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 Barely Knew Each Other When They Got Engaged
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer had a whirlwind courtship. They dated for several months before their engagement in February 1981. During that time, however, they didn't see a lot of one another. According to Diana, "We met 13 times and we got married."
Even Diana was a bit surprised by the engagement, since Charles didn't spend too much time with her. As she recalled:
He wasn't consistent with his courting abilities... He'd ring me every day for a week, then wouldn't speak to me for three weeks. Very odd. I thought, "Fine. Well, he knows where I am if he wants me." The thrill when he used to ring up was so immense and intense. It would drive the other three girls in my flat crazy.
Their lack of experience with one another meant that Charles and Diana didn't really know each other when they got married. Consequently, they committed to each other based on their impressions of one another, rather than learned facts. When Charles first met Diana when she was 16, he saw her in simplistic terms without understanding her deep emotional complexity and needs. As he put it:
I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was. I mean, great fun, and bouncy and full of life and everything.
For her part, Diana saw Charles through rose-colored glasses, too: He was the prince who was supposed to sweep her off her feet and protect her from her parents' fate (they divorced when she was 7 years old). Diana called him "the one man on the planet who is not allowed to divorce me" while being unaware of his feelings for another woman.
Charles's Relationship With Camilla Broke Diana's Heart - Even Before They Were Actually Married
Soon after their engagement, Diana learned that Camilla Parker Bowles, whom Charles dated before she broke his heart and married another man, continued to have a strong presence in Charles's life. Diana nearly called off the wedding over their relationship, despite Charles's assurances that he was no longer romantically involved with Camilla.
But by the mid-1980s, that was no longer the case. Charles and Camilla resumed their affair, and Diana described the experience as "pretty devastating." Her health suffered, and she descended into a period of "rampant bulimia, if you can have rampant bulimia, and just a feeling of being no good at anything and being useless and hopeless and failed in every direction."
Frustrated by her strained marriage, Diana pursued her own extramarital affairs.
The First Several Years Of Their Marriage Actually Had Happy Moments
Charles and Diana are best remembered for their bitter divorce, but the ending of a relationship doesn't always tell the full story. As Diana explained, "It is very hurtful to our children when people say we didn't love each other. We did - very much so."
Royal biographer Penny Junor has also noted that the doom-and-gloom perception of Charles and Diana's marriage is inaccurate:
It is well known that Charles and Diana's marriage was not a happy one, which was immensely sad for both of them, but it would be quite, quite wrong to assume that there had never been love or happiness in the relationship.
The couple bonded over their newfound joy of parenthood following the birth of Prince William in 1982. Charles and Diana also enjoyed dancing, as Darren McGrady, a former chef for the royal family, recalled. He described them having fun together at a Ghillies Ball at Balmoral Castle:
I remember standing there watching Prince Charles and Princess Diana dancing together, and they were spinning and spinning, and the princess loved to dance. So she took advantage and she was spinning the prince faster, and then he was laughing louder and louder.
Diana Became Paranoid Over Charles's Affair With Camilla
Diana never felt comfortable with her husband's relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, his former flame. Though Charles and Camilla allegedly didn't pursue an affair for the first several years of his marriage to Diana, the young princess nonetheless painfully noticed how intertwined the pair's life remained.
Diana's suspicions about Camilla nearly consumed her. By her own admission, Diana was "obsessed by Camilla totally. Didn't trust him, thought every five minutes he was ringing her up asking how to handle his marriage."
By the end of the 1980s, Diana decided to confront Camilla about her involvement with Charles. As she later recounted:
I said to Camilla: "Would you like to sit down?" So we sat down and I was utterly terrified of her and I said: "Camilla, I would just like you to know that I know exactly what is going on." She said: "I don't know what you're talking about!" And I said: "I know what's going on between you and Charles, and I just want you to know that." And she said: "Oh, it's not a cloak-and-dagger situation." I said: "I think it is." I wasn't as strong as I'd have liked, but at least I got the conversation going [...] It wasn't a fight - calm, deathly calm, and I said to Camilla: "I'm sorry I'm in the way, 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."
Diana's worries were justified: Charles and Camilla really had resumed their affair by the mid-1980s.