What? Prince Harry’s royal tell-all Spare, a spiritual memoir? I admit that I did not initially pick it up as one. But as I read, it made me think about the role of royalty in regard to spirituality. For that alone, I decided to count it for my spiritual memoir challenge — in the category of leaving a tradition, which is what Harry’s story is about, insofar as the British royal family can be considered a spiritual tradition.
The function of the human spirit has been represented since ancient times by two symbolic roles: the king and the priest. Long ago, these were initiates, who had gone through trials and rituals that awakened their spiritual senses. When a society was healthy, these roles worked in tandem, or even were joined in a single person, to bring insight, wisdom, power, protection, and guidance to the people.
That had to change, with the decline of spiritual insight and the rise of material culture and natural science, and the British monarch Henry VIII’s rejection of the authority of the Pope was a significant event in human spiritual evolution. From then on, the influence of English culture grew, eventually dominating the globe, especially following the Industrial Revolution. In the process, science and religion, which had previously been closely connected, grew increasingly estranged. Religious practice tended to be emptied of true spiritual content, becoming a mere outer shell; scientific inquiry directed purely at the material world was released of moral constraints, and could be used in the cause of greed and power.
The British were world leaders in this development. By 1920, the British crown ruled a larger portion of the world than any other empire in history, more than a quarter of the Earth’s land. And the English thinking that had enabled the mechanization of the Earth was in full play.
A hundred years later, it’s all falling apart. The British Empire is no more; the American Empire that grew out of it is riven by internal turmoil. The parliamentary democracy pioneered in England is threatened everywhere, as fear and hatred rise up and swamp the light of reason with which Enlightenment thinkers wanted to replace God. Our Earth is showing us the effects of our treating it as a mechanism, and the prognosis is not good.
It seems that the old days of being governed from above are at an end, but we don’t yet know how to govern ourselves, nor how to reconnect to the living wisdom that once guided our kings. The fact that the British Royal Family is in a shambles seems only natural, in terms of their symbolic role. Their fractured and contentious saga, along with the almost pathological interest the public takes in them and their troubles, shows how difficult we are finding it to make a transition from old forms of kingship and priesthood to new ways of leading and governing.
But the members of the Royal Family are not just symbols. They are people. They are human beings like you and me, and they have the same needs and the same rights that we do. Prince Harry wants to tell the story of what it has been like to be an ordinary human being caught up in a symbolic role.
I find this an entirely laudable goal, and in the early parts of the book one can’t help but be moved by the tragedy that marked Harry’s youth: the loss of his beloved mother, who also just wanted to be able to live in a humanly satisfying way, not imprisoned by her symbolic role. He can’t even accept that loss at first, telling himself she is in hiding — from the paparazzi, whom he holds responsible for her death, and who become an increasing torment to him as well. Everything in the Family is about keeping up appearances, keeping the public happy, not about what is truly good for a growing boy. And Harry has a right to bring that out into the open, even a duty.
Unfortunately, he does so in a way that is sure to only bring about more contention and division. It’s clear that he has suffered a great deal; it’s also clear that he has blind spots about the way he has made and continues to make others suffer. The problem is not so much with the way he reveals the shabby, homely side of Palace life, which is more endearing than anything. Nor with the way he describes family members as lacking in demonstrative emotion; that’s not exactly a surprise. In spite of this, his portrayals of Pa (Charles) and Granny (the Queen) are mostly affectionate and often quite touching. But in the end they are all tainted, portrayed as mendacious and disloyal, unwilling to move a finger to protect Harry and his wife from the ravening media. Why? Though Harry avoids stating “racism” as the cause, it’s implied. Horribly racist treatment of his biracial American wife by the media is detailed, and then the stunningly loud silence of his family is criticized. What else could that mean?
A painful topic, and one that needs delicate handling. There could have been a chance for uncovering and healing something that has been festering for years, not just between family members, but within and between nations. The UK and the US both have blood on their hands that needs to be cleansed, truths that must be faced. Sadly, in his attempt at truth-telling Harry has chosen to throw his family into the same media circus that hurt him so much, and this is unlikely to bring healing any time soon.
Throughout, Harry seems most bitter toward his brother William, who apparently has retained into adulthood the embarrassing nickname of Willy. Harry is called Harold by his family, although his real name is Henry. (I wondered why, and found some speculation that this is in reference to William the Conqueror’s victory over Harold, king of the Saxons, though this is not stated in the book.) The two scuffled as children, as boys do; in adolescence, according to Harry, William started to cut him off in school and say they couldn’t know each other. From there, an off-and-on relationship developed, with tentative attempts to forge an adult friendship, but the wound of that early dismissal must have continued to burn. Toward the end, there is a shocking claim that the adult William physically attacked Harry; fighting seems to be the only way they know to communicate, but it can’t lead to any resolution.
Brother against brother is an old, old story. So close, and yet so different; boon companions who are also rivals, sparring partners, competitors. They compete for a mother’s love and attention, to begin with, then for a father’s approval; how much greater the competition must become when the stakes rise to the hearts of a nation and a world. I felt great sympathy for Harry in his loneliness, but I also wondered at how little empathy he seemed to have for William, whose similarly deep wounds could never be assuaged by the privilege of being “heir” rather than “spare”. As an oldest child myself, I know how much pressure is involved in that role, how hard it is to break away from the family mold. Resentment and criticism of the younger child by the older can mask a terrible feeling that one has lost the chance to truly become oneself. And so the two brothers, who should have been the ones who alone out of all others in the world could truly understand the other’s grief, could not meet in a healing way, or in the end, meet at all.
The central section of the book is devoted to Harry’s bizarre career in the Army, which left him highly motivated, trained, and primed for a job too dangerous for him to do. Not just for himself, but even more for the sake of others who would be killed if a terrorist took him out. What a comment on the uselessness of militaristic solutions to the problems of our time, another Anglo-American specialty. But Harry doesn’t seem to realize this, nor does he fully recognize the way he finds comfort in turning the Taliban into faceless bad guys he can kill with righteous morality, in place of the shutter-clicking monsters who killed his mother and threaten his family. Of the role of Anglo-American hubris and greed in perhaps creating situations like the one in Afghanistan, or making them worse, there is not a word. He is still proud of his country, and even of the monarchy, he insists.
For now, though he has left the military and the Family, Harry is finding how hard it is to leave a tradition with which one’s whole life and identity is bound up. Only death can truly solve this dilemma. And in a startling passage toward the end of the book, he describes an insight that the cult of the Royal Family is actually a cult of death. “We christened and crowned, graduated and married, passed out and passed over our beloveds’ bones. Windsor Castle itself was a tomb, the walls filled with ancestors. The Tower of London was held together with the blood of animals, used by the original builders a thousand years ago to temper the mortar between the bricks.” (Harry’s flights of eloquence, I must note, probably owe a good deal to his ghostwriter, though the ideas may be his.)
Finding a new relationship to death is indeed the issue for the rulers of the earth today, which means for all of us. The initiate-kings of old gained their strength by passing through the world beyond death; we have to learn how to immerse ourselves in the world, in life, while forging a new connection to spirit-wisdom.
Exile and separation are not really a solution any more. Though breaking away from one’s roots may feel like freedom, it can only be a temporary step toward a fuller integration, if we are not to simply wither away and die. Nor can eternally casting out and shunning our loved ones for their crimes ultimately do anything but diminish us, for they are part of ourselves. As Prince Harry and his family act out their tawdry drama, it’s tempting to criticize them, to take sides in the battle, but let’s remember that they are only putting on the world stage what many of us struggle with every day. I can only hope that one day they, and we, will find peace.
Prince Harry, Spare (Random House, 2023).