As family tensions sometimes threaten to pull the House of Windsor apart, there is, thankfully, one figure who enjoys the confidence of all the disparate Royal factions and quietly keeps the crucial lines of communication open when emotions are running high.
Princess Diana’s older sister Lady Jane Fellowes, who celebrates her 67th birthday today, has always shunned the limelight – particularly since Diana’s tragic death in August 1997 – and it is this discretion that explains why she has been so successful in remaining close to King Charles and Queen Camilla, Prince William and, especially, to Prince Harry.
Lady Jane gave a reading from the Song of Solomon at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s 2018 wedding at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, in a deliberate echo of her touching address at Diana’s funeral two decades earlier. She was also one of the first to be invited to meet the couple’s first child, Archie – ahead even of Prince William.
The middle of the Spencer sisters, Lady Jane Fellowes celebrates her 67th birthday today
Lady Jane (right) pictured in happier times with sisters Sarah McCorquodale (left) and Diana
The late Earl Spencer with his four children: Sarah McCorquodale, ninth Earl Spencer, Lady Jane Fellowes, and the late Princess Diana of Wales
In another nod to his close relationship with his mother’s family, Harry gave ‘stand out thanks’ to Lady Jane, her older sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale,68. and their brother Earl Spencer, 59, at the end of his tell-all memoir Spare, while failing to mention his grandmother the late Queen, King Charles or his brother the Prince of Wales.
Lady Jane is said to be one of the most academically gifted of the Spencer family, passing creditable selection of O- and A-Levels at West Heath boarding school near Sevenoaks, Kent, where she was a prefect.
The first of the three Spencer sisters to wed, she married Robert Fellowes, then assistant private secretary to the Queen, in a ceremony at the Guards’ Chapel overlooking London’s St James’s Park when she was 21 – beginning a family tradition that Spencer brides would wear the family tiara on their wedding day. Lady Diana Spencer, then just 16, was her bridesmaid.
The fact that her husband – later Sir Robert, then Lord Fellowes – became the Queen’s most trusted right hand man meant that Lady Jane rapidly had to become something of a tightrope walker after Diana and Charles’s marriage began to disintegrate.
Indeed, Lord Fellowes’s closeness to The Queen led to rumours of a rift between Lady Jane and Princess Diana after Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell claimed the sisters hadn’t spoken ‘in a number of years’ before Diana died.
However, other Palace insiders have denied any difficulty, pointing out that she and Princess Diana were neighbours in Kensington Palace. Diana lived with William and Harry in numbers eight and nine, while Lady Jane lived lived nearby in a house called the Old Barracks.
The couple’s three children Laura – who is godmother to Princess Charlotte – Alexander and Eleanor are known to be close to both William and Harry. And as the closest sibling to Diana, Lady Jane made sure that she maintained her bond with her grieving nephews after her sister’s death.
Indeed she was to play a crucial, but typically low-key role in the heartbreaking aftermath of her sister’s tragic demise in a car crash in the Post d’Alma tunnel in Paris on 31 August 1997.
Her brother Earl Spencer and older sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale revealed in the 2017 BBC documentary ‘Diana 7 Days’ that Lady Jane had been given the task of calling them to break the terrible news.
Sir Robert (now Baron) Fellowes married Lady Jane Spencer at the Guard’s Chapel, Wellington Barracks in April 1978. Her younger sister, Lady Diana Spencer (centre right) was a bridesmaid
The Spencer siblings and King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, on Charles Spencer’s 21st birthday
Mrs Frances Shand Kydd leaving the hospital after visiting her daughter, Princess Diana, shortly after Prince William’s birth, in the company of her daughter, Lady Jane in 1982
Lady Jane and her sister, Lady Sarah, accompanied Prince Charles to Paris to bring her body back to Britain.
Heartbreaking photos showed her, visibly upset, leaving the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where Diana had been pronounced dead.
Prior to his wedding, the Prince made sure he introduced his fiancée Meghan to both his mother’s sisters and followed up by making a point of saying during an interview to mark his engagement how important both Lady Jane and Sarah were to him.
It is clear he made his feelings plain to Meghan, who said before their wedding: ‘I think in being able to meet his aunts, I’m able to, in some way, know a part of her (Diana) through them and of course through him. And it’s – it’s incredibly special.’
Another sign of the esteem in which Harry holds his aunts came in the official announcement of Archie’s birth, which noted how, alongside the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Lady Jane Fellowes, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Earl Spencer were ‘delighted’ by the news.
The three Spencer sisters with their former headmistress while visiting their old school, West Heath, in Kent
It was left to Lady Jane to break the news of Diana’s death to her siblings. Afterwards she travelled to Paris with sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale (left) and Prince Charles. Pictured here leaving Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital in Paris, September 1997
Diana, Princess of Wales, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Frances Shand Kydd, and Jane Fellowes, Neil McCorquodale, Charles, Earl Spencer and Robert Fellowes pictured in 1995
The Spencer family tree, beginning with Lady Sarah’s grandparents, the seventh Earl Spencer
Lady Jane maintains a close relationship with nephew Harry and was one of the first to meet his son Archie. Pictured here with Earl Spencer (right) at the unveiling of Diana’s statue in 2021
Now that King Charles’s cancer diagnosis has provided an urgent impetus for the warring Windsors to set aside their differences, perhaps Lady Jane – Baroness Fellowes, as she now is – will again quietly step in to pour oil on troubled water.
Indeed, her first opportunity to begin the patient work of helping the Royal family to knit together again may come as soon as today.
After all, the Duke of Sussex has flown in for what is now a rare visit to Britain to comfort his father after his diagnosis. What better opportunity could he have to visit his beloved aunt and wish her a happy birthday in person?