When Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles and heir to the British throne, millions around the world thought they’d witnessed the beginning of a golden new age for the House of Windsor. But while many, including Diana’s mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, had hoped Diana might be a breath of fresh air, her turbulent marriage led to a fractured relationship with both her husband and the queen.
Diana had known the royal family since she was a child
Diana was born into a family with close ties to the royal family. Her father was an equerry to the queen and both of her grandmothers had served as ladies-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, Elizabeth II’s mother. Diana’s maternal grandmother, Baroness Fermoy remained a close confidant of the Queen Mother for decades. Diana spent her early years living at Park House on the royal family’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk, where she often played with Elizabeth’s younger sons, Andrew and Edward, who were much closer in age than Prince Charles, more than 12 years her senior.
Diana’s childhood was shattered when her parents divorced when she was 7 years old. Thanks in part to Baroness Fermoy’s decision to support her former son-in-law, and not her daughter, in the subsequent custody battle, Diana and her siblings were raised by her father and his second wife, Raine, with whom Diana had a difficult and emotionally damaging relationship.
The queen initially welcomed Diana into the family
Charles and Diana’s first notable meeting took place when she was 16, in 1977. Her older sister, Sarah, had a short-lived romance with Charles, and the future couple reportedly connected at a grouse hunt. The 29-year-old Prince of Wales made a lasting impression on the teen, although he later recalled thinking of her as just a “jolly” young girl.
Their relationship began a few years later and was strongly encouraged by the royal family. Now in his 30s, and with a well-deserved reputation as a playboy, Charles was under increasing pressure to find a suitable bride. For the queen and the rest of the Windsors, Diana seemed to tick off all the necessary boxes for a future consort. She was beautiful and well-bred, and her prior relationship with the family convinced nearly everyone that she’d easily slide into a royal role.
Perhaps more importantly, she was young (and still a virgin), which marked her out as quite different than many of the women in Charles’ life, including Camilla Parker Bowles. Camilla’s on-again, off-again relationship with Charles had begun nearly a decade earlier, but fierce opposition from Charles’ family led to a break-up, during which Camilla had married. But the former couple’s continued closeness was worrisome.
Charles’ father, Philip, pressured his son to make up his mind about Diana. The Queen Mother, the family member Charles’ was closest to, began plotting with her friend Baroness Fermoy to pull off the match between their grandchildren. Although he was fearful of making a marital mistake, Charles moved forward with a hasty courtship. The couple saw each other in person just 13 times before he proposed.
The relationship between Diana, the queen and the royal family quickly went downhill
An estimated tv audience of 750 million watched Charles and Diana’s wedding in July 1981. But the fairytale romance hit a rough patch almost immediately. The couple barely knew each other and Diana soon realized she had little in common with Charles or his family. Charles, like the rest of the Windsors, enjoyed traditional country life and outdoor pursuits like polo and hunting. Diana, just barely out of her teens, enjoyed city life, popular music and dancing.
Diana was also showing the early signs of the emotional volatility that would mar their marriage. While known to many in the press and public as “Shy Di,” she was prone to fits of insecurity and anger that led to heated arguments between the newlyweds. She was under an ever-increasing public spotlight, and her unhappiness and tension manifested itself by worsening bouts of bulimia and self-harm.
It’s likely that Diana’s difficult upbringing had left deep scars. Palace insiders would later say that she had turned to the queen for guidance and help, looking to her as a possible surrogate mother, not just a mother-in-law. The queen certainly sympathized with Diana, at least early on. She’d experienced rocky patches within her own marriage and could certainly understand Diana’s frustrations.
But if Diana seemed unable to cope with her new life as a royal, Elizabeth was wholly unprepared to deal with Diana’s almost overwhelming floods of emotions or to be the maternal figure Diana seemed to so desperately need. Stoicism, even with her family members, was the norm, and she had never been emotionally close to her own children or their spouses.
For the queen, duty and service came first. Diana would simply have to get on with her life.
The very public breakdown of the marriage further damaged their relationship
Charles and Diana attempted to work through their early problems on their own and experienced periods of true happiness, including the births of their two sons. But soon after Harry’s birth in 1984 new tensions emerged. Diana’s burgeoning public persona, that of a glamorous, fashionable young princess and mother coming into her own, began to overshadow both Charles and the rest of the royal family, leading to deep resentment on Charles’ part. Her decision to focus her charitable work on those in the margins of society, including AIDS patients, reportedly rankled the queen, her courtiers and family. They also found it difficult to square this seemingly confident public persona with what they considered to be the real, “needy” Diana they saw.
Almost inevitably, the marriage began to break down. Charles resumed his relationship with Parker Bowles (aided in small part by his grandmother, who had also soured on her Charles-Diana matchmaking), and Diana began her own affairs. Infidelity wasn’t uncommon in royal circles, and it seems possible that the queen was aware of affairs. Both she and Prince Philip would try to counsel the couple, in person and through a series of letters, at best hoping to mend the couple’s divisions, but at the very least to keep the marital problems off the front pages.
But that was not to be. Unable to hide their unhappiness private, Diana and Charles’ became news staple for a new reason, as their marriage crumbled in plain sight. The 1992 release of Andrew Morton’s biography of Diana, for which it was posthumously confirmed that Diana had been interviewed for, was like a bomb within the family. Deeply saddened and angered at the public revelations of Diana’s unhappiness, the queen and Prince Phillip hastily arranged a summit to try to put the pieces back together. But Charles and Diana were already living largely separate lives and following a series of embarrassing recordings that revealed their mutual affairs, the queen gave her consent to allow them to formally separate in late 1992.
The queen tried to bestow a final act of kindness for Diana
More bad news followed the separation, including a TV interview where Charles admitted he’d been unfaithful, and Diana’s competing TV interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, where she claimed she had received little support from the royal family during her marriage, portraying them as uncaring and cold. Although she expressed her fondness for the queen and her decades-long reign, she said she was unsure if Charles was up to follow in her footsteps.
It was the final straw. Despite her reluctance to see the heir to the throne divorce, she quickly moved into action, writing to both Charles and Diana that the time had come. During the negotiations that followed, the queen reportedly urged Charles to allow Diana to retain her status as Her Royal Highness, but Charles adamantly refused.
When Diana was tragically killed in a car crash just a year after the divorce, the queen was heavily criticized for her response, which many saw as uncaring in the face of the international outpouring of grief over Diana’s death. There were rumors that she had argued that as an ex-member of the royal household, Diana should have a private funeral, before agreeing to a public funeral at Westminster Abbey.
On the eve of Diana’s funeral, the queen delivered a live speech, in which she praised her former daughter-in-law. Breaking with tradition, she allowed the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham Palace on the day of the funeral and bowed her head as Diana’s coffin passed the gathered royals during the funeral procession.
Six days after Diana’s death, the queen, in a written response to a condolence letter from a former aide, wrote of her sadness at Diana’s passing, revealing her private pain over the death of the former daughter-in-law she struggled to understand in life.