Inside Princess Diana's Relationship With Her Brother Charles Spencer

On August 31, 1997, Princess Diana's brother, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, was in Cape Town with his family when he received a phone call that would change his life indelibly. As Spencer would later recall to Larry King, "Somebody from my property in England said, 'Look, I've got some bad news. It seems as though your sister and Dodi Fayed have been in a car crash in Paris.'" A few more phone calls later, and the earl realized that his worst nightmare had come to fruition. His older sister was dead. 

From that moment forward, Spencer found himself battling against powerful entities — such as the global media and the British royal family — to protect Diana's legacy. In the months and years following the princess' tragic death, Spencer accused Buckingham Palace of keeping him away from his sister's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. He fought with King Charles III over how the princess would be remembered. And he called attention to the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to Diana's famous 1995 "Panorama" interview. 

Of course, Spencer was not merely Diana's defender in death — he was also her lifelong friend. From the difficult moments of their childhood to the challenges that come with being an adult, Charles Spencer and Princess Diana formed a deep sibling bond. 

As children, Diana and her brother were fast friends

Growing up, Princess Diana and her brother were quite close. Although they also had two older sisters — Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Jane, Baroness Fellowes — Diana and Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, spent most of their time with each other. This was not due to any bad blood with their eldest siblings, but rather to the age difference between the four children. During the period when Diana and Spencer were still playing at their family's historic home, Althorp House, Sarah and Jane were already off to boarding school.

Diana was a few years older than Spencer, which led the future princess to feel protective over her baby brother. While she was still in primary school, Di was known to keep an eye out for Spencer — even when there was nothing expressly wrong. As the Earl Spencer later revealed in a speech at the Diana Awards in London, there was one instance where his anxious older sister couldn't sit still ... because it was his first day of school. Apparently, she was worried about how he was holding up in the new environment. At one point, Diana asked permission to leave her seat and go check on her younger brother. As Spencer recalled to People, "She left the class and came to my classroom and came back and said to the headmistress 'He's fine!' and sat down."

Before Charles arrived, Diana reportedly felt 'unwanted'

Although Princess Diana and her younger brother had a fantastic relationship, the same could not be said of their parents. The reason for this was that the children's father, Johnny Spencer, was the 8th Earl Spencer — an aristocrat who needed a male heir. He and Diana's mother, Frances Shand Kydd, tried to have a baby boy for years. In 1960, they welcomed their third child, a son named John Spencer. Sadly, he died hours after he was born. 

The grief of losing a child on top of the pressure to produce a male heir was a lot to take on. As royal expert Andrew Morton explained in the Channel 5 documentary "Diana: The Curse of the Spencers," "[Frances] was sent to various clinics in Harley Street, Wimpole Street — prodded and poked in the most intimate of areas by gynecologists and doctors. And all the time, the sense of guilt that she was some kind of a failure, which of course she wasn't." Diana, their third daughter, arrived in 1961.

In 1964, Charles Spencer, the future 9th Earl Spencer was born, and Johnny and Frances were relieved. However, for Diana, the experience of watching her parents root so desperately for a male child, was understood to have been traumatic. In fact, it has been suggested that the princess felt guilty for not being the boy that her parents hoped for. As Morton told documentarians, "Diana, until her dying day, thought that she was the unwanted child."

The sibling duo got caught in the middle of their parents' divorce

Princess Diana's parents might have been happy when they finally welcomed a baby boy, but that moment of joy was hardly enough to save their marriage. As a result, the ill-matched couple began living separate lives. Unfortunately, though, this meant that Diana and her young brother, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, got caught in the middle of their parents' drama.

According to the Channel 5 documentary "Diana: The Curse of The Spencers," the trouble started when Frances Shand Kydd met Peter Shand Kydd. The pair got along well, and over time, their relationship became romantic. Eventually, Frances decided to leave Althorp House and relocate to London, where she could be with her lover. Her two youngest moved with her.

Sadly, that wasn't the end of the drama for the brother and sister duo. During the Christmas of 1967, Frances thought that it would be nice for the whole family to reunite for the holiday. In the end, though, this decision represented a tense miscalculation on her part. Once the festivities were over, the children's father, Johnny Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, refused to let Charles and Diana go home with their mother. Reflecting on this moment, royal reporter Angela Levin said in the documentary, "I think Johnny did it out of spite."

Princess Diana and Charles Spencer were afraid of the dark together

Following their parents' divorce proceedings, it was decided that Princess Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, would spend most of their time at their dad's residence. Unfortunately, though, the two children were hardly thrilled with this arrangement. 

As it turns out, their father, Johnny Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, did not exactly deal well with the separation. Out of grief or simply a desire for privacy, the anguished father sent his children to sleep on the other side of the vast family home at Althorp House. As royal expert Andrew Morton noted in the documentary "Diana: The Curse of the Spencers," "Johnny's reaction to Frances leaving was to become more isolated. He would occupy one wing of the house, leave Charles and Diana in the other wing."

While there was nothing inherently wrong with this sleeping arrangement, it did end up causing some distress for Diana and her brother. Far from the safety of their mother and father — and terrified by nighttime shadows — the two young aristocrats confronted one long, dreadful night after the other. In the same documentary, Morton explained, "Diana and Charles were terrified of the dark." However, as the two children suffered, they could do little to help each other. Per Morton's account, "Diana would recall that she would hear her little brother crying at night but was too scared to go comfort him."

When Diana became Princess of Wales, her brother ignored the press about her

As we know, Princess Diana and Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, did not remain two terrified children forever. As they grew older, they inevitably stopped sharing a bedroom, and their lives began in earnest. Spencer headed off to Eton College, where he would learn to follow in his father's aristocratic footsteps. Meanwhile, Diana found herself courted by then-Prince Charles, who seemed intent on making her his wife.

Naturally, Diana's relationship with the future king put a target on her back. As her brother would later share on Twitter, there was one occasion in 1980 where Diana picked him up from school — and the press went wild. The earl recalled, "I was 16, [and] my sister was taking me out from Eton College for lunch in [The] Hind's Head, Bray. Her Mini Metro was followed by 12 cars and 1 motorbike of tabloid journalists."

When Diana married the prince a few months later, the media attention grew all the more. Spencer, in response, began to tune out all the noise about his sister. Speaking to ITV's Lorraine Kelly about this issue in 2021, Spencer stated, "I remember when I was a boy and Diana became Princess of Wales, I just sort of plowed along on the same path, you know. And, you separate the media personality from the real person who is a member of your family. And that's all that matters."

He offered her a place to stay following her divorce

As the years went on, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer did his best to support his sister. This was especially true in 1996 when Princess Diana was going through a very public divorce with then-Prince Charles. At the time, the princess was trying desperately to reinvent herself outside of the constraints of royal life. 

Diana wore shorter skirts, kept a smaller staff, and even tapered down her private security team. As royal expert Tina Brown put it in the biography "The Diana Chronicles" (via Random House), "Divestment was the name of the game, in her life and in her looks. The downsizing started with her Kensington Palace staff, which she reduced to cleaner, cook, and dresser ... [She] now used police protection only when she attended a public event."

During this exciting new period, Diana also hoped to return to the grounds of Althorp House, where she could live in one of the many residences nestled into the land she grew up on. Her brother — by then the Earl Spencer — loved the idea. However, he had one hang-up. As the earl would later tell BBC Radio 4 (via People), "The one house that she set her heart on ... was three bedrooms and 100 yards from the road. And it was just not possible. The police knew it wouldn't work." He continued, "I offered every other property that was suitable on the estate."

Charles Spencer stood up for his sister at her funeral

Leading up to Princess Diana's death, there was a lot of bad press about the princess. Largely because of her unconventional relationship with Dodi Fayed, Di was attacked by the media time and time again. As royal expert Sally Bedell Smith told USA Today, "[Tabloids] were really lurid. There had been a crescendo of salacious headlines in the weeks before she died, three weeks of the wildest tabloid coverage ever seen, tearing Dodi apart, turning on Diana. It was highly unusual." The night of the fatal car accident, Diana's driver was trying to lose the paparazzi following their vehicle. Per The Guardian, multiple witnesses said in their testimonies that the paparazzi continued to photograph the princess as she was dying.

During Diana's funeral, her brother was the one who stood up for her in light of all the tabloid abuse. As revealed in the BBC, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, gave a eulogy that largely defended his sister against all the negative things that had been published about her. In his speech, the grieving sibling shared, "She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers." He went on to state, "I don't think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media ... My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum."

The protective brother did his best to look out for Prince William and Prince Harry

Princess Diana was not the only person who Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, swore to protect in his eulogy speech. The earl also stated his intentions to look out for the two children that his sister had left behind — Prince William and Prince Harry. As reported by the BBC, Spencer wanted to do everything he could to support Diana's unique vision for how the boys would be brought up. In practice, this meant exposing the princes to the world beyond palace walls — as Diana once wished. 

With this in mind, Spencer declared, "On behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned." He went on to add, "We, like [Diana], recognize the need for [William and Harry] to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years to come."

Ultimately, though, it proved difficult for Spencer to protect the princes — even when he tried to. Prior to the funeral, the earl famously told then-Prince Charles that Diana wouldn't have wanted the boys to walk behind her casket. In the end, though, the royal subjected William and Harry to the ordeal.

Charles Spencer called out Diana's infamous interview

Following the funeral, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, continued to defend his sister's legacy. This was especially true when it came to issues surrounding Princess Diana's famous 1995 "Panorama" interview on the BBC. While many members of the public may remember this interview for Diana's remarks about King Charles III's relationship with Camilla, Queen Consort, her brother recalls it for other reasons. The way that Spencer saw things, the news outlet essentially used him to trick the princess into sitting down for that conversation. "I was shown forged bank statements; I was told of underhand payments, of spying, and of appalling deception," he said in the Daily Mail. "But, all along I was the one being deceived in order for Mr Bashir to get to my late sister, through me."

As the BBC acknowledged in 2021 following an internal investigation, the journalist, Martin Bashir, behaved unethically in order to secure the interview. Per the outlet, "[Bashir] showed the fake documents to Earl Spencer, to gain his trust so he would introduce Bashir to Diana. By gaining access to Diana in this way, Bashir was able to persuade her to agree to give the interview."

This recognition of unethical reporting came a year after it was reported that Spencer had been advocating for an investigation into the circumstances leading up to the interview. Chatting with the Daily Mail in 2020, the earl griped, "I find it amazing that Bashir has apparently got away with it for so long."

The Earl Spencer started an awards initiative in his sister's name

At the end of the day, Princess Diana's legacy is not truly about the rumors that once swirled around her — it is about the good works that she achieved. After all, Diana dedicated a large portion of her life to charities, such as the Leprosy Mission, the National AIDS Trust, and the English National Ballet. Through these patronages, Diana inspired people from across the world. As her brother, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, shared in his eulogy for the princess, "Without [Diana's] God-given sensitivity, we would be immersed in greater ignorance at the anguish of AIDS and HIV sufferers, the plight of the homeless, the isolation of lepers, the random destruction of landmines" (via BBC).

Following Diana's death, Spencer has dedicated himself to keeping his sister's philanthropic spirit alive. One of the ways that he has set out to do that is through the Diana Awards — a non-profit organization that seeks to help youths be their best selves. As per the charity's official website, "you'll find us working in the community with young people through our anti-bullying, mentoring and change-makers' initiatives, fundraising, managing our valued corporate partners, providing vital HR and communications support ... and much, much more." As far as Spencer is concerned, this is exactly what she would have wanted. As the earl told People, "I think Diana would be very proud of what's going on in her name today."