On July 29, 1981, 750 million people tuned in from around the world to see the “wedding of the century” as the direct line to the British throne at the time, Prince Charles, married Lady Diana Spencer. Nearly everyone knows about the famous royal couple whose love story ended in tragedy, but long before Charles and Diana’s marriage crumbled in the public eye, doubt and despair were already bubbling to the surface – as early as the night before their wedding.
Diana was picked to be the perfect bride
Charles and Diana first met in 1977 when Diana was only 16 years old. At the time, Charles was casually dating her older sister Lady Sarah. Sarah was the latest in a string of other girlfriends Charles had throughout the ’70s, but none of them compared to Camilla Shand. Charles and Camilla dated from 1970 until 1973, breaking up because Camilla lacked the aristocratic status needed in the future wife of the prince.
Diana came from a well-known family, was properly educated, and from good parentage – all things the future king needed to consider before choosing a bride. Charles and Diana got engaged in February 1981 even though they had only spent time together 13 times. Diana selected a stunning large engagement ring featuring a 12-carat blue Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds set in 18-carat white gold. The ring is now worn by Catherine Princess of Wales, the wife of Charles and Diana’s eldest son Prince William.
The wedding of the century
Charles and Diana’s wedding was one of the most highly anticipated events of the year. Held at St. Paul’s Cathedral – a break from the usual royal tradition of being wed at Westminster Abbey – 3,500 guests were invited to the nuptials while another 60,000 people lined the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom on their big day. The event cost roughly $48 million dollars, over $156 million in today’s money.
Diana’s wedding gown, one of the most iconic dresses in history, was designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. Made from silk taffeta and decorated with lace, embroidery, sequins, and over 10,000 pearls, her dress also had a stunning 25-foot-long train. Despite a couple of little hiccups, like perfume spilled on her wedding dress and some slight mistakes with the vows, Charles and Diana seemingly had the most perfect, fairytale wedding. But behind the cameras and closed doors, their relationship was already crumbling.
Charles had serious pre-wedding doubts
Author Penny Junor has authored several books about the British royal family. Junor revealed a surprising story about the night before Charles and Diana’s wedding in a biography about Camilla. According to the book, Prince Charles broke down as he watched large crowds of people gathering along the Mall in anticipation of the big day ahead.
In another book, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, author Sally Bedell Smith makes a similar claim. Bedell Smith writes that Charles was so torn between Diana and his former girlfriend Camilla that he “wept” the night before the wedding.
Diana, on the other hand, revealed to journalist and biographer Andrew Morton in his tell-all book Diana: Her True Story, that she was “deathly calm” the night before the wedding. Diana explained that she felt like “I was a lamb to the slaughter. I knew it and couldn’t do anything about it.” No matter how badly Charles and Diana each wanted to call the wedding off, they knew they had no choice. The show must go on.
The cheating scandal that shocked the world
Now the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana had to navigate married life under the unrelenting gaze of the media. In 1982, they welcomed their first son William, and their second son Harry would follow two years later. On the outside, they looked like a happy family. Eventually, however, it was revealed that Charles was cheating on his wife with his ex-lover Camilla. She had married military man Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973.
Charles and Diana shocked the world when they announced their separation in 1992. Their divorce was finalized in 1996, and just one year later the unthinkable happened.
In 1997, Diana was 36 and ready to begin her new life as a single woman. Freedom from the strict rules and regulations of the royal family meant she could live her life more publicly, but paparazzi relentlessly pursued Diana throughout most of her final years and would eventually play a part in her sudden death.
On August 31, 1997, Diana and her new boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed – the son of Harrods department store mogul Mohamed Al Fayed – were traveling by car in Paris. The vehicle, driven by Diana’s bodyguard, was followed by a swarm of paparazzi when it crashed, flipped over, and finally stopped in front of oncoming traffic.
Al Fayed and the driver were pronounced dead on the scene, while Diana died hours later. Her death rocked the royal family and the world.
In 2005, Charles married his first love Camilla Parker Bowles (nee Shand). Camilla struggled to live up to Diana’s incredible legacy and was often portrayed as a villain by the press. Today, Charles is now King Charles III with Camilla serving as his Queen Consort.
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Charles and Diana’s sons William and Harry have also been extremely honest and open with the public about how the death of their mother affected their family and their upbringing. They also recognize the role of the media in their mother’s death and work to keep their own families out of the public eye and out of harm’s way.