Charles and Diana: a history of their marriage
Their 15-year marriage began with a fairy tale wedding and saw the birth of two princes, but ended in a public and acrimonious divorce involving infidelity that threatened to rock the monarchy. But what was the real nature of Prince Charles and Diana’s relationship: how did they meet, when did cracks first appear, were they in love, and was Diana really the wronged party? We asked royal biographer Penny Junor to tell us the real story of Charles and Diana…
Who was Diana, Princess of Wales?
Maiden name: Diana Frances Spencer
Born: 1 July 1961 at Park House, the home that her parents rented on Queen Elizabeth II’s estate at Sandringham
Died: 31 August 1997, in a car accident in Paris (aged 36)
Married to: Prince Charles (m. 1981–96)
Height: 1.78 m
Children: Prince William (born 1982) and Prince Harry (born 1984)
Grandchildren: Prince George (born 2013); Princess Charlotte (born 2015); Prince Louis (born 2018); Archie Mountbatten-Windsor (born 2019)
Parents: John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer & Frances Roche
Siblings: Lady Sarah McCorquodale (1955–present); Jane Fellowes, Baroness Fellowes (1957–present); John Spencer, died within 10 hours of his birth on 12 January 1960; Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer (1964–present)
Educated: Silfield Private School in Gayton, Norfolk; Riddlesworth Hall School near Thetford; West Heath Girls’ School in Sevenoaks, Kent; Institut Alpin Videmanette in Rougemont, Switzerland
When did Diana Spencer meet Prince Charles?
It was in the summer of 1980, at a house party hosted by Diana’s friend Philip de Pass in New Grove, near Petworth, that Prince Charles first saw Diana Spencer as a potential girlfriend. Sitting next to each other on a bale of hay at a post-polo barbecue, an 19-year-old Diana expressed her sympathy for Charles over the loss of his beloved great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, who had been murdered by the IRA a year earlier. “My heart bled for you when I watched the funeral; I thought, ‘It’s wrong, you’re lonely – you should be with somebody to look after you’,” said Diana. This, says Penny Junor, was exactly what Charles needed to hear.
“Mountbatten was a very important figure in Charles’s life and he was in a fragile state at that point,” says Junor. “Diana really touched a nerve in Charles, she said just the right thing to him, at the right moment, and he was moved by her.”
This encounter was not, however, the first time Charles and Diana had met. The pair had been introduced two years earlier, in 1977 – Charles thought her “jolly” when he visited Althorp, the Spencer estate, when he was dating Diana’s older sister, Lady Sarah (a relationship that ended in early 1978). Diana had also attended Charles’s 30th birthday party along with her sister at Buckingham Palace in November 1978, and in January 1979 Diana again met Charles when she and Sarah were guests of Queen Elizabeth II at a weekend shooting party at Sandringham.
After that weekend, Charles occasionally invited Diana to the ballet as part of a group or to dinner with friends. The relationship was, at this stage, purely platonic – Diana was fun to have around. It was not until their heart-to-heart about Lord Mountbatten in 1980 that Charles first saw Diana as girlfriend material.
Keen to spend more time with Diana, Charles promptly invited her to Balmoral to join him and a group of friends staying there for a summer holiday. Diana enchanted and delighted. “She seemed to be the perfect girl,” says Junor. “She was funny, she was fun, everybody seemed to love her – she made everyone laugh and she seemed to adore Charles.
“She was, on paper, absolutely perfect as a bride for him. At the time it was thought Charles’s bride must be a virgin, an aristocrat and a member of the Church of England. Now, we should remember that by the 1980s, after the 1960s sexual revolution and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, there were very few aristocratic virgins around, and as time went by – Charles was by this point in his 30s – they were getting fewer and fewer.
“So, here was this girl who appeared to be absolutely lovely; perfect marriage material. And she appeared to be very uncomplicated. She was fresh and naïve and full of the joys of life. Or so it seemed.”
But, says Junor, pressure began to mount on Charles and Diana almost immediately.
“Ever since Charles was around the age of 18 the press had been looking at every girlfriend and asking, ‘could this be our next queen?’. They delved into the background of all of these women, which put an awful lot of them off. It was very difficult for Charles to meet and get to know somebody. And this is exactly what happened with Diana: she met Charles and almost immediately the press discovered that he was seeing her. The paparazzi camped outside the door to her flat in London; everywhere she went she was photographed and harassed. It was impossible for the two of them to get to know one another in any sort of ‘normal’ way.”
Charles was also under pressure from his father, Prince Philip, to stop ‘playing the field’ and get married. It was time for Charles, who was now in his 30s, to settle down and find a wife, his father thought. “The bottom line being, of course, that every heir requires an heir of his own in order to keep the monarchy going,” says Junor.
Did Prince Philip tell Charles to marry Diana?
The catalyst came in the form of a memo sent by Prince Philip to his son in early 1981 urging him to make up his mind. You either marry this girl or you let her go, he wrote.
But, says Junor, this memo was fatefully misinterpreted by Charles. “The royal family communicates with one another in very strange ways,” she said.
“Rather than just picking up the phone or having a chat face-to-face, it was all done through memos. Charles misread his father’s memo: he thought he was being told that he must marry Diana – and so he asked her to marry him.”
When did Prince Charles and Diana Spencer get engaged?
Charles proposed to Diana on 6 February 1981 at Windsor Castle. But it was a tragic mismatch, says Junor. Charles and Diana had, at this point, barely spent any time together – Diana later claimed that she and Charles had met only 13 times before they became engaged. “And most of that time they'd not spent alone together,” Junor adds. “So they really didn't know one another at all.”
Diana’s mental health
Diana soon began to struggle in her new role. Aged just 19 and having been living happily in a flatshare in London with a group of girl friends, Diana was taken away from everything she knew and moved into a suite of rooms at Buckingham Palace.
“It was awful for her, and lonely,” says Junor. “As soon as she moved into Buckingham Palace she appeared to be a very different girl from the girl she had been at Balmoral – she suddenly became very weepy and jealous of anywhere Charles went and anyone he saw. Her moods went up and down; shooting to stardom in a very short space of time was too much for her.
“Meanwhile Charles, who was on a perpetual rollercoaster of engagements that he couldn’t get off, didn't quite know how to cope with this; he didn't know what was going on.”
Diana was struggling with her mental health and with the eating disorder bulimia, says Junor. “She’d had a very traumatic childhood; she was a very damaged little girl who had grown into a very damaged young woman,” says the royal biographer. Diana’s parents had endured an unhappy marriage and separated when she was just six years old.
Diana Spencer's early life
A year-and-a-half before Diana was born, her mother, Frances Ruth Roche, who was already the mother of two girls, Diana’s elder sisters, had given birth to a baby boy who died when he was just 10 hours old. Diana was born 18 months later, in July 1961, followed by a much-wanted male heir: Diana’s younger brother, Charles.
When Charles was around the age of two or three, Diana’s mother met Peter Shand Kydd, an heir to the wallpaper fortune built by his father, Norman Shand Kydd. The pair began an affair and later decided to become a couple. “Frances thought she could finally be happy, and she had every intention of taking her children with her,” says Junor.
But, tragically, Frances lost custody of Diana and her three siblings following an intervention by her mother, Ruth Roche, Baroness Fermoy, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother. “Appalled that her daughter had run off with a ‘man in trade’, Baroness Fermoy gave evidence in the custody proceedings against her own daughter,” says Junor.
“She told the court Frances was a bad mother, and as a result, custody of all four children went to Diana’s father. This is, I believe, why Diana’s mother later became a reclusive and very sad woman. It was because she had lost her children.”
Diana, aged just seven and completely unaware of the custody proceedings, was left feeling abandoned and as though her mother did not love her enough to take her with her. “And then she worked out that actually she was a bit of a nuisance,” says Junor. “Her mother and father had wanted a boy, and that boy had died. Diana later told journalist Andrew Morton [who wrote the authorised 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story], her parents had tried for another boy but ended up with Diana.
“Diana felt very unloved and unwanted, and she took those feelings into her adult life – she was always desperate to be loved but expected people to abandon her.”
Diana struggled with bulimia for many years before seeking professional help.
It’s difficult to know when exactly it started, but it was “in full swing” by the time of their honeymoon, says Junor. She may initially have been treated for anorexia.
“I think that the eating disorder was a manifestation of a much greater disorder,” says Junor. “Her mental health was poor; she had struggled mentally from childhood.
“Bulimia and anorexia are very destructive conditions; they’re very hard to live with,” says Junor.
Revelations of Diana’s bulimia were first published in Andrew Morton’s 1992 authorised biography, Diana: Her True Story. She later spoke about her struggle with the condition in her famous 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir. [In 2021, an independent inquiry found that Bashir had used deception to secure the interview]
“I think she felt that nobody could help her,” says Junor. She saw various conventional therapists but also turned to a number of alternative, complementary therapists including astrologers and crystal healers.”
Wwhere and when did Charles and Diana and get married?
The wedding of Charles and Diana married at St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 July 1981 in what has been described as the wedding of the century. “I think Charles and Diana both knew they were making a mistake when they walked down the aisle,” says Junor.
“But it would have taken somebody very brave to cancel at that point. Charles had always said that marriage for him must be for life and it was therefore very important that he marry the right girl – ‘If I’m deciding [on] whom I want to live with for 50 years – well, that’s the last decision on which I [would] want my head to be ruled by my heart.’
“So although I don’t think he was actually in love with Diana, I think he thought he could grow to love her. Fundamentally I think he had every intention of making his marriage work.
“A lot of people believe that Charles used Diana; that he never loved her and he never had any intention of honouring his marriage vows. They think he just needed his heir and his ‘spare’ and that once that was achieved, he went off with the woman he’d always loved, Camilla. That is very much the story that a lot of people like to believe.
“Having spoken to a great many people who were around at the time, I happen to believe that story is completely wrong. I have always felt that it was just a very tragic mismatch; these two people were just completely wrong for one another. I really do not think that Charles used Diana or intended to use Diana, but once he was inside that marriage life was utterly unbearable for both of them.”
Was Charles still seeing Camilla when he married Diana?
Charles’s relationship with Camilla had ended when she married Andrew Parker Bowles in the summer of 1973. Camilla settled into her new life as a wife and mother and her friendship with Charles remained platonic in the years that followed. But the pair restarted their affair shortly after the birth of Camilla’s second child, Laura, in early 1978, and in 1979 Charles turned to Camilla for consolation for his grief following the death of Lord Mountbatten. Camilla was “his best friend, his soul mate, and, and after the death of his great-uncle, lover,” writes Marlene Koenig in this article for HistoryExtra. This second affair lasted until Charles’s engagement to Diana in 1981.
“Camilla’s husband, unfortunately, was very unfaithful to her, so she was very lonesome in her marriage,” says Junor. “And Charles made her feel good. Who can blame her for enjoying that relationship while Charles was single? But she knew that once Charles became married, the physical side of their relationship would end. She was under no illusion that it would carry on. And when Camilla realised that Diana was jealous of her, she stepped right back.”
Tensions were made worse by the fact that Charles had failed to tell Diana about his history with Camilla when they first began dating, says Junor. Early on in his relationship with Diana, they even went to stay with the Parker Bowles’s, but Charles did not disclose the fact Camilla was his ex-girlfriend. Instead, Diana found out on the grapevine “through Buckingham Palace gossip,” says Junor. “As a 19-year-old, Diana would have been hugely upset by that, and very jealous,” she adds. “She probably felt like a bit of a fool”.
Diana and The G&F bracelet
The last time Charles and Camilla saw one another before he married Diana was just a few days before the wedding. They had one final lunch together, during which Charles gifted Camilla a bracelet inscribed with the letters ‘G’ and ‘F’, which is thought to have stood for ‘Gladys’ and ‘Fred’ – their nicknames for one another.
Shockingly, Diana had discovered the bracelet just two weeks previously, in the office she shared with Charles’s right-hand-man, Michael Colborne. Prince Charles had asked Colborne to buy jewellery as presents for a number of women with whom he had been close during his bachelor years, as a way of thanking them for their companionship.
“All the jewellery had been delivered to the office that Diana was sharing with Colborne and put on his desk,” Junor explains. “Colborne was called away to a meeting down the corridor. He left the jewellery on his desk and when he came back he met Diana storming out of the office. He quickly realised she had unpacked the boxes, discovered the bracelet and got into a jealous rage.”
Camilla attended Charles and Diana’s wedding but the pair did not then see one another or communicate for nearly five years – apart from when Charles notified her of the birth of his first son, William.
Princess Diana's sons: the births of William and Harry
In June 1982, less than a year after Diana and Charles married, their first son, Prince William, was born.
This was, for the most part, a happy time for the couple, says Junor. “I’ve interviewed people who visited Kensington Palace in the early 1980s – they describe Diana charging about the house playfully looking for William who had run away and hidden under his father’s desk at bedtime.
Others describe Charles chasing Diana up the stairs. I think there were definitely good times. Diana would later tell journalist Andrew Morton that the period just before Harry was born [in 1984] was the happiest the couple had had together.
“Diana very much enjoyed being a mother, she absolutely loved William and Harry with every fibre of her being. If you are someone who desperately needs love – as, I would argue, Diana did – there’s nothing quite like a baby to fulfil that need. So having children was the best possible thing for Diana.”
Tensions in Prince Charles and Princess Diana's marriage
But tensions in the marriage were escalating and Diana’s moods were changeable. “She was incredibly complicated,” says Junor. “There were behaviours that she exhibited privately but not publicly, and I think this is why the public has always found it very hard to believe anything other than Diana’s story. Andrew Morton’s biography, for example, is absolutely Diana’s story, but it’s her story, it’s not the story.
"The truth is we’ve never heard Charles’s side. Apart from admitting adultery to Jonathan Dimbleby [in his televised 1994 interview] he has never talked about their marriage or criticised his ex-wife in all these years.
“Ultimately I think Charles did everything he could to try to make Diana happy. But she wanted 101 per cent of Charles’s attention all the time, and he was just not the man who would ever have been able to give that to her because the bulk of his attention has always gone on his work.”
Tensions also arose as the press and public lavished attention on Diana over-and-above Charles. During their 1983 tour of Australia – which features in season four of The Crown – Charles is said to have bemoaned the fact he was being outshone by his wife. Junor, who joined the royal couple on their very first royal tour – of Wales shortly after their honeymoon – says Charles was often overshadowed by Diana to the extent it was “painful to watch”.
During royal tours of towns and cities, thousands of people would line both sides of the street and Charles would meet-and-greet those on one side, Diana the other. “There were audible sighs and groans from people on Charles’s side,” says Junor. “They would hand Charles bouquets of flowers and ask him to pass them to his wife.”
The press were also “obsessed” with Diana, says Junor. Charles would give a speech about an issue dear to him, such as the environment or a charitable cause, but – much to his frustration – newspaper reports the next day would be dominated by photos of Diana, with commentary on her hairstyle, her weight and her clothes, and often speculation as to whether she was pregnant. There would be no mention of his speech.
“After a while, this began to really grate on Charles,” says Junor. “He had spent his whole life being in the spotlight. Members of the royal family do their own engagements, they’re used to being the star of the show. So when Charles suddenly found himself being kicked into the wings, with his wife – for all the stupidest reasons, like a hairstyle – suddenly the star, who could blame him for getting a bit peeved?”
Read more about the start of ‘Dianamania’ here
Would Diana have had a career if she hadn’t met Charles?
“I suspect not,” says Junor. “She was not very well educated. And because she was the product of a divorced couple I think each parent probably spoiled her; I don’t think there was any real discipline in her life.
“If she started something and wanted to give up, she gave up: she’d gone to finishing school but didn’t like it, so left; she’d done jobs she hadn’t enjoyed, so she’d given them up. And one thing that the royal family has in spades is discipline; their lives are regimented, and I think Diana found that very difficult.
“Diana had left boarding school with no real qualifications at all and she wasn’t a great reader of books. In the late 1970s she studied ballet and briefly taught at the Vacani School of Dance, and she had looked after children briefly as a kindergarten teacher.
“She had dabbled in lots of things she liked. But with no qualifications she was never going to go anywhere great. She really didn’t need to work; she had plenty of money. So if she hadn’t met Charles, she probably would have married someone posh and had children, staff and nannies – and an active social life.”
What was Diana’s relationship like with the Queen and Prince Philip?
To begin with, both the Queen and Prince Philip were very enthusiastic about Diana, says Junor. They’d known her as a child because her family lived at Park House on the Sandringham Estate; her father was an equerry to the Queen. Diana was also a similar age to Prince Andrew and she used to attend parties with him.
“When Diana stayed at Balmoral in the summer of 1980, the Queen and Prince Philip thought she was enchanting,” says Junor. For many years Charles kept secret the difficulties he and Diana were having in their marriage. “The Queen and Prince Philip were blissfully unaware,” says Junor. “But as time went by and they came to learn of the problems in the marriage through the press, they became very irritated with her. Diana’s behaviour was damaging the monarchy, and if there’s one thing the Queen cares about above all else, it’s the monarchy. She is safeguarding it for the future; that’s the prime task for any monarch.”
When did Charles and Diana’s marriage break down? When did Charles start his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles?
Diana would later tell Andrew Morton that she realised her marriage to Charles was over around the time their second son, Harry, was born, in 1984. According to Diana she was crushed by comments Charles supposedly made following the birth. “Something inside of me died,” the princess told Morton.
By 1986 the marriage had collapsed and Charles was at what Penny Junor describes as “a critical sort of low”. Two mutual friends, concerned for Charles, independently contacted Camilla and urged her to reach out to him. She picked up the phone to Charles and their friendship restarted from there.
“Some years later Charles would confirm that Mrs Parker Bowles was a good friend, but insisted he had been faithful to Diana until their marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down’,” writes Marlene Koenig.
Charles and Camilla first saw one another again in 1986 when Charles invited her and her husband, Andrew, for tea at Highgrove. Over the coming months Charles and Camilla’s friendship developed and by around 1987 the pair were romantically involved again, says Junor. “Andrew was still being horribly unfaithful to Camilla and she didn’t feel loved or cherished by him in their marriage,” says Junor.
“Meanwhile Diana by this time had had affairs with several men, the first of which was probably with her bodyguard, Barry Mannakee. James Hewitt [a former cavalry officer in the British Army, with whom Diana admitted to having an affair] was also well in the picture by the time Charles went back to Camilla. Charles and Diana were leading very separate lives by this point.”
When did Charles and Diana separate and divorce?
Charles and Diana lived largely separate lives from around 1986, and Charles’s affair with Camilla continued. In December 1992, after years of speculation by the tabloid press that the marriage was in jeopardy, British prime minister John Major announced that the couple had formally separated.
In the summer of 1994, Charles’s interview with Jonathan Dimbleby was televised “in which he admitted infidelity and revealed both a lack of sympathy for Diana… and a worrying distance from his family,” writes Sarah Gristwood in this article for HistoryExtra.
This revelation, says Junor, compelled Andrew Parker Bowles to divorce Camilla. The pair announced their divorce in January 1995. A few months later, in November 1995, Princess Diana gave her famous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir in which she told viewers “there were three of us in this marriage – so it was a bit crowded”.
Within weeks of the interview, the Queen suggested the couple should divorce – and quickly. Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was dissolved in August 1996, after four years of separation.
On 31 August 1997, Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. She was 36 years old when she died.
In January 1999, Charles and Camilla made their first public appearance together as a couple. Their engagement was announced on 10 February 2005 and they married just a couple of months later on 9 April at a civil wedding at Windsor Guildhall, followed by a Service of Blessing at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
Princess Diana in The Crown
Princess Diana first appeared in season 4 of Peter Morgan’s royal drama The Crown, where she was played by Emma Corrin, with Elizabeth Debicki taking on the role in seasons 5 and 6.
“As in real life, the collapse of both Anne’s and Andrew’s marriages proved to be a mere sideshow compared to the far more sensational and high-profile split between the Queen’s eldest son and his first wife,” writes historian Tracy Borman of the how the breakdown in Charles and Diana’s marriage is portrayed in season 5.
Read on to explore more of the real history of The Crown and events seen on screen:
- Diana and Charles’s wedding: everything you need to know
- Prince Charles and Camilla: a history of their romance
- The Queen’s “rebel sister”: 8 facts about Princess Margaret
- Buckingham Palace intruder Michael Fagan: what happened and why did he break in?
- Was the Queen opposed to the Falklands War?
- The Crown: the real history
- Why was Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s great-uncle, assassinated?
- Everything you need to know about King Charles III, formerly Prince Charles
- Who is Queen Camilla, formerly the Duchess of Cornwall?
- Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: 8 milestones in their marriage
- Who is Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II?
This article was written following an interview in November 2020 with royal biographer Penny Junor, who is the author of 10 books on members of the royal family including Charles and Diana: portrait of a marriage (Headline, 1991)
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