Harry is not alone. Being born a royal ‘spare’ has always fuelled rage and resentment

January 11, 2023
Edward, Harry and Margaret all shared a common sentiment

Outpourings of resentment from the Duke of Sussex are the latest examples of retaliation from history’s disgruntled royals

If there’s one thing that we can agree on in the turbulent wake of Prince Harry’s endless eye-raising royal revelations, it is that being a “spare” is fraught with complexity. We might assume that being born into wealth and privilege, with none of the regal responsibilities of the heir, is the golden ticket for a gilded life. Or at least a rollicking sense of fun. All that pomp and pleasure without the daily chore of Court Circular circumstance. Yet the pleasure-seeking existence of the hallowed sibling seems to have sent royal spares of history into personality freefall, robbing them of a critical sense of purpose and identity while fuelling rage and resentment. 

In his autobiography, pointedly titled Spare, Harry makes his claim for the enduring anguish of his birth position. The term “heir and a spare” refers to members of the monarchy and aristocracy who require two children; one to succeed to a title, the other to guarantee the family line should anything happen to the first born. Harry says of his family that they merrily referred to him as the spare, “without a spirit of judgment but straight out. I was the shadow, the supporting actor, the Plan B. I was brought into this world in case something happened to Willy.” 

It’s clearly painful and difficult to gain a worthy sense of self when you are regarded as a substitute. Constantly playing second fiddle is undermining. Who are you really, apart from a genetic also-ran? As Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister, said unhappily when she learned that her parents were to become King and Queen, and her sister, Elizabeth, the future Queen, in 1936: “I used to be Margaret of York and now I am nothing.”

Princess Margaret was a spare in Harry’s mould, as she was the younger – and only – sibling of the Queen. While she was “heiress presumptive” to her father’s throne, she struggled with a sense of sibling rivalry, just as Harry has described an astonishing level of competitiveness between him and William. Princess Margaret once said: “I have never suffered from ‘second daughter-itis’. But I did mind forever being cast as the ‘younger sister’. Bright and intellectually capable, Margaret resented that she was largely uneducated, being denied the tutoring by Henry Marten, provost of Eton, that her sister benefitted from.

Frustration seems to be a psychological birthmark of the royal spare. Princess Margaret threw a childish tantrum over the gowns that she and her sister were to wear for their father’s coronation in 1937. While both she and Elizabeth were dressed in purple velvet mantles edged with ermine, she was apoplectic when she discovered that her train was cut slightly shorter than her sister’s. ‘Twas ever thus. To be in the perpetual second-best shadow of a sainted sibling, especially on a global stage, creates a peculiar sense of aloneness, which Harry endeavoured to articulate in his television interview with Tom Bradby. Always “feeling different” from royals with a rock solid primogeniture is an unenviable challenge to overcome. 

Like Harry, whose royal popularity was at one time unrivalled, Princess Margaret was the Diana of her day in the late 1940s. The press and public could not get enough of her beauty, glamour and modern style. Once the cynosure of the Royal family, considered the most progressive member, after her marriage to Anthony Armstrong Jones ended and her affairs turned desultory, Margaret’s solitude was tangible. She became seen as the black sheep of the family; a spoilt, unfulfilled woman who drank too much and partied too hard to drown out her furious despair that her marriage to Captain Peter Townsend was forbidden. Like Harry, outraged that his wife wasn’t more warmly welcomed into the regal fold, it’s easy for the disgruntled spare to retaliate and tarnish the wholesomeness of the monarchic ideal.

Although Princess Anne has proved to be the perfect younger sibling to Prince Charles, diligently dedicating her life to her royal roster without complaint, she’s not a true spare as she wasn’t in the direct line of succession (which was only changed in women’s favour in 2011). Instead, it was Prince Andrew who played the role of spare to Prince Charles until his catastrophic exit from royal life in May 2020, due to his mind-bogglingly awful association with Jeffery Epstein. Another spare hits the dust.

However, apart from Andrew, no one had done more reputational damage to the monarchy than his great uncle, Edward VIII, in 1936. His abdication to marry Wallis Simpson turned him from King into a spare-in-exile, much akin to Harry now. 

Ironically, Edward’s younger brother, Bertie (to whom Edward was once inexorably close as boys, like William and Harry) was the perfect spare. He didn’t want or seek the limelight, content to be in the King’s shadow to live an unburdened life of aristocratic ease with his wife, the late Queen Mother, and daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, at Royal Lodge, Windsor, where Andrew lives now. 

Interestingly, Bertie’s father, George V, was another second son and spare, who came to the throne when his older brother, Prince Albert Victor died prematurely aged 28 in a flu outbreak in 1892.

When the abdication forced the anxious George VI on the throne, Edward, in a volte-face of destiny, became the errant spare. As the Duke of Windsor, beside himself that his family would not acknowledge – let alone welcome – his wife Wallis, Edward was the most disgruntled spare until Prince Harry. Edward never recovered from his deep sense of injustice at the way he and his wife were treated by his family. Sound familiar? He fell out with his beloved Bertie over Wallis and was apoplectic when, after the abdication, due to his furious rants over status and money, his brother banned the Buckingham Palace switchboard from putting his calls through. Their relationship never recovered.

The Duke of Windsor said later in life: “The fault lay not in my stars but in my genes.” Presumably his great great nephew, Prince Harry, would say the same.