Princess Diana's "Little Spencer": The Truth About Prince Harry's Relationship With His Mother's Side of the Family

So much more attention is paid to the control wielded by the Windsors, but Harry has quietly maintained a very close relationship with the sprawling Spencer side as well

By Natalie Finn May 14, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Eleanor Fellowes, Prince Harry, Princess Diana, Frances Shand-KyddDave Benett/Getty Images

When it comes to Prince William and Prince Harry, understandably it's their dad's side of the family that gets most of the headlines.

Their paternal grandmother is Queen Elizabeth II, so when major milestones occur, it's the monarch's rules—the official and the tacitly understood—that have been set in place during her historic reign that tend to monopolize the conversation.

Plus, the queen has four grown kids, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, as well as a sprawling tree of cousins and their progeny. With so many royals to keep track of, it can be easy to forget that that's only one half of William and Harry's family.

The Telegraph has reported that their aunt Lady Jane Fellowes, one of Princess Diana's two sisters, was among the first people to visit Harry and Meghan Markle following the birth of their son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, on May 6—meaning, she met Master Archie (as the title-less little chap will be known for now) before William and Kate Middleton were able to get there.

But the expediency with which Lady Jane got there isn't particularly surprising. The Spencer side did, after all, promise to look after William and Harry in their mother's stead, to do their best to balance out the inevitable demands of royal life with the normalcy that Diana wished for them—and the brothers never forgot it.

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In turn, Harry and William have enjoyed a more private but equally enduring bond with their mother's side of the family, and Harry—only sixth in line to the throne and therefore a tad less tethered to the Windsor side than future king William—has kept the Spencers especially close.

For instance, his maternal aunts and uncle were included by name in the initial birth announcement from Buckingham Palace sent last week, which read, "The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Lady Jane Fellowes, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Earl Spencer have been informed and are delighted with the news."

"Really very lovely news today - many, many, congratulations! (Good to have another Taurean in the family....)," Diana's brother, Charles, 9th Earl Spencer and proud Taurus, tweeted as well, noting Archie's zodiac sign, which he shares. (Diana was also very into astrology.)

Earl Spencer, the youngest of the five Spencer children (a brother, John, died in infancy the year before Diana was born), gave one of the most talked-about speeches in contemporary British history in eulogizing his sister in 1997—an address raw in its candor, purposely worded and yet also hopeful in its wish that Diana's legacy would continue to burn bright, particularly through William and Harry.

He had been living in South Africa when Diana died, and he—along with many others—had felt that his sister had been hung out to dry with the media in the wake of her separation and eventual divorce from Prince Charles, who along with then-girlfriend Camilla Parker-Bowles had been painted as villains in the Princess of Wales' fall from royal grace. Earl Spencer was also understandably livid at the press, who had dissected Diana every which way and hounded her literally right up until the tragic end.

"She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate and I do this here, Diana, on your behalf," Earl Spencer said at Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6, 1997. "We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair.

"And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men, so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned. 

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"We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born, and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role," he continued. But we, like you, recognize the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead. I know you would have expected nothing less from us.

"William and Harry, we all care desperately for you today. We are all chewed up with sadness at the loss of a woman who was not even our mother. How great your suffering is we cannot even imagine."

Earl Spencer concluded by saying, "I would like to end by thanking God for the small mercies he has shown us at this dreadful time, for taking Diana at her most beautiful and radiant and when she had joy in her private life. Above all, we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister: the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana, whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds."

William and Harry clapped, along with many of the 2,000 people in the church that day, as well as thousands of others assembled in nearby Hyde Park. Another 2 billion around the world watched at least some of the funeral proceedings on TV.

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"I don't feel I said many pointed things," Earl Spencer recalled to BBC Radio 4's Today in 2017 upon the 20th anniversary of his sister's death. "I believe that every word I said was true and it was important for me to be honest. I wasn't looking to make any jabs at anyone actually. I was trying to celebrate Diana—and if by doing that it showed up particularly the press, I think, in a bad way, well, they had that coming." 

Spencer, who was 33 at the time, also walked in the funeral procession from St. James's Palace to Westminster Abbey alongside 15-year-old William and 12-year-old Harry—whom, he later said, he was under the impression had been OK with taking that mournful walk behind the carriage carrying their mother's coffin.

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He told Today that he had objected to the boys having to do it but "eventually I was lied to and told they wanted to do it, which of course they didn't but I didn't realize that."

"The feeling, the sort of absolute crashing tidal wave of grief coming at you as you went down this sort of tunnel of deep emotion, it was really harrowing and I still have nightmares about it now," Spencer recalled. "So there was the inner turmoil of thinking, 'My God this is ghastly,' but then the point of thinking these two boys are doing this and it must be a million times worse for them. 

"It was truly horrifying, actually. We would walk a hundred yards and hear people sobbing and then walk round a corner and somebody wailing and shouting out messages of love to Diana or William and Harry, and it was a very, very tricky time."

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And Earl Spencer had his own regrets. His relationship with Diana had been strained in 1993, when a plan for her to stay at Althorp, at his suggestion, didn't work out. Wanting a comfortable country retreat to get away with William and Harry, she was planning on moving into Garden House, one of the residences on the massive estate, but her brother ended up shutting the plan down, citing concern for his own family's privacy. He offered her any of 120 other family-owned residences, but she was set on Garden House and the plan fell apart.

The falling-out caused a "brief but bitter silence," he later described the rift.

But, as a Spencer relative told biographer Sally Bedell Smith for her 2012 book Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess, someone "was always in and out of favor" with Diana, including her mother and sisters. She was "very up and down with Jane and Sarah," the family member said.

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As her marriage to Charles started to unravel in the late '80s, Diana didn't feel she could confide in Jane because of her husband's closeness to the queen, and Sarah and her mother had proved too loose-lipped around the press to trust them with her marital concerns. (Sarah, who had dated Prince Charles before Diana did, was persona non grata to him and the queen for awhile after spilling way too many beans to a couple of reporters in 1978.)

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"Just remember we always love you," Diana's father, John, 8th Earl Spencer, assured her as her troubles piled up.

After Andrew Morton's 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words came out, aided and abetted by the Princess of Wales' own words, her relationship with Jane further soured, per Bedell Smith, and Diana eventually made Sarah her lady-in-waiting—a personality clash waiting to happen, according to some.

By 1996, Earl Spencer was living in South Africa and Diana was barely talking to Jane, though she and Sarah kept in regular contact and took the occasional trip together. But none of that got in the way of the affection they all had for their respective nieces and nephews.

And Prince Charles, who flew to Paris to retrieve Diana's body with Sarah and Jane, certainly wasn't going to get in the way of William and Harry having relationships with Diana's family, which nowadays includes 13 first cousins. 

Diana's parents divorced when she was 7 and both remarried. John, William and Harry's maternal grandfather, died in 1992, while grandmother Frances Shand Kydd lived until 2004.

When she died, Earl Spencer noted at her funeral in Scotland—which William flew in from Norway, where he was on a study trip, to attend—that Frances had been "an invaluable source of advice and support [for Diana], for they had wed at a similarly young age." He continued, "The true love Diana had for her mother was evident in her will. She left my mother executor and principal guardian of her sons. Any tensions they may have had were typical tensions between a mother and a daughter."

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When Jane married Robert Fellowes in 1978, he was assistant private secretary to the queen and they lived at Kensington Palace, years before Diana—and now William and Kate—made it her home. When a 19-year-old Diana was engaged to Charles and living a lonesome existence at Buckingham Palace, Jane and Frances were her most frequent visitors, and sometimes Diana would just stay overnight at Kensington Palace. Jane was also the one who stayed with Diana at Clarence House the night before she married Prince Charles in 1981, trying to help soothe her sister's pre-wedding jitters.

When William was born in 1982, Frances and Jane were among the first to visit at St. Mary's Hospital in London. "He's lovely!" the prince's grandma told reporters outside. "There's so much happiness." Grandpa John, then 8th Earl Spencer, later said, "He's the most beautiful baby I've seen."

Harry, with his thatch of red hair, bore a striking resemblance to his aunt Sarah when he was little, and Diana called him "my little Spencer."

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William and Harry didn't see Frances—whom they affectionately called "Supergran"—all that often, as she lived on the Scottish isle of Seil, but when their parents were still married their grandmother would come for visits at Highgrove, Prince Charles' country estate, and they would go with their mother to visit her, when Diana and Frances were getting along.

Harry was a pageboy in his Uncle Charles' first wedding, in 1989, along with cousin Alexander Fellowes, while Eleanor Fellowes and Emily McCorquodale were flower girls.

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In 1990, Diana vacationed with William and Harry, Frances and sisters Jane and Sarah with their children on Necker Island, the private idyll in the British Virgin Islands owned by Richard Branson. Pictures of the kids blinking into the sun and playing in the sand—half-burying Diana up to the waist at one point—show the Spencer ladies in happier times. Branson has owned the island since the 1970s but Diana was one of the first celebrities to burnish its reputation as a favorite getaway for the famous. Branson has hosted everyone from Kate Winslet to the Obamas, and Prince Harry and other family members have returned on numerous occasions over the years. 

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"The press have always written up William as the terror and Harry as a rather quiet second son," Earl Spencer told Andrew Morton, back when William had the reputation as the attention-demanding troublemaker. "In fact William is a very self-possessed, intelligent and mature boy, and quite shy. He is quite formal and stiff, sounding older than his years when he answers the phone."

In 1995, Diana was thrilled when William enrolled at Eton, following in the footsteps of her father and brother. Earl Spencer was the one who gave his nephew a rundown of what to expect—the pressure, the slang, the cliques, etc.—of attending the storied school.

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Diana was killed in a car crash on Aug. 31, 1997; her funeral took place on Sept. 6; and then the school term started. Lady Sarah went to visit Harry at Ludgrove for his 13th birthday, on Sept. 15, bringing him the PlayStation that Diana had already bought for him in Paris, and she would continue to visit both boys at their respective schools. (Harry joined William at Eton in 1998.)

In July 1998, William visited his uncle at Althorp five days after what would have been Diana's 37th birthday; by then she was interred on a small island at the center of Round Oval Lake on the 13,000-acre estate.

And the Spencer support system has never wavered for the boys. Whether or not they ever felt torn between their mother and father's families, William and Harry have of course never said a word about it. But it would be 10 years—not till an invitation-only, 10th-anniversary memorial service for Diana that William and Harry oversaw in 2007—before the two families were all together again.

William sat in the front next to the queen. After Harry got up to speak, he crossed the church and sat down amid the Spencers.

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Lady Sarah and Lady Jane were there to see Harry get his pilot wings from the Army Air Corps in 2010, and all of Diana's siblings were at William and Kate's wedding in 2011, where the hymns sung included "Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer"—the final hymn sung at Diana's funeral in 1997. William, who gave Kate his mother's sapphire and diamond engagement ring, and his bride had visited Diana's grave at Althorp days before the wedding.

"The only downside on a perfect day was Diana not being there," Earl Spencer told the BBC after the 2011 nuptials. 

"It was incredibly beautiful wasn't it? Very moving," he added. "But what a wonderful day, such a celebration."


Jane's daughter Laura Fellowes, said to be "close to William," has since become one of Princess Charlotte's godmothers. 

In 2012, Earl Spencer welcomed his seventh child (and first with third wife Karen Gordon), Lady Charlotte Diana Spencer, the first time he incorporated his late sister's name for one of his own kids.

"We knew that [her name would be Charlotte] as soon as we saw her," he told the Mail on Sunday at the time. "And though it's been 15 years since Diana died, I still miss her every day and I wanted her commemorated in the naming of our daughter."

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"I think everything about Harry's thoughtfulness is—and the inclusion of that and obviously not being able to meet his mom it's so important to me to—to know that she's a part of this with us," Meghan said during her and Harry's post-engagement interview with the BBC in November 2017. "And I think in being able to meet his aunts and...also like Julia and just different people who were so important to his mom, I'm able to, in some way, know a part of her through them and of course through him...It's incredibly special."

"Julia" is Julia Samuel, who was one of Diana's closest friends and is a godmother to Prince George. William has followed in his mother's footsteps as patron of Samuel's charity Child Bereavement UK. The psychotherapist met Diana at a dinner in 1987 and, as she told the Daily Mail in 2015, "here was something about her and something about me that just worked. It was a lovely thing."

Samuel said it was a tragedy that Diana didn't live to see what "marvelous" men her sons had become. "When someone dies, you grieve because you miss them, but you also grieve for the loss of that future you fully expected them to have," she said. Moreover, Diana "would have been a fantastic grandmother. It breaks my heart even thinking about it, because she would have been amazing, she really would."

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As an aunt-like figure to Harry, Julia got to meet Meghan early on, as did aunts Jane and Sarah.

Jane was also asked to give a reading at Harry and Meghan's wedding ceremony last May, one of the myriad ways in which Diana's memory was honored during the day.

The passage, from Song of Solomon, included: "My beloved calls to me, Arise, my darling. Come away with me, my beautiful one. For now the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in the countryside; the season of singing has come, and the cooing of turtledoves is heard in our land."

Jane's husband and three kids were there, and the same went for Sarah. Earl Spencer is on his third marriage, to Karen Gordon, and they were at the royal wedding, along with his four grown children from his first marriage, to model Victoria Lockwood. He is also dad to the Hon. Edmund, 15, and Lady Lara, with second wife Caroline Freud, as well as 6-year-old Lady Charlotte.

"Harry has always kept in close touch with the Spencers and they have all received invitations," a family friend told Vanity Fair before the wedding. "Harry gets on well with his aunts and uncle and they have met Meghan. His cousins all have the golden ticket—an invite to the ceremony and reception and the evening party."

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The group of cousins from the Spencer side included George McCorquodale, whose wedding in South Africa Harry attended in 2016, and his sisters, Emily and Celia (whose wedding Harry and Meghan attended in Lincolnshire last year); Charles' kids Lady Kitty, twins Lady Amelia and Lady Eliza, and son Louis, Viscount Althorp; and Laura, Alexander and Eleanor Fellowes.

Lady Kitty, who last year became a face of BVLGARI jewelry, was among the inner circle Prince Harry partied with at all the hottest London night spots before he settled down, and she has remained a confidant, as has his cousin Princess Eugenie.

And sure enough, the whole lot piled into St. George's Chapel on May 19, 2018, to watch Harry marry Meghan, and then dance the night away at the reception at Frogmore Cottage.

The Spencers may not lay claim to a throne, but Prince Harry keeps his mother's family on a pedestal.