Princess Margaret And Prince Harry's Lives As 'The Spare' Were Very Different

Trigger warning: The following article contains language involving suicide and substance abuse. 

When we think about the royal family, images of castles, crowns and lavish lifestyles flash before our eyes. There's something that seems so other-worldly about the comings and goings of a member of the royal family, and yet — as time has shown — the realities of some are far from perfect. Of the modern batch of royals, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have made it clear since stepping down from their roles in January 2020 that speaking their truth is a must. From their tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey to Harry's book, "Spare," the two have challenged the narrative surrounding the royal family and have pushed its members into uncomfortable territory. Discussing his mental health, past substance abuse, relationship with the press, and more, Harry has not shied away from putting it all out on the table, including how he has had to grapple with the idea of being the "spare."

The phrase, "The heir and the spare," is long-standing amid the royal family, referring to the first and second born children to the family in direct line to the throne. The heir is, of course, who will one day assume the crown. The spare, colloquially, is the backup plan. With a rather negative connotation, it's no wonder that Harry has spoken out about his experiences within the royal family, shedding light on some of the more vulnerable elements of his life as a result. But before Harry was Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II's younger sister, who too occupied the "spare" capacity and did so in her own way.

Margaret and Harry didn't conform to royal relationship standards

One of the most obvious elements of life as the spare — relating to both Princess Margaret and Prince Harry – has to do with their romantic interests. As the entire world knows, Harry and Meghan Markle made a splash when their relationship went public, as she was definitely not the typical royal spouse. Meghan was a divorcee, American, an actress, a woman of mixed race — such qualities would've rendered their romance obsolete in Princess Margaret's day, as she too had a love life that was not by the book.

Margaret famously fell in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend in her early 20s. A divorced man who was far older than her, Peter certainly seemed to be the love of Margaret's life, but due to her age and his status as a once-married man, their romance was not approved of. After years of waiting and a lack of approval from the church, Margaret finally stepped back from her love, choosing her dedication to the monarchy above her own desires. "Mindful of the Church's teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others," the princess said at the time (via Radio Times). "I have reached this decision entirely alone."

And while Margaret's romance did not last, it could be argued that her attempt to do things out of line helped Harry accomplish what she never could.

Margaret was said to be jealous of her sister

Growing up, Princess Margaret quickly came to realize that her sister would become queen, and thus would be the primary focus of her family. In an attempt to rectify this, her father, King George VI, fawned over his youngest daughter and gave her anything she desired, but it was not enough to dampen the jealousy that bubbled over time.

"She was his pet ... she was always allowed to stay up to dinner at the age of 13 and to grow up too quickly," a source told The Telegraph of Margaret's relationship with her father, noting that despite having material goods like no other, the younger of the two was "subconsciously jealous" of Queen Elizabeth II. As time wore on, Margaret was said to be consistently seeking her sister's blessing when it came to just about anything, but primarily relating to Margaret's own personal life. In her view, the queen had accomplished everything that Margaret should've — she was married, she had children, she had the Commonwealth at the tip of her finger. Margaret had fulfilled none of those duties, and felt obligated as such to do so.

Her jealousy, while understandable to an extent, did keep Margaret at arm's length when it came to her sister. For example, the princess refused to attend Elizabeth and Prince Philip's 10-year wedding anniversary party, a subtle nod to her bitterness that erupted due to her own personal life's downfalls.

Both Harry and Margaret sought comfort through substance

Unfortunately, the pressures of being the spare — as well as life in the no. 2 capacity — led both Prince Harry and Princess Margaret down precarious paths. Harry tragically lost his mother at just 12 years old, and was forced to do much of his grieving in the public eye. Margaret, meanwhile, lost the love of her life due to the constructs of the royal family, went through a tumultuous divorce, and — like Harry — did so with everyone watching. Sadly, both turned to substances to help cope, leading them down difficult roads.

"I was willing to drink, I was willing to take drugs, I was willing to try and do the things that made me feel less like I was feeling," Harry explained to Oprah Winfrey during their sit-down interview. "I was just all over the place mentally" (via The Washington Post).

Margaret, meanwhile, spent much of her time "smoking and drinking excessively," biographer Andrew Morton detailed as part of his book, "Elizabeth & Margaret: The Intimate World of the Windsor Sisters." "The princess, melancholic and despairing, took to calling friends in the dead of night to vent her grievances," Morton wrote, noting that Queen Elizabeth II had a cold response to her sister's experiences. "They lived in a world where illness was dealt with by going for a long walk, and mental illness was ignored altogether. ... Her response to sickness, especially her sister's, was brisk and no-nonsense."

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Margaret's education was not prioritized

While Prince William and Prince Harry both experienced a fruitful education, the same cannot be said for Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. Though of a different era — and battling with the fact that they were young women in a traditional society – Elizabeth's education was prioritized far more than Margaret's, no doubt thanks to her future as queen. According to lady-in-waiting Jane Stevens, who was close to both the queen and Margaret, Margaret was not only less educated than her sister, but was more than aware of the differences she endured.

"She said to me, 'That was the first time I sort of thought or realized that my sister was going to be queen and I wouldn't really be part of what she was going to do.' It hit her quite hard that their lives were going to be completely different," Stevens said as part of the BBC's "Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal" (via Daily Mail). Meanwhile, Lady Anne Glenconner expressed – in the same documentary — that Margaret believed her lack of education was purposeful. "[Margaret] always said, 'I was never educated as well as my sister in order not to be a sort of threat to her,' that's what she felt," Glenconner said. "The queen had people from Oxford and Eton who came and taught her and Princess Margaret had a French governess and someone who taught her how to play piano."

Harry and Margaret received heightened levels of media scrutiny

Despite being the spare to their siblings' heir, both Prince Harry and Princess Margaret experienced heightened levels of media scrutiny, with Margaret in particular being labeled as the "First Paparazzi Princess," per The Telegraph. The younger of the two sisters saw her relationship with the media as nothing more than nature playing out in real time, telling writer Gore Vidal once that it was only natural that the public wanted a more exciting and daring counterpart to the queen's balanced persona.

"It was inevitable when there are two sisters and one is the queen, who must be the source of honor and all that is good, while the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister," Margaret told Vidal. With such a perspective, she embraced the role wholeheartedly.

Harry, meanwhile, experienced the increased levels of paparazzi in part thanks to the interest that was paid to his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. During her time as a royal, Diana was relentlessly followed, with the paparazzi playing a key role in her tragic death in 1997. Harry has since made it clear that the royal rota, the invasive press tactics, and the ways in which his personal life has been splashed on the front pages of the newspapers are his no. 1 enemies. When he began dating Meghan Markle — as many of us know — the media interest in him only increased.

An insider said Margaret and Harry were very different 'spares'

Though they both occupied the backup spot to their siblings, Prince Harry and Princess Margaret were very different spares, according to former lady-in-waiting Lady Anne Glenconner. Amid the release of Harry's tell-all book, "Spare," Glenconner spoke out about Margaret's status as Queen Elizabeth II's no. 2, telling Newsweek that she would never have dreamed of writing such a book exposing the secrets of the monarchy no matter the personal strife she endured throughout her life.

"I'm not going to read it. I think it would upset me; it's all too sad," Glenconner began about Harry's book, which contained details of her upbringing, experience dating in the public eye, his relationship with the invasive royal rota, and more. "Princess Margaret was a 'spare' — a term that has been brought into focus because of Prince Harry's book," the former lady-in-waiting continued. "I think the only thing Princess Margaret complained about was that she wasn't educated as well as the queen ... I think that was the only thing she ever really minded. But she was completely loyal to her sister all her life; I never heard her say anything derogatory about her."

Glenconner continued with her rebuking of Harry's book, doubling down on her estimation that Margaret — no matter how burned by the royals — would've never turned to the pages of a book to speak her truth. "She was loyal," her friend attested.

The palace is rumored to care more about William's reputation than Harry's

Amid the release of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's Netflix docu-series, "Harry & Meghan," Harry said a line that instantly gripped attention. "They were happy to lie to protect my brother. They were never willing to tell the truth to protect us," Harry said of the royal press offices, without hinting at what specific lies were told. Though he remained tightlipped, the gravity of Harry's words did not go unnoticed, and royal expert Kinsey Schofield further explained to The Royal Observer that as the spare to Prince William's heir, Harry has never been granted the same level of press protection or reputation preservation.

"I've been told that ever since Harry was a teenager, the palace prioritized Prince William's reputation over Prince Harry's," Schofield said, further bolstering Harry's claims made in the documentary. "For instance, there's a story about a paper calling the palace communications team for comment on a negative William story. The palace's strategy was to offer up a negative Harry story to kill the William story from running. I don't know how often this strategy was utilized, but I have heard from a former employee that this happened. Of course, the palace is going to do everything it can to protect the heir."

Schofield further asserted that the approach Harry was on the receiving end of was all in favor of William and Princess Catherine, as they are seen as "the future and the priority."

William's financial benefits were said to be prioritized over Harry's

When it comes to the best kept secrets of the royal family, finances is definitely up there. It remains unclear exactly how much money the royals have at their disposal, but what is known is that Prince Harry wasn't afforded nearly as large of a budget as his brother, Prince William, was. According to biographer Andrew Morton, due to Harry's role as the spare, his passion projects — namely the causes he champions like veterans' rights, the environment, and more — were not prioritized like William's were. As such, a certain amount of tension grew between Harry, William, and King Charles III, as the famous father was in charge of the purse strings.

"[Harry and Meghan] were coming to appreciate that in the royal hierarchy, no matter how popular, inspiring or relevant they were to the outside world, they were low down on the royal totem pole," Morton wrote as part of his 2018 book, "Meghan: A Hollywood Princess" (via Newsweek). "Both William and Harry were funded by their father and it was often the case that Harry's ambitions did not match Prince Charles's budget. His brother, as the future king, would always take priority."

Morton later turned his attention to Princess Margaret specifically, drawing parallels between her and Harry. At the height of her popularity, Margaret had far more star power than her sister — but as the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II always took priority.

Margaret feared being 'belittled'

As Princess Margaret's life in the public eye began taking its toll, she confided to those closest to her that her role of being the spare to Queen Elizabeth II's heir made her feel less than. Not only was her education not prioritized, as aforementioned, but her duties in comparison to her sister's were far fewer, and thus she served far lesser purpose as related to the monarchy. Close friend Lady Jane Rayne revealed of the princess as part of the BBC's "Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal, "I think she was afraid of being belittled, but what role can you have next to the Queen? I don't know. She was intelligent but it was never put to any sort of good use. I think that's all that was expected of her. Do good work, marry somebody and have lots of little princesses" (via Daily Mail).

Margaret's mental health continued to decline over the years, with her suicidal ideations coming to a head in 1974. Telling biographer Christopher Warwick that she consumed multiple sedatives, she shot down suicide rumors but responded to her actions, "I was so exhausted because of everything, that all I wanted to do was sleep. And I did, right through to the following afternoon" (via The Washington Post).

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Harry forged a new path by speaking his truth, despite his family's reactions

Though her years as a royal were fraught with personal difficulties, Princess Margaret maintained a close relationship with Queen Elizabeth II. The same cannot be said for Prince Harry and Prince William, however, as their long-standing feud has been documented for years now. While things were tense between the brothers following Harry's exodus from his role as a senior royal, their dynamic reportedly got even worse after the release of "Spare," with a royal source telling People that William was far more distraught over the pages than any other member of the family. Though there were many details William took issue with, he was said to be the most irate over Harry calling him his "arch nemesis."

"William is the one who is most upset and needs time to calm down. He has been painted as hotheaded and unsympathetic. But I don't think he will back down — it's whether they can move beyond it and accept that they view things differently," the source said of the brothers. Directing their attention to King Charles III's coronation, which was in the ether at the time the book was released, the insider further shared, "It is such a momentous occasion for Charles, and he would want his son to be at the coronation to witness it ...He has had a reputation as a distant parent, and it would be awful for him for that to continue."

Margaret felt 'betrayed' by the royals over a failed relationship

Of all the royal relationships, Princess Margaret's bond with Group Captain Peter Townsend remains one of the most heartbreaking. While Margaret's statement ending their engagement made it seem as though it was her decision, the princess was undoubtedly backed into a corner by Queen Elizabeth II, Parliament, and the church, as all three would not approve of her marrying a divorced man. Having to end her relationship was just one of the ways in which Margaret's status as the spare was used against her, and royal expert Angela Mollard said during an episode of the "Royals" podcast that the failed romance drove a wedge in between Margaret and Elizabeth.

"They were very close as sisters, but of course difficulties came with that as the queen at a very, very young age had to make incredibly difficult decisions. She was then faced with her sister Margaret having a relationship with a divorcé, Group Captain Peter Townsend. It must have been heartbreaking, and we saw how Margaret loved this man and wanted to marry him, but the public wouldn't accept a marriage to a divorcé," Mollard said. "It is more commonplace and accepted [now], but heartbreaking at the time for the queen to have to make the decision, and for Margaret to have to accept that decision. There was very much a cooling for a number of years — Margaret felt she had been betrayed by her sister."

Margaret commanded public attention that the queen never did

For all the years she spent on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II was incredibly consistent. From the clothes she wore to her mannerisms in public to the ways in which she brought comfort to the Commonwealth, the queen played the same tune over and over again. Her sister, Princess Margaret, couldn't have been more different, and she certainly seemed to revel in the fact that — while being the spare came with its unique set of challenges — she had a freedom to express herself that Elizabeth never did.

Unlike her sister, Margaret embraced the trends, dared to be different, and associated herself with some of the most colorful characters. She had a reputation for smoking like a chimney and drinking at all hours of the day, two habits that were very uncommon for women of high society. Interest in her was so significant that one day, someone broke into a hotel room she was staying in just to find out what nail polish she used — public fascination in her was that extreme.

Of course, Margaret also forged ahead in less innocent ways. Her divorce from Antony Armstrong-Jones was the first of its kind by modern royal standards, she rubbed shoulders with the elite, and demanded that her friends call her "Ma'am Darling" (via Daily Mail). Such idiosyncrasies cast Margaret apart from her formal older sister, with so many members of the public craning their necks to see what she would do next.