One of the major storylines of The Crown Season 4 was the introduction of Lady Diana Spencer and her early relationship with Prince Charles. The pair first met when he was 29 and she was just 16, before an unlikely reunion three years later sparked a relationship that would go down in royal history.
A teenage encounter with a prince
It was in 1977 that Lady Diana Spencer, then 16, was first introduced to a 29-year-old Prince Charles. Charles was attending a grouse shooting party at Althorp, the Spencer family home, as a guest of Diana’s eldest sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale. Charles was briefly dating Sarah at the time and in that period Sarah reportedly shared her royal romance with two reporters, admitting to having an eating disorder, ‘thousands of boyfriends’ and telling them she would not marry Charles ‘If he were the dustman or the King of England.’ According to sources, the relationship fizzled out shortly after Charles saw the article and told her, ‘You’ve just done something incredibly stupid.’
While her sister wasn’t quite swept off her feet by Prince Charles, it was a different story for Diana. In The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown wrote that Diana apparently told her friends she would one day marry Charles, adding that he’d be ‘The one man on the planet who is not allowed to divorce me.’ However, Diana later told biographer Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story, that her first thoughts of Charles were less gushing, saying she instead recalled thinking ‘God what a sad man.’
In his engagement interview in 1981, Charles said, ‘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.’
A Sussex reunion
It wasn’t until three years later, after that first encounter, that Charles and Diana met again. In July 1980, they were both invited to a weekend barbecue at friend Philip de Pass’s house in Sussex.
‘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,”‘ Diana told her speech coach on a tape that was later used for the Channel 4 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words.
She added, ‘He’d just broken up with his girlfriend and his friend 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.’
According to Diana, Charles was taken by her too. She said in the tapes, ‘He was all over me.’ Adding, ‘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.’
Diana also revealed how hard those early days of dating a prince were, ‘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.’
It wasn’t until Diana spent a weekend at Balmoral as the guest of Prince Charles, that a tabloid headline on 8 September 1980 proclaimed, ‘He’s in Love Again’ spreading the news of the fledgling romance with the rest of the world. The couple reportedly dated mostly through phone calls in those early days, with sources saying they only met 13 times before Charles went on to propose.
A royal engagement
Diana and Charles are said to have dated for around six months before Charles went down on one knee. On 24 February 1981, Buckingham Palace announced the news with a statement: ‘It is with the greatest pleasure that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh announce the betrothal of their beloved son, the Prince of Wales, to the Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of the Earl Spencer and the Honourable Mrs Shand Kydd.’
Charles had popped the question just three weeks prior and during an engagement interview on BBC Radio he said, ‘She had planned to go to Australia quite a long time before anyway with her mother and I thought “Well I’ll ask her then so that she’ll have a chance of thinking it over when she’s away and saying I can’t bear the whole idea – or not,” as the case may be.’ However, Diana reportedly said yes ‘straight away.’
When asked about how she would cope with her role, Diana replied, ‘Well, naturally it is quite daunting, but I hope it won’t be too difficult, and with Prince Charles beside me I can’t go wrong.’ According to a Guardian article written at the time, Diana’s sister, Lady Sarah told reporters, ‘I introduced them. I’m Cupid.’ The soon-to-be Princess of Wales later recounted the ‘ghastly’ engagement interview telling her biographer, ‘This ridiculous [news] man 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 traumatised me.’
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married in St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 July, 1981, just over five months after their engagement was officially announced. The wedding, which was watched by 750 million people around the world, was dubbed ‘the last great state event of the 20th century’ by Debrett’s.
Of course, they went on to have two children, Prince William, heir to the throne, and Prince Harry, but their relationship began to break down in the late 1980s and by 1992 the couple had separated with an official divorce taking place in 1996.