It’s strange, now, to think that Prince Charles’ wedding to Diana Spencer was ever considered a “fairytale.” Today, we have accounts from both of them about how deeply unhappy they both were in their marriage. We know about the infidelity on both sides, the intense scrutiny, the jealousy, the resentment, the eating disorder, the self-harm.
But it’s a testament to the power of media narratives that the “fairytale” framing stuck for so long. Today, it feels absurd that we ever thought the Prince of Wales, a 32-year-old raised to think he was chosen by God to lead his country, made a good match for a sweet, sheltered 20-year-old who was still dealing with the pain from her parents’ own traumatic divorce.
Prince Charles was in love with Camilla Parker Bowles before he met Diana, and he finally got to marry her in 2005, at age 57. He cheated on Diana with Camilla for most, but not all, of Charles and Diana’s tumultuous 15-year marriage. But the real downfall of their relationship wasn’t infidelity — it was the impossible circumstances the two of them were thrust into.
The fourth season of “The Crown” does a good job of illustrating the behind-the-scenes trauma of their “fairytale” romance. The show took some artistic liberties, but the vast majority of its depiction of the doomed marriage comes from events that actually took place. Many of the scenes in the show are incredibly similar to parts of Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story and Tina Brown’s 2007 The Diana Chronicles.
Diana, who was 12 years younger than Charles, met him through her sister
They started dating when Diana was a teenager and Charles was an adult. She had grown up in an aristocratic family that had connections to the royals, so they knew each other from a distance. They got to know each other when she was 16 and he was 29, and he dated her older sister, Sarah. That relationship ended amicably, and three years later, he and Diana got together.
Part of the reason Charles chose someone so much younger is that there was a lot of pressure on him from the palace to choose a virgin. Anyone considered too “racy” was off-limits. This was a totally different landscape from Prince Harry marrying Meghan Markle, who was divorced and a few years older than him, or even Prince William marrying Kate Middleton, whom he had dated for years during and after their time in university. When Charles and Diana decided to get married, she was out of her parents’ house for the first time, living with roommates and doing odd jobs. It was still the era when many aristocratic women’s education ended after high school. She had never been in a serious relationship.
Their relationship was unequal from the start
When you’re born into the Royal Family, destined to be King, and told over and over that you’ve been chosen by God to rule your country, that’s inevitably going to affect the way you interact with other people. There’s an inequality inherent in Prince Charles’ relationships with just about anyone — especially an inexperienced teenage girl.
“It sounds deeply weird to date him,” said HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes on the first episode of a five-part Princess Diana series on the podcast “You’re Wrong About.”
“All the people who have dated him before ... they say the entire dating process is like, ‘Why don’t you watch me play polo?’ or ‘Why don’t you come with me on my yachting excursion?’ It’s all built around him.”
The engagement wasn’t particularly romantic
When Charles proposed, Diana initially thought he was joking, Hobbes says on “You’re Wrong About.” She laughed and replied, “Yeah, OK.” When she realized he was serious, she said yes, and told him she loved him.
“There was never anything tactile about him,” Diana told Andrew Morton. “But I don’t have anything to go by because I never had a boyfriend.”
Someone leaked the engagement to the press, because The Times already knew it was happening before it happened. “Someone has betrayed me already,” Diana reportedly told a staff member.
When asked if they were in love, he responded with, “Whatever in love means”
This scene in the show isn’t exaggerated. When they announced their engagement in early 1981, reporters asked the couple to describe how they felt about their upcoming nuptials. “Just delighted,” Charles said. “I’m amazed that she’s been brave enough to take me on.”
An unseen reporter then prompts them: “And, I suppose, in love?”
Diana response with “Of course!” followed by Charles adding, “Whatever in love means.”
The exchange starts at about the 7:25 mark in the video below.
But that awkward detail was left out of all the newspaper reports of their engagement, Tina Brown wrote. “No one, it seems wanted to break the spell.”
The period before the wedding really was as lonely and miserable for Diana as the show makes it seem
Once Diana agreed to marry Charles, her life changed in a dramatic way. “Diana started to shrink like Alice as soon as she went through the Buckingham Palace Looking Glass,” Brown wrote.
Charles left on a tour of Australia and New Zealand shortly after the engagement. Diana, who up until that point was living with flatmates in Sloane Square in central London, moved to Buckingham Palace, where she lived by herself. She spent a lot of time alone and missed her friends desperately.
She also didn’t know how to adapt to her new role in public life. “Diana was given less training in her new job than the average supermarket checkout operator,” Andrew Morton wrote.
This period is also when Diana started some of the self-harm that would plague her for most of her life. Shortly after the engagement, Charles made a stray comment about her waist being “chubby,” which caused her to go on a crash diet and, eventually, lead to her bulimia. She lost so much weight so quickly that it became a problem for her wedding dress designer.
One of the problems, Brown suggested, is that no one in the Royal Family understood just how jarring it would be for a 19-year-old to have to adjust every part of her life so drastically. The Queen and her children were all used to the rigours of royal life, to their duties and obligations, to the freedoms they had given up.
“It was assumed that since Lady Diana came from nobility and was no stranger to large households, she would cope perfectly well with the transition,” Brown wrote. “It was assumed that if she was lonely, or needed help, she would find a way to get on with it.”
Diana found a bracelet Charles got for Camilla right before the wedding
Diana didn’t tell anyone that she had found the gold chain bracelet with a blue enamel disk until years later, but Prince Charles’ private secretary said he saw Diana leave the room in tears.
The bracelet was inscribed with the initials “G.F.” It was clearly a reference to Camilla, who Charles called his “Girl Friday.” (As on “The Crown,” Charles and Camilla also had nicknames for one another that could have explained the initials: Fred and Gladys.)
Yes, Camilla reached out to Diana after the engagement
As on “The Crown,” Camilla did leave a note on Diana’s bed congratulating her on the engagement. The letter was dated two days before the engagement, when no one in the public — and certainly not an “ex-girlfriend” of Charles’ — was supposed to have known about it.
And Camilla really did invite Diana to lunch when Charles was away. Diana told Andrew Morton it seemed to her like Camilla wanted to make sure Diana wouldn’t go on hunting trips with Charles. She said she thought Camilla was “working out what was going to be her territory and what was going to be mine.”
Things didn’t get much better after the wedding
Their honeymoon involved a stay in Balmoral, a place Diana didn’t like, where Charles did a lot of hunting, an activity she didn’t participate in.
At one point on the honeymoon, she noticed that Charles is wearing cufflinks with two entwined Cs, for Charles and Camilla. (On “The Crown,” Diana brings this up during their tour of Australia.) He told Diana he didn’t see anything wrong with wearing the cuff links, a gift from Camilla — they were simply a gift from a friend.
In fact, the period right after their wedding is actually one of the few where Charles wasn’t cheating with Camilla.
The Australia tour did force them to confront some of their differences
Their 1983 tour of Australia and New Zealand, with baby Prince William in tow, was big for Diana. The couple were in a tricky position, visiting Australia just after it had elected an openly republican prime minister, but they left the tour with thousands of new fans.
This had happened before, of course. On their very first trip as a married couple, they went to Wales for three days. Diana had just found out she was pregnant, and felt sick the whole time, but still managed to dazzle the crowd. Charles, though, just didn’t have the natural warmth or charisma that made his wife so special — and people didn’t hesitate to let him know. At one point on the Wales trip, he and Diana spontaneously switched positions, so the people who thought they were about to see her on their side of the street saw Charles instead. There were groans of disappointment.
“It is hard to overemphasize how devastating the Wales experience was for Prince Charles,” Brown wrote.
Australia was an amplified version of the same dynamic.
More than 400,000 people turned up in Brisbane alone for “the tiara version of Beatlemania,” as Brown put it. When they split up to greet people on different sides of the crowd, Charles would make self-deprecating jokes to the people who got stuck with him: “It’s not fair, is it?” he asked, smiling. “You’d better ask for your money back!”
It wasn’t all bad, and they did have lots of affectionate moments on that tour, as in the show. But Charles was hurt by how starkly obvious it was that he was the less popular of the two, and it made him resent Diana, for whom this kind of interaction was so effortless. She brought up that tour in particular in her infamous and now somewhat discredited 1995 interview with Martin Bashir.
“We’d be going round Australia, for instance, and all you could hear was, ‘Oh, she’s on the other side,’” Diana told Bashir. “Now, if you’re a man, like my husband, a proud man, you mind about that if you hear it every day for four weeks. And you feel low about it, instead of feeling happy and sharing it.”
Their problems just grew and grew
Prince Charles had stopped seeing Camilla after his marriage, and it’s not clear exactly when he started the affair with her. (His authorized biography says 1986, but many sources claim it was earlier.)
Regardless, by the mid-80s, Charles and Diana had two young sons and a terrible relationship. She was still suffering from bulimia, even during her pregnancies.
“You inflict [bulimia] upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable,” she told Bashir years later. “It’s like having a pair of arms around you, but it’s temporarily ... and it’s a repetitive pattern which is very destructive to yourself.”
She largely hid her disordered eating from her husband, who didn’t understand the reason she did it, and saw bulimia as wasteful. Diana said he would sometimes make snide comments to her when she talked about food, along the lines of, “You’re just going to end up throwing that up later.” Diana told Bashir a comment like that was “pressure in itself.”
Diana was also self-harming, which she reluctantly revealed to her sister Jane after Jane spotted marks on her chest. She had used a penknife to cut her chest and thighs after a fight with Charles, she said. There were several suicide attempts, including one during her first pregnancy.
Charles didn’t understand how severe her depression was, and was frequently exasperated by what looked to him like self-pity and dramatics. “Why are you crying now?” he would constantly ask, according to Brown.
Diana, too, started cheating, having an affair first with a bodyguard and then with her riding instructor, who another bodyguard referred to as a “a protest fuck.”
The event that really ended their marriage, in Hobbes’ estimation, took place in Vancouver at Expo ’86. Diana was so hungry that she fainted. Charles was angry at her for “not fainting gracefully behind a closed door,” in her words, and insisted that she come to dinner that night to avoid a scandal.
After that fight, Charles and Diana kept up the facade, but neither of them had the energy to keep trying to make the marriage work. It would be years before they formally separated, and they wouldn’t get divorced until years after that, but the fainting fight was the real death knell of their marriage.
The fourth season of “The Crown” ends at this point. As far as the public are concerned, they’re still a couple, but the enmity between them is so severe that they’re barely speaking. They both want to separate, but palace pressure keeps them together, at least nominally. It’s a miserable place for both of them.
The show accurately captures just how lonely a bad relationship feels, and the unimaginable pressure that they were under. Even though it’s happening to people wearing crowns, it’s a deeply sad and a deeply human story.