'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (2024)

Countess Raine Spencer was standing in her grand English manor when the most famous woman in the world lunged forward and shoved her down the stairs.

Life had been one steep climb for Raine — until she met Princess Diana, who was determined to keep her down, both physically and metaphorically.

The daughter of a romance novelist, Raine used her beauty and her wits to rise through the social ranks until she was a noblewoman with a luxurious home, an extensive staff and a wardrobe of taffeta gowns that made her look like a delicate little cream puff.

But as she tumbled down the steps, Raine might have wondered if it was all worth it.

A fortuitous marriage brought Raine into Diana's ancestral home.

In a scandal that rocked London high society, she had left her husband, the Earl of Dartmouth, for an even higher born aristocrat, Earl Spencer, in 1976.

Her new husband came with many treasures, including Althorp, a sprawling, 5,300 hectare estate that had been in his family since the 16th century.

But he also had four children from a previous marriage, two of whom still lived at home: his son and heir Charles, the Viscount Althorp, and his youngest daughter, little Lady Diana Spencer.

Traumatised by their parents' acrimonious divorce, the children despised their new stepmother — so much so, they sang "Raine, Raine, go away" to her every chance they got.

Even after Diana grew up, married the heir to the British throne and became the Princess of Wales, she maintained her rage against Raine.

And in 1989, the tension between them exploded.

The Spencers had gathered at Althorp for the wedding of Diana's little brother when an argument broke out.

"It happened on the top of the saloon stairs," Raine's personal assistant, Sue Howe, recounted in the documentary, Princess Diana's Wicked Stepmother.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (1)

"She had a furious row with Raine because Diana was so upset that her own mother had been ignored in the ancestral home, and she pushed her, and Raine fell down the stairs.

"She was badly bruised and was dreadfully upset."

Ms Howe believed that the then 28-year-old princess, whose marriage to Prince Charles was beginning to spin out of control, was "very stressed" at the time.

"It was not justified at all. It was a cruel, heartless thing to do," she said.

But three years after she sent her stepmother tumbling down the steps, Diana was still unrepentant.

"I pushed her down the stairs, which gave me enormous satisfaction," Diana told her vocal coach in a recorded conversation in 1992.

"I wanted to throttle that stepmother of mine. She brought me such grief."

The war between Diana and Raine put two very different women at odds.

Diana was a blue-blooded aristocrat, born into one of the most important and powerful families in British history, whose destiny was surely to sit upon a throne.

Raine, meanwhile, made her own luck.

She parlayed her beauty, her charm, and her carefully concealed intelligence into three favourable marriages to men with titles, as well as a short lived career in politics.

But fate held many surprises for both Raine and Diana.

In the final year of Diana's short life, when she was cast out by the royal family, the princess made a startling discovery.

Her "wicked" stepmother wasn't wicked at all, but the maternal figure she had always desperately needed.

The girl who was raised to be the diamond of the season

Long before she became the Countess of Dartmouth, who was then the Countess Spencer and finally La Comtesse de Chambrun, she was known simply as Raine McCorquodale.

The daughter of wealthy, but decidedly middle class parents, Raine was born into a home where love was a serious business.

Her mother, Barbara Cartland, was known as the Queen of Romance, an extraordinarily prolific novelist who wrote 723 bodice rippers that almost always put a young virgin in the path of a rakish duke or marquis.

"I was disappointed to have had a daughter, I should have liked to have had a dozen boys," Cartland said in an interview with the BBC in 1991.

"I don't like women very much. I think men are marvellous — they are the heroes of my books."

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (2)

Still, Cartland decided to plot out her daughter's future as if it was one of her own novels, delighting in Raine's beauty but encouraging her to perhaps not be so obviously brilliant.

"Never mind about that," her mother said to Raine when she came home from school to announce she had topped her class exams.

"You have a gravy stain on your shirt."

At the age of 18, after years of ruthless preparation by her mother, Raine was presented at King George VI's court.

"She had perfect features and a lovely figure, so I decided I was going to produce her as a beauty," Cartland later recalled to biographer Henry Cloud in 1979.

"I really used to bully her and become absolutely furious with her, as I suppose mothers often do with daughters … of course, the bullying worked."

Raine's dance lessons, elocution and etiquette classes, her wardrobe full of frothy dresses and her "eternal" smile made her the triumph of the season.

In a plot straight out of Bridgerton, she was voted Debutante of the Year in 1947.

As the most eligible young woman in high society, she had her pick of titled men, and she quickly settled on Gerald Legge, presumptive heir to the Earldom of Dartmouth.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (3)

The couple settled into his Belgravia home, and Raine gave birth to four children. To Cartland's delight, three of them were boys.

By her early twenties, Raine had achieved every single one of her mother's ambitions for her: She was married to a nobleman, she had produced a raft of heirs, and she was the mistress of a grand home.

She was also bored.

And so at 23, Raine made a tilt for politics, campaigning to be a local councillor in a full face of make-up, long polished nails and her trademark dresses.

"I always deliberately dressed up and wore all my jewellery and furs – after all everyone knows I have them," she explained.

In 1955, she became the youngest member elected to the Westminster City Council for the Conservative Party.

Over the next 17 years, in between raising her children and serving as Lady Dartmouth, Raine sat on tourism boards, as well as town planning and parks committees.

She often joked that she would like to stand for parliament, but her husband Earl Dartmouth would not let her attend political events in the evening or on weekends.

Right into the 1970s, Raine continued to publicly praise Earl Dartmouth, describing him to reporters as "the Rock of Gibraltar and divine; so steady and strong and yet such humour".

But, according to her biographer Tina Gaudion, by 1972, she had already fallen in love with someone else: Earl John Spencer.

Described as "the unhappiest man in London" after his own scandalous divorce, Johnnie became infatuated with Raine.

And Raine, who until this point, treated life like a dance that must be performed to perfection, decided to risk it all for love.

She divorced Earl Dartmouth, earning her mother's consternation and claims that she was an ambitious social climber who had Althorp in her sights.

"I don't think Raine had any intention of falling in love with Johnnie Spencer — it just happened," her brother Ian McCorquodale told Gaudion for her book Three Times a Countess.

"It was real love, they adored each other …. I think my mother [Barbara Cartland] was a bit bemused by the whole thing."

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (4)

And so in 1976, Raine packed up her diamonds and furs and headed north for Johhnie's medieval family seat.

There, she would meet two children who had been left to run wild through the hallowed halls of Althorp, two teens who had been separated from their mother, and were in no mood to welcome their father's glamorous, younger wife.

Frances out, 'Acid Raine' in

Diana was just eight years old when the Spencer household was thrown into upheaval after Frances Spencer ran off with wallpaper tycoon Peter Shand Kydd.

Diana's mother had been a teen bride, marrying 30-year-old "Johnnie" Spencer at 18 before she was installed at Park House, on the Sandringham estate.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (5)

She gave birth to three healthy girls, including the future Princess of Wales, but her marriage to Johnnie slowly unravelled under the stress of trying to produce a male heir, only compounded further by the death of their first-born son.

Only five years into their union, the 23-year-old mother was reportedly persuaded by her family to consult a gynaecologist to work out why she could only have girls.

The long-wished for heir, Charles Spencer, arrived five years later but it was too late for Frances and Johnnie's relationship.

It was their son's belief that these tests were the beginning of the end of their union. Yet, in what appears to have been a reflection of the times, Francis bore the brunt of the condemnation of their break-up.

Her scandalous relationship with Peter saw her name dragged through the mud in a bitter court battle, which involved Frances's own mother testifying against her in court.

Diana told biographer Andrew Morton that her mother's decision to "leg it" was the "biggest disruption" to her childhood and was a "painful experience".

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (6)

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (7)

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (8)

Frances lost custody of her children and Diana and Charles were left in the care of Johnnie Spencer, a man who could, at times, be volatile and remote.

Friends described him as rather miserable, driving guests sat next to him at parties away in search of better company, until fate dealt him a favourable hand in 1975.

After inheriting the family seat at Althorp, Johnnie found his second wife in Raine.

He was so enamoured with his would-be bride, he apparently forgot to tell his children he was getting married and left their names off the guest list.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (9)

A 15-year-old Diana was so appalled by his behaviour that she confronted her father and slapped him.

"If I remember rightly, I slapped him across the face, and I said, 'That's from all of us, for hurting us' and walked out and slammed the door," she told Morton.

It was an inauspicious beginning for the Countess Raine Spencer, who would later be dubbed "Acid Raine" by her new step-children.

Her efforts to discipline the teenaged Charles and Diana had mixed success, as did her attempts to renovate Althorp, which she had nicknamed "gloomsville".

Raine's vision for the estate was to turn it into a lucrative venture, where guests could pay to stay, but her grand designs displeased her new family.

Her preference for bold colours and cosy furniture was regarded by some to be at odds with the stately history of the home.

Her stepson Charles Spencer described her style as "the wedding cake vulgarity of a five-star hotel in Monaco".

"The South Drawing Room, for generations a model of handsome English reserve, became a cacophony of clashing pinks — pink silk walls, pink silk curtains, pink French rug, pink sofas, plump pink cushions; it was as if the room had been ablush at the sickliness of it all," he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2010.

He also accused Raine of smuggling away priceless pieces of art to help pay for the renovations, though these allegations were never proven.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (10)

Despite the vocal criticism from her husband's children, Raine loved her decorative flourishes.

"I thought I made a wonderful job of Althorp," she said.

"There were bright sofas to sit on, and you could still look at the Rubens on the walls and think how lucky you were to be living there."

She would embark on a similar restoration project when her husband suffered a stroke just two years into their marriage.

Her diligent care and attention helped bring him back to life after he fell into a coma, and, in time, to full fitness.

In this endeavour she was more successful in winning over her step-children, who expressed gratitude for the woman they had once tried to chase away with petty songs.

But their appreciation did not last long.

The 'wicked stepmother' kicked out of Althorp

As a wife, mother and future queen, Diana was still smarting from the wounds of her chaotic upbringing.

Her mother, Frances, retreated to a remote Scottish island after her second marriage collapsed. Sometimes, she and Diana were close. Sometimes, they would go years without speaking.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (11)

And Johnnie, who, for most of her childhood, was a distant and somewhat terrifying figure who remained hidden in his study at Althorp, drifted ever further as his health declined.

"He's remained estranged but adoring," she told Morton in 1991.

"If he comes and sees me, he comes and sees me, if he doesn't he doesn't. It's not my problem anymore. It's his."

In early 1992, Johnnie was taken to hospital with pneumonia.

Diana and a then-nine-year-old Prince William went to visit him and then flew to Austria with the rest of the family for a skiing trip.

The holiday was considered vital given that rumours were swirling about the state of Prince Charles and Diana's marriage, and palace aides were keen for them to be the picture of familial bliss on the slopes for the waiting photographers.

But to everyone's shock, Johnnie died suddenly of a heart attack just days later.

"I'm afraid because we all thought he was fine, my stepmother was at home overseeing something and I was at home with my family," Charles Spencer told reporters outside the hospital on March 29, 1992.

"It's a matter of regret for us that nobody was with him when he died. But he died instantly."

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (12)

Four days later, the Spencers converged for Johnnie's funeral at a little church just beyond the gates of Althorp.

During his eulogy, Johnnie's friend Lord St John of Fawsley tried to grapple with the discord that had gripped the family for decades.

"Birds twitter and peck in their nests, even when they are gilded ones," he told the congregation.

Diana, dressed in a dramatic black hat, laid a floral wreath on her father's coffin, with a note reading: "I miss you dreadfully, Darling Daddy, but will love you forever".

"In front of the press, the four Spencer children appeared cordial to their stepmother, with Diana reaching sympathetically for her arm at one point," Kitty Kelly wrote in her book The Royals.

But behind the scenes, the tension between the Spencer children and Raine was reaching a fever pitch.

In his will, Johnnie had left Raine a luxury townhouse in the London suburb of Mayfair, knowing that upon his death, Althorp would immediately be transferred to his son and heir, Charles.

He asked his children that when his time came, they give Raine six months to stay on at Althorp so she could sort out her affairs.

Instead, Diana and Charles, the newly minted Earl Spencer, gave her 48 hours.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (13)

When Raine's assistant went to Althorp to pack up her employer's belongings, she said the Princess of Wales and her brother were waiting for her, and stood guard while she got everything ready.

"There was a Louis Vuitton suitcase [monogrammed] with 'RS' on it, and they grabbed the suitcases and said 'they don't belong to you, they're our father's,'" Sue Howe said in the documentary, Princess Diana's Wicked Stepmother.

Witnesses say Raine's beautiful furs and dresses were stuffed into black garbage bags and Charles kicked them down the saloon steps.

It was the same staircase where Diana once shoved Raine.

But this time, the siblings succeeded in removing her from the family seat.

'She is the mother I never had'

Just a year after Johnnie's death, Raine met another titled aristocrat, Count Jean-François Pineton de Chambrun of France.

They married 33 days later. The bride wore a pink floral gown and a billowing headpiece of fuchsia netting and pearls.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (14)

None of the Spencers — including Diana — was on the guest list.

But Raine was only the Comtesse de Chambrun for two years. When she divorced Jean-François, she decided to revert back to her second title, Countess Spencer.

After being raised to value a man's attention above all else, Raine decided this was her final marriage.

"I love reading my horoscope. We all want a tall, dark, handsome gentleman to come through the door don't we?" she said in 2007.

"But there comes a time when, beyond fun, it becomes too believable. There comes a time when you have to make your own decisions and ignore what the soothsayers say."

As Raine entered a new era as a single woman, so too did her former stepdaughter.

The marriage between Prince Charles and Diana spectacularly collapsed by the end of 1992, and the Queen permitted the couple to divorce in 1995.

In the space of a few short years, Diana had lost her father, her husband, and her future as the queen consort.

She was also no longer on speaking terms with her mother Frances, after she gave a paid interview to Hello! about her daughter's divorce and criticised her subsequent dating choices.

It was then that she sent a letter to Raine and asked if she would like to come to her apartment in Kensington Palace for lunch.

"Diana and Raine forged a friendship which lasted until the princess's death," author Ingrid Seward wrote in her book The Queen and Di: The Untold Story.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (15)

"They took to having regular lunches together and spoke on the telephone almost every day.

"Raine became Diana's closest and most trusted confidante. The princess told me: 'I'd rather speak to Raine than to my mother. She is the mother I never had.'"

Diana and Raine were far more alike than they realised.

Both were bred to be ornamental, but both women — fiercely intelligent beings with an incurable rebellious streak — yearned for more.

When Diana started dating Dodi Al Fayed in that fateful summer of 1997, Raine was supportive of their relationship.

The countess was close to Dodi's father, Harrods billionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed, and even worked on the shopfloor of the ritzy department store in the 90s, using her considerable charms to sell expensive items to male customers.

"Shirts and ties . . . where I have been very, very happy — carpet on the floor, handsome men," Raine explained to the UK Times about why a thrice-titled aristocrat would get a job in retail.

In August 1997, Diana and Dodi went on a holiday to Paris, and news soon filtered through of a terrible car accident after paparazzi chased them at high speed into a tunnel.

Raine, unable to get a straight answer from anyone on Diana's welfare, called the Paris hospital where she was being treated, and informed them in her fluent French that she wanted an update on her stepdaughter's condition.

She was one of the first people in the world to learn that Diana was dead.

She was just 36.

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (16)

Ten years later, a British coronial inquest was finally held into the circ*mstances of Diana's death.

Raine, in a pillbox hat with a dramatic black veil over her face, told the inquest that Diana "had never been so happy" as she was in the final months of her life.

She also explained the strange journey she and her stepdaughter had taken during their lives that saw them turn from enemies to friends.

"She always said I had no hidden agenda," Raine said.

"So many people, because she was so popular and so world famous, wanted something out of her. It was a very draining life."

Raine continued to work at Harrods well into her 80s.

After all, she and Mohamed were bonded — they had both lost children in the same tragedy.

Right up until her death in 2016, Raine remained the same: She was always glamorous, always social, and always fiercely defensive of her stepdaughter's legacy.

"Diana was a lovely person," Raine said in her last interview in 2015.

"She had incredibly heavy pressures put upon her, but we ended up huge friends. She used to come and sit on my sofa and tell me her troubles.

"I'm very happy about that."

'She is the mother I never had': How Diana's worst enemy became her closest confidante (2024)
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