The July 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer came across as a real-life fairy tale to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who watched the ceremony. After years of bachelorhood, the 32-year-old prince had found his princess: a shy, beautiful 20-year-old English aristocrat. However, the true story of this royal relationship was much more complicated.
Behind the royal couple's happily-ever-after façade, private disputes soon erupted, even as the two produced "an heir and a spare." In time Charles and Diana's discontent seemed to create an ongoing public scandal. Eventually, even the Queen agreed that divorce was the only option.
Splitting up in 1996 offered Charles and Diana the opportunity to build separate lives. But Diana's new start was cut short by her tragic death at the age of 36 in 1997. After years of conflict, Charles was left alone to grapple with Diana's loss on a personal level, and to carry on in the shadow of her legacy.
November 1977: Prince Charles meets Lady Diana Spencer
Diana is a 16-year-old schoolgirl when Charles visits Althorp, Diana's home, as a guest of her older sister, Lady Sarah Spencer. Despite the gap in their ages — Charles is 12 years older — Diana feels the prince appreciates her, later saying, "I made a lot of noise and he liked that and he came up to me after dinner and we had a big dance."
She excitedly shares the news of her royal encounter after returning to school.
November 14, 1978: Diana is invited to a dance at Buckingham Palace
Diana is on the guestlist for a dance given to celebrate the prince's 30th birthday.
July 1980: Diana comforts Charles at a house party
The prince and Diana meet at a house party about a year after Charles's mentor, Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten, was killed by an IRA bomb. She tells him, "You looked so sad when you walked up the aisle at Lord Mountbatten's funeral. It was the most tragic thing I've ever seen. My heart bled for you when I watched. I thought, 'It's wrong, you're lonely, you should be with somebody to look after you.'" Her care and concern appeal to Charles.
September 1980: Diana visits with the royal family at Balmoral
This stay, during which Charles teaches Diana to fish, leads the prince to believe that Diana enjoys life in the country.
The press spot the two together at Balmoral and become interested in this potential partner to the heir to the throne.
September 1980: Diana poses for an iconic photo
Pursued by photographers, Diana agrees to pose at the kindergarten where she works. A resulting photo, in which light shines through her skirt to reveal her legs, further captures the public's attention. It also earns her a compliment from the prince, who reportedly tells her, "I knew your legs were good but I didn't realize they were that spectacular."
January 1981: Prince Philip urges Charles to make a decision
With the press in a furor about Diana, Prince Philip writes a letter to his son, advising Charles either to propose or to end things with Diana to protect her reputation. Charles sees this as an order from his father.
February 6, 1981: Charles asks Diana to marry him
Charles invites Diana to Windsor Castle and proposes. He expects her to take time to consider the commitment, given the demands that will be placed on his wife and is surprised when she doesn't hesitate to accept him.
February 24, 1981: The royal engagement is announced
Buckingham Palace announces the engagement between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. When asked by an interviewer if they are in love, Diana answers, "Of course," before Charles adds, "Whatever 'in love' means."
Mid-July 1981: Diana finds a bracelet Charles plans to give to Camilla Parker Bowles
Shortly before her wedding, Diana discovers a bracelet marked with a "G" and an "F." The letters either refer to Charles's designation of Camilla Parker Bowles, the intended recipient, as his "Girl Friday," or their respective nicknames of "Fred" and "Gladys." Diana is upset by this evidence of her fiancé's closeness with another woman.
July 29, 1981: Charles and Diana's wedding
Despite misgivings on both sides — the night before Charles was weeping, while Diana continued her struggle with bulimia — the two wed at St. Paul's Cathedral. The ceremony has 750 million viewers worldwide.
PHOTOS: Princess Diana's Wedding Gown
October 27-30, 1981: First royal engagement
Diana and Charles travel to Wales for their first royal engagement. A nervous Diana charms the crowds, to the point that people chant "We want Diana!" whenever Charles approaches instead. The prince is taken aback by his wife's popularity.
January 1982: A pregnant Diana tumbles down the stairs
Diana falls down a staircase while at the royal estate of Sandringham. She later calls this incident one of multiple suicide attempts, saying, "I threw myself down the stairs." However, at the time she and others described the fall as an accident. Fortunately, she and the unborn baby are not injured.
June 21, 1982: Prince William is born
Both Charles and Diana are delighted by the arrival of their son, though afterward, Diana suffers from postpartum depression.
March 1983: Royal tour of Australia and New Zealand
Charles and Diana, along with Prince William, visit Australia and New Zealand. Most of the attention and adulation is directed at Diana, while a jealous Charles is relegated to the background. One security officer describes the reaction to Diana as "more akin to Beatlemania."
September 15, 1984: Prince Harry is born
Diana knew she was carrying a boy but didn't share this information with Charles, who was hoping for a girl. After the birth, she feels Charles is disappointed. She later says that due to his reaction "something inside me closed off," and, "Our marriage, the whole thing went down the drain."
circa 1986: Charles resumes his affair with Camilla
The two had been in contact earlier, but their romantic relationship reignites around 1986.
November 1986: Diana begins an affair
Diana embarks upon an extramarital relationship with Captain James Hewitt, a cavalry officer who has been her riding instructor. They remain involved for five years.
February 1989: Diana confronts Camilla
According to Diana, while at a house party she finds Camilla and tells the older woman, "I obviously am in the way and it must be hell for both of you but I do know what is going on. Don't treat me like an idiot."
June 7, 1992: A Diana biography reveals intimate details
Diana: Her True Story, a biography written by Andrew Morton, is serialized in the Times prior to its publication later in the month. The book shares Diana's struggles with bulimia and depression, and her attempts at suicide. It also describes Camilla as a third wheel in the royal marriage. Though she initially denies any involvement, the book was written with Diana's cooperation.
August 24, 1992: "Squidgygate" recording becomes public
A newspaper reveals that an intimate conversation between Diana and a friend named James Gilbey was recorded on December 31, 1989. In the call, Diana complains about the royal family and refers to life with Charles as "real torture." The episode is dubbed "Squidgygate" because Gilbey uses the name "Squidgy" to address the princess.
November 13, 1992: The "Camillagate" scandal begins
News breaks that a private conversation between Charles and Camilla was also recorded in December 1989; the scandal is called "Camillagate." The full contents of the alternately racy and loving conversation come out in January 1993, revealing lines like Charles telling his lover, "I'll just live inside your trousers or something," perhaps as "a Tampax."
December 9, 1992: Charles and Diana separate
The separation of Charles and Diana is announced in the House of Commons. However, it is said that the couple will not divorce, and Diana will still become queen should Charles ascend to the throne.
June 29, 1994: Charles publicly admits to adultery
In an interview for a documentary, Charles admits he conducted an adulterous relationship during his marriage to Diana. He explains this only happened after his marriage "became irretrievably broken down." The prince's secretary confirms that the prince was referring to Camilla.
November 20, 1995: Diana's secret interview is broadcast
In an interview on the BBC television show Panorama, which was conducted without the royal family's knowledge earlier in the month, Diana addresses her husband's relationship with Camilla, saying, "Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." She also questions whether Charles should become king.
December 19, 1995: Charles asks for a divorce
Diana's public airing of her struggles is a bridge too far for the Queen, who agrees that the royal marriage should end. Calling their union a "national and personal tragedy," Charles writes to ask Diana for a divorce.
July 15, 1996: Charles and Diana file for divorce
The divorce filing is preceded by months of negotiations: The two agree to split custody of their sons. Diana keeps her title as "Diana, Princess of Wales," but will no longer be known as "Her Royal Highness."
The marriage is officially dissolved six weeks after this filing.
June 25, 1997: Diana auctions off old gowns for charity
In a gesture that symbolizes the shedding of her old life as Charles' spouse, Diana arranges to auction off seventy-nine dresses in New York. $3.25 million is raised to benefit five AIDS- and cancer-related charities.
August 31, 1997: Diana dies in a car crash in Paris
Charles joins Diana's sisters when they fly to Paris that day to claim her body.
September 6, 1997: Diana's funeral
With his two sons, father and Diana's brother, Charles walks behind Diana's coffin in a funeral procession through London.