25 years on: How Diana’s divorce changed our relationship with the Royals

In the latest in a series on milestone anniversaries in politics and cultural history, produced with Huddersfield University, we recall a year the Royal family would perhaps rather not.

Prince Charles in 1981 with his then fiance, Lady Diana Spencer, arriving at the Goldsmith's Hall in London for their first royal engagement together. PA Archive/PA Images.
Prince Charles in 1981 with his then fiance, Lady Diana Spencer, arriving at the Goldsmith's Hall in London for their first royal engagement together. PA Archive/PA Images.

If 1992 was the Queen’s annus horribilis – the Latin phrase she invoked in her Christmas message to sum up the marital separations of her two eldest sons, her daughter’s divorce and the near destruction by fire of Windsor Castle – then 1996 was almost her actum finalem.

It was on August 28 that year, in the impersonal surroundings of the High Court, that the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales was officially brought to an end, 15 years after it began and nearly four years after John Major had disclosed to an unusually quiet House of Commons that they had separated. “There is no reason why the Princess of Wales should not be crowned Queen in due course,” he had insisted.

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That had been rendered unlikely exactly six months before the decree absolute was rubber-stamped, when it was announced that Diana had agreed to give Charles a divorce – reluctantly, she said.

Prince Andrew and his bride, Sarah Ferguson, at Buckingham Palace on their wedding day.

The news, released just in time for the teatime TV bulletins, overshadowed even the announcement of a breakthrough in the Ulster peace process negotiations.

It apparently caught the Palace off-guard. “While Charles and Diana met earlier today in the Prince’s house at St. James’s Palace, details of the divorce settlement and the Princess’s future role were not discussed,” said a spokesman.

The £17m negotiated settlement meant that Diana could no longer call herself Her Royal Highness, nor expect to have her bills charged to the Royal account. A solicitor’s letter instructed 40 of her favourite shops to begin sending their invoices directly to her.

It was the second final act to have been played out in the Royal household that year. In April,the Duke and Duchess of York had divorced, 10 years after their marriage and four years after they separated.

A quarter of a century later, the two events are seen as a watershed in the public’s perception of the Royal family.

“To people of a certain age, these things mattered very significantly, because up to that point the monarchy had been seen in a very different light, said Dr Andy Mycock, Reader in politics at Huddersfield University.

“The Duke and Duchess’s separation was controversial in a way that would be hard to imagine now. And the Waleses’ divorce completed an opening up of the Royals’ private lives that had begun when Diana joined the family.

“When you look at the issues surrounding Harry and Meghan now, it all goes back to that time.”

Marital problems were not new to the House of Windsor. Some 14 years earlier, Princess Margaret had become the first Royal since Henry VIII to divorce. But her marriage to the photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones – in spite of outside liaisons on both sides – was conducted in an age of deference, in which the Royals were allowed to separate private life from public duty.

“Princess Margaret was many things but she did not promote herself as a celebrity. Her life didn’t resonate with the public in the way that Diana’s did. And when the press touched on her colourful love life, there was a certain coding in the way it was done,” said Dr Mycock.

“Diana fundamentally changed that. She and the Duchess of York became the story – they became more popular than the princes they married.

“It was a vast step change in the way we thought about the Royal family. And while it’s easy to blame the press for that, there was also a huge public appetite for stories about Diana and Sarah Ferguson. On top of which, they pushed themselves forward as public figures. They blurred the lines between royalty and celebrity.”

A generation on from the twin divorces, the two factions continue to be played out within the extended Royal family, Dr Mycock said.

“Prince William has changed his public profile in the last five years. The carefree prince we remember from when he married Kate Middleton has long gone, and that has brought him into conflict with Prince Harry, who is a truer embodiment of his mother’s approach towards the role of the monarchy in public. He is the inheritor of Diana’s legacy in many ways.

“As for Charles, his public image has never fully recovered.”

Another 25 years on, deference is likely to have been further eroded, he suggested.

“The old reverential relationship between the monarchy and the public remains only really with the Queen herself, and the interesting thing will to what extent a new public culture will emerge after her.”

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