Fun loving, but fiercely protective of Meghan Markle, Prince Harry thrived in the army and, with her support, will continue to be an exceptional young man, says Rupert Uloth.
On a trip to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, my bushman guide suddenly held up his hand. ‘Look there,’ he said in an excited whisper. Was it a fish eagle? Or a leopard coming to the water to drink? No.
‘You see,’ he said with satisfaction, ‘that log is where Preence Hairy set down yesterday.’
I knew ‘Preence Hairy’, or HRH Prince Henry of Wales, to give him his official title, was in the country as I had met his former nanny ‘Tiggy’ Legge-Bourke at the remote Maun airport, where she was distributing sweets and chocolates from the royal plane to local children.
That was more than two decades ago, but it was an indication of the kind of man the young prince, now 33, would develop into: with a love of adventure and Africa in particular; the impression he makes on those who meet him; and his generosity and sense of fun. With his impending marriage to Meghan Markle, a new chapter is about to begin, but the path to manhood hasn’t been easy.
By the time he was born, his parents’ marriage was already shaky and when his mother, Diana, was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, he was only 12 years old. He followed the coffin on its long mournful route from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, with his brother, father, grandfather and uncle. As well as being watched by billions on television, crowds 10-people deep wailed and gasped.
With all this on the brink of adolescence, it’s not surprising that his teenage years had their ups ands downs, including his drinking and marijuana den at Highgrove and wearing a Nazi uniform to a private fancy-dress party. His school career at Eton wasn’t an academic triumph, but he enjoyed art and he was largely kept out of the limelight.
Later on, brushes with the paparazzi outside nightclubs and a naked billiards game in Las Vegas were ugly reminders of the intense media interest. He was well aware that the cruel hounding of his mother by photographers had caused her great distress and had led, ultimately, to her death.
Inevitably, he has been linked to a string of beautiful women, but his most prominent relationships, with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas, came under forensic scrutiny. They are both reputed to have recoiled at the thought of royal life. Five years ago, he reflected on the difficulty of finding someone that ‘would be willing to take it on’. He reacted strongly when Miss Markle was subjected to media harassment.
In the early stages of their relationship, Clarence House issued a statement that said ‘the past week has seen a line crossed. His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public – the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments’. It is a new kind of media age, from which he is determined to protect his fiancée.
It was when he joined the army that he found the niche and a private space, fiercely protected by his comrades in arms, that would allow him to excel. He passed out of Sandhurst in April 2006, the Sovereign’s parade being taken by his grandmother, The Queen. ‘Once you’re in the military, she means a lot more to you than just a grandmother. She is The Queen. And then you suddenly… start realising, you know, wow, this is quite a big deal,’ he once explained.
He was commissioned into The Blues and Royals, part of the Household Cavalry, and, as a troop leader, found himself in charge of 11 men and four Scimitar light tank reconnaissance vehicles. ‘I think it was the first time he was judged on his character alone,’ says one former officer. ‘It was like a breath of fresh air to him.’
Within two years, Lt Wales was serving in the war in Afghanistan, a fact only revealed at the end of his tour of duty. A statement issued at the time summed up what it meant to him: ‘Prince Harry is very proud to serve his country on operations alongside his fellow soldiers and to do the job he has been trained for.’
Daniel Snoxell was a young Lance Corporal when Prince Harry first joined the Household Cavalry: ‘He was known as Mr Wales and he was treated like any other young officer. At first, he was quiet as he got used to the humour of young squaddies, but he soon learnt to give as good as he got. He was respected, as he could do the job. When he was prevented at the last minute from going to Iraq with his troop, he phoned every member personally to apologise, even though it wasn’t his fault.’
His 10 years in the army, when he reached the rank of Captain, included a spell as an apache-helicopter pilot on a second tour of Afghanistan. Training had taken him to the United States and he received his provisional wings from the Colonel-in-Chief of the Army Air Corps, his father, The Prince of Wales.
Since leaving the army, he has devoted his energies to a series of projects and charities that play to his strengths. He founded the Invictus Games in 2014, an event where wounded or sick servicemen and women participate in sports such as wheelchair basketball and indoor rowing. The first games were in London and it was fitting that at the third games in Toronto last September, he made his first public appearance with the woman who is to be his wife.
He continues the work of his Sentebale charity, which he set up in 2006 with Prince Seeiso, to help vulnerable children in Lesotho and Botswana. With his brother and sister-in-law, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, their charity Heads Together aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. As sixth in line to the throne, he has also carried out official duties abroad, most notably to the Caribbean during celebrations for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and more recently to Barbados. At the end of last year, he was made Captain General of the Royal Marines, an appointment his grandfather, The Duke of Edinburgh, had held for 64 years.
His latest appointment as a Commonwealth Youth Ambassador is a further sign of how he is spearheading the rebranding and modernising of the Royal Family. Last Christmas, he guest-edited an episode of the Today programme on Radio 4, including an interview with former President Obama. He said that he wanted to use his position to ‘shine a spotlight’ on issues closer to his heart and focused on the armed forces, mental health, youth crime and climate change.
Accounts of his sense of fun and easy manner are legion. At one dinner, a girl was bet £80 she couldn’t kiss him. He agreed, but then asked for £40, as he had been ‘half the deal’. It’s a personality trait that wins him admirers from the public and helps to promote Britain in the wider world.
He is passionate about sport: ‘It has always been a huge part of my life.’ Many will remember his jokey sprint against Usain Bolt. As well as playing charity polo matches, he supported the Rugby World Cup in England in 2015 and is now patron of the Rugby Football Union, a sport he continues to promote in schools. Privately, he adores being out in the country and is an excellent shot. He enjoys his visits to Balmoral and Sandringham for grouse and pheasant shooting and stalking.
He has said in the past: ‘There’s a lot of times that both myself and my brother wish, obviously, that we were just completely normal.’ The reality is different – he is in an exceptional situation and, with the support of his new wife, he will continue to be an exceptional young man.
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