Diana’s brother says her press attention more dangerous than Kate scrutiny

By Laura Kuenssberg, BBC

Warning: This story discusses child abuse, including sexual abuse

Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, has told the BBC that press attention suffered by his sister was “more dangerous” than the scrutiny surrounding the current Princess of Wales.

But, in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday (UK time) with Laura Kuenssberg, he also said he worried about “what happened to the truth”, amid conspiracy theories about Catherine.

He also told the BBC this week about violence he and his sister suffered at home. As children, he and his sister Diana were punished by a nanny in “painful” ways, he said.

He has just written a book, A Very Private School, about the shocking levels of violence and sexual abuse that he suffered as a young boy when he was sent to boarding school at the age of eight.

Earl Spencer, one of the most prominent aristocrats in the country, said “damaging violence to children” affected them, whatever family they were born into.

He is perhaps best known for his criticism of the press after his sister’s death in 1997, when he gave a controversial speech at her funeral, promising to protect William and Harry from the kind of intrusion their mother received.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (right) chats with his uncle Earl Spencer the unveiling of a statue of their mother, Princess Diana at The Sunken Garden in Kensington Palace, London on July 1, 2021, which would have been her 60th birthday.

The earl is loathe now to talk specifically about the pressures on his two nephews and the rift between them. But after weeks of speculation online about the health of the current Princess of Wales, the BBC asked if he thought today’s pressures were more potent.

He said the situation had been more risky for Diana, saying, “I think it was more dangerous back in the day.”

Diana died when her car crashed as it entered an underground tunnel in Paris while it was being pursued by photographers.

“I think, if I look back to ’97 and Diana’s death, I think that was so shocking too – the circumstances of her death were so shocking, that it did make the industry that supports the paparazzi really consider more carefully what it could and couldn’t do,” he said.

“Not because they had a moral judgement, but because it was unacceptable to the public.”

Following weeks of conspiracy theories about his nephew’s wife, Catherine, Spencer added: “I do worry about what happened to the truth.”

Britain's Catherine, Princess of Wales chats with well-wishers after attending the Royal Family's traditional Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the Sandringham Estate in eastern England, on December 25, 2023. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

Earl Spencer, Diana’s younger brother, told the BBC at length about the regular beatings and grooming he said he experienced as a child at the hands of staff at Maidwell School.

He has alleged in his book that a female member of staff groomed and abused him and other young boys in their dormitory, and also that the school’s then headmaster, John Porch, inflicted “brutal beatings”.

Maidwell School said in a statement: “It is sobering to read about the experiences Charles Spencer and some of his fellow alumni had at the school, and we are sorry that was their experience.

“It is difficult to read about practices which were, sadly, sometimes believed to be normal and acceptable at that time. Within education today, almost every facet of school life has evolved significantly since the 1970s. At the heart of the changes is the safeguarding of children, and promotion of their welfare.”

In the BBC interview, Earl Spencer also revealed he and his sisters suffered violent punishments at home as young children.

He said one of the nannies that looked after him and Diana, named in his book as Nanny Forster, “used to crack our heads together, if we were both found to have done something naughty, obviously without my father’s knowledge, but it really hurt”.

“It wasn’t a tap on the wrist,” he said, “it was a cracking crunch, you know, and I remember it still.”

Charles Spencer, brother of Britain's Princess Diana arrives at Kensington Palace for the unveiling of a new statue to his sister on what have been Princess Diana's 60th birthday in London on July 1, 2021. Princes William and Harry will unveil a new statue of their mother, Princess Diana in the garden of Diana's former London home at Kensington Palace, in a stripped-back ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

Spencer told the BBC he did not blame his parents, who “did their best, like 98 percent of parents do”. But his treatment highlighted the “disconnect” between parents and children in some aristocratic families, he said.

Another nanny, who looked after his older sisters, but not Diana, used laxatives to punish them, he told the BBC.

“A different nanny was punishing them by ladling laxatives down them, and my parents couldn’t work out why they were constantly ill.”

Laura Kuenssberg’s take on interview

Opinion – There is no question that the levels of abuse and violence that Spencer suffered at school were appalling.

Hearing his testimony in person was both compelling and uncomfortable, especially to discover that he and his sisters had also sometimes been hurt at home by people employed to care for them.

But there was also something incongruous to hear about his brutal experiences in the lavish surroundings of one of the most exclusive addresses in London, Spencer House. It is a property built for his aristocratic ancestors in the 18th Century, with glittering chandeliers, priceless art works and – quite literally – gilded walls.

There is little sense that Spencer is looking for sympathy. He seems to be seeking to tell his story for himself, almost as a form of therapy, and on the behalf of others who suffered the same kind of abuse.

He is clearly aware that other children from all walks of life suffered in silence all too often in that era.

Yet speaking to him reveals the specific pressure of keeping terrible secrets in the name of the English aristocracy’s so-called “stiff upper lip”. The expectation to carry that tradition down the generations was intense, even if it meant small children suffered, or were even in danger.

Perhaps privilege is no protection from violence or abuse, nor, as the world witnessed through his sister’s troubled life, any guarantee of being happy.

This story was originally published by the BBC.

Where to get help for sexual violence

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 – push 0 at the menu

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334

Male Survivors Aotearoa

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) 022 344 0496

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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