What Princess Diana's Relationship Was Like With Her Sisters

For almost two decades, Diana, Princess of Wales, was one of the most famous women in the world. Her marriage to Prince Charles at just 20 years old thrust her into a lifestyle she was not prepared for and a level of scrutiny no one could survive. It was important that she had people around her she could trust, especially her sisters.

Much was made of Charles marrying a "commoner" — which, technically, Diana was. But the reality was that in her pre-royal life, she'd grown up as Lady Diana Spencer, on a large country estate, with her older sisters Lady Sarah (center) and Lady Jane (right). (She also had a younger brother, also named Charles, pictured far right.) After their marriages, they became Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Baroness Fellowes, respectively. While their husbands might not have been quite as illustrious as the Prince of Wales, all three sisters ran in royal circles and spent a lot of time together. As Diana's life and marriage fell apart, it was to her sisters that she often turned. Their bond wasn't one that was based on who Diana was then, but on the years they had spent facing the good and bad life had thrown at each of them as they were growing up. Even though there were times their relationship was strained, after Diana's death, Sarah and Jane played a large part in planning her funeral, settling her affairs, and shaping her legacy.

The Spencer sisters dealt with family drama together

Princess Diana's parents were Frances Roche and Viscount John Althorp, later Earl Spencer. Their marriage was allegedly abusive, which Diana witnessed. Frances eventually left her husband in 1967, but after her own mother testified against her, the divorce courts gave custody of their four children to the earl. Diana later said their mother leaving was the most painfully vivid moment of the siblings' childhoods.

When their father got remarried to an aristocrat named Raine Legge in 1976, he didn't bother telling his children, let alone invite them to the wedding. According to "The Diana Chronicles," by Tina Brown, eldest sister Sarah confirmed to the press that they had not been asked to attend; in fact, the sisters had all learned about the event from the newspapers the next day. As noted by Andrew Morton in "Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words," the siblings had a nickname for their hated stepmother: "Acid Raine." One houseguest at the Spencer's country estate when Sarah, Jane, and Diana were all present in 1977, told Brown that during the family dinners he had attended, the sisters never said a single word to their stepmother. 

Not that there weren't good reasons for their hatred sometimes. When the earl was hospitalized with a cerebral hemorrhage that led to many life-threatening complications, Diana said of her stepmother, "... she basically blocked us out of the hospital, she wouldn't let us see Daddy ..." (via "Diana: Finally, the Complete Story," by Sarah Bradford).

The sisters had very different experiences at their school

When the Spencer girls were growing up, young aristocratic women were not expected to do much with their lives other than find a husband, so education was not always prioritized. The three sisters were all sent to the same boarding school, West Heath School in Kent, but each had very different experiences there. 

Sarah arrived first and seemingly saw school as a party, telling two tabloid journalists whom she'd met while on a skiing holiday with Prince Charles that when she was a student, "I would drink anything, Whiskey, Cointreau, gin, sherry or, most often, vodka, because the staff couldn't smell that" (via "The Diana Chronicles"). Jane was much more scholarly and is usually noted as being by far the most intelligent of the sisters. On top of passing several O- and A-Level exams, she was made a prefect, an important position of authority.

While she didn't go a bit wild like Sarah, Diana was far from the successful student that Jane was: She failed every one of her O-Level exams and left school with no formal qualifications. Once Diana became a princess, she returned to West Heath for a visit and brought Sarah and Jane along. Diana told the students, "My years at West Heath were certainly very happy ones. ... and in spite of what Miss Rudge and my other teachers may have thought, I did actually learn something — though you would not have known by my O-Level results" (via The Daily Telegraph).

Sarah and Diana both suffered from eating disorders

Princess Diana famously suffered from bulimia during her marriage to Prince Charles, but it was only shortly before her death that she explained her disordered eating had started long before that. During an official visit to a clinic in 1997, she talked about her own struggles:  "It started because Sarah was anorexic and I idolized her so much I wanted to be like her," she said. "I never really understood why two sisters would develop such similar diseases, but we did, and I can only put it down to me wanting to emulate everything she did" (via "Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess," by Sally Bedell Smith).

Sarah's own struggle had become public in 1978 when she told reporters she was friendly with about how it started years before: "I bust up with my boyfriend ... and then just stopped eating. I would toy with a couple of pieces of lettuce and if I forced a meal down I would just bring it up again" (via "The Diana Chronicles").

Nor was Prince Charles any more understanding about Sarah's struggle than Diana's. According to "Diana: Finally, the Complete Story," by Sarah Bradford, when Prince Charles was first introduced to Sarah Spencer by his younger brother Prince Andrew, Charles asked her flat-out, "Do you have anorexia?"

Prince Charles dated Sarah before Diana

According to a report in The Guardian, when the engagement between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was announced, her sister Lady Sarah said, "I introduced them. I'm Cupid." Sarah also told the Lincolnshire Echo, "They are just right for each other. It struck me that they were in love just before Christmas, as there was an extra sparkle in her eye ..." While it seems like a sweet thing for an older sister to be proud of, it's made weird by the fact Sarah actually dated Charles first.

Not that Diana, who was a young teenager when her older sister was involved with the prince, thought the couple was a good match. In a recording she made years later with her speech coach Peter Settelen (via "The Diana Chronicles"), Diana reminisced, "I remember feeling desperately sorry for him that my sister was wrapped around his neck because she's quite a tough old thing."

The relationship was doomed once Sarah said some indiscreet things to some reporters, including, as per "The Diana Chronicles," "There is no chance of my marrying Prince Charles. He is a fabulous person but I am not in love with him. ... If he asked me, I would turn him down." However, it's possible she did have a little bit of regret. After Diana's death, her butler Paul Burrell said in an interview with The Mirror, "I believe that Sarah was jealous of her sister. On Diana's wedding day, she turned to the princess and said, 'I thought all this would be mine one day.'"

As an adult, Diana gave her older sisters her designer hand-me-downs

Princess Diana was known for many things, but one was her sense of style. She even managed to make the most terrible 1980s styles look glamorous. In his book "Diana's Diary: An Intimate Portrait of the Princess of Wales," Andrew Morton explained at length how much time and money Diana spent on clothes (he estimated her wardrobe at well over a million pounds by 1990), and how she used her outfits to express herself and, in a way, send messages. 

On a royal visit to Oxford in 1989, a resident of the retirement home she was touring asked what happened to all the luxury clothes that she bought, probably noticing that the expensive pieces didn't get worn in public more than once or twice. Diana replied, "I give them to my sisters and my girlfriends" (via the Tampa Bay Times). There is photographic evidence of this, as well. On a visit to the sisters' former school, West Heath, Sarah (pictured left) was wearing a dress Diana had previously donned on an official trip to Australia. However, Diana also claimed her sisters didn't always bother asking permission first, with Morton quoting her as saying, "Sometimes I simply can't find a dress because my sister has borrowed it."

It wasn't always that way, though. Like many younger sisters, growing up it was Diana who borrowed their clothes. She would even unpack Sarah's suitcases when her older sister came home from boarding school.

Sarah acted as one of Diana's ladies-in-waiting

Diana was close with both of her sisters, but one of the reasons there is so much more information about her relationship with Sarah is that her eldest sister took up an official position as a lady in waiting for the Princess of Wales. This meant Sarah didn't only see Diana privately in her capacity as a family member but accompanied her during the princess' official duties. While Jane would come over to Kensington Palace for special, informal lunches and sometimes accompanied Diana to less formal occasions, like Wimbledon, Sarah went quite literally around the world with her baby sister.

Having Sarah by her side made sense since Diana needed to know she could trust the people she worked with. One royal expert told the Evening Standard, "Diana ... will build up the entourage exactly how she wants it. She wants a team that is close-knit and unswervingly loyal." The position was Diana's to fill, but Sarah could of course have turned down the offer, or left if she didn't like the job.

Of course, being a lady in waiting came with some really big perks. In 1992, Sarah accompanied Diana on an official visit to an arts festival in Lille, France. The next year, she escorted her to the taping of a charity concert hosted by David Bowie and featuring a performance by George Michael. And as the Wales' marriage was ending in 1996, Diana and Sarah jetted across the pond to attend the Met Gala together. 

Diana often turned to her older sisters for support

Any piece of information about Princess Diana, no matter how small, could sell papers. This meant for the most scandalous and personal events in her life, she could only turn to the most trustworthy people, who she knew wouldn't sell her out to journalists. Her sisters knew how to be discreet, so she constantly shared her struggles with them.

While Prince Charles famously was carrying on with Camilla Parker Bowles, Diana was not remaining faithful either. "I think Sarah knew about Diana's affairs," author and royal expert Judy Wade told People. "In a way, she even encouraged Diana to be wild and to have lovers."

While she never would have spoken publicly about such topics when her sister was alive, Sarah was forced to spill some secrets when called to testify at an inquest after Diana's death. When asked if her younger sister had called her from the yacht she'd been on with Dodi Fayed shortly before she died in August 1997, Sarah confirmed Diana had confided in her about some major concerns: "Yes, she thought the boat was being bugged by Mr. Fayed senior" (via The Daily Telegraph). Sarah also got the impression the relationship with Dodi was probably going nowhere, and she knew her sister was not really over her previous boyfriend, Dr. Hasnat Khan. Sarah also testified how Diana would talk about moving abroad when she was upset about things in the press. It's clear Diana was keeping her sister informed of her deepest thoughts and fears right to the end.

Sarah and Diana had the same sense of humor

Considering how stuffy and traditional the royal family seems, you wouldn't think Princess Diana would have had a ribald sense of humor. But according to her friends, she really did — and it was something she had in common with her sister Sarah, who was known for her love of dirty jokes. In fact, when Sarah started dating Prince Charles, her broad sense of humor was one of the things that attracted him.

One friend said of Diana, "She is ... a spunky lady who likes to laugh at sex and finds it far more amusing if a chap bowls up and talks about the mysteries of the orgasm rather than making awkward conversation about the weather" (via "Diana's Diary: An Intimate Portrait of the Princess of Wales"). There are plenty of far-too-detailed examples as proof. The DJ Graham Dene was an acquaintance of Diana's. He told the Express about how, at a benefit concert in 1988, "... she turned to me and said: 'Graham, I want to tell you a joke. And then she told me this very saucy joke about Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. It was a very rude joke and it's better if I don't say it — it would make anyone blush! Let's just say Princess Diana had a very, very cheeky sense of humor." And in 2023, two cards with sexually explicit jokes that Diana had once sent were auctioned off. Their original recipient? The king of Greece.

There were signs of friction within the sisters' relationship

While there's plenty of evidence Diana, Jane, and Sarah were close, they did still have the normal problems all siblings do. This was sweetly illustrated by an exchange she had with a young girl in a hospital in 1982 when Diana was still only 21. According to The Orlando Sentinel, the girl told the princess she had an older sister. Diana asked, "Does she boss you about?" When the child confirmed that her sister did indeed, the princess said, "I know. They all do."

According to People, Diana once referred to Sarah as "the only person I know I can trust." However, some saw another side to their relationship. In 2002, Diana's former butler Paul Burrell told The Mirror, "Jealousy was rife within the family. After all, the princess — the youngest child — achieved more in her short lifetime than the rest put together. Like any family, over the years, they had their ups and downs. The princess was tremendously generous, especially to Sarah. ... But what annoyed Diana is that she never got any thanks for it. I never heard any big rows between them. The only mumblings were that Sarah wasn't being grateful or was taking advantage." 

While Burrell's claims should always be taken with a grain of salt (Sarah had recently testified against Burrell at trial when he gave this interview), it's likely there is at least a bit of truth there, showing the difficulty the siblings' relationship encountered over the years. 

Sarah got Diana embroiled in a fox hunting controversy

Sarah had moved on from Prince Charles when she decided to introduce him to her 16-year-old sister. Oddly, she chose a shooting weekend to do this. While Charles was a keen and talented shot, Diana was not. One person who was there later told Andrew Morton in his book "Diana's Diary: An Intimate Portrait of the Princess of Wales," "She was a pathetic shot, simply dreadful. And she was only using a single-bore gun."

But while shooting weekends are a regular part of aristocratic life that Diana couldn't avoid, even in the 1980s, fox hunting was extremely controversial. So, many people were disappointed when Diana joined a fox hunt in 1987, which was confirmed by the wife of the man in charge of organizing the hunt. A spokesperson for League Against Cruel Sports told a local paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, "As far as I know, this is the first time she has gone fox-hunting. What we think has happened is that she is living in a family where the head, Prince Philip, is totally immersed in killing animals for fun. She does not have the strength of character to say 'no.'" 

While the spokesperson placed the blame on the Duke of Edinburgh, Diana had not been with the royal family that weekend; according to reports, she was staying with her sister Sarah. And it was from Sarah that Diana borrowed the horse she rode on during the fox hunt. 

Diana's relationship with Jane was complicated by her husband Robert

It was only a few months after the official announcement that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were separating when her sister Jane Fellowes flew to South Carolina for a vacation in 1993. A source told Newsday at the time that the trip was so she could "get away from the furor of the sister and the palace." Her husband stayed back in England, where the breakdown of his sister-in-law's marriage was threatening to upend his life and career. Robert Fellowes was a high-ranking courtier to Queen Elizabeth II, which meant that her son's marriage issues put him in a very awkward position. However, when he tried to resign, she didn't let him.

An even more complicated conflict of interest was on the horizon. In 1995, Diana gave an unprecedented interview to the BBC program "Panorama." In a documentary (via The Mirror) Richard Ayre, the BBC's controller of editor policy, explained, "Right at the beginning we had agreed that the princess should be allowed to be the person who broke the news to the palace." So who did she call to give them the heads up? Her brother-in-law. Royal expert Richard Kay claimed in the same documentary that he knows how that conversation went: "She said 'Oh, Robert, I want to you to know I've done an interview with the BBC.' Alarm bells must have rung immediately with Fellowes. He very generously said, 'Is it something to do with Children in Need.' She simply replied, 'No, it was "Panorama."'"

Diana's sisters were very involved in her funeral

The loyalty of Diana's sisters didn't stop when she died. After the shocking and tragic car crash in Paris in August 1997 that took the life of the Princess of Wales, Dodi Fayed, and their driver Henri Paul, Prince Charles went to France to bring his wife's body home. Two of the people who accompanied him on this sad errand were Sarah and Jane. 

At the funeral, while their younger brother Earl Charles Spencer received a lot of attention for the eulogy he gave, both sisters stood up in front of the mourners and the world watching on TV to give readings of poetry. Sarah's read, in part, "If I should die and leave you here awhile ... complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine," something she did attempt to do as chairman of The Diana Memorial Fund. The usually very private Jane read a short piece that talked about how time "is too long for those who grieve" (via the Los Angeles Times).

And according to an article in the Evening Standard, it was thanks to Sarah that one of the most iconic things to come out of Diana's funeral came into being. While there were standard mournful hymns during the service, in a break from tradition, Diana's good friend Elton John performed a new version of his classic "Candle in the Wind," which went on to be a record-breaking hit. It was Sarah who had originally requested he play something at the funeral.

Executor Sarah did not honor all of the instructions in Diana's will

In the years since Princess Diana's death, her sisters have continued to protect her legacy. In 2021, with their nephews Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Prince William, then still the Duke of Cambridge, they unveiled a commemorative statue in the grounds of Diana's old home, Kensington Palace.

However, in other ways, they may have let their sister down after her death. Diana left her large fortune split between her sons, but she also had others in her life whom she wanted to do something nice for as well, including her 17 godchildren. She didn't include these bequests in her legal will but in a document called a "Letter of Wishes" that she wrote only a day later. This included the instructions that a full one-quarter of her jewelry and other personal items be distributed among her godchildren. It's estimated this would have been worth £100,000 or about $160,000 per child.

However, these expensive gifts were never dispersed as intended. As one of the executors of the will, Lady Sarah McCorquodale went to court in order to be able to ignore this part of Diana's very clear instructions, never even telling those affected. Instead, they gave each godchild a single item of Diana's as a keepsake, none of which had any real monetary value. These included a porcelain bunny and an incomplete tea set. The gifts were delivered by Sarah herself, wrapped in newspaper.