In the end, the Windsor family saga is always all about parenting—or the lack thereof.
This depressingly familiar royal trope makes Prince Harry’s lack of biting criticism of King Charles in the Netflix documentary series Harry & Meghan more notable; he accused his father’s office of leaking stories and his father of lying (but did not elaborate on either). Much more resounding was Meghan calling Charles “charming” and making clear her gratitude for his walking her partway down the aisle at her wedding to Harry. The Times of London went as far to say that the tone suggested “signs of rapprochement.”
Time—or, more specifically, publication of Harry’s memoir Spare next month—will tell if relations are thawing or freezing over between father and son.
From very early in his childhood, Harry knew the strange world of royal parenting up close. In 1992, when he was eight years old, the collapse of his parents’ marriage had just been officially confirmed with the announcement that Princess Diana and Prince Charles were separating (they were divorced four years later).
As she prepared herself for a more independent life, Diana was looking for a voice coach to give her more confidence as a public speaker. Her personal trainer recommended Peter Settelen, a former soap opera star.
Settelen videotaped the sessions so that he could play them back to Diana to track her learning curve. (Extracts from the tapes were broadcast by NBC in 2004 under the title Diana Revealed.) He got more than he bargained for: the sessions became a kind of confessional where Diana poured out the story of her marriage.
“I had so many dreams as a young girl. I had hopes that my husband would look after me, he’d support me, encourage me, say ‘well done’ but I didn’t get any of that.”
— Princess Diana
This included a key passage: “I had so many dreams as a young girl. I had hopes that my husband would look after me, he’d support me, encourage me, say ‘well done’ but I didn’t get any of that.”
As she says that, Harry can be heard, larking about. An eight year old is surely sentient enough to get the drift and would, in any case, be aware of his father’s absence. Three years later, by which time Settelen’s work was done and Diana’s soulful delivery and timing were natural to her, Diana went public with the sensational BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, memorably saying “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” (In the Netflix documentary Harry allows that Diana spoke the truth “even though she was deceived into giving the interview.”)
It was notable how absent Harry’s father was for most of the time in Harry & Meghan. One interpretation of that is that Harry has decided to go easy on his father—although the documentary was completed before the queen died and Charles became king. Another is more likely: that a more granular view of Charles as parent is coming soon in Harry’s memoir.
As it is, in the documentary, only in the showdown at Sandringham that set the terms for the Sussexes’ exit from their royal role did Harry make a direct accusation against Charles. The family waited for Meghan to leave for Canada and then summoned him. William was screaming at him, he said, and his father “said things that were not true”—without specifying what they were.
In contrast, from the start, Diana’s place as a parent rang out: “I am my mother’s son”; “I’ve always thought she was the person inside me.”
Moreover, Harry said he found Diana’s qualities in Meghan: “So much of what M is is similar to my mum, she has the same passion, the same empathy, the same warmth.”
Diana barely knew Charles when they were married; “We met thirteen times and we got married” she said. She was unprepared for what was to come, and dependent on Charles for support she didn’t get.
There was a reason for that. Behind the trauma that Diana revealed to Settelen lies not just the story of a father who was more attentive to his mistress than to his wife and children. Ironically, it also reflects the nature of Charles himself and his own suffering as a child.
“The young Queen Elizabeth’s first duty, as she saw it, was to country, not family.”
Charles was himself emotionally dependent on Camilla, who was then and has always remained the person who could give him the understanding and affection that was lacking in his own upbringing. As bizarre as it is, it could be said that his expressed wish, as disclosed in the notorious Camilla tapes, to be reincarnated as Camilla’s tampon was the ultimate gesture of his rapturous dependency.
Where did it all go wrong? The young Queen Elizabeth’s first duty, as she saw it, was to country, not family. She ceded control of Charles’s education to Philip who, in turn, deferred to the man who had groomed him for life in the royal family, his uncle Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, a pernicious and persistent manipulator behind the Windsor court.
It was Mountbatten who steered Philip toward the young Princess Elizabeth and it was Mountbatten who directed Charles to endure an education at an academy entirely unsuited to his nature, Gordonstoun in Scotland, a spartan regime that Charles later described as “Colditz in kilts”—referring to an infamous Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. And it was Mountbatten who urged Charles “to find a young virgin” and, when he found Diana, pushed hard for the marriage.
The consequences of that influence were lifelong. Added to that were the internal dynamics similar to any family—the different strengths and weaknesses of each child and how it affected their standing with their parents—but with the added tensions of life in the intense limelight of the royal family. Three divorces out of four marriages is not a typical family experience and that, too, speaks to a parenting problem.
Given this volatile record of emotional and psychological needs unmet, poor marriages and sibling rivalries (for example, the queen’s enjoyment of Andrew and Charles’s resentment of that favoritism) is it any wonder that Harry and William found themselves pulled into different interpretations of what the duties of being a royal really involve? A difference that has now turned into a gulf between them.
“William and Kate have successfully demonstrated that you don’t actually have to flee The Firm to have a model family—though, of course escape was never open to them.”
To be sure, William is every bit as conscious of his mother’s ordeals as Harry (and apparently resents how much Harry claims a unique affinity to her). He was also equally determined to better balance the duties of being heir and parenting than his father did. William and Kate have successfully demonstrated that you don’t actually have to flee The Firm to have a model family—though, of course escape was never open to them.
It does seem clear from the documentary that Harry developed a strong attachment to Philip. In his later years, Philip mellowed from the oftentimes testy and frustrated second fiddle to become a patient conciliator between the warring children, of whom Princess Anne was his favorite, since her independence of character was more like his. Philip had also shown more understanding of Diana’s stresses than others and had wanted Charles to make more of an effort to save the marriage than he did.
Harry’s tough military experiences in Afghanistan tallied with those of Philip’s own naval service during the Second World War, and that clearly helped to cement a bond between them. When Philip died, Harry’s videotaped tribute to him was the only one to seem natural: “…he was my grandpa: master of the barbecue, legend of banter, and cheeky right ‘til the end…”
The fact that Charles is now king—and Camilla is queen consort—elevates the damage to the monarchy itself that can be done as Harry slowly unpeels the onion of his memories, and the documentary serves as preface to the book, not as the end of the suspense.
Meanwhile, whatever you make of Harry and Meghan’s tempestuous passage from Frogmore Cottage to the bucolic haven of their Montecito estate, one thing is now clearly beyond dispute: Archie and Lilibet will have idyllic childhoods untroubled by the Windsor style in parenting. Nonetheless, they will always be in the goldfish bowl of celebrity, because their father will always be a Windsor prince. He and Meghan can change a lot, but they can’t change that.