The Truth About Princess Diana’s Sister, Sarah Spencer

In season four of The Crown, we briefly meet Sarah Spencer, Princess Diana’s older sister. Sarah’s appearance in The Crown is pretty brief — she and Prince Charles date for a short period, until he meets her younger sister, who quickly takes center stage in the narrative (via Vanity Fair).

We, like many other viewers, were fascinated to learn about Princess Diana’s older sister — but her short appearance left us with more questions than answers. Who was Sarah Spencer in real life? Did she and Prince Charles actually date before he married her sister? And what was her relationship with Princess Diana really like? 

Sarah has always been pretty private, but we have managed to uncover some little-known details about Princess Diana’s older sister. It turns out, she’s actually been a pretty important part of the royal family since the ’70s — even if she didn’t end up being the Spencer girl who married Prince Charles. Here’s the truth about Sarah Spencer.

Sarah Spencer grew up in Britain's aristocracy

Sarah Spencer was the first child of John Spencer, the 8th Earl Spencer and Frances Shane Kydd. She was born in 1955 at Park House in Norfolk, England as Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia Spencer (via Town & Country). Her sister, Jane Spencer, was born in 1957, and Diana Spencer followed in 1961. According to Marie Claire, the Spencer girls were part of a well-respected aristocratic British family, and would have moved in the same circles as Prince Charles. Diana, for instance, reportedly played with the younger royal kids as a child (via The Oprah Magazine). 

It’s safe to say that Sarah enjoyed a seriously privileged childhood. She and her family lived at the beautiful Park House at Sandringham – a sprawling estate that once belonged to the royal family — until 1975, when they moved to Althorp, the official Spencer estate. At this point, Sarah would have been 14 years old. 

Althorp is even larger than Park House. Dating back to 1508, the mansion features 90 rooms and 550 private acres of land. It’s clear that the Spencer girls grew up in the lap of luxury.

Sarah Spencer worked hard as a young woman

Despite growing up in one of Britain’s oldest and wealthiest families, Sarah Spencer wasn’t raised to live a completely carefree lifestyle. In fact, John Spencer encouraged all of his children to work for their own living as young adults. 

In the book Diana: The Portrait by Rosalind Coward, the girls’ mother, Frances Shane Kydd, revealed that she purchased flats in London for each of her daughters. Sarah explained that, like Diana Spencer, she spent her late teens and early 20s working. “By the time I was nineteen I was living in London, holding down a very good job,” Sarah recalled. “My father owned a house which I ran and I had tenants. I took money from them.” She also paid the bills, got insurance coverage, and handled other related tasks.

Sarah went on to explain that Diana even worked for her as a cleaner, getting the same wages for her work as the other “dailies.” It sounds like Sarah and her sisters were pretty self-sufficient young women, albeit privileged as well.

Sarah Spencer began dating Prince Charles when she was 22

The oldest Spencer daughter probably seemed like an obvious choice for the young Prince Charles to marry. According to Marie Claire, Sarah began dating the royal in 1977, when he was 28 and she was 22.

In Diana: Finally, the Complete Story, author Sarah Bradford described how the couple met at a house party at Windsor Castle during the Royal Ascot. “Prince Charles enjoyed Sarah’s sparkiness and irreverent wit,” Bradford wrote, “and they made each other laugh” (via The Oprah Magazine). 

After that, the couple spent more and more time together. According to Diana: A Princess and Her Troubled Marriage, Sarah and Prince Charles were seen at polo matches, the theater, and “country house parties.” Sarah was even invited to visit Balmoral by the Queen. Apparently, they went on a holiday together to Klosters, a Swiss ski resort. By the sound of things, the relationship was fairly serious — but things came to an end after just one year of dating.

An interview ruined Sarah Spencer's chances of marrying Prince Charles

Just as Sarah Spencer’s relationship with Prince Charles seemed to be becoming more serious, things came to an abrupt end. In The Crown, it seems as though Prince Charles’s feelings for Sarah simply fizzled. However, it turns out, he actually broke things off with Sarah after she gave a shocking interview to the press. 

The interviewer spoke to The Mirror about his infamous 1978 interview with Sarah. He recalled that Sarah “was disarmingly frank about her boyfriend.” The interview subsequently appeared in Woman’s Own and contained some surprisingly frank statements. “Charles makes me laugh a lot,” Sarah shared. “I really enjoy being with him.” However, she added, “There is no chance of my marrying him. I’m not in love with him.” She even said she wouldn’t marry the royal “if he were the dustman or the King of England” (via Time). 

According to Express, Sarah also admitted that she’d had “thousands of boyfriends,” and that she’d been saving press clippings about her and Prince Charles to show her grandchildren in the future. Apparently, Charles was furious, telling her, “You’ve just done something incredibly stupid,” before ending things shortly thereafter.

Sarah Spencer helped bring Diana Spencer and Prince Charles together

Prince Charles first met Diana Spencer in 1977 when she was 16 years old; he was visiting Sarah Spencer at their family home, Althorp for a pheasant shoot (via Daily Times). In The Crown, Sarah is visibly annoyed that the pair have met, and later, jealous when Prince Charles asks her for Diana’s phone number. It seems there may be some truth in The Crown‘s portrayal. In the book Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess, Diana is quoted as saying that Sarah “resented it terribly because I accepted to go out with Prince Charles.”

Whether the rumors about Sarah’s jealousy were true or not, it’s clear that she made peace with her feelings as time went on. In a 1981 article in The Guardian about the royal couple, Sarah said, “I introduce them. I’m Cupid.” One thing’s for sure — if Prince Charles hadn’t dated Sarah, there may have never been a Princess Diana.

Sarah Spencer married Neil Edmund McCorquodale in 1980

Sarah Spencer eventually found a man that she did want to settle down with: Neil Edmuch McCorquodale, who she married in 1980. According to PopSugar, Sarah took his last name but retained her title, as he didn’t have one, becoming Lady Sarah McCorquodale. The couple had three children: George, Celia, and Emily.

According to the book Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess by Sally Bedell Smith, Neil was a wealthy gentleman farmer. A friend of the Spencer family described Sarah’s husband as “solid, very steady, private, quiet, with a good sense of humor.” Smith noted that he was pretty much the “opposite of Sarah, who was ebullient and enterprising, with an unpredictable streak.” 

By the sound of it, Neil was also pretty different from Prince Charles, who at the time, was frequently pictured in the tabloids parachuting topless or playing polo. In fact, he was even given the nickname “Action Man.” Plus, the young prince was infamous for his long string of casual girlfriends (via Express). It sounds as though Sarah preferred to settle down with a man who lived at a slower pace!

Sarah Spencer eventually served as one of Princess Diana's ladies-in-waiting

After Diana Spencer married Prince Charles and became Princess Diana in 1981, Lady Sarah McCorquodale supported her younger sister by acting as one of her ladies-in-waiting — apparently, her official title was “Extra Lady-in Waiting.” The London Gazette announced that Sarah was appointed to the position from 1992 to 1997, the year of Princess Diana’s death. As Town & Country explained, this position meant helping Princess Diana with her official duties, and frequently accompanying her on royal trips. In 1993, for instance, Sarah joined Princess Diana on a visit to Nepal. 

Funnily enough, the sisters’ grandmother, Ruth Roche, had once served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (via PopSugar).

According to CheatSheet, becoming a lady-in-waiting is actually quite an accomplishment, and is reserved for British noblewomen; it would have been quite an honor to be selected.

Sarah Spencer was often seen borrowing Princess Diana's clothes

Even though Princess Diana and Lady Sara McCorquodale came from the upper echelons of British society, they often shared clothes — like any pair of sisters might! As Town & Country reported, Sarah was seen in Princess Diana’s old clothes on multiple occasions; seeing as most royals don’t recycle outfits – it’s a beauty rule the royals are forced to follow – it’s not surprising Princess Diana gave some “old” clothes to her sister.

For example, in 1987, Sarah was pictured wearing a blue-and-white striped suit during a royal visit to the Spencer sisters’ old school. Princess Diana had worn the same suit two years earlier during her second official tour of Australia. Then in 1993, Sarah wore a striking green-and-white midi dress during a royal visit to Nepal while she was acting as lady-in-waiting to Princess Diana. The royal had been pictured in the same dress seven years earlier during a tour of the Gulf states. 

There are plenty of other outfits that Princess Diana shared with her sister. And as she was famous for her fashion, we can’t think of a better closet to borrow from!

Princess Diana maintained a close relationship with Sarah Spencer

Despite the rumors that Lady Sarah McCorquodale’s brief romance with Prince Charles made things awkward between her and Princess Diana, by the ’90s, the pair were seemingly thick as thieves. In addition to serving as Princess Diana’s lady-in-waiting, Sarah seems to have been one of the princess’ closest friends.

After Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced, Sarah remained close to her sister. “I think Sarah knew about Diana’s affairs,” Judy Wade, an author of royal biographies, told People. “In a way she even encouraged Diana to be wild and to have lovers.” Apparently, Princess Diana had even called her sister “the only person I know I can trust.”

After Princess Diana’s death, Sarah gave evidence at an inquest, as noted by Reuters. It became clearer than ever just how much Princess Diana had confided in her sister. Sarah knew all about the royal’s relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, which she said seemed to be fizzling out. She added that Princess Diana had confided in her about potentially marrying heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. Based on these comments, it sounds like Princess Diana really did trust her sister with everything.

Princess Diana's death was understandably devastating for Sarah Spencer

Princess Diana’s death in 1997 was one of the most tragic moments in royal history. As People reported, it left all of Britain “paralyzed with grief.” A “royal watcher” spoke to People about how Lady Sarah McCorquodale was coping. “Sarah looks more tired, more drawn. She has aged,” they said.

Years later, in the 2017 documentary Diana, 7 Days (via ABC News), Sarah opened up about her sister’s death. “I think I felt shock, but I don’t think I felt anything else. Just love and shock,” she recalled. She went on to explain that she “put a barrier up” to her emotion at the time in order to deal with practicalities. She also felt angry at the media, who for two hours after the accident, reported that Princess Diana was expected to recover. “I have no idea why but it made me so angry,” Sarah confessed. 

What did shock Sarah? One of the things we learned after Princess Diana’s death was that she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. “She was religious in putting on her seatbelt,” Sarah revealed. “Why didn’t she put it on that night? I’ll never know.”

Sarah Spencer and her mother did this to protect Princess Diana's sons

After Princess Diana’s death, Lady Sarah McCorquodale didn’t have much time to grieve as she was responsible for a range of practical tasks. It was Sarah who was responsible for executing Princess Diana’s will (via Cosmopolitan). She also spent a few days after her sister’s death “shredding confidential documents at her Kensington Palace,” according to Reuters. As she was the executor of Princess Diana’s will, it stands to reason that she was in charge of dealing with Princess Diana’s personal documents.

Sarah was clear that the documents were all of a personal nature. “Nothing historical was ever shredded,” she said at the 2008 inquest into Princess Diana’s death. She added that no letters from Prince Charles had been found or destroyed. Apparently, she and her mother had both agreed to destroy any private documents that might one day distress Princess Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

Sarah Spencer became president of the Princess Diana Memorial Fund

Lady Sarah McCorquodale was busy keeping the memory and legacy of her sister alive in the aftermath of her death. Sarah became the President of the “Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund,” which was designed to provide funding for the charities and organizations that the late princess had been passionate about during her lifetime. By 1998, the fund had distributed $12.8 million to eight of Diana’s “favorite causes,” according to People.

However, the fund came under some public criticism when it accepted some “questionable” endorsements. In 2011, Express called the fund a “disaster.” Apparently, the fund shelled out £12,000 on private flights, “complete with champagne and caviar” for two trustees. It was also revealed that roughly a third of the money had been wasted on administrative costs.

Regardless of what you may think of the fund itself, it’s clear that Sarah was deeply passionate about honoring her sister’s memory. Apparently, she was even commenting six hours a day in order to run the fund!

Sarah Spencer remained present in the royal family after Princess Diana's death

Lady Sarah McCorquodale wasn’t just Princess Diana’s sister — she’s also the aunt to Princess Diana’s children, Prince William and Prince Harry. After the royal’s death, Sarah remained in close contact with her sister’s family, and even represented their mother’s side of the family on multiple occasions. As Express reported in 2013, on the 16th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, Prince William and Kate Middleton spent the weekend at Sarah’s home. Apparently, Sarah is thought to be the Spencer relation that they are closest to.

For instance, in 2010, when Prince Harry got his pilot wings, Sarah and her sister Lady Jane Spencer were present to cheer him on. The following year, Sarah and her siblings all attended Prince William’s wedding to Kate (via E! News). Sarah also attended Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle. According to a family friend who spoke to Vanity Fair, all of the Spencer family got “the golden ticket — an invite to the ceremony and reception and the evening party.” When Prince Harry’s first son was born in 2019, Sarah was even part of the official family portrait.

Sarah Spencer served as sheriff of Lincolnshire

Aside from her duties with Princess Diana’s will and the fund set up in her memory, Lady Sarah McCorquodale has kept busy with several other pursuits over the years. In The London Gazette, it was reported that Sarah had been appointed the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire for the year of 2009 by Her Majesty the Queen. While this may all sound a bit “Wild West,” the role is more of a ceremonial one. By the sound of things, her duties consisted of visiting local charities and attending public events.

In 2010, Sarah also became a joint master of the Belvoir Hunt, according to The Telegraph. According to the Hunting Act of 2004, a hunt master is “responsible for the overall management and conduct of the hunt, in particular they are responsible for liaising with local farmers and landowners.” Occasionally, the master of the hunt attends the hunt to oversee how things go. Sounds like a just the job for an established member of one of Britain’s most elite families.

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