Charles, Diana & the 1981 Royal Wedding

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This really is “the” royal wedding, isn’t it? Despite not being around for it and thinking the Cambridges’ 2011 version was absolutely gorgeous, I have a feeling the 1981 wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer will go down as the one to beat in the modern era. I’m not giving those marks based on style, splash or pomp, necessarily, but it’s a searing moment in time that defined a certain generation – and in that way, it was very much its bride’s day.

I don’t have the ability to separate out to what extent my perception of the day is influenced by hindsight, but to be honest, I don’t feel like it is. When I look at photos from that wedding I don’t see the unhappy years we know now were coming, or the divorce, or the late Princess of Wales’ tragic early death. I just see a captured moment of complete joy, optimism, relief and, yes, perhaps some naiveté.

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Kate was a beautiful bride and while I obviously wasn’t writing about her back in her “girlfriend of” days, I was certainly aware of her and had followed enough of her trajectory to feel happy for her. She seemed like she was genuinely marrying the man she loved – yes, of course, that’s happy. And for those of us who had been keeping an eye on the British Royal Family prior to her engagement, we were well-aware of who Kate was. The press had been keeping tabs on her (to put it mildly) since she was a student. There are pictures of her going to and from work, running to get Starbucks, shopping with her mother, going out with her friends for years and years. Kate was familiar and accessible in that time in a way she actually isn’t now, for all that she is more internationally famous.

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Diana’s path was completely different. Yes the paparazzi stalked her in the months she was dating Charles, but it was just that, months not years, and their relationship was a completely different animal. By modern standards “relationship” is a bit of a stretch. I’m not even sure to what extent I’d say Diana was ever dating Charles so much as she was dating the Prince of Wales – and again, I’m having a hard time using the word “dating.” I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I think a huge, huge part of why William and Kate’s engagement was nearly a decade in the making was because he was making sure she knew exactly what she was getting into. That was one of many lessons learned.

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In that way, Diana was a complete unknown and in many ways, an aberration. For all that there were many girls of her ilk running around England, they certainly weren’t the norm and she had an exotic quality to the rest of the world – a certain retro quaintness that didn’t reflect the norms of the time. She was fresh-faced and innocent, a beautiful schoolteacher who blushed when you photographed her, for all that she was an earl’s daughter. If it felt like a fairytale it was less because Charles was a prince and more because the story looked too much like Cinderella – a girl who looked like a princess, plucked out of obscurity and dropped into a palace.

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The problem was, it didn’t just look like that. That’s pretty much what happened. And a girl she was. Granted, 20 in 1981 isn’t 20 today, but…20 is still 20 (and she was 19 when they got engaged.) And as is typical of the age, I doubt Diana had any sense of how young she was. But, if the rest of the world didn’t know her and Charles didn’t know her, it’s worth at least acknowledging that Diana didn’t know herself either. How could she? She was a glorified child.

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A few years ago I came across an op-ed in the Washington Post that was published back in 1981 (and re-published in 2016, hence how I stumbled across it) right around the time Charles and Diana’s engagement was announced. It was written by political columnist Richard Cohen and it’s jarring, particularly given that it ran right smack in the middle of a media feeding frenzy of “OMG PRINCESS!” It reads, in part:

I suppose I have the standard American ambivalence toward royalty. I sort of like it — over there. I like all royal families — English, Saudi Arabian, Jordanian (although not very much) and even those in exile. I find them essentially very amusing, diverting and silly, like a good operetta. But there is nothing amusing or silly when the conventions or royalty conspire to have a 32-year-old man marry a 19-year-old girl. If Charles were not a prince, he would be a dirty old man.

Okay, Charles is a bit young to be called that, but the fact remains that Lady Diana is nothing more than a kid. Take away the title of Lady and what you have is a teenager who is about to marry a man 13 years her senior. She knows little of the world. She has been boarded and tutored. She teaches kindergarten. She lives with three other women. She drives a little red car and is about to marry a man who can, as someone once wrote, “command a ship, pilot a helicopter, drive a tank, pilot a jet, parachute out of one and is fully trained as a frogman and commando.” But for all of that, he will be a failure as both man and monarch if he can not coax an heir from his bride. They are both trapped in their roles.

I find that stunning – both that a voice of reason chimed in at the time and that there weren’t others who raised similar alarm bells. Or maybe there were and they’ve just been drowned out by the sheer volume of everything else. Either way, how prescient.

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On the day of 3,500 guests were piled into St. Paul’s Cathedral. Diana wore the gown little girls think princesses wear. Heads of state attended to pay their respects (though notably not King Juan Carlos I of Spain who, interestingly in light of his son’s recent speech in Westminster, declined to attend because the couple planned a honeymoon stint in Gibralter). There were three choirs and three orchestras. Twenty-seven wedding cakes. A “just married” sign tacked on to a state landau. A television audience of 750 million. And a kiss on the balcony that made it all seem real.

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We know now about the anxiety and the second-guesses. The bulimia and Camilla Parker-Bowles. The wheels of the institution that had put it all into motion. If either of them wanted to back out, it wasn’t really an option. They were lambs to slaughter, really, and while that sounds dramatic, neither one of them every really stood a chance in that marriage. The marriage was sad, but the wedding doesn’t stand out to me as the beginning of an era, so much as the close of another. July 29, 1981 was the day the “Pre-Diana” monarchy ended and today, nearly 20 years after her death, the legacy of her presence is still significant.

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By the time Diana turned 21 she had been Princess of Wales for 11 months and her face never left the tabloids. She was separated from her friends and family. She was so famous it was difficult to run an errand. She had a newborn son, an eating disorder and postpartum depression.  But she looked beautiful, she had done her duty and she had been given everything she wanted, so nobody could quite understand why she wasn’t happier.

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On my 21st birthday I drank champagne on a rooftop bar, had a hangover the next morning and went back to school to finish finals. If I had to choose, I’d stick with the hangover.

For what it’s worth, 35 years later her sons would launch Heads Together, a campaign focused on educating on and destigmatizing mental health, and some of most negative press they’ve received has come on the heels of trying to protect the women they love.

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