The vital lesson William and Harry should learn from history

March 28, 2024

A new biography of George VI and Elizabeth draws inevitable similarities between the destructive influence of Wallis Simpson and Meghan Markle on monarchy then and now. But, argues Anna Pasternak, the past tells us it’s the relationship between the future king and his brother we should really be concerned about…

As the nation steadies itself after learning the devastating news that the Princess of Wales is undergoing preventative chemotherapy after her cancer diagnosis, rarely has a more opportune moment presented itself to heal rifts. Pain and hurt has no privilege and a serious illness is a poignant reminder for any family that life is too precious to bear grudges. 

While Harry and Meghan are said to have heard the news of their sister-in-law the same way as the rest of us, Prince Harry has reportedly been messaging his brother William ever since. It could be the first sign of a fraternal thaw after the long silence that has ensued after the upset that Harry’s accusations have caused for the last couple of years.

The Prince of Wales may still be wary, doubtful that his younger sibling has understood the level of distress caused by his actions and according to royal author, Tom Quinn, while the Duke of Sussex is keen to reunite with his family he is expecting William and Kate to ‘apologise’ as part of the reconciliation process. However, ready or not, opportunities for bridge building are repeatedly presenting themselves.

It may not have happened at their grandmother’s funeral, at their father’s coronation or even at the recent Diana Legacy awards when the brothers were an ocean apart physically and emotionally, but could it be a different story when the Duke of Sussex flues into London in May for a service for the Invictus Games?

Sadly, such is William’s entrenched mistrust of his brother after Harry’s Oprah interview and publication of his memoir, Spare, that any tentative rapprochement looks unlikely to come from his side.

Sources close to the Prince and Princess of Wales have reported that with everything else that the family is coping with, the “Harry problem” is far from their agenda. But ironically, this may be the ideal moment to let past grievances lie – the perfect time to stem the tide of poison that bitterness can build, infecting the kindest of hearts. 

History teaches us sharp lessons and one the brothers will be more than alert than most is the fallout of the late King Edward VIII and his brother Bertie which went on for an unnecessarily long and painful time. The once close bond between them, ruptured after Edward’s abdication forced Bertie onto the throne, crowning him, George VI. At the time the blame was laid at Wallis Simpson’s door, while Bertie’s wife, the late Queen Mother, was seen as unassailable.  

A new book published next week by American royal biographer, Sally Bedell Smith, claims that “in some respects Meghan and the Duchess of Windsor have similar qualities: narcissistic, very controlling, very dominating”. She says of Edward: “You can see how weak he was and how much he needed a domineering woman, and it feels as if Harry is somewhat the same way.”

Having written a biography of Wallis Simpson, however, I find this view somewhat reductive. George VI, the late Queen Mother and their princess daughters, our late Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret undoubtedly shored up the monarchy, presenting a stable and united family at the nation’s helm. But the Wallis I encountered through detailed research in the archives of letters and in-depth interviews, did not want to be queen and she certainly didn’t want to become the hated pariah-in-exile that history has consigned her to. 

Johanna Schutz, the Duke and Duchess’s private secretary, who lived with the Windsors in Paris for eight years, told me that far from being the domineering character depicted, she knew a dignified woman desperately keen for her husband to reconcile with his family.

Perhaps by paying closer attention to the royal men and the relationships they have with each other; we can chart more reliably where William and Harry’s fate could be heading. Rather than seeking out similarities between Megan and Wallis Simpson, understanding the echo of history playing out in the schism between Princes, just as it did between their forefathers, is far more illuminating. 

The once close brothers-in-arms are now as distanced as their great-great uncle Edward and his brother, Bertie became. When Prince Edward became Prince of Wales in 1911, he grew especially close to his younger brother, Bertie. “Bertie is a delightful creature and we have so many interests in common,” he wrote in his diary in 1913. Two weeks later, he added: “I am so miserable it is dear old Bertie’s last night; we have been so much together of late and I shall miss him terribly.”

Similarly, Harry wrote in Spare that William’s wedding to Kate in 2011 felt like “yet another farewell”. 

He detailed how his once “beloved” brother, whom “I’d escorted into Westminster Abbey that morning was gone – forever. Who could deny it? He’d never again be first and foremost Willy. We’d never again ride together across the Lesotho countryside with capes blowing behind us. We’d never again share a horsey-smelling cottage while learning to fly.”

Bedell Smith claims that after everything that has happened since, the Prince of Wales would today feel a similar sense of “betrayal” towards his younger brother, Harry, as George VI felt towards his “deceptive older brother”. Then and now, she points to how “an American woman came into the picture and changed the dynamics”. Ancestral patterns appear to be repeating themselves, but the cause of fraternal dysfunction has much deeper roots than Meghan’s arrival on the scene.

Equally, the Establishment of 1936 did everything that they could to discredit the Windsors, making Wallis the scapegoat because the unholy trinity of palace, parliament and the church did not want Edward on the throne. For some, it feels like there is a similar impetus to demonise Harry and Meghan, because while doing so William and Kate are sanctified to ensure the stability of the crown.  

However, we can see how this quickly unravels when key players aren’t there to fulfil their assigned roles. With senior and popular royals currently out of action – the average age of the working royal is now 72 – the monarchy lacks lustre. Which could make this a perfect moment to extend an olive branch to Prince Harry.

History has precedent – just as the decision to leave the UK and the publication of Spare felt like a seismic betrayal to William, Bertie never recovered from the shock of his brother’s abdication. The rift between Bertie and Edward became so deep that, just as William has had no contact with Harry, Bertie instructed the switchboard at Buckingham Palace not to put his brother’s calls through post-abdication, which hurt Edward deeply. 

However, Bertie did soften towards Edward close to the end of his life. In October 1945, Edward visited his mother, Queen Mary, in London. To her delight, Bertie came down from Balmoral to dine with his brother. By now they had been “warring” siblings for nine years. Edward began the thaw, writing to his brother to announce his visit; the first letter beginning “Dear Bertie” and ending “Yours, David” for nearly a decade.

King George told his financial adviser, Edward Peacock, that it was “a great comfort to him that matters had thus been restored to a more natural basis, and he looked forward with hope to this continuing.” During the autumn of 1951, the Windsors were in London again. Only aged 56, Bertie’s health was by now in grave decline, but before undergoing an operation to remove his entire left lung, he gave touching instructions in his own hand for three brace of grouse to be delivered to the Mayfair house where Edward was staying.

“I understand he is fond of grouse,” he said thoughtfully. He died the following February in 1952. For Edward, who only had news of his brother through the newspapers, it was a bitter shock.

So, during this difficult chapter for the royals, their ancestors’ story tells them that healing is better achieved sooner, not later. Harry has clearly indicated that he is open to reconciliation; texting William and saying after the announcement of King Charles’s cancer “I love my family,” However, William is, perhaps understandably, still proceeding with caution.

Ironically, while the brothers seem worlds apart, Harry is the only person who, as the spare, really understands what his brother, the heir, has to endure. Bertie’s wife Elizabeth who wrote to Edward shortly before his abdication: “Darling David, please be kind to Bertie when you see him because he loves you and minds terribly what happens to you. I wish you could realise how loyal & true he is to you, and you have no idea how hard it has been for him lately. I know that he is fonder of you than anybody else.”  

Who knows if those close to the brothers behind the scenes are now lobbying for a reconciliation? The tentative approaches recently have been described as having the tone of “two wary diplomats”. It was Diana’s greatest fear that William’s role as king would be the thing that pulled her sons apart. For now, it would appear that their rancour is playing out as it did for Edward and their great-grandfather Bertie. But fate doesn’t have to be sealed indefinitely, patterns don’t have to be repeated and healing can come from unexpected events.

It takes a generous heart for mistakes to be admitted and forgiveness granted. While it is possible even if it currently seems implausible, a new ending for the brothers would signal real change for good, for them and maybe, the monarchy too. Together they made a dynamic duo, imagine how different it would feel today if they launched a united third act.     

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