Dark fairy tale, heartbreaking tragedy - the Diana and Charles relationship is often portrayed as the most toxic royal marriage in recent memory. But what's the real story behind the headlines?
Prince Charles - heir to Queen Elizabeth II - married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981, in a televised ceremony broadcast around the world. Royal-watchers heralded the event as a fairy tale come true, one in which a pretty, young woman found her happy ending with a handsome, dashing prince. But Charles and Diana's marriage was just getting started, and it wouldn't have a happy ending. Distrust, jealousy, and infidelity rocked their marriage, and the couple drifted further and further apart. They separated and ultimately divorced in 1996. Diana passed the next year when she was involved in a horrific car crash in Paris.
While it's true that the couple experienced plenty of pain and heartbreak, their relationship was multi-layered and complex. Small moments like Charles and Diana dancing together, or bonding over their love of their sons, showed that the Prince Charles and Diana relationship had highs and lows just like any other.
They Became Amicable After Their Divorce
Though Diana didn't want a divorce, she eventually agreed to one. Divorcing turned out to have a positive impact on her relationship with Charles.
Free of the emotional turmoil of their dysfunctional marriage, Charles and Diana seemed to get along better. They discussed raising their children, and, according to biographer Tina Brown, found a new equilibrium:
[Their relationship] was definitely calming down, the boys were older. They talked about their philanthropies. And [Diana] had accepted Camilla. One thing she had finally done was really understand that Camilla was the love of his life, and there was just nothing she could do about it.
They Were Very Different People
Much has been made of the fact that Charles and Diana didn't seem to have a lot in common; he preferred quiet country life, while she favored glitzy city nights. Royal biographer Penny Junor explains that Charles and Diana were fundamentally incompatible:
[Their marriage] failed principally because it was a tragic mismatch. They were wrong for each other in almost every way possible, but they rushed into marriage before they knew each other well enough to realize that. And they rushed into it because the media were harassing Diana and, at thirty-two, Charles was under huge pressure from both the media and his father to find a wife.
According to Diana, the couple even expected different things from their honeymoon. Charles wanted intellectual connection, while Diana craved emotional intimacy:
His idea of enjoyment would be to sit on top of the highest hill at Balmoral. It is beautiful up there. I completely understand; he would read Laurens van der Post or [Carl] Jung to me, and bear in mind I hadn't a clue about psychic powers or anything, but I knew there was something in me that hadn't been awoken yet and I didn't think this was going to help! So anyway we read those and I did my tapestry and he was blissfully happy, and as far as he was happy that was fine.
At the same time, Diana actually pushed back on allegations that they didn't have anything in common:
I think we had a great deal of interest - we both liked people, both liked country life, both loved children, work in the cancer field, work in hospices. But I was portrayed in the media at that time, if I remember rightly, as someone, because I hadn't passed any O-levels and taken any A-levels, I was stupid.
They Had Little Alone Time During Their Extended Honeymoon
After Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married in July 1981, they honeymooned aboard the royal yacht Britannia, which took them around the Mediterranean.
But the royal couple weren't the only people on board the ship. Some courtiers had come along, and the yacht included a fleet of over 200 sailors. By many accounts, Diana spent more time with the sailors than she did with Charles.
Their honeymoon technically didn't end when they returned to Britain. As was tradition, the royal family decamped to Balmoral, their private estate in the Scottish Highlands, for the month of August - and Charles and Diana's recent marriage was no excuse why the newlyweds shouldn't come along.
So Charles and Diana decamped to Balmoral, too. Though they stayed in a house separate from the rest of Charles's family, the pair were rarely alone. According to royal biographer Ingrid Seward:
They dined with the rest of the Royal Family several times a week and, as always, [Charles's] friends were invited. So there was very little chance for the kind of privacy [Diana] hoped for on her honeymoon.
The extended, unhappy honeymoon upset Diana, who later recalled, "I remember crying my eyes out on our honeymoon. I was so tired, for all the wrong reasons totally."
While They Were Dating, Diana Called Charles 'Sir'
There was a noticeable age disparity between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer: Diana, who appeared to be the embodiment of "sweetness and modesty," was a 19-year-old and Charles was 31 when they started dating in 1980.
Though romantically involved, Charles and Diana's disparity in rank also hung over their relationship. Over the course of their brief courtship, Diana referred to Prince Charles as "Sir." She didn't use his first name until after Charles proposed.