The Crown season four covers the courtship and tumultuous early years of marriage between Prince Charles and Princess Diana (played by Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin respectively in The Crown cast).
Their first meeting is portrayed in the show as an endearing, almost magical encounter, as a coy teenage Lady Diana Spencer, dressed as a woodland tree in green tights, dances past an intrigued Charles.
However, the show also suggests that their marriage was doomed even before it began. The night before his wedding day, Prince Charles stares out his window as celebratory fireworks light up London – but it’s clear that the woman on his mind isn’t his betrothed at all, but the married Camilla Parker Bowles.
But what is the true story behind Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s courtship and marriage? And what is the real-life story of the first time they met?
How did Charles and Diana meet?
In The Crown season four, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer first meet when the latter is just a teenager, and dressed up as a “mad tree” for her school play. As she hides behind a large vase filled with flowers, she shyly asks the Prince to keep her appearance a secret from her older sister, Sarah, whom Charles is dating.
The whimsical, Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque meeting, with a masked Diana decked in foliage, is certainly beautiful to look at, while also foreshadowing the almost Shakespearean drama that was to come.
But unfortunately for us, it seems that in the real life, the future couple met in a rather less glamorous setting: a plowed field – although it is certainly true that Prince Charles dated Diana’s sister Sarah Spencer.
The royal couple may have met at Sandringham when they were children, but on the announcement of their 1981 engagement, they said that they first recalled meeting in November 1977 when the Prince was invited to a grouse shoot held at the Spencer family home at Althorp, Northampshire.
Charles, 29 at the time, was dating Diana’s elder sister Sarah Spencer. Sarah would later go on to marry Neil McCorquodale; at the time of her sister’s engagement several years later, she claimed, “I introduced them. I’m Cupid,” according to The Guardian.
In Tina Brown’s biography The Diana Chronicles, she claims that the 16-year-old Diana told friends that she would one day marry Charles, adding: “The one man on the planet who is not allowed to divorce me.”
However, Diana’s own account may have differed a little; she reportedly told biographer Andrew Morton (author of Diana: Her True Story) that her first impression of Charles was: “God, what a sad man.”
Charles described his first meeting with Diana in a 1981 interview with The Telegraph: “I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was. I mean, great fun, and bouncy and full of life and everything.”
In the same interview, Diana described the setting for their first encounter as rather unremarkable: “We sort of met in a plowed field.”
In the Channel 4 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, an audio recording of Diana reveals how her relationship with Charles progressed roughly two years later, when she was 18 years old and visiting her friend Philip de Pass shortly after Lord Mountbatten’s death.
“I was asked to stay with some friends in Sussex and they said, ‘Oh, the Prince of Wales is staying,’ and I thought I hadn’t seen him in ages,” she said on the tapes. “He’d just broken up with his girlfriend and his friend [Lord] Mountbatten had just been killed. I said it would be nice to see him. I was so unimpressed. I sat there and this man walked in and I thought, well, I am quite impressed this time round. I was different.”
However, she revealed that when Charles showed interest in her, she was surprised.
“He was all over me,” she said. ”We were talking about Mountbatten and his girlfriend and I said, ‘You must be so lonely.’ I said, ‘It’s pathetic watching you walking up the aisle with Mountbatten’s coffin in front, ghastly, you need someone beside you.’ Whereupon he leapt upon me and started kissing me and I thought, urgh, this is not what people do. And he was all over me for the rest of the evening, following me around like a puppy.”
“He wasn’t consistent with his courting abilities… He’d ring me every day for a week, then wouldn’t speak to me for three weeks. Very odd. I thought, ‘Fine. Well, he knows where I am if he wants me.’ The thrill when he used to ring up was so immense and intense. It would drive the other three girls in my flat crazy.”
“We met 13 times and we got married,” the princess told her voice coach.
How did Charles propose to Diana?
“‘Blissfully happy’ lady Diana to marry Prince of Wales,” ran The Times headline on Wednesday 25th February 1981, the day after Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announced their engagement to the world.
In a BBC Radio interview, the couple discussed the circumstances around the wedding proposal. Charles had reportedly proposed three weeks prior during a private dinner. He had wanted to give Diana time to think it over, but she said she accepted “more or less straight away.”
“I feel positively delighted and frankly amazed that Di is prepared take me on,” he said. “I think that Diana will keep me young, apart from anything else,” he added, addressing their 12-year age gap.
In the Channel 5 documentary Charles and Di: The Truth Behind Their Wedding, Ingrid Seward said that Diana had been so shocked by the proposal that she burst out laughing.
“She burst out laughing, I think that was probably her nerves. She didn’t think it was the most romantic of proposals but she had the proposal.”
Diana was recorded describing the proposal: “He said, ‘Do you realise that one day you’ll be Queen?’ And I said ‘I love you so much, I love you so much’. He said ‘whatever loves means’. He said it then. So I thought, that was great. I thought he meant it.”
In Diana: In Her On Words, she continues: “We had this ghastly [TV] interview the day we announced our engagement. And this ridiculous [reporter] said, ‘Are you in love?’ I thought, what a thick question. So I said, ‘Yes, of course, we are,’ and Charles turned round and said, ‘Whatever love means.’ And that threw me completely. I thought, what a strange answer. It traumatized me.”
Did they both try to back out of the marriage?
At the time of their engagement, Diana told BBC Radio that she found the prospect of marriage “quite daunting, but I hope it won’t be too difficult, and with Prince Charles beside me I can’t go wrong.” She added she had “never had any doubts.”
However, subsequent audio recordings and biographies suggest that both Prince Charles and Princess Diana had second thoughts in the run-up their nuptials.
In the biography Charles: The Heart of a King, by Catherine Mayer, the author suggests that Charles was emotionally unprepared for Princess Diana’s bulimia. Her mental illness, bulimia nervosa, which was triggered before the wedding.
“He courted Diana only briefly before the engagement, itself just five months long. He didn’t understand her at all or recognise the baggage she carried from an upbringing as difficult in its way as his own. The more he sensed she was not the jolly country girl he had assumed, the more she revealed her vulnerabilities and began to succumb to the eating disorder that would dog her for much of the rest of her life, the more he struggled with the prospect of marriage.”
Biographer Andrew Morton also alleges that on the Monday before her wedding day, Diana seriously considered calling it off, having discovered a bracelet that Charles intended to give his former girlfriend Camilla Parker-Bowles.
“At lunchtime she knew that Prince Charles had gone to present Camilla [Parker-Bowles] with her gift, even leaving behind his senior bodyguard, Chief Inspector John McLean,” he alleges.
Diana had lunch with her older sisters and discussed her fears, but both women told her it was too late to “chicken out” of the wedding.
“She was confused, upset and bewildered by the train of events. At that moment, as she seriously considered calling off the wedding, they made light of her fears and premonitions of the disaster which lay ahead. ‘Bad luck, Duch,’ they said, using the family nickname for their younger sister, ‘your face is on the tea-towels now so you’re too late to chicken out.'”
When did Charles resume his affair with Camilla?
Morton claims that Diana – who was suffering with a difficult first pregnancy and bouts of morning sickness – attempted to die by suicide for the first time only six months after the royal couple wed, throwing herself from a staircase at Sandringham when she was three months pregnant with Prince William.
During Diana and Charles’ Australia tour – their immensely successful royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1983 – the couple appeared to be very much in love. But allegedly, Prince Charles was already growing jealous of Diana’s immense popularity.
Jonathan Dimbleby alleged in his biography of Prince Charles that the prince resumed his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles in 1986, a claim that was later confirmed by Princess Diana during her Panorama interview.
“Yes I was [aware], but I wasn’t in a position to do anything about it,” she told interviewer Martin Bashir, before continuing: “Obviously I had knowledge of it…. from people who minded and cared about our marriage, yes.”
Asked what the effect was on her was, she said: “Pretty devastating. Rampant bulimia, if you can have rampant bulimia, and just a feeling of being no good at anything and being useless and hopeless and failed in every direction.”
Did Diana have an affair with Major Hewitt?
Princess Diana confirmed during her BBC Panorama interview in 1995 that she had had an affair with cavalry officer and riding instructor James Hewitt, developing a close relationship from 1989. He was reportedly discharged from the Life Guards in 1994 due to reports of his close relationship with the princess.
Asked if she had been unfaithful, Diana famously said on Panorama: “Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down.”
Diana was latterly referring to the 1994 book Princess in Love by Anna Pasternak, which Hewitt had collaborated on.
Earlier in the televised interview she said: “He was a great friend of mine at a very difficult, yet another difficult time, and he was always there to support me, and I was absolutely devastated when this book appeared, because I trusted him, and because, again, I worried about the reaction on my children. And, yes, there was factual evidence in the book, but a lot of it was, comes from another world, didn’t equate to what happened.
She continued: “There was a lot of fantasy in that book, and it was very distressing for me that a friend of mine, who I had trusted, made money out of me… He’d rung me up 10 days before it arrived in the bookshops to tell me that there was nothing to worry about, and I believed him, stupidly.”
Anna Pasternak, the author of Princess in Love, recently wrote about her research ahead of the 1994 book publication date, revealing that she had read multiple love letters that Diana sent Hewitt while he was serving in Iraq during the Gulf War from 1991.
Pasternak wrote: “Hewitt had allowed me to read the 64 air-mail ‘blueys’ that Diana had sent him at the height of their affair, while he was serving in the Gulf War. He wanted me to understand how deep their love went. I remember burning with injustice as I read them, fiercely defensive of our adored, lonely princess. Every day she wrote to Hewitt – signing the letters ‘Julia’ – about how snubbed she felt by the palace, and her frenzied anger over Camilla.”
Did the Queen forbid the couple to split?
In The Crown season four, the Queen and Prince Philip hold an (awkward) emergency meeting with Prince Charles and Diana, discussing their marriage and respective affairs, and questioning whether they were both prepared to put in the work to make their marriage a success.
In the TV series, Diana promises not to see James Hewitt anymore, and expresses her desire to make the royal union work – which seems to tally with Diana’s real-life assertions in 1995 that she had never wanted to separate, having come from a “divorced background”.
In real-life, Diana alleged that five years into her marriage she approached the Queen, “sobbing,” and asking for help about her apparently loveless marriage.
In the documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, she is recorded as saying: “So I went to the top lady and said: ‘I don’t know what I should do’. She said: ‘I don’t know what you should do.’ And that was it. That was ‘help’.”
Andrew Morton alleges in his royal biography that several years later, following widespread speculation about the unhappy couple’s marriage, the Queen and Prince Philip held a meeting with both Diana and Charles in the private apartments of Windsor Castle, in 1992.
Diana “was greeted with the flat refusal to countenance even the idea of a separation” without trying a three-month trial period in which she and Charles would hopefully patch up their marital difficulties.
However, the agreement to try to mend the marriage did not stop Prince Philip from publicly giving Diana the cold shoulder during the Ascot races that summer. Morton also alleges that Philip wrote “four stinging letters” to Diana.
Her alleged response, according to Morton, was to hire a lawyer and, with the help of her private secretary Patrick Jephson, pen a reply outlining her conditions for remaining in the royal family, including a demand that Prince Charles “should quit Kensington Palace”.
Find out more about Charles and Diana
Did you know Prince Charles dated Diana’s sister Sarah Spencer?
Princess Diana and Princes Charles’ Australia tour went down a storm, but left a sour taste in the mouths of some…
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, you can speak to BEAT, The UK’s eating disorder charity.