A beaming Prince Harry stepped onto the red carpet in a navy suit and matching tie. His wife, Meghan Markle, wore an off-the-shoulder white dress by Louis Vuitton. Ahead of being honored on Tuesday for “their unwavering commitment to social change” at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Awards in New York City, both smiled toward the bright white lights and shutter clicks from the photographer’s pit.
But theirs was not the only high-profile engagement on Dec. 6. Hours earlier, three thousand miles away in London inside the gilded halls of Buckingham Palace, the Prince of Wales received guests at a reception hosted for the diplomatic corps, joined by the King and Queen Consort. Like Ms. Markle, the Princess of Wales smiled for the cameras, glittering in a red gown by Jenny Packham. On her head, the future queen wore a dazzling diamond tiara.
The night was the latest in a series of public events undertaken by the two royal couples that appeared to directly coincide with one another — occasionally on the same continent. Weeks of the dual camps jockeying for attention, intentionally or otherwise, has inevitably been framed by the media as a reflection of the ongoing rivalry between two boy princes who have grown into very different, distanced men.
It began when William and Catherine, in their first official tour as the Prince and Princess of Wales since the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September, embarked on a three-day U.S. tour on Nov. 30. They went to a basketball game, visited a start-up incubator and attended a celebration for the Prince’s environmental pet project, the Earthshot Prize. That trip was book-ended — and for some, overshadowed — by the surprise release of two bombshell trailers for the new Netflix series from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, “Harry and Meghan,” for which the couple’s representatives had at one point been seeking an estimated $100 million. Meghan also appeared and spoke at a women’s event in Indiana on Nov. 30, the day before the Prince and Princess of Wales arrived in Boston. Soon, the tweets and headlines were streaming in and sizing up what some saw as the latest skirmish in the war of the Windsors.
“Kate Middleton, Prince William, outshine Meghan Markle, Prince Harry in royal battle for spotlight,” Fox News declared in a headline. “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ‘winning’ against Prince William in U.S. Tour,” an article from Newsweek said.
“If tomorrow is Prince William’s Super Bowl, then here’s your Halftime Show,” Omid Scobie, a reporter and the author of “Finding Freedom,” a biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, tweeted when the first trailer for “Harry and Meghan” dropped last week on the eve of the Earthshot event.
“The question is, who is challenging who?” said Tom Bower, author of several books on the royal family. “Whether it’s going on Oprah Winfrey, or the interviews with Variety or The Cut, or a speech accepting the Kennedy Award coinciding with the Earthshot Awards in Boston, the initiative for rivalry is always coming from the Sussexes. They’re the ones on the attack.”
The Prince and Princess of Wales — neither of whom have commented publicly on the rumored sibling rift — may have the support of the British establishment and news media. But on social media, millions of users have staunchly defended the Sussexes’ right to build a new American fairy tale. After the release of the first three episodes of the Netflix series on Dec. 8, it was the tabloids, not the monarchy that emerged as the primary focus of the couple’s grievances. Little was made of the gulf that widened when Harry and Meghan stepped away from the British monarchy in 2020 and moved to Montecito, Calif., citing racial abuse from the British media and an ongoing tussle with the rest of the royal family over how to control their finances and public narrative.
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Since then, the couple have steadily amassed a fortune from deals that include documentaries, films and television shows, as well as the forthcoming publication of Harry’s autobiography, “Spare,” early next year. In Britain, the Prince and Princess of Wales have doubled down on royal duties in the wake of the queen’s death, working to cement a positive public brand perception of the next generation of the House of Windsor under the reign of King Charles III.
Today, the siblings live separate lives on separate continents. But for decades the princes were viewed as a duo, often appearing before the press hand-in-hand as children. As time wore on, and their personalities became more visible to the public, they were cast into easily identifiable roles. Prince William was the serious, protective older brother. Prince Harry was the cheeky daredevil whose antics as a teenager — raucous partying, pot-smoking, dressing up as a Nazi for Halloween — often got him into trouble.
A loving fraternal bond remained in evidence at the royal wedding in 2011 between William and Catherine Middleton, in which Prince Harry served as best man. “She’s the sister I never had,” Prince Harry said of the now Princess of Wales in his speech at the reception.
For years, the trio were presented by Buckingham Palace as the youthful and united flank of the monarchy. But the two men had always been raised with the promise of two very different futures. William had the responsibility of becoming king, while Harry shouldered the knowledge that he would always be the spare, not heir, a position from which he was ultimately demoted with the arrival of Prince George in 2013. Mr. Bower pointed to Harry’s stint in the army, which he believed gave the prince, who had famously struggled in school, a greater sense of purpose and a stronger identity, as did his solo royal tours and the Invictus Games.
“Harry said that he would help William when he became king, and that he was willing to help him through his mental and emotional problems,” Mr. Bower added, alluding to the transparency with which Prince Harry has discussed mental health struggles, including his own. In 2016, Harry, William and Kate started Heads Together, an initiative that encouraged people to have conversations about psychological well-being.
“He had his own life and was very happy for William and Kate,” Mr. Bower said. “As a trio they got on terribly well. Meghan has been the agent of destruction in the brothers’ relationship.”
But Harry has said repeatedly — including in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2021 — that his wife helped him build a happy and stable family life for their two children, and enjoy the contentment he never found as a working royal.
Both marriages have been subject to intense speculation, and in recent years the two men and their wives have embarked on high-profile celebrity brand-building exercises thousands of miles apart. The handful of joint appearances since the Sussexes’ departure to California have been closely scrutinized for any public signs of the suspected private rift — notably when the quartet reunited together to greet well-wishers on Sept. 10 in the wake of the queen’s death.
“This was a phenomenal display of unity between William and Harry,” the body language expert Judi James told the British tabloid The Sun at the time.
“Arriving and leaving together signals proximity and shared conversations, and although there are no overkill displays of hugging or touch, these do look like baby steps that build on Charles’s declaration of love for his youngest son and his wife,” she said.
The brothers have not been seen in public together since their grandmother’s funeral, nor did they meet while the Prince and the Princess of Wales were in Harry’s adopted homeland — the United States. Still, the brothers banded together to present a united front last Thursday, jointly signing a letter for a charity carol concert held annually in memory of their late friend Henry van Straubenzee, who died in 2002.
But the next direct diary clash of carefully choreographed public engagements will unfold later this month. The last three episodes of Harry and Meghan are set to be released on Dec. 15, the same day that the Princess of Wales hosts her annual televised Christmas carol concert at Westminster Abbey. King Charles and Prince William are expected to be by her side.
“Battlelines are drawn,” Mr. Bower said. “And it will only get worse unless William steps in and gives an interview to rebut the allegations made by Meghan and Harry.”