Prince William and Prince Harry were once inseparable brothers, bonded by their unique shared history and path. Today they are a world apart.
Growing up, William and Harry were as tight as two brothers could be, even though their personalities were widely regarded as opposing: William, the stoic older brother who kept his emotions under wraps; Harry, the free spirit who wore his heart on his sleeve.
“Broadly speaking, they have always been very different characters but very close because of their situation—the fact that [their parents’] marriage was unhappy. They relied upon each other,” Penny Junor, who has written two biographies of the brothers, says in the new issue of PEOPLE Royals, on newsstands now. Like their grandmother Queen Elizabeth and her younger sister Princess Margaret, the brothers would quickly learn their respective destinies.
“They worked it out while they were schoolboys,” says Andrew Morton, who wrote the 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story. “William famously said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a policeman and look after Mummy.’ And Harry, with a note of triumph in his voice, said, ‘No, you’ve got to be King.’ It symbolized the difference between them.”
While William may have been seen as the natural-born leader, friends and palace sources say the brothers, raised with the finest education money and privilege can afford, were always competitive alpha males. Yes, William was the heir, but insiders say Harry was considered central to the royal family’s future planning. “Harry’s position was set,” a source says of the optics at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Then came the confrontation. No one but the brothers can truly understand what happened, but this much is known: The sibling relationship began to publicly break down after the introduction of Harry’s future wife, Meghan Markle, in 2016. Many reports point to William warning his younger brother to take the new romance slowly.
Soon after Harry and Meghan married in May 2018, conflicting accusations emerged about a tearful clash between Meghan and Kate Middleton during the wedding preparations. Amid such tensions, insiders say, the brothers would have naturally entrenched to defend their wives. “That intensifies the emotion,” says royal historian Robert Lacey. “I spent a long time analyzing these accusations. Clearly, human emotion and feelings that had once been so strong went sour, creating bitterness that is going to take a long time to overcome.”
Some who know the brothers feel there were several issues that built upon one another, while one well-placed source says that it can’t be easily put down to one thing. Before long, Harry and Meghan sought a path outside royal life. During the intense negotiations leading up to their dramatic exit in March 2020, Harry was particularly aggrieved about the loss of his military titles and his security.
Some of those close to the couple believe that Harry would never have left the U.K. had he not met Meghan. “But he wasn’t happy in his life before,” says a family friend. “She has brought him happiness, so he is determined to pursue his life alongside her. He’s so full of character and full of love as well.”
In March 2021, Harry and Meghan shared more of their side of the situation in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which exposed a widening rift that appeared insurmountable to many. There is more to come when Harry releases his memoir, penned with ghostwriter J.R. Moehringer, this fall. “This is a highly skilled author and will be a very powerful, well-written book,” adds Lacey.
One source close to the family believes Harry has the ability to exacerbate tensions with his personal reflections. But a friend counters that the memoir has a very different objective: “The book will be positive about what he’s learned.” Sources who know both brothers remain hopeful for their reconciliation. “If they were in a room on their own, they would say they miss each other,” a royal insider tells PEOPLE Royals.
Now that both men are fathers — with five children between them — insiders also hope the cousins will have an opportunity to bond. Given the promise of the next generation, “There’s the old cliché that time heals [all wounds], and the Queen herself is a big believer in that, stemming from her religious faith,” adds Lacey. “I would say the prospects for the future are positive.”