The Crown

The Crown: Princess Diana Was a Royal Rebel, Especially as William and Harry’s Mum

In honor of the first episodes of The Crown’s final season, a look back at how Princess Diana reshaped royal relationships while raising sons William and Harry.
The Crown Princess Diana Was a Royal Rebel Especially as William and Harrys Mum
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Princess Diana’s first scene in The Crown’s sixth season is a sweet one: She and her eldest son, Prince William, whip through the English countryside in a convertible, their heads bobbing along to Chumbawamba. In that same episode, “Persona Non Grata,” and in its follow-up, “Two Photographs,” the late royal shares more warm moments with William and younger son Harry—cuddling them and playing soccer, pranks, and Uno. It’s the first warm and informal relationship we’ve seen between an heir to the throne and his or her mother on Peter Morgan’s drama series, and the scenes starkly contrast Prince Charles’s scenes with his own “dear mama,” Queen Elizabeth.

In “Persona Non Grata,” a 49-year-old Prince Charles waits in a double-breasted suit for the queen’s handlers to grant him entry for a private conversation. Charles attempts to pull on her dusty heartstrings—telling her that the best moments of his childhood were when he was presented to her by his nannies—but she is too busy doting on her beloved corgi to process Charles’s emotional yearning. “Now, was there anything else?” the queen says witheringly, bringing a swift halt to the mother-son fireside. “I think this [dog] could really use my attention.”

In real life, too, Diana repeatedly demonstrated her maternal warmth in moments captured in conversation (“I live for my sons. I would be lost without them,” she’s quoted as saying) and on camera—letting William and Harry bury her in sand on the beach; delightedly yelping on Disney World rides with her sons and their security detail; and, in something that sounds trivial but speaks volumes for a royal, just lovingly?touching?her children.?

From Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images.

In?Spare—Prince Harry’s bridge-burning memoir dedicated, in part, to his late mother—Charles and Diana’s second-born shared an anecdote encapsulating Diana’s and the queen’s polar?opposite attitudes toward affection:

There was a famous story about Mummy trying to hug Granny. It was actually more of a lunge than a hug, if eyewitnesses can be believed; Granny swerved to avoid contact, and the whole thing ended very awkwardly, with averted eyes and murmured apologies…. I wondered, if Pa ever tried? Probably not. When he was five or six, Granny left him, went off on a royal tour lasting several months, and when she returned, she offered him a firm handshake.

Since Diana’s 1997 death, her tradition-bucking maternal style has been revisited ad nauseam—the secret trips to McDonald’s, the naughty cards and jokes she adored, and the stunts she pulled. Like the time she surprised a 12- or 13-year-old William with a visit from the real-life models plastered on the walls of his bedroom. “I went bright red, didn’t really know what to say,” William recalled in 2017’s Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, making a rare admission. “I pretty much fell down the stairs…I was completely and utterly sort of awestruck. That was a very funny memory that’s lived with me forever about her, loving and embarrassing and being the sort of the joker.”

From Anwar Hussein/WireImage.

At the time of that documentary, timed to the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, William and Harry vowed that it would be the last time they publicly shared their personal memories of their mother. But six years later, Harry shared even more intimate memories in Spare.?He recalled how Diana stuffed candy in his socks when he went off to boarding school and encouraged him to throw water balloons at paparazzi. Whenever he and William were with their mother, he said, “there was much laughter, horseplay, the norm.” He continued:

I remembered mornings in Mummy’s apartment at Kensington Palace, the nanny waking Willy and me, helping us down to Mummy’s bedroom. I remembered that she had a waterbed, and Willy and I would jump up and down on the mattress, screaming, laughing, our hair standing straight up. I remembered the breakfasts together, Mummy loving grapefruit and lychees, seldom drinking coffee or tea. I remembered that after breakfast we’d embark on the working day with her, sitting by her side during her first phone calls, auditing her business meetings.

Explained biographer Sally Bedell Smith in Diana in Search of Herself, “Diana was determined that her sons grow up in a more ‘normal’ fashion than was customary for members of the royal family.”

She was so comfortable with the boys, Harry wrote in Spare, that she even indulged in burping contests—inciting one friend of Harry’s to later remark that the late princess was “like a teenage boy!” “She was, mate,” Harry agreed.

From Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images.

Though the memoir provides a bevy of new details about Diana, you won’t see any of Harry’s recollections brought to life on The Crown. Series creator Morgan has said he did “not read a word of” Spare. “Not that I wouldn’t be interested,” Morgan allowed. “But I didn’t want his voice to inhabit my thinking too much.” Given the title of the Netflix period drama, Morgan is also just more interested in the heir to the throne than the second-born son.

Morgan depicts Diana as a mother wholly devoted to her children, but he also gently acknowledges the alleged imperfections of the late royal’s parenting—imperfections that can be understood given her lonely?time at the palace. Once Diana became engaged to Prince Charles in 1981, her existence became one of tortured isolation—a note?Morgan played repeatedly in season four, showing a young Diana roller-skating?alone through the hallways of Buckingham Palace and prowling the kitchen late at night.?

Diana gave birth to William when she was just 21, and to Harry when she was 23. To her, lonely in her fractured marriage and position as a public figure, William and Harry were not only sons, but also allies in her gilded tower. “The boys were always a loving lifeline for the Princess in her isolated position,” wrote biographer Andrew Morton?in Diana’s own bridge-burning tell-all, Diana: Her True Story. “They mean everything to me,”?she said on multiple occasions.

From Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images.

As William grew older, she came to lean on her elder son as a confidant—a complicated role for the future king. “Like many women whose relationships with their husbands have become dysfunctional, Diana used her elder son as both a stand-in and a buffer,” wrote Tina Brown in The Palace Papers. “By his early teens, he was his mother’s most trusted confidant. She used to describe him as ‘my little wise old man.’”

In Diana: In Search of Herself, biographer Smith continued:

“Diana used to ask William for advice all the time, about what she should do with her life,” said her friend Elsa Bowker. Diana felt compelled to unburden herself, according to her friend Rosa Monckton, because she “wanted William to hear the truth from her about her life, and the people she was seeing, and what they meant to her, rather than read a distorted, exaggerated, and frequently untrue version in the tabloid press.” But by confiding in William as much as she did, Diana was placing a significant emotional burden on an adolescent boy.

Brown wrote about one incident, stunning in its blurred boundaries, in which Diana brought a teenage William with her to meet a reporter.

Then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan describes in his diary a startlingly revealing background lunch with Diana and the 13-year-old William at Kensington Palace in 1996 at which, he says, the princess allowed him to ask “literally anything.” William insisted on a glass of wine even when Diana said no, and he seemed thoroughly up-to-date on all the tabloid rumors about her lovers. “He is clearly in the loop on most of her bizarre world and, in particular, the various men who come into it from time to time,” the astonished Morgan noted.

Though his portrayal of Diana is mostly sympathetic in season six, Morgan touches on this dependence—showing Diana make offhand remarks about Charles’s mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, and her chaotic love life to her teenage son. Explaining the timing of their St. Tropez vacation, Diana tells William, “I just wanted us all to be away when your father threw a huge 50th birthday party for you-know-who”—“you-know-who” being Camilla.?

In “Dis-Moi Oui,” Diana phones William and Harry from Paris. The boys are at Balmoral, and the call is the last time The Crown’s Diana speaks to her sons. Diana has become disillusioned by her current fling with Dodi Fayed and is ready to return home. William, sensing his mother’s melancholy on the other end of the line, asks, “Are you okay?” It’s the kind of parent-child exchange that usually happens in reverse. “I don’t really understand how I ended up here,” she confesses to her son. “Mummy just needs to make some changes to her life, that’s all.”?

The next episode, though, she is gone.?

William would spend decades working out the trauma of the fact that he could not save his mother from her tragic fate. He has talked about the anger he felt after her death. In 2017, he said he was taking part in a documentary about Diana because of the “feeling like we let her down when we were younger. We couldn’t protect her.” In 2021, William released an uncharacteristically fiery statement—excoriating the BBC after it determined that Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview was obtained using deception. It was another posthumous attempt to protect Diana.

From Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images.

“The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others,” he said. “It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia, and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.” He added, “Our mother was an incredible woman who dedicated her life to service. She was resilient, brave, and unquestionably honest.”

It will be interesting to see how The Crown’s final episodes, which premiere December 14, depict William’s approach to relationships—the actor Meg Bellamy has been cast as Kate Middleton—and how his character was informed by Diana. Morgan has already made a three-season meal out of Charles’s “mummy issues”—illustrating how he fell in love with Parker Bowles in part because she provided the constant warmth and reassurance he never received from the queen.?

From Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images.

In the meantime, Brown has already offered her analysis of Diana’s everlasting imprint on William, decades after her death. Diana’s “tender messaging to him as a child,” Brown wrote in The Palace Papers, “made him sure and steady in his choice of the woman he loved after years of?considered courtship. Like his scampish, heart-throb younger brother, William is relaxed with the media and informal in his presentation to the public.”

William, for his part, has agreed about his mother’s effect on him: “I give thanks that I was lucky enough to be her son and know her for the 15 years that I did,” he said in the 2017 documentary. “She set us up really well. She gave us the right tools and has prepared us well for life, not obviously knowing what was going to happen.”

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