The Complicated Truth About What Happened to Prince Harry and Prince William's Relationship

Bound by tragedy, united in duty and, at the end of the day, two brothers with increasingly separate lives.

By Natalie Finn Aug 08, 2020 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Prince Harry & Meghan Markle's 2-Year Anniversary: Their Royal Romance

The people were right. They were also wrong.

Prince William and Prince Harry's relationship is, in fact, different today than it was, say, eight years ago—or four years ago, or perhaps even six months ago. But not for the reasons the most pessimistic of royal watchers have surmised. Well, not entirely.

"The majority of the stuff is created out of nothing but as brothers, you know, you have good days, you have bad days," Harry said, somewhat cryptically, in an otherwise remarkably candid interview included in the ITV documentary Harry and Meghan: An African Journey, which aired in October.

While Harry didn't exactly assuage concerns as to what those "bad days" entailed, that's almost to the word what "sources close" to the royals had been saying for more than a year, since it became apparent that the brothers were putting distance between themselves, geographic and otherwise. And we thought 2019 was momentous for exactly those reasons. 

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First Harry and Meghan Markle moved out of Kensington Palace ahead of the birth of their son Archie. Then they started their own social media accounts, and in June 2019 the Duke and Duchess of Sussex officially formed their own philanthropic hub apart from the Royal Foundation, the organization Harry and William established together in 2009 and which eventually came to include Kate Middleton.

It was assured the couples would continue to collaborate in the future, including on the mental health campaign Heads Together that William, Kate and Harry started in 2016.

"These changes are designed to best complement the work and responsibilities of Their Royal Highnesses as they prepare for their future roles, and to better align their charitable activity with their new households," the Royal Foundation stated.

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But the hits kept coming for those who assumed that William and Harry would always do everything together, that the two princes who solemnly walked behind their mother's coffin with no less than 2.5 billion people watching in 1997 were bound forever by that unfathomable experience. Not to mention the fact that they're brothers, only two years apart in age, and have been through so much. And they always got on so well.

Yet almost since Meghan's pregnancy was first announced in October 2018, there has been an onslaught of stories about the brothers' supposed falling-out—over the recent past; the distant past; over their wives; over the spotlight, whether it's desired or shunned; over their preordained place in the pecking order. Take your pick.

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Not helping matters were the cold, hard evidence of distancing: Meghan and Harry leaving London for Windsor, moving their office from Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace, opening their own social media accounts and parting ways with the Royal Foundation.

At least then William and Harry could, at the snap of a finger, be whisked to wherever the other was in the space of an hour. The reason they had been increasingly going their separate ways since Harry got married could be complicated—or it could be quite simply explained, in that they're no longer lads in short pants but grown men with wives and children of their own.

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"I think that it would be a lie to say that things weren't patchy with William and Harry at one point, but to call it a feud, to call it a fall-out, is far too extreme," royal commentator Omid Scobie said on Yahoo UK's The Royal Box in June 2019. "I think the best thing that could have happened for them was to now be in their separate households, working separately, being able to come together for special family moments and social occasions."

Just like normal people, only with more elaborate hats.

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Meghan, in her first public appearance after giving birth, chatted animatedly with Kate at the Trooping the Color parade that same month, and Kate and William's kids, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, all met their new first cousin, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, in a timely fashion. And, naturally, Louis' aunt and uncle were there for his christening that July.

But still, the suspicion lingered that William and Harry were on the rocks.

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"Inevitably stuff happens," Harry told ITV in October, either sitting atop bombshell revelations or simply meaning that life had inevitably happened to them.

As it turned out, it was more of the former.

Less than three months later, he and Meghan announced that they were taking a step back from their full-time royal status and would start splitting their time between the U.K. and North America. While they had been discussing the possibility with the queen, Prince Charles and William (the monarch, her successor and his heir, all in a row), the Sussexes released their Jan. 8 statement on their own.

"Discussions with The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage," the palace said in its own terse statement a few hours later. "We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through."

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According to Finding Freedom, a new book written by Scobie and Carolyn Durand that's due out Aug. 11, Harry had simply tired of taking a backseat to his brother. A source told the authors that the family "doesn't have the opportunity to operate as an actual family," adding that "every conversation, every issue, every personal disagreement, whatever it may be, involves staff. It creates a really weird environment that actually doesn't allow people to sort things out themselves."

Meanwhile, another insider, on why they opted to form their own household in the first place, said, "Harry and Meghan liked being in control of their narrative."

And that eventually became more and more impossible as the public feasted on morsels of news about their purported feud. 

Amid the accounts of Meghan's tumultuous adjustment to royal life have been the stories about William warmly but warily welcoming Meghan into the fold, telling his brother not to rush into anything. The American actress was met with patience by the family, if also a bit of the lingering "figure it out" mentality that Princess Diana encountered almost 40 years ago, but any wariness at all was reportedly far too much for Harry's taste.

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"Harry could see through William's words," a friend of the Sussexes is quoted in Finding Freedom. "He was being a snob."

At the same time, William—who contrary to how he is now was by all accounts quite the roguish attention-getter when he was little—was rumored to be miffed by the amount of attention paid to Harry and Meghan, when it's he and Kate who are going to be king and queen one day.

Which, when taken into account with William and Harry's mixed feelings about the media—good for one's humanitarian platform, detrimental to one's personal life—sounded highly suspect. It isn't as if either William or Kate has ever wanted for headlines.

But where there was smoke...

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"I think their heads were not together at Christmas and then it got sorted out, 'cause it's not good for the image of The Firm," royal biographer Robert Jobson said in May 2019 on Yahoo UK's The Royal Box.

The notion that the duchesses were contributing to a rift between the dukes had reached fever pitch around that time, and Jobson commented then that Prince Charles had presumably taken pains to ensure that his sons and daughters-in-law wouldn't be providing more fodder for the papers on their annual visit to Sandringham for Christmas with the queen.

Added Press Association reporter Catherine Wylie, "We've been used to seeing Harry with William, kind of all their lives, really, and now that's not so common—but that's only because Harry has gotten together with Meghan and he's forging his own identity now, and he's together with Meghan as a couple and they're going to be doing their own thing together. So, I think it is sometimes easy to read into things a little."

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But yes, whether you're younger, older, or exactly the same age as William and Harry, together is how we're used to them. Even once William got married in 2011, Harry was a fixture in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's day-to-day lives. And their kitchen, apparently.

While formally William and Kate declared themselves "very excited" to welcome Meghan into the family when she and Harry got engaged, William also quipped, "For me personally, I hope it means he stays out of my fridge and will stop scrounging my food, which he's done for the last few years!"

What's more adorably big-brotherish than that style of ribbing?

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And William has certainly done his share of big-brothering over the years, just as Harry was a built-in confidant and advisor to him.

"My brother and I's relationship is closer than it's been because of the situations we've been through," William said at an event for the Campaign Against Living Miserably charity in January 2018. "Losing our mother at a young age has helped us to travel through that difficult patch together. You're like-minded. You go through similar things, it's a bond and it's something you know you've tackled together and come out better for it."


With Harry's wedding coming up then, William revealed that he hadn't yet been asked to be best man, as Harry was for William in 2011.

"He hasn't asked me yet, just to clear that up—it could be a sensitive issue," he joked.

But of course William was Harry's best man.

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William was born on June 21, 1982, and Harry arrived on Sept. 15, 1984. Diana later said that she chose their names because "the alternative was Arthur and Albert. No thank you. There weren't fights over it. It was fait accompli."

They were Charles and Diana's pride and joy, and—ultimately—the only thing (other than royal pressures, that is) that kept them married long after they were living separate lives.

Diana, in fact, was afraid of losing her children in a divorce, especially because, as they got older, she was the hands-on parent. Charles, while he was a world away from his own father in how present he was in his boys' lives, kept a full schedule of engagements that, according to Diana at least, he was loath to change for any reason. Diana, meanwhile, went to William's soccer games and doted on both sons, not wanting them to feel abandoned at boarding school or otherwise neglected as she did after her own parents' divorce. Her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, had also lost custody of her four children to Diana's father, John Spencer.

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"I want to bring them up with security, not to anticipate things, because they will be disappointed," Diana said in tapes she made for biographer Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words. "That's made my own life so much easier. I hug my children to death. I get into bed with them at night, hug them and say, 'Who loves them most in the whole world?' and they always say 'Mummy.' I always feed them love and affection—it's so important."

Though people certainly sympathized with the Princess of Wales in light of the fact that Charles had been having a years-long affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, Diana was also accused of trying to monopolize William and Harry's time, which made her come off as manipulative and controlling in the pro-Charles camp.

Charles, as the future king, had appearances on his mind as well, and he couldn't bear it when Diana wanted to move her office to Buckingham Palace from their quarters at St. James's Palace.

"The prince was reluctant to go down the road of a formal separation and divorce, not only for the sake of the children, but also for the constitutional mess which would arise from that," one of Charles' advisors told Morton. 

Just before their formal separation was announced toward the end of 1992, Diana went to visit William and Harry at Ludgrove School in Berkshire to discuss it with them. Though more with 10-year-old William, as Harry was only 8.

"I went to the school and put it to William, particularly, that if you find someone you love in life you must hang on to it and look after it, and if you were lucky enough to find someone who loved you then one must protect it," Diana recalled to Martin Bashir on the BBC's Panorama in 1995.

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"William asked me what had been going on, and could I answer his questions, which I did," she continued. "He said, was that the reason why our marriage had broken up? And I said, well, there were three of us in this marriage, and the pressure of the media was another factor, so the two together were very difficult. But although I still loved Papa I couldn't live under the same roof as him, and likewise with him."

Asked how she felt that might have affected William, Diana replied, "Well, he's a child that's a deep thinker, and we don't know for a few years how it's gone in. But I put it in gently, without resentment or any anger."

Include their parents' separation and eventual divorce in 1996 among the many, many things that neither William nor Harry discuss publicly. Though the pain of the divorce turned out to be just a precursor to Diana's shocking death only a year later. 

The boys were staying at Windsor Castle with their father when the news came in from Paris in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, 1997. Charles let the boys sleep through the night before telling them.

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Years later William and Harry reflected appreciatively on how their father and grandparents protected them during that time, acknowledging how difficult it must have been for the queen to simultaneously have to attend to a grieving nation (the nation could have done with more demonstrative attendance) and look after them.

As it turned out, they did not take that long funereal walk from the palace to Westminster Abbey voluntarily, but were encouraged to do so by their grandfather, Prince Philip. Neither regretted it, but as adults they were mildly appalled that, at 15 and 12 1/2 years of age, they were asked to do that. 

Their mother was laid to rest on Sept. 6 and the school term started soon after. More than ever, Charles was determined that the press leave his sons alone—and, for the most part, they obliged, as much as could be expected when every family milestone makes for global news.

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Diana had wanted her boys to experience real life outside the cloistered royal world, and she would take them with her to visit the homeless and the sick, instilling in them a sense of service that they obviously still carry with them today. And though she knew what they were in for as royals—and William especially, as second in line to the throne—she tried to give them normal-kids' lives as much as she could.

"William is going to be in his position much earlier than people think now," Princess Diana predicted in the Morton tapes. In turn, she was subtly "altering" her approach to raising him, she said. "I would never rattle their cage, the monarchy, because when I think the mother-in-law has been doing it for 40 years, who am I to come along and change it just like that? But through William learning what I do, and his father to a certain extent, he has got an insight into what's coming his way. He's not hidden upstairs with the governess."

At the time, she said, her eldest son was "appallingly embarrassed by the whole thing. He's very uncomfortable about that."

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Up through university, William and Harry's family did their best to proactively keep the media away, allowing access here and there, such as William's Q&A session on his 18th birthday with a few select reporters, in exchange for a wide berth. 

Harry joined William at Eton in 1998, so they again attended the same school for two years. After graduating in the spring of 2000, William took a gap year to travel in South America, then enrolled at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Harry also took a year off, spending most of it in Australia and Lesotho, and then started at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

So, the boys' late adolescence and young adulthood was spent largely apart, save for holidays, all-royal-hands-on-deck outings, important sporting events, etc.—but they were always in touch regularly, even when on different continents.

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As graduation approached in 2005, William said, per biographer Katie Nicholl, that he was in no rush to dive into royal (or, between the lines, married) life.

"There are obviously areas that I'm being pushed in to do, but I can be quite stubborn if I want to," he said. "I'm very much the person who doesn't want to rush into anything without really thinking it through. It's not that I never want to do it; it's just that I'm reluctant at such a young age, I think anyway, to throw myself into the deep end."

In 2006 he reported for Sandhurst, a few months before Harry completed training.

When they embarked on the 1,000-mile, eight-day Enduro Africa '08 motorbike race for charity together, raising more than $380,000, it was a special treat.

"We never really spend any time together," Harry, who had gone to Afghanistan at the end of 2007 and spent part of 2008 in Lesotho building a children's school with 20 other Blues and Royals from the Household Cavalry, told reporters. "We've got separate jobs going on at the moment."

The following year the brothers got to room together for the first time in years, when Harry joined William at RAF Shawbury for Defense Helicopter Flying School. 

Granting a rare joint TV interview in June 2009, they let a camera crew tour their quarters, where they shared all the housekeeping duties, from cooking to laundry.

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"Bearing in mind I cook—I feed him every day—I think he's done very well," William teased. "Harry does do washing up, but then he leaves most of it in the sink, and then I come back in the morning and I have to wash it up...I do a fair bit of tidying up after him. He snores a lot, too. He keeps me up all night long."

"Oh, God!" Harry groaned. "They'll think we share a bed now! We're brothers, not lovers!"

"It's been an emotional experience," William cracked.

But in all seriousness, the future king added, he didn't join up "to be mollycoddled or treated differently." And, like his brother, William hoped to return to Afghanistan (he had been there for about 30 hours in 2008). "As far as I am concerned, in my eyes, if Harry can do it, then I can do it."

It was around this time that William and Harry realized they could extend their humanitarian reach by joining forces, leading to the formation of the Foundation of Prince William and Prince Harry that September.

"Diana often said to me that she felt like an outsider and she identified with people who were struggling," journalist Vivienne Parry, who was reporting for Panorama when Diana gave her infamous interview, told Nicholl. "I see that in William and Harry too."

Nicholl noted in her 2010 book about the brothers, "[Harry] may be the spare, but William has made it clear how much he depends on his younger brother, and the queen recognizes the importance of Harry in shaping the future of the House of Windsor."

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But while William's wilder days were drawing to a close and his relationship with Kate had gone from on-and-off to permanently on, Harry, already an infamous fan of a good time, was showing no signs of slowing down.

William's destiny preceded him as the eldest child of the Prince of Wales and both he and Harry tested the bars of their gilded cage, but while Wills zipping around town on his motorbike, Harry was unzipping his trousers for naked billiards in Vegas.

"It was probably a classic example of me probably being too much army and not enough prince," Harry told reporters in Afghanistan in 2013 about his trip to Sin City the previous year.

"But at the end of the day," he added, "I was in a private area and there should have been a certain amount of privacy, that one should expect." As for his general feelings about the media, he added, "I think it's fairly obvious how far back it goes—to when I was very small."

He wasn't exactly thrilled to have journalists following him around in Afghanistan, either, Harry noted, but the palace and Ministry of Defense had acquiesced to requests for more access to him.

"I'm out here doing a job and I really enjoy it. I never wanted you guys to be out here, but there was an agreement made," he said.

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More attention was paid to Harry's antics over the years (sometimes for good reason), perhaps because people were content to let future kings lie, but it's not as if William was a saint—or, for that matter, lonely before he got serious with Kate. He enjoyed dancing and drinking (red wine more than beer) and going to nightclubs, but he never got the concerned headlines his brother attracted. 

One of William's more attention-grabbing exploits was when, right after earning his RAF wings, he borrowed a helicopter and flew himself and Harry to the Isle of Wight for their cousin Peter Phillips' bachelor party in 2008.


"There is a bit of jealousy," Prince Harry also said when he was in Afghanistan in 2013. "Not just that I get to fly this but obviously he'd love to be out here and I don't see why—to be honest with you I don't see why he couldn't.

"His job out here would be flying the IIT or whatever, doing Chinook missions. Just the same as us; no one knows who's in the cockpit. Yes you get shot at but, you know, if the guys that are doing the same job as us are being shot at on the ground then I don't think there's anything wrong with us being shot at as well. People at home will have issues with that, but we're not special, the guys out there are. Simple as that."

As for his own path, Harry said, "As I always say, work hard, play hard—and I'll always be enjoying my job however long that carries on for. Then obviously I've got the other job to fall back on."

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William did get to utilize his flying skills as an air ambulance pilot for a few years when he was newly married, but he and Kate have long since settled into senior royalty, everything they do an extension of the crown's image and message.

And Harry and Meghan tried, but they ultimately didn't see a way forward for them in which they kept their sanity and stayed true to themselves.

"I've put my arm around my brother all our lives and I can't do that any more; we're separate entities," William told a friend while Harry and Meghan's exit package was under discussion, as reported by London's Sunday Times in January. "I'm sad about that. All we can do, and all I can do, is try and support them and hope that the time comes when we're all singing from the same page. I want everyone to play on the team."

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Prince Charles, who along with William believes that streamlining the monarchy is key to both preserving the institution and ensuring its sustainability in the future, always envisioned Harry right there with them.

But for now, Harry and Meghan are in Los Angeles, actively engaging in discussions about social justice and other issues that they wouldn't have been able to be quite so outspoken about had they still been senior royals. And William and Kate have kept calm and carried on—though by the time of Harry and Meghan's official exit date, March 31, all members of the family were abiding by stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective corners of the world.

"Prince William's obviously got a very clear destiny," Sir David Manning, onetime British ambassador to the United States and a former advisor to the princes, told royals biographer Penny Junor in or around 2014. "Prince Harry's destiny is much more open to discussion and much more open for him to decide, and so I think although very close and in many ways passionate about the same things, like the military and wildlife and so on, Harry's got a field for maneuver that's much broader. 

"William has always known he has to take on the lead role; he's got to be prepared or preparing—even if not consciously all the time—for a very clear end state."

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Though William is barely two two years older than Harry and the boys had an involved father, big brother did share in the disciplining of little brother—or at least he was a member of Team Reprimand, such as when Harry needed a little extra encouragement to take his studies seriously, or after the Vegas scandal, when William joined Charles and Buckingham Palace officials in tsk-tsking.

But William also was there for Harry in an irreplaceable way when, seeing that his brother was in pain, he encouraged him to get counseling for his depression and anger issues—unresolved fallout from their mother's death that had manifested in his devil-may-care behavior in his twenties. Harry had to seek help on his own timetable, but he acknowledges the efforts William continuously made.

"It's all about timing," Harry said on Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast in 2017. "And for me personally, my brother, you know, bless him, he was a huge support to me. He kept saying this is not right, this is not normal, you need to talk to [someone] about stuff, it's OK. The timing wasn't right. You need to feel it in yourself, you need to find the right person to talk to as well."


And William, too, had feelings that he couldn't just persevere through on his own.

William said in the 2019 BBC documentary A Royal Team Talk: Tackling Mental Health that, while the British were known for keeping a "stiff upper lip," it was so important to seek help and try to talk to someone.

"I've thought about this a lot, and I'm trying to understand why I feel like I do, but I think when you are bereaved at a very young age, any time really, but particularly at a young age, I can resonate closely to that, you feel pain like no other pain," he said, reflecting on the trauma he witnessed working for East Anglian Air Ambulance. "I felt that with a few jobs that I did, there were particular personal resonations with the families that I was dealing with."

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Diana died from injuries she suffered in a car crash in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris. Paparazzi in cars and on motor bikes were speeding after them, the security guard behind the wheel had been drinking and she wasn't wearing a seat belt. 

"That raw emotion... I could feel it brewing up inside me and I could feel it was going to take its toll and be a real problem," William recalled his feelings on the job. "I had to speak about it."

"I think one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that the people that chased her, through, into the tunnel, were the same people that were taking photographs of her while she was still dying in the backseat of the car," Harry said heatedly in the 2017 documentary Diana, 7 Days

"And William and I know that, we've been told that numerous times, by people that know that was the case. She'd had quite a severe head injury, and she was very much still alive in the back seat, and those people that caused the accident, instead of helping, were taking photographs of her dying in the backseat. And then those photographs made their way back to news desks in this country."

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It's a miracle he and William can stand the press, let alone be so charming or accommodating—though a common refrain is that neither puts himself out there enough, particularly future-king William, whose children are far too elusive for most traditionalists' tastes.

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It was no surprise to hear last year that Harry would have loved to move his family to Africa if not for the logistical and existential impossibility. Royal watchers were half-expecting Harry to fly the coop for years.

After his first tour in Afghanistan ended prematurely when his location leaked, he commented to then-girlfriend Chelsy Davy that he had every intention of going back, Katie Nicholl reported in her 2010 book William and Harry: Behind the Palace Walls

"I don't want to sit around in Windsor," he said. "I generally don't like England that much, and you know it's nice to be away from the papers and all the general s--t they write."

Since then, those who wondered if the rambunctious, somewhat lost young man would forgo the strictures of full-time royal life for a part-time gig watched Harry grow up before their eyes. 

"He's grown in his thinking, he recognizes that [relocating] is not an option," Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, the brothers' private secretary from 2005 to 2013, told Junor in 2014. "What is an option is spending a fair amount of time on worthwhile proper causes, not just notional ones to get him to Africa."

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"I think it's very unlikely that Prince Harry will fade away," Manning also told Junor. He could distance himself, "but I think you'll find he's very passionate and engaged."

But then Harry met Meghan.

The "general s--t" he referred to only got worse once they got married, his wife drawing alarming comparisons to his mother when it comes to how viperous the local press can be. So Harry and Meghan are, in fact, taking a break from England to get away from the drain of being under the microscope 24/7.

Like William, Harry has found someone to be passionate and engaged with, Meghan matching him in every way when it comes to her desire to make a difference. But unlike William, the press has been far less forgiving of Meghan's perceived missteps than they ever were of Kate's, and some seemed to have it out for Meghan from the beginning.

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"I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair," the duchess, fighting back tears, said in the ITV special. "And that's the part that's really hard to reconcile."

Though she and Harry said back when they got engaged in 2017 that he had warned her that the scrutiny would be a lot, and it already had reached a level that neither had foreseen, Meghan said in October, "In all fairness, I had no idea, which probably sounds difficult to understand and hear. But when I first met my now-husband, my friends were really happy because I was so happy, but my British friends said to me, 'I'm sure he's great but you shouldn't do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life.'"

In the wake of both his brother and sister-in-law's revelations, a Kensington Palace source told the BBC that William was "worried" about the both of them—rather than "furious" that they divulged so much, as it was also speculated (shades of the reaction that met Princess Diana's unprecedentedly candid sit-down with Panorama in 1995 that even Diana herself is said to have regretted).

But while the release of Finding Freedom may inflame tensions once again, once the extent of the story goes public (Meghan and Harry have stated that they did not participate or assist the authors in any way), there's a bond that cannot be broken, no matter how many rumors, hard feelings or miles come between them.

"We are certainly on different paths at the moment," Harry also told ITV about William, "but I will always be there for him as I know he will always be there for me. We don't see each other as much as we used to because we are so busy, but I love him dearly." 

(Originally published June 21, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT; updated Oct. 21, 2019, at 11:15 a.m. PT)