Prince William was born on June 21, 1982. In the South Atlantic, Britain had just been to war in the Falklands. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the prince and princess “deserve their happiness and we rejoice with them”. The bookies’ odds-on favorite name was George. Charles favored Arthur; Diana wanted William.
The couple were by now arguing constantly, often about Charles’s continued friendship with Camilla Parker Bowles. She and her husband, Andrew, were regular visitors to royal residences including Highgrove. James Gilbey, a friend of Diana since she was 17, told the journalist Andrew Morton that “the whole prospect of Camilla drives her spare. I mean, what the hell is that woman doing in her house?” During one row Charles told Diana that his father had said he could go back to his bachelor ways after five years if the marriage wasn’t working. He later admitted in a television interview that he had indeed resumed his affair with Camilla after his marriage had “irretrievably broken down”.
Charles and Diana put on a united front in public. In 1983, with a nine-month old Prince William in tow, they embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Traditionally, royal children were left behind when their parents went on tour. Diana refused point blank. The trip was a huge success; a million Aussies took to the streets to welcome them. On walkabouts it was obvious that it was Diana, not Charles, whom the public had come to see. During the six-week tour the couple were estimated to have shaken hands 2,000 times a day.
It was Diana’s first overseas trip as a royal and she had started to find designers with whom she was comfortable. She would pore over photographs of herself in the papers to see which outfits photographed well. In Australia she wore pastel suits with matching hats by Catherine Walker and Bellville Sassoon, and showstopping evening gowns by Victor Edelstein and Donald Campbell. The trunks containing the royal wardrobes were marked with his-and-hers pink or blue labels and details of exactly where and when the contents would be worn.
The trip is depicted in The Crown as a turning point for the better in the marriage, and the next year, on September 15, 1984, Prince Harry was born. Diana said later that Charles had been desperate for a girl, so she kept quiet when she learned from a scan that it wasn’t. In the delivery room of the Lindo Wing at St Mary’s Hospital, London, she quoted him as saying, “Oh God, it’s a boy, and he’s even got red hair.”
The news was broken to the crowd outside by a town crier, hired by a Japanese film crew, dressed in scarlet Georgian regalia. When Charles emerged he told waiting reporters that his baby son’s hair was “an indeterminate color”. He returned on his own to Kensington Palace and spent the next day playing polo. Once again, the bookies bet that the little prince would be called George. Charles wanted Albert; Diana wanted Harry. Her father, Earl Spencer, celebrated the birth by hoisting the Spencer family standard at Althorp, the family seat in Northamptonshire.
“I think the person who will be very pleased will be Prince William,” he told reporters, “because it will be wonderful for him to have a little companion and a playmate.”
Pop vs. Polo
At Kensington Palace, reality was biting. Charles and Diana were two very different people, with a 12-year age gap and no shared interests. One summer day in 1985 they went to the Live Aid charity concert. It was the hottest ticket of the year; 72,000 people packed into Wembley Stadium to hear acts including David Bowie and Elton John. Diana was a keen pop fan who loved dancing round the house listening to Phil Collins on her Sony Walkman. Charles was happier at the Royal Opera House. The finale of the concert was Paul McCartney singing, “Let It Be,” but Charles and Diana didn’t hear it. They left after an hour because Charles was playing polo and Diana had to watch. “My wife made me go to some pop jamboree,” he grumbled to a friend when they arrived.
By the time Charles, Diana and 7,000lb of luggage arrived in Washington DC for a three-day trip in November 1985 the British embassy had been told to prepare separate bedrooms for its royal guests. The New York Times described how the whole of Washington DC was “starstruck”. Politicians and socialites left town rather than admit that they hadn’t been invited to one of the events attended by the prince and princess. Not for the first time, Diana upstaged Charles. Photographs of the blonde, beautiful 24-year-old princess dancing with John Travolta at the White House were published all over the world. Vogue deputy editor Anna Harvey later recalled that Diana knew full well that her midnight blue velvet dress by Victor Edelstein “was one heck of a number, and it thrilled her”.
“At the very beginning she didn’t care about clothes,” said another of her favorite designers, Bruce Oldfield, “but gradually she grew to enjoy fashion.”
To coincide with the Washington trip Vanity Fair ran an article by Tina Brown headlined “The Mouse that roared: how has marriage changed Princess Diana?” The marriage, Brown claimed, had effectively been a stitch-up. “The press … had corralled poor Lady Diana and were howling for a happy ending. His family wanted it. The public wanted it … his two favorites, Lady Tryon and Camilla Parker Bowles, wanted it. They had met the blushing little Spencer girl and deduced she was not going to give them any trouble.”
What followed in Brown’s piece bears uncanny similarities to much of what was said 30 years later about Meghan Markle. Diana, Brown reported, had banished Charles’s friends, made him give up shooting, spent his money on clothes, sacked or forced out 40 of his staff and made him live on nothing more than poached eggs and spinach. Can it be true, she wrote, that the Prince of Wales is “pussy-whipped from here to eternity”? In only four years, she added, “Princess Diana, the shy introvert unable to cope with public life, has emerged as the star of the world’s stage”.
While Charles, at 36, was talking to his plants and embracing his passions for gardening and environmentalism, Diana, at 24, had become a global style icon. Bored stiff by the tedium of lunches at Sandringham and sodden family picnics at Balmoral, she was happier lunching with her girlfriends at San Lorenzo, a fashionable restaurant in Knightsbridge. “When Diana fell in love with Charles,” Brown concluded, “he was a James Bond smoothie. Now, he wants to be a farmer.”
While Charles fancied himself as an intellectual, attempting to woo his new bride with Jung, Diana used to joke that she was as thick as two short planks. The only prize she won at school was the Pets Corner cup for being kind to her guinea pig. At a country house party to which he went alone, Charles complimented his foreign-born hostess on her fluent English. She replied that her father believed in educating girls. “I wish that had been the philosophy in my wife’s family,” he is reported to have replied.
The Windsor Wives
Into this unhappy and dysfunctional mix came Sarah Ferguson. Fergie hit it off with Diana at a polo match in the early days of her romance with Charles. In 1985 the Queen asked Diana to recommend two jolly single girls, from respectable families, whom she could invite for lunch during Royal Ascot week. One of them was Fergie, who was duly seated next to Prince Andrew. He tried to feed her profiteroles, she punched him in the shoulder and eight months later they were engaged.
The contrast with Diana was stark. Fergie was an amiable Sloane, while Diana was by now pale, thin and unwell. Fergie was cast as the fun princess, with Charles telling Diana, “Why can’t you be more like Fergie?” She later told Morton that her husband’s “negativity” at this time had “crushed her spirit”, citing his horrified reaction to her dancing with Wayne Sleep on the stage of the Royal Opera House.
Diana and Fergie were dubbed the Windsor Wives, and were alternately best friends and rivals. They were photographed using umbrellas to poke the bottom of a friend at Ascot and attempted to gate-crash Prince Andrew’s stag night, at Annabel’s nightclub in Berkeley Square, dressed as policewomen. There were raised eyebrows at Buckingham Palace over such decidedly unroyal behavior, and an insecure Diana began to worry that Fergie was more popular with the public and her in-laws.
By 1987, before a trip to Germany, the Palace’s attempts to insist that all was well with the Waleses had clearly failed. A headline in The Los Angeles Times read, “Rumors of royal split trail Charles and Diana to Bonn.” The article went on to express hope that the trip would perhaps dampen that speculation. The press billed it “the reconciliation on the Rhine”, with the Daily Mail reporting that the couple “put on a magnificent performance which radiated happiness at every turn”.
Yet a performance was all that it was. Behind the doors of Kensington Palace the atmosphere was poisonous — “Very few laughs,” said one visitor — frequently because of Camilla Parker Bowles. She visited Highgrove regularly and, when Prince William was one year old, Diana overheard Charles telling Camilla, “Whatever happens, I will always love you.”
“Remember,” Diana would taunt him during one of their “filthy” rows, “I am the mother of your children.” One friend pointed out that you couldn’t really blame Diana for being angry that her husband appeared to have a longstanding relationship with another woman.
Diana was mobbed by the press and public and fêted everywhere she went, but in private she was sad, lonely and prone to self-pity. She would drive herself to Dorset for long, solitary walks along the beach and claimed that her top three song choices if she were cast away on a desert island would be a Mozart mass and two requiems. She increasingly longed to do something more serious and substantive in her public life; she found glamorous occasions frivolous and no longer enjoyed them, she told a friend.
In 1987 she drew a decisive line in the sand as to her future intentions. She was photographed shaking hands with an Aids patient, single-handedly changing the issues usually associated with the royal family and demolishing taboos around the as yet little-understood disease. Her close friend Rosa Monckton said that Diana had an “intuitive genius” when it came to empathizing with others and exploited it to champion “unglamorous” causes, including homelessness and banning land mines.
Palace press releases quietly dropped details of designer clothes she was wearing, concentrating instead on where she was going and whom she was meeting. Yet the contrast between her public and private life was stark. Gilbey talked of how, at this time, “Diana [had] this extraordinary battle going on in her mind. ‘How can all these people want to see me? And then I get home in the evening and lead this mouse-like existence. Nobody says, well done.’ She has this adulation out there and this extraordinary vacant life at home.”
Season Four of The Crown is out now on Netflix
Hilary Rose is a longtime columnist for The Times, and the author of the weekly column How to Get Dressed