Prince Harry’s tell-all rips open old wounds in the British royal family

A version of this story appeared in the December 10 edition of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.
Prince Harry’s memoir has officially hit bookstores in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the globe. Here in London, several retail chains opened their doors at midnight to allow eager readers to grab their copies before sunrise.

There have been plenty of revelations from leaks in the run-up to the chaotic launch of “Spare” over the past week, but the sensational, and sometimes inflammatory, headlines have been lacking the context of the full book. What’s now clear is Harry’s years-long frustration at playing second fiddle to his brother. His memoir reveals the full extent of his despair at playing the royal understudy to William and his treatment by certain family members and the wider institution.

Harry’s version of events is an eye-opening telling of a royal experience that may be perceived externally as luxurious and privileged but for him has also been traumatic and heart-breaking. Publisher Penguin Random House had promised “raw, unflinching honesty.” There was certainly that, and more besides.

The Duke of Sussex holds almost nothing back as he dismantles the public’s perception of him being the fun-loving, care-free party prince, delving into the devastating impact of his mother’s death, experimenting with drugs as a method of coping with grief, and his struggles at finding love.

It is at points scathing and hypercritical towards several family members, who are not defending themselves as the palace is not responding to the claims, and reveals deeply personal conversations despite Harry’s previous railing against the media for invasions of privacy.

The royal establishment may be internally aghast at Harry’s decision to air the family’s dirty laundry to the world, but externally there has been a wall of silence, with both Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace repeatedly declining to comment.
The 410-page tome isn’t just scandalous bombshells about toxic family dynamics, though. Princess Diana is a looming presence throughout the book — what she would have thought, how she might have handled a situation or the repercussions of her death on the boys.

A selection of front pages from various UK daily national newspapers on January 6. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Another theme is the lifelong sibling rivalry between Harry and William and how their positions as “heir” and “spare” have pulled them apart. Parts of the book feel like a hit job on William but Harry has claimed that’s not his intention. He appears to be trying to show that his brother is partially a product of a dysfunctional institution, where distrust and competition have been baked into the culture. He does recount instances where things have gotten heated — both verbally and physically — but he also comes to his sibling’s defense too.

Harry recalls how the “papers were awash with stories about Willy being lazy” which he characterizes as “obscene” and “grossly unfair.” William was not only “busy having children and raising a family,” Harry writes, but he was “still beholden to Pa (as King Charles is referred to throughout the book).”

“He did as much as Pa wanted him to do, and sometimes that wasn’t much, because Pa and Camilla didn’t want Willy and Kate getting loads of publicity,” Harry adds. “Pa and Camilla didn’t like Willy and Kate drawing attention away from them or their causes. They’d openly scolded Willy about it many times.”

The Duke of Sussex’s hatred of the tabloid press is also woven throughout the book. He frequently details the invasive methods used by the paparazzi before dramatically claiming some of “the firm” fed negative stories to the media in efforts to curry favor with journalists for their own favorable coverage. He specifically called out his stepmother Camilla as one of those who he believed engaged in such practices.

CNN correspondent breaks down Prince Harry’s latest accusation

Some commentators are picking up on a few notable omissions in the book, particularly the furor that emerged after Harry and Meghan told Oprah there had been “concern” from within the family over the color of their child Archie’s skin.

When asked by Anderson Cooper why it wasn’t mentioned in the book, Harry said the remarks had been misunderstood by the British media. “Neither of us believed that that comment or that experience or that opinion was based on racism. Unconscious bias, yes,” the prince answered. “The key word was ‘concern’ as opposed to ‘curiosity.’ But the way that the British press, what they turned it into, was not what it was.” He and Cooper then discussed how he’d also said back then that he would not discuss it further and they moved on.

Harry may not want to expand on this issue further but many observers have criticized the duke for failing to set the record straight sooner, especially when he has slammed his own family for not correcting inaccurate headlines in the tabloid press.

Some may say they aren’t interested in the British royal family drama or are growing tired of it, but “Spare” shot to the top of Amazon’s best sellers list upon its release. There wasn’t a rush on bookstores Tuesday morning, but retailers told CNN they had piles of pre-orders ready to ship out. By Tuesday afternoon, its publishers claimed it was the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever, with 400,000 copies snapped up in hardback, ebook and audio formats, Britain’s PA Media reported.

“We always knew this book would fly, but it is exceeding even our most bullish expectations,” Larry Finlay, managing director of Transworld Penguin Random House, said.

One thing is clear: the Sussexes are becoming increasingly divisive characters and each new release or interview has reinforced both supporters and critics.

Broadly speaking, here in the UK, there has been some incredulity over Harry’s stated desire to mend fences and that “none of anything I’ve written, anything I’ve included is ever intended to hurt my family,” as he told Cooper in a pre-release interview, while simultaneously releasing a book that both criticizes them and puts the monarchy in a very unflattering light.

A majority of Brits polled by Savanta on the eve of the book release did not trust Harry to deliver an accurate depiction of his experience in the royal family — 53% said they did not trust Harry to do so in his book, while 39% said they did trust him.

Younger people (18-34 year olds), those who said they voted for Labour, the liberal opposition party, in the last election, and those who described themselves as republicans rather than monarchists were more likely to say they trusted Harry.

File photograph from 2005 of then-Prince Charles posing with his sons, Princes William and Harry during a ski break in Switzerland.

File photograph from 2005 of then-Prince Charles posing with his sons, Princes William and Harry during a ski break in Switzerland. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

CNN royal historian Kate Williams says Harry’s account tarnishes the monarchy and raises questions about its structure.

“Even though he says he supports the monarchy, he doesn’t blame it for so much of what went wrong,” she says. “We have a situation in which one child gets everything and all the attention and the next child gets nothing. But also he is sold out to the press and that is why he was so unhappy and that is why he felt like he had to leave. “

The family rift also threatens to overshadow the biggest royal event of the year: King Charles III’s coronation in May. In an interview promoting his book, Harry was non-committal about whether he and Meghan would attend.

Planning for the event should be well underway, with the big day fast approaching. It would go against the spirit of the occasion to exclude anyone, especially family members — whether it’s the Sussexes or Prince Andrew, who was forced to step down from royal duties amid a sexual abuse scandal last year.

“It would help Charles a lot in terms of his image if Harry and Meghan were there,” Williams says. “It’s particularly going to look bad for him if his son is not there because, of course, Harry is still very high in line to the throne, as are his children.”

She adds that, “Charles would want him to be there, and Charles would want Meghan to be there” and recalls that many were thrilled to see the couple return for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee last summer.

The Sussexes during celebrations for the late Queen's Platinum Jubilee last June.

The Sussexes during celebrations for the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee last June. Credit: Toby Melville/Pool/Reuters

No one from the palace has said that the Sussexes are not invited, so it is assumed that for now they remain on the guest list. Then it’s up to them whether they choose to come and celebrate with the new sovereign.

“I miss the UK, I miss my friends,” Harry said in his Netflix show. “I came here [the US] because I was changed. I’d changed to the point of I’d outgrown my environment.”

Does that mean he and his family won’t return in May? Time will tell, but he also mentioned missing “the weird family gatherings when we’re all brought together under one roof at certain times of the year.”

Add to the queue: More royal reads for your bookshelf

Need more royal revelations to add to your reading list? Here are a few titles that most royal reporters have in their home libraries:

Read: “Queen of Our Times: The Life of Queen Elizabeth II” by Robert Hardman (2022)

Hardman, one of Britain’s most acclaimed royal biographers, distills the Queen’s life into a study of dynastic survival and renewal, as she guided the monarchy into the modern age.

Read: “The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe” by Angela Kelly (2019)

Kelly worked for the Queen for 25 years, first as Her Majesty’s senior dresser, then as her personal adviser. In this book, replete with photographs and charming anecdotes, Elizabeth gave Kelly her blessing to share their bond with the world.

Read: “The Prince of Wales” by Jonathan Dimbleby (1994)

Dimbleby, the veteran British broadcaster and personal friend of Charles, wrote his biography of the future King in the early nineties. It details how Charles was preparing for the role of monarch, his separation from Diana, and his future vision of the monarchy.

Read: “Diana: Her True Story – in Her Own Words” by Andrew Morton (1992)

Diana was one of the first members of the family to speak candidly about life inside the institution. When this biography was first published, it rocketed to the top of bestseller lists and changed the way the public viewed the British monarchy.

Read: “Princess Margaret: A Life of Contrasts” by Christopher Warwick (2000)

Harry’s is not the only memoir of a “spare” heir. Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, was one of the most controversial royal figures in recent times.

Read: “The Final Curtsey: A Royal Memoir by the Queen’s Cousin” by Margaret Rhodes (1994)

In this autobiography, the Queen’s cousin details her life in the Scottish aristocracy. Born into a Downton Abbey-style household, Rhodes later served as lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, and was at her bedside when she died.

CNN Style’s Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to. Check it out here.

Watch: Anderson Cooper reflects on his interview with Prince Harry

Anderson Cooper joined “CNN This Morning” to talk about his one-on-one with Prince Harry for “60 Minutes,” in which Harry details dealing with the loss of his mother, Princess Diana. Take a look:

Anderson Cooper reflects on his interview with Prince Harry

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