Today, Prince William and Prince Harry reunited at Kensington Palace for the unveiling of a statue memorializing their mother, who would have turned 60 years old today. The statue they ultimately unveiled fuses Diana’s role as philanthropist and mother, depicting her standing with two children, her hands protectively on their shoulders. Initially announced jointly, the occasion has become another closely watched public litmus test of the rocky relationship between the brothers. The world’s media is waiting with one question: Can this “heal the breach?” The event is being framed as a possible moment of familial repair, a healing opportunity. Instead, it underlines the separate paths they have taken—one man inside the palace, and another out.
The statue was initially announced under a very different set of circumstances. Harry was still working closely with his brother and sister-in-law out of a joint office in Kensington Palace; the pair announced the statue in a statement that spoke as one voice: “It has been 20 years since our mother’s death and the time is right to recognize her positive impact in the U.K. and around the world with a permanent statue. Our mother touched so many lives. We hope the statue will help all those who visit Kensington Palace to reflect on her life and her legacy.” Harry and Meghan were dating, but she hadn’t yet moved to the United Kingdom. The Crown hadn’t dredged up the full, ugly history of Charles and Diana’s relationship, either; Charles’s reputation came through the year of the anniversary of her death relatively unscathed. Things have changed dramatically since. The Windsors have been in such turmoil that the much-reduced size of the ceremony due to a global pandemic seems like a comparative blip on the radar.
The announcement of plans for the statue was just one element of the celebrations of her life. William and Harry also collaborated for a documentary that aired in the US and UK, titled Our Mother, Diana, a project whose very name illustrates how closely joined the pair were. It was a delicate dance, memorializing a woman who is still beloved and wildly popular, but who was publicly at odds at the end of her life with the very Crown that William will eventually wear, issues that were left unresolved when she died. The documentary opened and closed with the two brothers sitting together over an old photograph of a pregnant Diana holding a toddler William, all three of them together in one shot, after a fashion.
The documentary was a classic piece of royal myth-making, settling the narrative like one would a high-strung racehorse. Her death was a terrible thing that scarred both boys, but she was a wonderful, caring woman who left a lasting mark on the world and prepared them both to carry on that legacy. But looking back, hairline cracks are there in the differing ways the two men talked, which would eventually come to shop the divergent ways they decided to carry on her legacy.
William projected an almost steely-eyed determination to move beyond the trauma; Harry was still very clearly raw. William stressed at one point that Diana had prepared him and his brother well: “She set us up really well, she gave us the right tools and she prepared us really well for life in the best way she could,” he said, with the air of a man delivering the final word on a matter, positioning himself—as always—as the stable, well-prepared future of the monarchy, the realization of the best of his two ancestries.
Harry, on the other hand, was more emotional. “She was our mum, she’s still our mum. And of course, as her son, I would say this: she was the best mum in the world,” he said at one point, clearly on the verge of tears. Harry also talked about how essentially the only time he cried was at her private funeral, pushing his pain down for years afterward, and how he has missed hugs from his mother for his entire life since. William, in contrast, drew an ironclad boundary with an off-screen interviewer, when he was asked whether he remembered what he and his mother had said in their last telephone conversation. “I do. I do,” he replied, without adding another word about the contents of that conversation.
The essential narrative tension that drives so much of the fascination with the royal family is that between their public presentation as a family—which is deeply rooted in the needs of both the institution of monarchy and the broader British state (look at us! we’re a stable trading partner!)—and their notorious, longstanding, extremely public messiness. That’s the fault line between tectonic plates where the earthquakes happen, in terms of international news coverage. It’s also worth noting the extent to which both men’s public identities are still tied up with their mother’s awful, untimely death; there’s still a tendency—you can see it in a Sky News clip from earlier today—to refer to William and Harry, who are pushing 40, as “the boys.” Publicly unveiling a statue that underscores Diana as a maternal figure ultimately reproduces these two men as Diana’s boys. Even Diana apparently pictured them moving as a unit when they were adults; Andrew Morton recently said, “Diana said to me quite clearly on several occasions that she saw Harry as the wingman for William in what ultimately would be a very solitary, somber job as future king.”
They did, once again, issue a joint statement for the occasion: “Today, on what would have been our Mother’s 60th birthday, we remember her love, strength and character – qualities that made her a force for good around the world, changing countless lives for the better.”
“Every day, we wish she were still with us, and our hope is that this statue will be seen forever as a symbol of her life and her legacy.”
But it’s clear, now, just how differently the two men are interpreting their mandate to carry on their mother’s work. Even if the brothers reconcile on a personal level—and that’s not looking particularly promising at the moment—they will still be publicly pursuing very different approaches. William will follow his grandmother and his father as monarch of the United Kingdom; he has made mental health initiatives a signature part of his philanthropic portfolio as a royal, but whatever he does will necessarily be part of the institution. Harry, meanwhile, made his position about the institution very clear, on international television, from a backyard in Southern California. William sallies forth from the palace on organized engagements; Harry talks to Oprah on Apple TV.
The seeds were there, four years ago; they’ve now burst into bloom on the international stage. We’re all going to be watching this storyline for a very, very long time.