We’re not going to get too in the weeds here on the actual divorce, because good God, I am starting to get burnt out by the ceaseless tabloid coverage of the late Princess of Wales. To be clear, I am all for commemorating her life as we approach the 20th anniversary of her death, but the dredging up of her marriage to the Prince of Wales and the constant speculation about her personal life – none of which is new – is a bit much. Nor can I imagine any of this is particularly helpful to her remaining family.
But the fact of the matter is, the attention Diana received stemmed from her marriage to Charles and that marriage ended 21 years ago today. Not all divorces are made equal and this one was certainly one of the most controversial of the last century. Simply put, it was unprecedented and you know how much I love unprecedented royal events, so here we go.
Off the top of my head, only three British sovereigns have ever been divorced. In 1199, King John divorced his wife, Isabel, Countess of Gloucester, as soon as he ascended the throne. Henry VIII discarded Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves in 1533 and 1540, respectively. And George I divorced his wife Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1694, 20 years before he came to England. But these actually aren’t comps, though they do paint a picture of how rare divorce was for royalty, particularly in light of how many royal marriages were unhappy.
In the case of Charles and Diana, I would argue that while historical context is worth considering, it’s not the only barometer against which their divorce should be measured. More significant to them was the divorce of Charles’s aunt, Princess Margaret, in the ’70s, from which a direct correlation could be drawn from her having been forced to give up the love of her life, Peter Townsend, in 1955.
It created the first break in the infallibility of the Windsors and countered the seeming argument their PR optics had put in place, which was that Edward VIII and his abdication were an aberration in an otherwise unshakable family. Except “family” wasn’t really the point here, so much as institution. This was about the business of monarchy and it clearly illustrated that it was no longer acceptable – in the purest sense of the word – for unhappy marriages to peter out into mutual infidelity and silence. It was impossible under the new media glare and a press with rapidly changing mores.
Equally as important, the Windsors were still people and affected by cultural shifts. Divorce surrounded them because our concept of happiness evolved from an occasional feeling to a necessary right. You could argue that 200 years ago Diana and Charles wouldn’t have been able to divorce – and you would be right – but equally as important is the fact that 200 years ago, neither would have entered into the marriage expecting love, adoration or personal fulfillment. It’s much harder to be disappointed when there aren’t expectations and that, my friends, is how most royal marriages survived.
The greatest tragedy of the modern BRF is that the marriage of Charles and Diana was allowed to go forward at all, understanding that technically they were both adults. But only technically. Everything about it was wrong, but if it fundamentally doesn’t occur to you that 1) the media isn’t what it once was and 2) one or the both of them will object to a lackluster marriage, so much so as to make them miserable then I suppose, yes, everything looked nice on paper at the time.
As we know, it did go forward and it was untenable. The separation usually receives more attention than the divorce itself, and while that makes sense to a certain extent – the divorce the legal end to a break up that had already occurred – the divorce is more interesting to me because of the questions it raises. Separations actually weren’t as rare, though they were never official. In fact, an unspoken separation was what was expected to a certain extent – in other words, the quiet leading of separate lives.
The divorce on the other hand blows the roof right off and exposes literally everything – anathema to the BRF. It raises the rather vulgar question of money – for example how much was Charles going to pay his ex-wife? The answer was £22.5 million in a lump sum, plus coverage of maintaining her office. Given that she didn’t have to pay rent on her grace and favor apartments in Kensington Palace, theoretically Diana was still a wealthy woman. And let’s be clear here, she had to be. In this particular case, there was no glory for Charles or the Windsors if they were stingy – literally the last thing they needed was a narrative in which Charles wasn’t providing for the mother of his children. Or even worse, putting Diana in the position of having to actually make money. How messy that can get is best evidenced by Sarah, Duchess of York.
Then there was the question of, well, what was she? The Windsors hastened to assure the public that Diana was still a member of the family and, sure, to a certain extent that was true because she and Charles had two sons, one of whom was the future king. And while you may think that she retained her title, she didn’t really – “Princess Diana” was never her real title in the sense that technically only princesses of the blood have the right to be called “Princess” before their Christian name. When she was married to Charles she was the Princess of Wales, the feminization of his tile. After the divorce she was Diana, Princess of Wales. Close, but not quite the same.
More dramatically, she was stripped of her HRH, or Her Royal Highness, which is the real kicker in a royal title. Without it she was obliged to curtsy to every member of the RF, including her ex-husband and children. Rumor has it that the Queen had no issue with letting Diana keep it – after all, what precedent were they following? – but that Charles was the one who nixed it. And before we all get up in arms about that, may I remind you that the year before Diana questioned Charles becoming king on national television? It was a messy divorce; everyone was taking cheap (historically significant) shots.
As for what she would spend her time doing, well, that was left pretty much up to her, as is the Windsors’ custom. They don’t like loaded statements that leave them vulnerable, so generally one has to read their remarks between the lines. In this case, Diana had been cut loose, but was still protected. She could have bowed out of every charitable engagement she had on her plate on the grounds that she was now a private citizen – it wouldn’t have been popular, but she could have technically made the argument. That she continued on with public life – and all the scrutiny that entailed – is to her credit, though not without complications.
I generally don’t care for hypotheticals, but in this case I think it’s important. What would have happened if Diana had lived? I don’t necessarily mean to Diana – in her case, I think it’s a safe guess she would have defined a public role for herself. But for the rest of the RF, it’s rather fascinating to contemplate. Many people say that Charles would never have been able to marry the now-Duchess of Cornwall. And perhaps that’s correct – certainly at the time of his divorce, Charles stated that he had no intention of marrying again. In fact, that little aside being slipped by the Palace is akin to what was said about Camilla becoming queen one day when she married Charles in 2005, which is why I am 100% certain there’s a plan in place to make it happen.
But as for their marriage, I’m less convinced that they wouldn’t have still been able to marry. I think, for example, had Diana settled down and remarried, Charles would have been free and clear to do so. I also think our sense of what would be “allowed” is dented by the fact that Diana is frozen in our minds as a 36-year-old recently divorced woman, unlucky in love. We have no idea how she would have evolved and what her feelings would have become.
The real significance of this divorce, though, has nothing to do with Charles or Diana – it’s the precedent it creates. From here on out, divorce is no longer taboo for any level of senior royal. No one can or will raise an eyebrow at, for example, the fact Prince Harry’s girlfriend, Meghan Markle, is divorced. If God forbid, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge divorced, it would be unfortunate, but not insurmountable in terms of ensuring William’s ability to execute his reign and protecting Kate.
The freedom that allows is huge – without a figurative ax hanging over every future sovereign’s head as they choose their spouse, there’s a better chance of choosing rationally. Charles and Diana’s divorce was a personal tragedy and a short-term disaster, but it has created much-needed room for humanity within the monarchy.