was furious.
Lacey claims that unimaginative courtiers are largely responsible for mishandling Harry and Meghan; cleverer people would have kept them on board. William could have played peacemaker, but he was too angry to speak to them and left his brother to officialdom. At the famous Sandringham Summit in January to thrash out the deal, he couldn’t even bear to face Harry for lunch beforehand. Lacey doesn’t sound optimistic about their future relationship.
The trouble with royal pop history is that by reading it we are complicit. The appeal is to our base instinct: compelling, guilt-inducing gossip. Lacey’s book is rushed, frequently pompous — why on earth should Meghan have to show off her baby post-partum? — and padded with stuff we have read a million times. Yet the pomposity makes him unintentionally hilarious, such as his cake-and-eat-it condemnation of newspaper scoops, or the absurd two-page gush about the ITN anchor Tom Bradby: “One of Britain’s foremost newscasters … so bright he could have gone to grammar school.” (Apparently Bradby is William’s go-to mouthpiece on royal nuance.)
We can thank him too for various gems: that Princess Anne called Diana “gooey” and “the Dope”, and that Kate Middleton changed subject, university and even entry year to bump into William at St Andrews. I loved the revelation that Meghan’s parents married in the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Los Angeles, “just a stone’s throw” from where Hugh Grant was caught with the sex worker Divine Brown. Or that Camilla, challenged for parking in a space reserved for the mayor of Chippenham, apologized and said she was the mayor’s wife. “What a joy to meet you for the first time,” the man said. “I’m the mayor.”
The princes’ story is a sad one. But royal flimflam lends gaiety to our lives.