Then Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer exchanged vows on July 29, 1981, the archbishop officiating the ceremony declared, “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made—the prince and princess on their wedding day.” Departing from the standard storybook ending of “they lived happily ever after,” he continued, “Our [Christian] faith sees the wedding day not as the place of arrival, but the place where the adventure really begins.”
For the 32-year-old heir to the British throne and his 20-year-old bride, this assessment proved eerily prescient. Idolized by an adoring public, the newly minted Princess Diana found herself thrust into the spotlight, cast as Cinderella to Charles’ Prince Charming. But beneath this mirage of marital bliss, the royal family was in crisis—a history dramatized in the fourth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” which follows Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) and Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) as they navigate the events of 1979 to 1990, from Charles’ (Josh O’Connor) courtship of Diana (Emma Corrin) to Margaret Thatcher’s (Gillian Anderson) tenure as prime minister and the Falklands War.
Looming over the season, too, is the eventual dissolution of Charles and Diana’s relationship. The prince remained enamored with his ex-girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles, and in 1986, when Charles decided that his marriage had “irretrievably broken down,” the former couple embarked on an affair. Diana also started seeing other men, and the royals formally divorced in 1996 after a four-year separation. One year later, the beloved princess died in a car crash.
Ahead of the new episodes’ arrival this Sunday, November 15, here’s what you need to know about arguably the most anticipated event of the season: the royal wedding.
By Diana’s count, she and Charles met just 13 times before getting married.
The two were first introduced in 1977, when Charles—then dating Diana’s older sister, Lady Sarah—attended a party at the Spencer family’s Althorp estate. But as royal biographer Penny Junor tells History Extra, the prince only started viewing Diana as a potential girlfriend in the summer of 1980, when the pair crossed paths through a mutual friend. The 19-year-old nursery teacher’s assistant expressed sympathy for the loss of Charles’ great-uncle, who’d been assassinated by the Irish Republican Army the year prior, and in doing so, “really touched a nerve in Charles,” according to Junor. “[S]he said just the right thing to him, at the right moment, and he was moved by her.”
Under pressure to settle down after years of playing the field (including with on-again, off-again lover Camilla), the prince invited Diana to spend a weekend at his family’s holiday estate, Balmoral. During this “audition,” in the words of Vanity Fair’s Julie Miller, Charles’ relatives deemed the demure yet lively young woman an ideal candidate for marriage. Of both impeachable lineage and character, she was, most importantly to the royal family, a virgin “with malleable qualities necessary for a future queen,” writes Miller.
In February 1981, Charles proposed to Diana after a whirlwind courtship. Though the press painted the couple as a perfect, fairytale match, in actuality, the two were still getting acquainted—a process made all the more difficult by the media’s invasive glare and the high expectations placed on the pair by the public and royal family alike.
As Diana recalled in 1992, “We met 13 times and we got married.” The majority of these meetings took place in group settings, Junor tells History Extra, “so they really didn’t know one another at all.”
Both Diana and Charles expressed doubts about their relationship ahead of the wedding.
According to Junor’s account, Charles only proposed to Diana after receiving a memo from his father, Prince Philip. In the missive, Philip instructed his wayward son to either marry Diana or move on. “To have withdrawn, as you can no doubt imagine, would have been cataclysmic,” Charles reportedly said to a friend. “Hence I was permanently between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Signs of trouble appeared as early as the couple’s televised engagement announcement. When the interviewer asked if the two were in love, Diana replied, “Of course.” Charles simply said, “Whatever love means.” According to Diana’s official biographer, Andrew Morton, this wasn’t the first time Charles expressed such lackluster sentiments to his bride: Speaking with Fox News in 2017, Morton revealed that when Charles asked if Diana would marry him, he responded to her confession of love with the same underwhelming words.
“Prince Charles, even in the privacy of that moment, said, ‘Whatever love means,’” Morton added. “So you have to ask yourself, did he really have any kind of genuine feeling for Diana or was she, as she felt herself, a sacrificial lamb … producing an heir and a spare and then being discarded?”
The week of the wedding, Diana learned that her husband-to-be had given a gift to Camilla. Uncertain of the extent of the pair’s unresolved dynamic, Diana reportedly told her sisters that she wanted to call off the wedding. They, in turn, said it was too late to back out.
Charles was similarly conflicted, royal expert Ingrid Seward noted in a 2019 documentary. Hours before the wedding, the prince told friends he was in a “confused and anxious state of mind.” According to Seward, “Prince Charles kept saying ‘I want to do the right thing by my country. I want to do the right thing by my family.’ [But] in his heart, I think he knew that they just had nothing in common.”
Diana was the first British citizen to marry the heir to the throne since 1660.
For centuries, royal marriages tended to serve a purpose, whether it be cementing an alliance with a foreign nation, marking the beginning of a new era, or bringing additional territory into a kingdom’s domain. Love rarely factored into the equation, though notable exceptions exist: In 1464, for instance, Edward IV secretly married commoner Elizabeth Woodville, thwarting advisors’ hopes of negotiating a diplomatically advantageous marriage; almost 70 years later, Edward’s grandson, Henry VIII, split from the Catholic Church in order to be with Anne Boleyn.
In recent decades, marrying for love has increasingly become the norm for British royals. But at the time of Charles and Diana’s wedding, marrying an English commoner rather than a foreign royal was still somewhat unprecedented. Elizabeth, for instance, married Philip, a Greek and Danish royal, in 1947. As historian Tracy Borman points out for History Extra, Diana was actually the first British citizen to marry the heir to the throne in more than 300 years.
The last woman to hold this title was Anne Hyde, daughter of an advisor to deposed English king Charles II. She met the heir apparent—Charles’ younger brother, the future James II—while both were exiled in the Netherlands, and the pair secretly wed in 1660. Due to her Catholic religious beliefs and scandalous reputation, Anne proved deeply unpopular.
The ceremony marked the first royal wedding held at St. Paul’s Cathedral since 1501.
In a break with tradition, Charles and Diana hosted their wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral instead of Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and their father, George VI, among other royals, had held their ceremonies. The appeal of St. Paul’s, according to Time, was its heightened capacity of 3,500. Westminster, comparatively, hosts just 2,200 guests. (Thirty years after his parents’ wedding, Prince William married Catherine Middleton at Westminster; in 2018, William’s younger brother, Harry, wed Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Chapel.)
Prior to the 1981 ceremony, the last time a royal wedding had taken place at St. Paul’s was on November 14, 1501, when Arthur, Prince of Wales, married Catherine of Aragon. According to Giles Tremlett’s Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen, the 15-year-old Tudor heir and his Spanish bride exchanged vows on a temporary wooden stage that measured around 12 by 350 feet.
Some 750 million people in 74 countries tuned in to watch the royal nuptials.
The event wasn’t the first royal wedding to be broadcast live on television: In 1960, Elizabeth II’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, married her first husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, in a ceremony watched by an estimated 300 million people worldwide. Thirteen years later, in 1973, the queen’s daughter, Anne, married Mark Phillips in a ceremony seen by more than 500 million people.
Charles and Diana’s “fairytale” 1981 wedding not only eclipsed both previously televised royal nuptials but also outperformed her sons’ later ceremonies. A record-breaking 750 million viewers—including 28.4 million in Great Britain, where July 29 was declared a national holiday—watched the ceremony on television. Another 600,000 people poured into the streets of London, eager to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds’ carriage procession.
Adjusted for inflation, the wedding cost an estimated $135 million.
Charles and Diana’s nuptials rank among the most expensive royal weddings in history, with an estimated bill of $48 million (around $137 million today). One of the biggest expenses was security, which cost roughly $600,000 ($1.7 million today). According to a 1981 BBC report, more than 5,000 police participated in crowd control along the royal couple’s two-mile route. Several undercover officers masqueraded as footmen, accompanying the royal family as they traveled across London in horse-drawn carriages.
Another key purchase was Diana’s much-discussed wedding dress. Custom designed by husband-and-wife duo David and Elizabeth Emanuel, the ivory silk taffeta gown was shrouded in secrecy in the months leading up to the wedding. (The Emanuels even designed a back-up dress in case the original gown got leaked to the press.) Its estimated value varies, but Carrie Goldberg of Harper’s Bazaar reports that the dress’ retail price in 1981 would have been around £90,000, or £347,260 (roughly $449,000 USD) today.
Guests feasted on 27 wedding cakes.
Some 3,500 guests, including First Lady Nancy Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, attended the ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. But only 120 or so received an invite to the official wedding meal, which featured such delicacies as strawberries and clotted cream, brill in lobster sauce, and cream of corn.
According to Epicurious, royal chefs created the Suprême de Volaille Princesse de Galles, or “Princess of Wales Chicken Supreme,” in honor of Diana, who was apparently a big fan of poultry. The dish consisted of “chicken breast stuffed with lamb mousse, wrapped in brioche, and garnished with asparagus tips and Madeira sauce.”
Compared with previous royal weddings, the 1981 nuptials’ menu was “distinctly simpler,” consisting of “fewer courses than there would have been for earlier generations,” as food writer and historian Angela Clutton told HuffPost in 2018. “That is certainly indicative of them taking a more modern approach.”
For dessert, invitees could choose from any of 27 gourmet cakes. The “official” wedding cake was a 5-foot-tall, 200-pound fruitcake designed by David Avery, head baker at the Royal Naval Cookery School. Corinthian Roman columns separated the cake’s five pentagon-shaped tiers, and decorations ranging from flowers to the royal family’s coat of arms and the couple’s initials adorned its sides. (Everyday royal fans who didn’t make it onto the exclusive guest list could purchase slices of Avery’s cake as keepsake souvenirs.)
The royal couple’s vows were untraditional in more ways than one.
Diana, with Charles’ full support, requested to omit the word “obey” from her vows—an “unprecedented [move] in royal weddings,” writes Borman for History Extra. As the New York Times reported in a July 1981 article headlined “Lady Diana Won’t Vow to Obey Charles,” the couple had several “very serious” discussions on the issue “before deciding to do what most modern English couples do.”
On the day of the wedding, both the bride and groom slightly muddled their vows. Per the BBC, Diana’s “nerves showed briefly when she mixed up the Prince’s names—calling him Prince Charles Arthur George, rather than Charles Philip.” Charles, meanwhile, said “thy goods” instead of “my worldly goods.”
Charles forgot to kiss Diana after the pair exchanged vows.
In hindsight, the fact that a nervous Charles forgot to kiss his bride at the altar could have been a harbinger of the couple’s future marital woes.
To make up for the missed opportunity, the newlyweds shared a post-wedding kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, where they’d convened to acknowledge the adoring crowds below. (This royal wedding tradition dates back to 1858, when Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, also named Victoria, married the future Frederick III of Germany.)
Diana and Charles’ now-iconic balcony kiss also inspired future royal couples: Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson followed suit in 1986, and William and Kate actually kissed twice on the balcony following their 2011 ceremony.
Diana’s 25-foot train was the longest of any royal wedding dress.
“It was all about drama and making Diana a fairytale princess,” designer Elizabeth Emanuel told British Vogue earlier this year. “The gown was typical of early ’80s style—overblown, romantic, flouncy—but we had to get it right because we knew it would go down in history.”
Crafted out of ivory silk taffeta, the billowing dress was embroidered with frilled lace, sequins and 10,000 pearls. It boasted a record-breaking 25-foot-long train and a 459-foot-long tulle veil, in addition to a number of hidden features (see below). Diana accessorized the dress with the Spencer family’s historic tiara and a pair of low-heeled slippers adorned with 542 sequins and 132 pearls.
As Charles’ goddaughter, India Hicks, wrote in Harper’s Bazaar in 2018, Diana told her and the other young bridesmaid tasked with carrying the train to “do your best.”
“We knew what that meant,” Hicks recalled. “If we pulled too much, straightening the material, her tiara and veil would slip. But if we didn’t pull enough, the effect of the train would be lost.”
The dress designers hid an 18-karat gold horseshoe in the gown’s label for good luck.
After receiving the commission of a lifetime, the Emanuels went out of their way to ensure the design fulfilled Diana’s vision. But at least one aspect of the dress remained a secret until the day of the wedding: namely, an 18-karat gold horseshoe studded with white diamonds and stitched into the gown’s label.
“We only told her on the wedding day,” David said in an August interview with Hello! magazine. “She didn’t know about the horseshoe for good luck, [but] she was very touched. She was traditional.”
Shortly before the wedding, Diana spilled perfume on her dress.
According to Diana’s wedding day makeup artist, Barbara Daly, the bride spilled Quelques Fleurs perfume on her dress while attempting to daub the scent onto her wrists. To hide the stain, Daly advised the young princess to hold the spot on her dress as if lifting it to avoid stepping on the train.
As Daly revealed in the book Diana: The Portrait, “She said, ‘Do you think if I just tuck the front in they’ll never notice?’ I said, ‘Yes absolutely—you and every bride in the country has done that.’ We put her in the coach and off she went.”
Diana’s wedding day featured “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.”
The “something old” was a piece of antique, handmade Carrickmacross lace previously owned by Mary of Teck, queen consort to George V and Charles’ maternal great-grandmother. The Emanuels used the century-old fabric—either found in a bag of scraps or donated by the Royal School of Needlework—to trim Diana’s gown.
One key accessory doubled as both “something old” and “something borrowed”: the bride’s tiara, which had been passed down by generations of the Spencer family. Its central section dates to 1919, when Diana’s grandmother received the topper as a wedding gift; other pieces of the topper date to the 18th century. Per People magazine’s Maria Mercedes Lara, the tiara’s current appearance—“constructed with diamonds shaped into tulips and stars surrounded by attractive scrolls”—was likely finalized in the 1930s. Both of Diana’s sisters wore the tiara during their respective weddings.
“Something new,” according to Biography.com, was the gown’s silk, which was newly spun at Dorset’s Lullingstone silk farm. To finish off the look, the Emanuels sewed a small blue bow into the dress’ waistband.
Diana later deemed the wedding the “worst day of my life.”
In 2017, unreleased tapes recorded by Diana between 1992 and 1993—around the time of the couple’s separation—aired in a documentary marking the 20th anniversary of her death in a car crash. Per the Independent, the footage finds Diana declaring the wedding the “worst day of my life.” She adds, “If I could write my own script, I would have my husband go away with his woman [Camilla] and never come back.”
In other tapes that formed the basis of Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, the princess struck a dialed-down, but still dispassionate, tone: “I remember being so in love with my husband that I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” she recalled. “I just absolutely thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. He was going to look after me. Well, was I wrong on that assumption?”