Princess Diana was a royal rebel. There were several longstanding protocols (like that heirs to the throne must not fly on the same plane) and traditions (like wearing gloves on walkabouts) that the Princess of Wales altered by the sheer power of her personality. There was, however, one royal tradition that even she could not change, as much as she disliked it for her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
“Even though Diana knew the customs of royal life, she saw things differently when she became a mother,” a Palace insider told Best Life. “Her sons were destined to follow tradition, even if she wasn’t entirely happy about it.”
Read on to find out which royal tradition Diana hoped her sons would not embrace and why.
Diana did not like that William and Harry hunted and didn’t want them photographed doing it.
Diana was 16 when she met Prince Charles for the first time in 1977 on a pheasant shoot on the grounds of the Spencer ancestral home, Althorp. Despite their first encounter and the fact that she later accompanied the Prince of Wales on shoots when they were first married, Diana wasn’t a fan of the sport and particularly didn’t want Prince William and Prince Harry to embrace it—or be captured doing it. Royal biographer Ingrid Seward told the Daily Mail in 2019, the princess did not approve of William and Harry being photographed with a gun in their hands. “She said [she told her sons], ‘Remember, there’s always someone in a high-rise flat who doesn’t want to see you shoot a Bambi.'”
Both brothers started to hunt and shoot at a young age. According to Seward, Diana dubbed her sons “Killer Wales” because of their enthusiasm for the sport. William and Harry have taken part in the Royal Family’s Boxing Day shoot on Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham Estate on most Boxing Days (the day after Christmas) for more than 20 years (though Harry missed several while serving in the armed forces and most recently did not attend due to the pandemic and his rift with the family).
“Diana was reconciled to the fact that her sons would hunt. One of the main reasons she disliked it so much was because, after the divorce, it was yet another thing that was going to further ‘Windsorize’ them and take away time they could spend with her during the summer,” an inside source told Best Life. “She sometimes told friends she hated being apart from them in August when they were ‘off killing things.'”
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Kate shares William’s enthusiasm for hunting, while Meghan has supported from the sidelines but has not participated.
During his college years and before the Cambridges made Anmer Hall their country home, William held winter shooting parties at Wood Farm, the modest (by royal standards) residence on the Sandringham Estate where Prince Philip lived after he retired in 2017.
After William’s engagement to then-Kate Middleton, her parents, Carole and Michael Middleton, were reportedly invited on traditional shoots with the Royal Family, including Her Majesty. Having grown up in the small village of Bucklebury in the English countryside, the Duchess of Cambridge has always loved country life and, as the future Queen Consort, hunting. The duchess has been photographed with a gun in her hands at grouse and pheasant shoots for several years. According to the Daily Mail online, she reportedly owns her own 20-gauge shotgun.
When William and Kate moved into Anmer Hall in 2014, the Daily Mail reports that they began hosting shooting parties on the estate. They also attend annual shoots around Sandringham and Balmoral, the Queen’s beloved retreat in the Scottish highlands.
Daily Mail royal correspondent Rebecca English reported that in 2018, newly engaged Harry and then-Meghan Markle attended the family’s annual post-Christmas shoot at Balmoral. Harry, William, and Kate went out with the party on the grounds of Sandringham while Meghan reportedly remained behind at Wood Farm. She did join the family afterwards at a luncheon, however. An insider told Best Life at the time, “While Meghan doesn’t care for shooting, she knows Harry loves it and understands it is a tradition within the Royal Family that isn’t likely to change.”
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William and Kate are continuing the tradition with Prince George, which has caused some controversy.
Last summer, People.com reported that Prince George joined his parents (as well as his younger siblings, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis) for their annual visit to see the Queen at Balmoral where a traditional shoot was planned. The Daily Mail online says that while Charlotte and Louis stayed behind, George was brought along and watched from the sidelines as the adults, including his parents, Princess Anne, her husband Timothy Laurence, and her son Peter Philips, enjoyed grouse hunting. The sport is a rite of passage for young royals and George reportedly attended his first shoot in 2018 when he was just five years old.
Animal rights group PETA criticized the Cambridges’ decision to bring George to the shoot on Twitter, claiming that witnessing such a sport could desensitize him to the suffering of animals. PETA Director Mimi Bekhechi said in a statement (via Express.co.uk): “Very few people these days view shooting for ‘sport’ as anything other than a violent perversion that hurts and kills beautiful birds who are minding their own business. For a child to be compelled to witness such casual killing—and by a parent he looks up to, no less—is potentially as harmful to his or her psyche as it is to the bird’s very life.”
But one insider told Best Life the backlash isn’t likely to make the Cambridges change course. “George will undoubtedly grow up to be an avid sportsman like his father, grandfather, and generations before him, and grouse hunting is ingrained in the very fabric of being royal,” the source said.
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Regardless of public opinion, bird shooting will likely always remain a part of royal life.
In 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex had accepted the Queen’s invitation to join the family for a reunion at Balmoral, but they were not able to attend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the hunt went on. The Royal Family so loves their controversial tradition that while some of the usual summer plans were altered due to the coronavirus, this much-criticized activity took place as usual.
“While it may not be very popular with the public, the royals’ enthusiasm for the sport has never waned and the tradition will continue,” a royal source told Best Life.
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Diane Clehane is a New York-based journalist and author of Imagining Diana and Diana: The Secrets of Her Style.