Basking in the afterglow of the fairytale wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, the British royals are more popular than they have been in a long time. All seems well at Buckingham and Kensington Palace where the family and their spouses are, for the moment, blessedly drama-free.
But a look back over the years show the royals have been consistently at the center of scandals involving ill-advised marriages, infidelity and plain old fashion bad judgment—which is one of the reasons they continue to fascinate us. Here’s a look at the 16 scandals that rocked the British royals. And if you can’t get enough palace-level drama, don’t miss The 8 Best Movies About the British Royal Family!
The Abdication of 1936
When King Edward VIII famously abdicated the throne on December 11, 1936, so he was free to marry American divorceé Wallis Simpson, his actions stunned the British royals and changed the line of succession forever.
The Church of England did not recognize marriages between divorced people, and, as head of the Church, Edward could not go against its teachings. Rather than precipitate a constitutional crisis, Edward thrust the role of monarch on his brother Albert, the Duke of York, who reluctantly became King George VI.
The stress of being king contributed to the George’s ill health and when he died in 1952, his oldest daughter, 25 year-old Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II, England’s current and longest reigning monarch.
Princess Margaret and Captain Peter Townsend’s forbidden romance
Queen Elizabeth’s headstrong younger sister fell in love with Captain Peter Townsend, a war hero and equerry who worked for the royal family. Townsend was older and divorced, but when he proposed in 1953, Princess Margaret was determined to marry him. The Church of England, of which the Queen is Supreme Head, still did not recognize divorce at the time.
The couple’s romance had tremendous public support, but the country’s government and clerics were adamantly opposed to the marriage. When faced with the choice of giving up her royal rank and having to leave England or marry Townsend in exile, Margaret ultimately decided against marrying the man who was the true love of her life. In 1955, they broke off their engagement, thus ending one of the greatest love stories within the British royal family.
Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden’s disastrous marriage
Heartbroken over her break-up with Townsend, Princess Margaret married photographer and notorious playboy Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. It wasn’t long before their marriage became a source of “growing public ridicule,” according to The New York Times. Margaret and Lord Snowden, as he was known after the wedding, took separate vacations and the princess’ “friendship” with a much younger man kept the British tabloids busy. The couple announced their separation in 1976 and divorced two years later, making Margaret the first royal to divorce since Henry VIII.
Princess Anne and Timothy Laurence’s stolen love letters
Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter was unhappily married to Olympic equestrian Mark Phillips, whom she wed in 1973. In spring of 1989, a British tabloid got hold of stolen letters written to Princess Anne by one of her equerries, the British naval officer Timothy Laurence. The contents of the letters were described as “extremely intimate” and “too hot to handle” in the newspapers.
Anne and Phillips divorced in 1992 and she married Laurence in Scotland a short time afterwards. The couple are still together. And for more crazy history of the royal fam, check out these 30 Fascinating Facts about British Royal Weddings.
In 1992, while her marriage to Prince Charles was imploding, a tape recording of a 30-minute conversation between Princess Diana and James Gilbey was mysteriously obtained and made public. (One newspaper set up a 900 number where people could call in and listen to the tape for a fee.)
In the conversation, Gilbey told Diana that he loved her and called her by the pet name “Squidgy” 53 times. Despite Diana’s non-committal replies of “You’re so nice,” the tape became one of the many scandals that hastened the end of the Wales’ troubled marriage.
The same year, not long after Diana’s tape surfaced, a recording of an excruciatingly intimate phone call between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was made public, and it remains one of the most humiliating things ever to happen within the royal family.
On the tape Charles and Camilla exchange cringe-inducing love talk culminating in Charles telling Camilla he’d be content “living inside her trousers … or, God forbid a Tampax.” See, we told you, excruciating. And yes, we do think that’s worthy of joining the 17 Worst Things a Man Can Say to a Woman.
Andrew Morton’s tell-all
The tabloid reporter happened onto a career-making story when he was approached about writing a book on Princess Diana’s unhappy life as a member of the royal family—with the princess herself as the top secret source.
Diana’s good friend James Colthurst served as a go-between with the author and the princess. He would get a list of questions from Morton, then bicycle to Kensington Palace, where he would record Diana’s answers. When Diana Her True Story hit the shelves in 1992, it blindsided the royal family and blew the lid on the story of Diana and Charles’ ill-fated marriage.
Not so coincidentally, the couple officially separated later that year. Diana denied having anything to do with the book. The Queen was furious about the depiction of the royals as terribly cold and unfeeling towards the princess. After Diana died in 1997, Morton revealed what many people long suspected—that she was behind the explosive book. Morton, who recently penned an unauthorized bio on Meghan Markle, also published the full transcripts of the interviews in an updated version of the international best-seller.
Diana’s Panorama interview
Once the truth was out about her unhappy marriage to Charles, Diana felt that the “men in gray” at Buckingham Palace were plotting to get rid of her—or, at the very least, marginalize her and possibly take her sons away.
She retaliated by personally arranging her infamous interview with Martin Bashir on Panorama that aired November 20, 1995, on BBC (and rebroadcast on ABC in America with Barbara Walters as host). The princess and Bashir worked out the questions in advance and Diana was ready with several memorable answers.
When asked why her marriage to Prince Charles was failing she uttered the unforgettable line, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” referring to the prince’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. The broadcast aired on the Queen’s wedding anniversary and effectively killed any remaining goodwill Diana had left with the royals at the time. The Queen wrote to Diana and Charles shortly after the show aired telling them they must divorce, which they did in 1996. Diana later told friends she regretted doing the interview.
Fergie and her financial advisor
Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and wife of Prince Andrew, was caught by paparazzi photographers lounging poolside topless with her “financial advisor” John Bryan. One infamous photo snapped Bryan sucking the duchess’ toes—with her young daughters standing nearby.
As soon as the photos hit the papers, the Queen summoned Fergie back to Buckingham Palace and she was effectively banished from the family. She and Andrew separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Fergie was so despised by the royals she had not been invited to any royal function since then (until Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding last month, where she was only allowed to attend the ceremony; Prince Charles refused to have her at the private dinner). All of this should make for an interesting wedding reception when her daughter, Princess Eugenie, gets married at St. George’s Chapel in October.
Fergie takes a bribe
Sarah Ferguson’s role of perpetual royal pariah was set in stone in 2010 when a News of the World reporter posed as a businessman and, on videotape, got Fergie to accept a £500,00 (about $633,000) bribe in exchange for access to her ex-husband. When the video recording was released to the media, a humiliated Fergie apologized, saying she’d made a “serious lapse in judgment,” and went on Oprah Winfrey’s talk-show (and had a short-lived reality show on OWN) in an attempt to rebuild her image. Shockingly, she was living with her ex-husband the entire time—and remained under the same roof for many years afterwards.
Prince Andrew and his felonious friendship
The Duke of York, who had served as Britain’s trade envoy from 2001 until 2011, was forced to step down due to mounting criticism over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Prince Harry’s short rehab stint
After the prince admitted to his father that he’d tried marijuana, the 17-year-old spent a day at the Featherstone Lodge rehabilitation center in London. The Palace issues a statement that said the Harry had agreed to visit the clinic “to learn about the possible consequences of starting to take cannabis.”
“Harry the Nazi”
In January 2005, The Sun published a front-page photo of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi armband at a costume party with the headline “Harry The Nazi.” The 20 year-old prince quickly released a statement of apology that read: “Prince Harry has apologised for any offence or embarrassment he has caused. He realises it was a poor choice of costume.” Indeed.
Kate Middleton’s nude photos
French magazine Closer published revealing pictures which showed the Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing topless by a swimming pool in September 2012. The photos were taken while she and Prince William were vacationing in Provence and published while the royal couple were on their Diamond Jubilee tour to South East Asia and the South Pacific.
Kate was mortified and William was irate seeing direct parallels between this invasion of privacy and the way his mother was hounded by the paparazzi during her life. The Palace sued and a court in Nanterre, France ordered the tabloid to pay $120,000 in damages to the duchess, although the royal couple’s French barrister Jean Veil had initially requested £1.3 million in damages on their behalf.
Prince Harry gets naked in Las Vegas
Harry was caught on camera nude (but covering the family jewels) while playing a rowdy game of strip billiards with some unnamed Las Vegas partiers in 2012. He addressed the embarrassing episode saying “he let himself and his family down.”
This revealing incident occurred at a time when “the spare” was struggling to balance his position as third-in-line to the throne with his desire to have “as normal a life as possible.” It’s a testament to the enormous affection the British public has always had for Harry that his wild partying ways have been all but forgotten now that he’s married to Meghan Markle. Excuse us, Meghan, Duchess of Susssex.
Thomas Markle and the staged photos
Prince Harry’s bride-to-be Meghan Markle got a taste of what life will be like living inside the royal fishbowl when the story broke that her father, Thomas Markle, had worked with the paparazzi to stage some ridiculous photographs showing him reading a tour guide on Britain and looking at online photos of his daughter and her fiancé less than a week before he was set to attend the royal wedding.
Plans for the big day were thrown into chaos when Thomas admitted the photos were a sham and then told TMZ that he was backing out of walking Meghan down the aisle.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen next,” said Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, when asked by a TV reporter after the wedding about the royal family’s reaction at the time.
The whole thing got even crazier when Thomas then said all of this was somehow related to a heart attack he allegedly had the week before, and that the real reason he wasn’t going to the wedding was because he was having surgery. Meghan was forced to issue an unprecedented statement confirming her father would not be at the wedding. Instead, Prince Charles walked his future daughter-in-law to the altar—fittingly, she walked most of the way down the aisle solo.
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