While you might think of the royal family as being prim and proper, it turns out that the British royals can actually be quite messy.
From a shockingly racy phone call to an incredibly inappropriate costume, here are 13 secrets, scandals, and stories from the past 100 years of British royal family history:
In 1931, Edward VIII met Wallis Simpson, an American socialite through mutual friends. At the time, Wallis was married to Ernest Simpson, while Edward was next in line for the throne. By 1934, people close to the royal family began gossiping that Wallis and Edward’s friendship had turned to a romance. On January 20, 1936, King George died and Edward took the throne. Less than a year later, Wallis filed for divorce from her husband.
As the news of Wallis’s divorce became public, speculation that Edward caused the split started to swirl. People close to the palace allegedly urged Edward to prevent the divorce, because they didn’t want people to think it was caused by Edward. Just a few weeks later, Edward invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to the palace, where he told him that he was preparing to abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis. The queen reportedly told him to forget about Wallis and remain king, but Edward insisted that he could not properly rule without Wallis in his life. He signed the Instrument of Abdication on December 10, 1936.
Edward wasted no time proposing to Wallis, and they were engaged before the abdication was finalized. On December 11, Edward’s brother Albert took the throne. In May 1937, Wallis’s divorce was finalized, and the pair married on June 3, 1937. They stayed together until Edward’s death in 1972. Their relationship was a massive scandal: some even said that Prime Minister Baldwin urged Edward to keep Wallis a mistress instead of soiling the royal family’s name with their relationship. No members of the royal family attended their wedding, although Edward retained a royal title for the rest of his life.
The year 1992 has gone down in history as Queen Elizabeth II‘s self-proclaimed “annus horribilis,” or “horrible year.” Three of her four children’s marriages all ended and the proceedings all played out in the British press. Charles and Diana’s separation dominated headlines, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson split, and Princess Anne divorced her husband, only to start dating a royal employee shortly after (we’ll get into alllll of those details soon!). To make matters worse, a fire at Windsor Castle destroyed 100 rooms. In a speech marking the 40th year of her reign as queen, Elizabeth said, “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis.'”
Charles and Diana’s marriage was plagued by infidelity. In 1993, just three months after King Charles and Princess Diana separated, a transcript of an intimate phone call between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was published in a tabloid. In the call, Charles tells Camilla that things would be “much easier” if he “just live[d] inside your trousers or something.” Camilla responded, “What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers? Oh, you’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.” To that, Charles replied, “Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck!” The phone call was instantly dubbed “Tampongate” by the media.
The scandal had people reconsidering if Charles was fit to someday be king. After all, the call had been recorded in 1989, which further confirmed that he had been cheating on Princess Diana during their marriage. “The backlash was savage,” Ken Wharfe, Princess Diana’s former personal protection officer, said. “Establishment figures normally loyal to the future King and country were appalled, and some questioned the Prince’s suitability to rule.” He also recalled that Princess Diana found the phone call “just sick.”
In 1995, Princess Diana agreed to sit down with the BBC’s Martin Bashir for an exclusive interview. In the interview, Diana opened up about her marriage to Charles and her experiences with the royal family and admitted that she had also had an affair during her marriage. She revealed that Charles’s long affair with Camilla Parker Bowles made her feel worthless. “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” she said. Diana said that she suspected Charles’s staff was waging a campaign against her. In addition to her revelations about the royals, Diana also spoke about her struggles with bulimia, postpartum depression, and self-harm.
After the interview aired, Queen Elizabeth II wrote to the couple, who at that point had been separated since 1992, and told them to proceed with their divorce. In the years following the release of the interview, it’s been alleged that the BBC showed Diana’s brother, Charles, fake bank statements that they claimed were proof that the media had been paying the royal family for information about Diana, in order to convince her to tell her side of the story in the interview. While a 1996 investigation proved inconclusive, in 2021, the BBC revealed that they found interviewer Martin Bashir had acted in a “deceitful” way to ensure the interview would happen. The BBC returned all awards the interview special won, formally apologized for their actions, and vowed to never air the footage again.
In 2010, Prince Andrew was photographed walking in Central Park with Jeffrey Epstein, the businessman who was charged with sex trafficking in 2019. It was soon revealed that Andrew had reportedly turned to Epstein to help him pay off debts that his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, owed to her former assistant. Epstein was recently free after being under house arrest for sexual abuse charges. Sources close to Epstein said that he was looking to rehabilitate his image, and thought that being involved with the royal family was the perfect way to do so. As the photos of the pair began to circulate, the press began poking into their friendship. They found that Andrew and Epstein had been spotted together at a party at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in 2000, and attempted to link them together at other parties and visits to Epstein’s island.
Before seeing the photos of Andrew and Epstein in the park, Virginia Roberts Giuffre had anonymously filed claims against Epstein, but after seeing the photo of him and Andrew together in the park, decided that she wanted to go public with her identity. Giuffre claimed that she was taken to London on Epstein’s plane, dubbed the “Lolita Express,” where she was told that she was going to “dance with a prince.” She was 17 years old. In 2015, she claimed that she had been forced to have sex with Andrew. The documents were sealed until 2019, when it was revealed that Giuffre said she had sex with Andrew three times. Buckingham Palace has denied the claims.
As more allegations about Andrew came out, Andrew decided that he wanted to share his side of the story during a BBC interview. In the interview, Andrew claimed that the only interactions he had with Epstein were to learn about business, as he had become the family’s special representative for international trade and investment after finishing his military service. Andrew also said that there was no indication of Epstein’s trafficking during any time they had spent together, and claimed that he had intended to end their friendship during the walk in Central Park. When asked about Giffure, he said, “I have no recollection of ever meeting her… I can absolutely categorically tell you it never happened.”
As the interview continued, Andrew went on to say that he didn’t regret befriending Epstein, but regretted “the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming.” When the interview was released, Andrew and the royal family faced immediate backlash. The New York Times wrote that “experts on the royal family have described the interview as the biggest public relations debacle for the British royal family since the turbulent aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997.” Soon, evidence refuting the alibi and claims Andrew made in the interview became public. Following the interview, Andrew stepped back from formal royal duties. In August 2021, Giuffre filed a lawsuit against Andrew. Attempts to dismiss the case were rejected, and in January 2022, Andrew officially lost his royal titles.
After Princess Diana’s death in 1997, the royal family faced intense backlash for their response to the tragedy. While the relationship between Diana and the royals had been strained following her revealing 1995 interview, people around the world were shocked when senior members of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II, failed to provide mourners with any sense of comfort and healing. According to Tina Brown’s book, The Diana Chronicles, Charles was at Balmoral Castle with his sons William and Harry, as well as the queen, when the news broke. “He knew, instantly, that this was going to be a terrible thing, that…he will be blamed, that they will be blamed, for the death of Diana,” Brown said.
Following the announcement, the queen remained in Scotland while the world waited for an official statement from Buckingham Palace. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered an emotional speech about the princess on the morning of her death while the royal family remained quiet. Charles reportedly wanted to take the royal jet to Paris to go claim Diana’s body, a request that the queen allegedly initially denied. While sources close to the family said that Charles was devastated, people were outraged by the lack of emotion from the queen. While William and Harry have since discussed the way their grandmother tried to protect them during the period of mourning, her slow response sullied the public’s view of her.
On September 4, the queen finally issued a statement saying the family was “hurt” by the claims that they were “indifferent” about Diana’s death, when in actuality, they were trying to protect Diana’s sons. The queen returned to London, where she, dressed in black and accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, walked the palace grounds to see the flowers and messages mourners had left. In a surprising move, the queen also delivered her first live special announcement broadcast in over 50 years, where she paid tribute to Diana.
In 2005, Prince Harry made headlines when a photograph of him wearing a Nazi costume at a “colonials and natives”-themed party was published in The Sun newspaper. Harry’s costume featured an armband with a swastika and a uniform that resembled those worn by the German Afrika Korps. Jewish groups around the world released their own statements about the incident, calling Harry’s choice of costume disappointing. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles suggested that the prince visit Auschwitz. “There he will see the results of the hated symbol he so foolishly and brazenly chose to wear,” Rabbi Marvin Hier said.
When the scandal broke, Harry issued an apology statement. “I’m very sorry if I have caused any offense. It was a poor choice of costume, and I apologize.” The costume also resurfaced previous accusations of the British royal family’s potential links to Nazi Germany. During Edward VIII’s time as king, he allegedly partied with Nazis. There is also speculation that some of Prince Phillip’s sisters were married to Nazis. This was just one of several instances where Prince Harry was called out for his partying. A few years earlier, Prince Charles sent Harry to rehab after he was caught smoking weed. He also got into a scuffle with paparazzi outside of a nightclub.
Just five months after Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their separation, Sarah was photographed by paparazzi on vacation in St Tropez having her feet and toes kissed by John Bryan, her financial advisor. It was the first time such revealing photos of a member of the royal family were published, and to make matters worse, Sarah was actually with the royals at Balmoral Castle the day the paper hit newsstands. Princess Diana allegedly knew about the photos before they were published, and sent a royal writer a message that said, “The red head’s in trouble.” Andrew and Sarah officially divorced in 1996, although they remained close.
Although Princess Anne’s love life flies a bit more under the radar compared to that of her royal counterparts, it’s clearly just as shocking and scandalous. In 1970, Anne dated Andrew Parker Bowles, who, just a few years later, would go on to marry Camila, who married Charles in 2005 after having a long affair with him during his marriage to Princess Diana (told you the royals got MESSY). After Andrew and Anne split, she met Captain Mark Phillips. The pair bonded over their equestrian backgrounds and married in 1973.
Following the birth of their daughter Zara in 1981 (the couple also has a son, Peter), Anne and Mark’s relationship turned rocky. Rumors of extramarital affairs began to swirl, and in 1985, Mark was called out for fathering a child with an art teacher from New Zealand. His paternity was confirmed in 1991. In addition to Mark’s infidelity, in 1989 the press revealed that they had found romantic letters Sir Timothy Laurence, one of Queen Elizabeth’s royal assistants, had sent to Anne. Timothy and Anne had become incredibly close since he began working in the palace in 1986.
Buckingham Palace confirmed that the letters were written by Timothy, but refused to comment any further. In August 1989, just a few months after the letters were published, Anne and Mark officially separated. Anne and Timothy’s relationship was quiet until 1992, when her divorce from Mark became final. In December 1992, the pair got married and are still together 30 years later.
In January 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced that they were stepping back from being senior royals and were planning to become financially independent from the royals. They also said they hoped to split their time between the United States and the United Kingdom. According to the BBC, no one in the royal family was consulted about their announcement. The outlet added that Buckingham Palace was “disappointed” by both their decision to leave and the manner in which it was announced. They agreed to a 12-month review period where they would work with the palace to come to a final decision. The announcement was dubbed “Megxit,” which Harry has since said was a misogynistic term.
Prior to making their decision, Harry and Meghan opened up about the struggles of royal life. Meghan had faced intense criticism from the British press during her tenure in the royal family, much of which had been racially motivated. When the pair announced they were dating in 2016, Harry released a statement condemning the “wave of abuse and harassment” toward Meghan. On February 19, 2021, Buckingham Palace officially announced that Meghan and Harry would no longer be working royals. In an interview with Oprah, they said the family refused to support Meghan’s mental health needs and alleged that a member of the family wondered if their son would be too “dark.”
In 2019, rumors that Prince William had cheated on Kate Middleton with one of her close friends began to swirl on social media. A tabloid published an article stating that William had an affair with a family friend. They alleged that when Kate confronted him about it, he “laughed it off saying there was nothing to it.” Nothing was confirmed, and the Daily Mail reported that both sides had considered taking legal action. The rumors resurfaced in 2022 after the gossip account, DeuxMoi, posted a blind item about a member of the royal family having an affair. Social media immediately began pointing fingers at William due to the 2019 rumors, although nothing was ever confirmed.
Princess Margaret, who was Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, was often called “the black sheep” of the royal family. Margaret met Captain Pete Townsend, who worked as a royal assistant at Buckingham Palace when she was a teenager. The pair were often in close proximity and eventually fell in love. The issue? Townsend was married with two sons. He divorced his wife seemingly in order to propose to Margaret, but the Church of England forbid her from accepting a proposal from a divorced man. The pair separated in 1955 after Margaret chose her family over Townsend.
By 1958, Margaret started secretly dating Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer who had taken photos of the royal family. In 1959, Armstrong-Jones proposed to Margaret. They officially announced their engagement in 1960, and wed just a few months later. Their wedding was the first royal wedding to be televised. In May 1960, about three weeks after their wedding, it was revealed that Armstrong-Jones had fathered a child with his best friend’s wife. The pair weathered the fallout and welcomed two of their own children in 1961 and 1964.
In 1966, Margaret allegedly decided to seek revenge on her husband for his own infidelity, and started an affair with Anthony Barton, one of Armstrong-Jones’s friends from school. By 1973, Margaret had begun seeing Roddy Llewellyn, a garden designer. The pair would date for over eight years. In 1976, a tabloid published photos of Margaret and Llewellyn on a vacation, bringing the infidelity to the public eye. After the photos were released, Margaret and Armstrong-Jones officially decided to separate. Their divorce was the first royal divorce in the immediate family in over 400 years, and is said to have paved the way for other royals to free themselves from unhappy marriages.
Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Philip had a history of making inappropriate and insensitive comments during his seven decades of service. During a visit to China in 1986, he told a British student, “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.” He also said that British women couldn’t cook, and told a young student that he was “too fat to be an astronaut.” When he met the president of Nigeria, who was wearing traditional robes, Philip allegedly said, “You look like you are ready for bed.”
Do any other royal scandals come to mind? Share them in the comments!