The press touted it as the wedding of the century. On Wednesday, 29 July 1981 at 11 AM in London's St. Paul's Cathedral, 32-year-old Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, married Lady Diana Spencer, 20. A congregation of 2,500 gathered beneath the soaring painted dome of the cathedral to witness the ceremony, which was broadcast to a worldwide audienbce of 750 million. In a time of recession, high unemployment and chronic rioting -- the month prior to the royal nuptial saw the most violent civil unrest in Great Britain in a century -- the fairytale romance of Charles and Di, and the grand pageantry that, by binding them in holy matrimony, secured the future of the British monarchy, was a much-needed diversion. Even the death of 22-year-old rioter David Moore, run over by a police van during wedding-eve riots in Liverpool, could not dampen the spirit of the people. Though some questioned the value of maintaining the monarchy -- at $46 million a year it was expensive to do so -- three out of four polled in a survey by the Guardian favored its continuation.
No expense was spared to honor the event. On the eve of the wedding, 101 celebratory bonfires were lighted throughout the United Kingdom, and a dazzling display of pyrotechnics was set off in Hyde Park. London's buses were painted with festive bows, and the royal crest of the Prince of Wales, created using 4,500 pots of blooming plants, adorned the wedding route. Lady Diana traveled to St. Paul's in a glass coach. The magnificent wedding cake cost $6,000. The bride's gown, created by Mayfair designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel, was made from 40 yards of silk taffeta, 100 yards of crinoline, some old Carrickmacross lace once belonging to Queen Mary, and thousands of mother-of-pearl sequins. A small 18-karat gold horseshoe was tucked into the billowing skirts for good luck.
The ceremony itself went off without a hitch -- almost. Diana scrambled the groom's name (Charles Philip Arthur George) during the exchange of vows. New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa, the Royal Opera's soprano sensation, sang an anthem by Handel, accompanied by 95 musicians selected from three orchestras. In attendance were First Lady Nancy Reagan, the King and Queen of Sweden, and Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands. (The Spanish king, Juan Carlos, chose not to attend to protest the decision that the newlywed's honeymoon cruise aboard the royal yacht Britannia would begin in Gibraltar, a British colony long claimed by Spain.) Sir Dawda Jawara, Gambia's president, did attend -- only to learn from the Foreign Office that he had been driven from power by a coup launched during his absence. In all, more than a dozen presidents, fifteen Commonwealth heads-of-state, and nine members of reigning royal families were among the VIPs present at the wedding. Security was stiffened; bobbies were posted every six feet along the processional route taken by the prince and princess from St. Paul's to Buckingham Palace. Spectators who had paid $390 apiece for a prime view from office windows overlooking the route had to clear police security and wear an ID badge. Charles and Diana made the 22-minute journey in the open 1902 State Postillion Landau flanked by a mounted detachment of the Sovereign's Escort and cheered by the two million onlookers who lined the way. People the world over were particularly taken with Diana; it seemed that Charles could hardly have made a better choice.
Charles had the distinction of being the first heir to the throne sent to school outside the palace -- schooling that included the rigorous (in both academic and athletic terms) Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland. He earned a degree in archaeology and anthropology at Trinity College, Cambridge (the first university graduate of the royal family), then served in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Coming across as rather staid and aloof, Charles' total fortune was estimated at $450 million; though, as a royal, he was exempt from income tax, he gave half of his $1.25 million annual income to the government, and took a keen interest in housing and environmental issues as well as the cause of the disabled. There were some who favored the Queen's abdication in favor of the Prince of Wales. Charles was not among them.
Diana Spencer belonged to one of England's oldest aristocratic familes. Her father was the eighth Earl of Spencer, and her family tree had several royal connections. In fact, she and Charles were sixteenth cousins once removed; she was descended from Charles I, the son of James I, whose daughter Elizabeth married Frederick V, King of Bavaria, and thus became one of Charles' ancestors. Diana was related to Winston Churchill and eight presidents (George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, Millard Fillmore, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt). And four of her ancestors had been mistresses to English kings. Diana's brother was Queen Elizabeth's godson, while her maternal grandmother was the Queen Mother's lady-in-waiting. Her father was the Queen's personal aide.
Born in Sandringham on 1 July 1961, Diana was a childhood playmate to Charles' younger brother Andrew. She attended a prepatory school (Riddlesworth Hall) and then a boarding school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Though an average student in academics, she excelled in dancing and demonstrated artistic talent. She became an accomplished skier while at a Swiss finishing school. Upon her return to Britain she occupied a three-bedroom flat in South Kensington, rooming with three girlfriends. Shunning the role of debutante, she got a job at the Young England Kindergarten. Reserved and unassuming, with simple tastes and modest habits, Diana seemed at times more commoner than aristocrat. That she was friendly, accessible, and disdained the putting on of airs would endear her to the British people.
Diana's older sister, Lady Sarah, introduced her at age 16 to Prince Charles during a 1977 pheasant shoot held at Althorp, the 500-year-old Spencer estate in Northamptonshire. Romance blossomed a few years later, when Diana visited Charles at Balmoral Castle. When she returned for another visit in September 1980 the press, which for some time had been speculating about Charles' plans for a bride, realized what was going on. "Shy Di" was hounded by the paparazzi, and on at least one occasion she was reduced to tears by their relentless pursuit. "Is it necessary or fair to harass my daughter daily?" asked her mother, Mrs. Frances Shand-Kydd, in a terse letter to the London Times. And when Queen Elizabeth saw newsmen tramping through the woods of the royal retreat at Sandringham, hoping to catch a glimse of Diana, she snapped, "I wish you would go away!" Such media attention became intolerable, prompting the Queen to pressure her son into marrying Diana by the summer of 1981.
The engagement was officially announced on 24 February 1981 by the Buckingham Palace Press Office: "It is with the greatest pleasure that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh announce the betrothal of their son, the Prince of Wales, to the Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of the Earl Spencer and the Honourable Mrs. Shand-Kydd." Outside the palace, the band of the Coldstream Guards struck up the tune "Congratulations" while in the House of Commons MPs cheered their enthusiasm. Charles and Diana made an appearance on the back terrace of the palace. Asked by a reporter if he was in love, a noncommital Prince of Wales said, "Whatever love means." Another newsman asked Lady Diana if she was prepared to be the future Queen. "With Prince Charles beside me," she replied, "I cannot go wrong."
She did, however, raise a few eyebrows when she wore a daring black silk taffeta evening gown (that was both strapless and low-cut) to a benefit recital at the Goldsmiths' Hall -- her debut as fiancee of the Prince of Wales. But as far as the person on the street was concerned, Lady Di could do no wrong. Her coiffure, a short layered cut brushed back from the face, quickly became all the rage, as young women throughout Britain flocked to hair salons for a "Di job." No one could deny that Diana had "star quality." And she would need it to carry out the duties of her position, which included over 170 official engagements a year, and occasional goodwill trips overseas. The perks were many: a London residence, a bungalow in the Scilly Isles, a 347-acre Cotswold estate, and -- when she became queen -- the right to wear a crown adorned with the 109-carat Kohinoor diamond. But the greatest perk of all was the adoration of the British people, who fell in love with their princess.
It seemed, at first, like something out of a storybook. In 1982 Diana provided Charles with an heir, Prince William Arthur Philip Louis. Two years later, Prince Henry Charles Albert David was born. But in 1992 the fairytale became a nightmare. Andrew Morton alleged in his book Diana: Her True Story that Charles had had a long-term affair with a married woman named Camilla Parker Bowles. Later that year, Prime Minister John Major informed Parliament that Charles and Diana were separating but did not plan to divorce. In 1994, Charles admitted committing adultery, while author Anna Pasternak alleged that Diana had had a five-year affair with her riding instructor -- an affair which Diana admitted a year later. In 1995, Queen Elizabeth urged her son to get a divorce, which he agreed to do; the final decree was issued 28 August 1996. A year and three days later, Princess Di was killed in an automobile accident in Paris, a tragedy mourned by millions around the world.
What the Editorials Said About the Royal Marriage
The (Charleston S.C.) News and Courier: "Tradition should be carried on. The royal wedding should have the color, ceremony and majestic scope that Britons -- and the world -- have associated with other royal weddings. Monarchy is involved. The monarchy is part of government. The monarchy also is an instrument of continuity, which links Britain and its people of today with Britain and its people of centuries past. It reminds of heritage, of toughness of spirit. There is no denying Britain has economic problems. But Britain had had hard times before, and did not part from tradition." (7.29.81)
The Baltimore [MD] Sun: "You really have to admire the British. They have class. Even as police were battling rioters in Liverpool for the third straight night and British army bomb experts were disarming a 400-pound explosive planted by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, Britons celebrated the continuity of their history with the wedding of the century. The marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, was a spectacular and a welcomed distraction from worldly troubles. It also did more to revive the glorious aura of symbols and myths surrounding British royalty than any other event of recent times." (7.30.81)
The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Amid all England's troubles, the monarchy endures, and around the world people will wonder why and many will criticize it as an expensive, useless anachronism. But the faces of the people in the streets and the pomp and tradition of the ceremony provided the answer that this is the British way; that Britain will carry on through bad times and good as it has for centuries." (7.30.81)
Newsweek: 5 July 1982, 7 March 1988
People Weekly: 5 June 1982, 16 August 1982
Time: 9 March 1981, 23 March 1981, 20 April 1981, 3 August 1981, 10 August 1981, 5 July 1982, 11 November 1985
The Definitive Diana: An Intimate Look at The Princess of Wales from A to Z
Sally Moore (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1991)
Invitation to A Royal Wedding
Kathryn Spink(New York: Crescent Books, 1981)