01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
As pageantry goes, the royal family's annual Christmas morning walk between the Queen's house at Sandringham and a church on the estate grounds packs about as much pomp as a high school homecoming. Livening up this year's event was an American woman who slipped under a security rope and hugged Prince William
, then broke down sobbing with joy. But even that diversion didn't seem enough to cheer Princes William and Harry. Smiling dutifully as they accepted flowers from less demonstrative fans, the young princes appeared decidedly uncomfortable at other points along the way. "Quite honestly," says one observer, "the boys looked as if they would rather be anywhere but there on Christmas Day. Both were blushing and seemed to find all of it quite difficult."
After the year they've had, who could blame them? Even for William, 20, and Harry, 18, who are by now accustomed to life in a royal fishbowl, 2002 will surely go down as a test of endurance. There was the tell-all biography from Princess Diana's former chief bodyguard Ken Wharfe, 54, which characterized their mother as emotionally volatile; the two-week trial of her former butler Paul Burrell, which, among other scandals, dredged up tales of Diana sneaking lovers in and out of Kensington Palace in the trunk of a car. More recently, Diana's former flame James Hewitt, 44, was nabbed by a newspaper trying to peddle 64 of her sometimes raunchy love letters, while other British papers reported a plot to have a girl pluck a strand of Prince Harry
's hair so DNA testing could prove whether or not Hewitt was in fact his father (see box). As one palace staffer puts it, "Enough is enough."
The princes, as usual, have made no public response, even though the persistent interest in their mother's love life has caused them private pain, according to members of their inner circle. "The older you get, the more you understand about those things," says gentleman farmer Gerald Ward, one of Prince Harry
's six godparents. "It is appalling for anyone to have to put up with. But they are both very balanced people, and they and their father are very close and support each other." Insiders say seeking professional help is an extremely unlikely course for the princes, who are more likely to work out their frustrations on a hunting trip than on a therapist's couch. Recently William has been busy making a new home with three flatmates in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he goes to university, while Harry is working to boost disappointing grades in his final year at Eton. "Harry is more upset, especially by the book by Ken Wharfe," says one royal insider. "He was devastated by that. William showed a different emotion—anger. He has a consistent line now: 'Why do people keep exploiting Mummy?' His view is his father can speak up for himself, but his mother is dead and no one is speaking up for her."
Indeed, the last royal to do so was William himself. Back in 2000, the prince, then just 18, took time out during a rare press conference to denounce the publication of yet another Diana exposé, Shadows of a Princess, written by her former private secretary Patrick Jephson, 44. "Harry and I," he said, "are both quite upset about it." It wasn't to be the last betrayal by someone the princes—and their mother—had come to trust. Last summer, just in time for the fifth anniversary of Diana's 1997 death, came Wharfe's Diana: Closely Guarded Secret, followed by the October trial of Burrell, 44, who sold his story to the Daily Mirror newspaper for $468,000. Burrell was cleared of charges that he stole items from Diana's home after the Queen suddenly recalled he had told her he had taken some for safekeeping. But Burrell's statements to his lawyers were leaked to the press, serving up dozens of secret details.
No doubt there will be more to come. Tapes seized in a police raid on Burrell's home last year and thought to be Diana's video diary are the latest subject of speculation in the British press. What's more, a recent Observer poll says one in two Britons believes the monarchy will be gone in 20 years. Come what may, friends say the princes will cope. "They put on a brave face, get on with life and are not disappearing," says a friend, "which is a great credit to them."
Simon Perry and Nina Biddle in London and Hilary Scase in Sandringham