Allegations against the Duchess of Sussex led to a bitter row between brothers who were once inseparable, says the author Robert Lacey in this extract in The Times from his book Battle of Brothers.
“So, are you saying,” asked Oprah Winfrey, talking to Meghan and Harry in their famous interview of March 2021, “that there were hints of jealousy?”
She was inquiring about the Sussexes’s wildly successful tour of Australia and the South Pacific of late October 2018, and the couple shifted uncomfortably in their plush wicker chairs.
“Look,” replied Harry, “I just wish that we would all learn from the past.”
By bringing up “the past”, the prince was venturing into an area that was almost taboo. He was making a sensational comparison between his mother and his wife. Harry was suggesting that Meghan had demonstrated in Australia the same massive star quality as Diana and was now having to face the family envy that went along with that.
“It really changed,” he said, “after the Australia tour, after our South Pacific tour . . . it was . . . the first time that the family got to see how incredible she is at the job. And that brought back memories.”
Memories of what? Again Harry shied away from putting words to the almost unmentionable. But Oprah had prepared and polished this moment, like so many others in the interview, and she had a reference ready to prompt her prince’s revelation. The latest, fourth season of TV’s The Crown had depicted Charles and Diana’s 1983 tour of Australia, showing how Diana had been “bedazzling” in her ability “to connect with people”. Episode six had depicted how the crowds would groan when they realised that Charles, not Diana, was walking down their side of the street — hence the beginnings of the “jealousy” on the family’s part.
“So is that what you’re talking about?” asked Oprah. “It brought back memories of that?”
Harry and Meghan spoke to Oprah Winfrey in an interview broadcast in March this year.
“Yeah,” Harry finally replied in a fashion that was both dismal and unmistakably aggressive.
What on earth had happened, viewers had to wonder, to the old and once-familiar happy side of Prince Harry?
When trying to define the moment that marked the decisive rift with his brother William — the break-up and actual separation of the joint household they had established together in 2009 — Harry would fix upon his triumphant return with Meghan from their Australian tour at the end of October 2018. But if asked the same question, William would have fixed on a more specific event: the explosive argument he had had with his brother earlier that month.
Both brothers agreed how bitterly they had clashed back in the early days over William’s attempt to slow Harry’s courtship of Meghan — “Don’t feel like you need to rush this . . . ” But both of them had subsequently moved on. Harry’s transparent contentment with Meghan had relaxed the tensions, give or take the odd row over bridesmaids’ dresses. The “no speaks” had eased just a little by the time “best man” William escorted his brother down the aisle in May 2018.
Then five months later came the conclusive and determining rupture — the division that has lasted to the present day — though here the brothers’ retelling of history diverged. As Harry explained it to Oprah, Meghan’s Australian tour success sowed the jealousies that caused feelings to “change”. According to this scenario, William and Kate resented the Diana-like popularity that was generated by Harry’s wife. William had a different recollection.
We now know that Princes William and Harry were no longer on speaking terms before the Sussexes set off for Australia. Feelings had already “changed”, as Harry put it, and drastically so. The brothers had parted on extremely poor terms, with the trouble centring on Meghan’s stringent treatment and alleged bullying of her staff.
Most Kensington Palace courtiers were noted for the comparatively long tenures of their comfortable and prestigious jobs. But it came to look as if employees could not wait to escape service with Harry and Meghan. Those who left formed themselves into an informal fraternity that they titled the “Sussex Survivors’ Club”. They had finally hit back, and their organising agent had been PR man Jason Knauf.
The joint communications secretary for Kensington Palace — who was still, at that date, working on behalf of both of the brothers and their wives — had become concerned by the numerous stories of mistreatment being brought to him by colleagues whom he knew well and trusted.
Texas-born and New Zealand-educated, Knauf, 34, was a popular character in Kensington Palace, widely noted for his friendliness and loyalty towards his colleagues. He had been considered a real “catch” when the brothers snared him from the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2015, and one of his concerns was that professional management practices should be more effectively enforced inside the traditional British palace.
Knauf’s American sensibilities caused him to see the Meghan situation as raising principles of human resources management in the palace system that needed to be formally addressed.
Knauf’s first priority was to set down the facts, as he saw them, for the record: “I’m very concerned,” he emailed to William’s private secretary Simon Case, in a document he drafted in October 2018, “that the duchess was able to bully two PAs out of the household in the past year.”
Knauf described Meghan’s treatment of one aide as “totally unacceptable . . . the duchess seems intent”, he wrote, “on always having someone in her sights”. Specifying another staff member, Knauf alleged Meghan had been bullying her as well, “seeking to undermine her confidence”. His office had received “report after report”, he wrote, from people who had witnessed “unacceptable behaviour” by Meghan towards this member of staff.
“Meghan governed by fear,” claimed one courtier. “So many people said it. Nothing was ever good enough for her. [She] humiliated staff in meetings, [would] shout at them, [would] cut them off email chains — and then demand to know why they hadn’t done anything.”
As early as 2017, around the time of the couple’s engagement, according to a subsequent report in The Times, a senior aide had spoken to the couple about the difficulties caused by their treatment of staff. “It’s not my job to coddle people,” Meghan was said to have replied.
“Americans can be much more direct,” wrote the authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand in defence of the duchess, “and that often doesn’t sit well in the much more refined institution of the monarchy.”
A Brit might have raised an eyebrow at Meghan’s alleged behaviour, then looked the other way. The Yank decided to act. Knauf was actually one of Meghan’s most senior advisers — her chief adviser, in fact, when it came to public relations. Earlier that year she had gone to Knauf for help when drafting the disputed letter of severance that she sent to her father. She valued his PR expertise.
Before that, Knauf had helped Harry to word the fierce anti-media statements that he had framed to try to protect Meghan from press harassment, both as his girlfriend and then as his fiancée. The PR man had taken considerable stick from some of his non-royal contacts who criticised him as being overprotective in fighting the newcomer’s corner. Like so many people in all the palaces, Knauf had started off on Meghan’s side.
But as the months went by the American’s feelings became more ambiguous, as numerous colleagues — women whom he greatly respected — continued to bring him stories of what they said they had suffered at Meghan’s hands.
“I can’t stop shaking,” one aide had told a colleague in anticipation of an encounter with Meghan. Another reported that the prospect of confrontation with the duchess had made her “feel sick”. “Emotional cruelty and manipulation”, were the words of a third, “which I guess could also be called bullying.”
The b-word featured prominently in the accounts of several, along with an even more sinister set of initials: PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder was a deeply serious condition to allege — flashbacks, nightmares and feelings of deep anxiety — but that was how one complainant said that they had felt.
Several people maintained they had been “humiliated” by the duchess, and that criticism extended to Harry as well.
“I overheard a conversation between Harry and one of his top aides,” recalled one Kensington Palace courtier. “Harry was screaming and screaming down the phone. Team Sussex was a really toxic environment. People shouting and screaming in each other’s faces.”
Shouting and screaming? PTSD? Making people feel sick? Prince William went ballistic when he heard the “dossier of distress” that Knauf had gathered. We do not know whether the communications secretary brought his allegations directly to his boss or submitted them via Simon Case. What we do know is that the prince was astonished and horrified. He was instantly furious at what he heard.
“I remember Christian Jones [William’s press secretary and later private secretary] explaining to me how the Cams [the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge] are paternalistic with their staff,” recalls one royal correspondent. “They copy the Queen in that respect with all her Christmas parties and Christmas presents to her people. They’re proud to treat their staff like family. They recognise that they don’t get paid loads of money, so they are just really nice to them. So this was a very deep clash of philosophies, with Meghan being used to a Hollywood service culture — getting exactly what she wanted whenever she wanted in that famous way that Harry said.”
William personally knew and liked all the individuals whom Knauf had named in his dossier. The prince regarded them as assets to his household — colleagues to be cherished and for whom he was responsible. Human beings. Like Knauf, the prince was appalled that his respected staff may have been put in this position.
For William, Knauf’s allegations also clarified something that the prince had long believed — that Meghan was fundamentally hostile towards the royal system, which she failed to understand as an outsider. William wondered if she had not wanted to leave from the very start — even dreaming, perhaps, that she could whisk Harry back with her to North America.
But Meghan’s lawyers and PR representatives said this was quite the wrong interpretation of their client’s thinking and behaviour in a statement that they issued to The Times early in March 2021. They denied all allegations of bullying as inaccurate and the product of what they described as a “smear campaign”. The duchess wished to fit in and be accepted, they insisted. She had left her life in North America to commit herself to her new role.
I have never met Jason Knauf. What you have just read is based upon the published accusations that Knauf set down on paper — refuted as “defamatory”, it must be stressed again, and “based on misleading and harmful information” in the view of the Duchess of Sussex’s lawyers. It also relies upon William’s personal account of these events to one of his friends who then spoke to this author.
The moment the prince heard the bullying allegations, he related to this friend, he got straight on the phone to talk to Harry — and when Harry flared up in furious defence of his wife, the elder brother persisted. Harry shut off his phone angrily, so William went to speak to him personally. The prince was horrified by what he had just been told about Meghan’s alleged behaviour, and he wanted to hear what Harry had to say.
The showdown between the two siblings was fierce and bitter. William’s pre-engagement questioning of Meghan’s suitability had been quite reasonable, in William’s opinion. His fraternal doubts had been provisional, based upon how the new recruit appeared to be. The elder brother did not really know Meghan in those early days.
But now William had seen enough of his sister-in-law to feel sure that, sadly, he did know her and that many of his reservations linked unhappily with what Knauf’s colleagues had alleged. William believed Meghan was following a plan — “agenda” was the word he used to his friend — and the accusations he had just heard were alarming. Kate, he said, had been wary of her from the start.
Meghan was undermining some precious principles of the monarchy, if she really was treating her staff in this way, and William was upset that she seemed to be stealing his beloved brother away from him. Later courtiers would coin a hashtag — #freeHarry. It was only half a joke.
“Meghan portrayed herself as the victim,” recalled one Kensington Palace staffer, “but she was the bully. People felt run over by her. They didn’t know how to handle this woman. They thought she was a complete narcissist and sociopath — basically unhinged. Which was why the pair of them were drawn to each other in the first place — both damaged goods.”
William felt deeply wounded. “Hurt” and “betrayed” were the two feelings that he described to his friend. The elder brother had always felt so protective. He had seen it as his job to look out for Harry but this was the moment the protection had to stop. At the end of the day the British crown and all it stood for with its ancient traditions, styles and values — the mission of the monarchy — had to matter more to William than his brother did.
Harry, for his part, was equally furious that William should give credence to the accusations against Meghan, and he was fiercely combative in his wife’s defence. Some sources maintain that in the heat of the argument Harry actually accused someone in the family of concepts that were “racist”. But it must be stressed that neither brother has ever confirmed that the hateful r-word was used face to face.
Only William and Harry can know what they said to each other and they have respectfully maintained their silence on that. But Harry made clear to the world in his interview with Oprah that he considered his family’s response to Meghan to have been essentially racist — using the heavily freighted code words “unconscious bias” to provide an intellectual framework for his analysis.
Where could the two brothers go after such painful and damning notions had been thrown into their debate?
Harry and Meghan appeared to be the ones who visibly departed after the row.
William, for his part, felt just as strongly about Meghan and the need for her subversive “agenda” to be removed from the operations of the British monarchy, which she did not appear to understand or respect. He certainly wanted Meghan removed, for a start, from the hitherto harmonious joint household that he and his brother had operated together for the best part of a decade. William simply did not want her or Harry around any more.
When accounts of the rift started seeping out through the winter months that followed, it was generally assumed that the volatile Harry must have set the pace in the splitting up of the joint Kensington Palace household. He was the brother who visibly departed, stalking off to set up a new home in Windsor, with offices for himself and Meghan in Buckingham Palace.
But the reverse was the case. It was William who made the decisive move. Following his furious confrontation with his younger brother in the autumn of 2018, the prince instructed Simon Case to start the process of dividing their two households immediately. William wished to be separated from Meghan on a day-to-day basis — and that meant being separated from his brother as well.
“William,” says a friend, “threw Harry out.”
©Robert Lacey 2021 Extracted from Battle of Brothers: William, Harry and the Inside Story of a Family in Tumult by Robert Lacey, to be published by William Collins on June 24 at £9.99.