Few fairytale endings have ended as tragically as the one shared by Charles, Prince of Wales (now King Charles III), and the late Princess Diana.
On July 29, 1981, Britain’s then-heir to the throne, Prince Charles, wed Lady Diana Spencer at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral as an estimated 750 million people, per the BBC, around the world watched the splendor of their ceremony play out on televisions. Spectators dubbed it the “wedding of the century,” and indeed, for many, the couple's vows served as a symbol of hope for the British monarchy and its continuation.
But there were no such raves about the rocky marriage that followed.
Their union began with horse-drawn carriages and an ivory train 25 feet long. Fifteen years later, it ended in divorce and soon after came the finality of a harrowing car crash in Paris.
Now, decades after Charles and Diana’s nuptials and divorce, their marriage is yet again the focus of public fascination.
"The Crown" previously highlighted chapters in their relationship, like their engagement and age difference; their dance during their their 1983 Australia tour; and the close call avalanche during a skiing trip to Klosters in 1988, which killed one of Charles' close friends. Season Five depicted even more highly publicized events, sparking backlash.
Today, the duo are once again in memory as King Charles III heads toward his coronation on Saturday, May 6.
Here's a look back at how King Charles III and Princess Diana's relationship began and why it ended, informed by biographies and books both Charles and Diana contributed to.
November 1977: Charles meets Diana
Diana was just 16 years old when Prince Charles, nearly 13 years her senior, first visited her family’s West Northamptonshire estate, Althorp House, in November of 1977. He was there to take part in a grouse hunt at the invitation of Diana’s older sister, Lady Sarah Spencer, who’d briefly been linked to the eligible prince herself.
Years later, during Charles and Diana’s 1981 engagement interview, the couple reminisced about their first meeting, in which he noted that she made a memorable first impression.
“I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was,” he said. “I mean great fun, bouncy and full of life and everything.”
November 1978: The prince’s birthday bash
One year later, Charles and Diana crossed paths again, this time at Buckingham Palace for his 30th birthday celebration, which Diana received an invitation to attend, as did her sister, Sarah.
In Andrew Morton’s “Diana: Her True Story, In Her Own Words,” Diana — who had a major hand in the creation of the book, recording her memories on audio tapes that Morton received, the author confirmed — recalled her sister asking, “Why is Diana coming as well?” The royal-to-be responded, “Well, I don’t know, but I’d like to come.”
The book said Diana had a “very nice time” at the party and found the company “fascinating,” adding, “I wasn’t at all intimidated by the surroundings. I thought: amazing place.”
July 1980: A royal romance begins
In July of 1980, Diana, now a 19-year-old woman, came face-to-face with Charles once more. This time, Diana — in Morton's book — said the Prince of Wales made a bold display of his affections.
Per Morton’s book, a mutual friend, Philip de Pass, invited Diana to spend some time at his family’s home in Sussex, telling her that Charles would be there and that as “a young blood,” she might “amuse him.”
The book went on to describe the bachelor prince as being “all over” her during the visit. Diana — whose interviews informed the book — said that at one point, “He leapt on me practically.”
The stay ended with an invitation to join Charles in London and marked the beginning of their courtship — a courtship that soon had the approval of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
September 1980: Diana passes the 'Balmoral test'
Just two months later, Diana was invited for a meaningful stay at the queen’s sprawling Scottish residence in Aberdeenshire, Balmoral Castle, where her budding relationship with Charles and her suitability as a partner would be tested by his friends and family, and most importantly, by the monarch herself.
In Tina Brown’s “The Diana Chronicles,” Lord Charteris, Elizabeth’s former private secretary, described how Diana used her “wonderful instincts” to pass the test that week at Balmoral, which is depicted in an episode of "The Crown" Season Four.
“She played the prince perfectly,” he recalled. “She kept herself in his line of vision as much as possible. Always looking pretty and being decorous. Always being jolly.”
The queen was said to have found Diana “charming and appropriate.”
With that blessing in place and rumors of the relationship on the rise, the press raced to get photos of the woman they dubbed “Shy Di.” One photo, taken later same September, showed more than the shy subject intended.
February 1981: Official engagement and the 'whatever in love means' sound bite
As the spotlight on Diana grew, and tabloid stories began speculating about intimacy between the popular couple, Charles’ father, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, felt it was time for his son to take action.
As author Sarah Bradford put it in “Diana: Finally, the Complete Story,” Philip suggested that Charles “should either propose to Lady Diana Spencer or stop seeing her as he would damage her reputation and expose her to persecution by the press if he continued to do so.”
On Feb. 6, 1981, Charles asked Diana to marry him, and she accepted. Weeks later, they shared the news with the world in an interview with the BBC.
The reporter asked the teen if she was prepared for the path she was setting out on. She responded, “Charles and I can’t go wrong. He’s there with me.”
But the answer to another question hinted at a divide. When asked if they were in love, Diana quickly said, “Of course!” Meanwhile, Charles added, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
July 1981: The royal wedding
Charles and Diana were married on July 29, 1981.
Their lavish ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London presented the public with a spectacle like no other as the British heir apparent swapped vows with his much younger and wildly popular bride.
The bride wore a ruffled, ivory silk gown, complete with a 25-foot-long train — longer than any worn by a British royal bride before her. Despite the picture-perfect nature of the event, Diana’s nerves may have shown as she spoke her vows, causing one small fumble as she referred to her groom as “Philip Charles Arthur George” rather than Charles Philip Arthur George.
Though she could hardly be blamed for still missing that small detail. After all, as she explained in the recordings of her conversations with Morton, which were used in the documentary “Diana in Her Own Words,” she and Charles had only met face-to-face 13 times before their big day.
August 1981: The honeymoon
According to Diana, the couple's post-wedding vacation wasn’t exactly a romantic follow-up to their vow-swap.
“I just had tremendous hope in me, which was slashed by day two,” Diana said in tapes she recorded for Morton's biography.
Diana noted that Charles brought seven novels by Laurens ven der Post, one of his favorite authors. "He read them and we had to analyze them over lunch every day," she said.
“I remember crying my heart out,” she continued. “I was so tired — for all the wrong reasons.”
Diana also said, per Morton's book, that her bulimia emerged in full force during the honeymoon: "Everybody saw I was getting thinner and thinner and I was being sicker and sicker. They thought I could adapt to being Princess of Wales overnight."
June 1982 to September 1984: The couple's 2 sons are born
Diana gave birth to the couple’s first son, Prince William, June 21, 1982, providing a new heir to the British throne. And on September 15, 1984, they welcomed their second son, Prince Harry.
But what the public didn’t know, until many years later, was that Diana suffered from postpartum depression after her first pregnancy and began to self-harm, which she detailed in Morton's book and spoke about in her 1995 tell-all interview with Panorama’s Martin Bashir.
1986: Affairs, tensions and a 'Greek tragedy'
Rumors of tensions between Charles and Diana grew in the years following the birth of their sons, but the public wouldn’t learn the full extent of what was going on behind the scenes until much later.
For Charles, 1986 was the year he rekindled a romance with longtime friend and former flame Camilla Parker Bowles, who was also married at the time to Andrew Parker Bowles (and is now queen consort).
As for that affair, he told biographer Jonathan Dimbleby, in a 1994 interview, that he’d remained faithful in his marriage to Diana “until it became irretrievably broken down.”
Also in 1986, Diana began an affair with Captain James Hewitt of the British Army's Life Guards, which he wrote about in his book, “A Love Like No Other: Diana and Me.” Diana confirmed their relationship had taken place in her Panorama interview with Bashir.
In Dimbleby’s book, “Prince of Wales: A Biography,” a passage taken from Charles’ described the “incompatibility” between the future monarch and his wife, stating that their union had “all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy.”
1992: Tell-all and separation
Morton’s book, the extremely candid biography “Diana: Her True Story,” was published in 1992. At the time, Morton denied that Diana had been a primary source; after her death in 1997, he revealed she had, in fact, supplied the book's insider insight directly.
The book's publication marked the first time the public learned the full extent of the troubles between Charles and Diana.
That same year, the couple parted ways in a separation.
It was British Prime Minister John Major who shared the news from the palace with the world in a statement he made on the floor of the House of Commons on Dec. 9, 1992.
“It is announced from Buckingham Palace that, with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate. The Royal Highnesses have no plans to divorce, and their constitutional positions are unaffected.”
January 1993: Charles and Camilla tapes
On the heels of the separation, in January of 1993, a British tabloid published a transcript of an intimate, six-minute-long 1989 telephone call between Charles and Camilla, marking a scandal that came to be known as “Camillagate.”
This incident was depicted in Season Five of "The Crown." Dominic West, who will play Charles in the season, remarked on the scandal in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
"What’s really (clear now) is how invasive and disgusting was the press’ attention to it, that they printed it out verbatim, and you could call a number and listen to the actual tape," he said.
November 1995: "An Interview with HRH The Princess of Wales"
After her separation from Charles, Diana addressed rumors about her marriage and personal life in a bombshell interview with journalist Martin Bashir. The episode was titled “An Interview with HRH The Princess of Wales” and was broadcast on Nov. 20, 1995, as part of the BBC’s current affairs "Panorama" documentary series.
Nearly 200 million people around the globe gathered around their television sets to watch Diana pull no punches in an interview that secretly took place in the her sitting room at Kensington Palace.
Speaking to Bashir, the princess showed beyond doubt that she was no longer the demure 19-year-old she had been when she accepted her husband’s marriage proposal. In the years after their storybook wedding ceremony, Diana had become a mutineer and highly protective mother.
Detailing her sorrow, her struggle with bulimia and admitting to her own marital infidelities, the late princess expressed her belief that the British royal family had waged a smear campaign against her.
“She won’t go quietly,” she said in the interview. “That’s the problem. She’ll fight to the end. I have a role to fulfill, and I’ve got two children to bring up.”
Asked about the collapse of her marriage and how Camilla Parker Bowles (now Camilla, the queen consort) had a part in it, Diana delivered one of her most famous lines about her marriage and unhappiness.
“There were three of us in the marriage,” she said. “That made it a bit crowded.”
December 1995: The queen recommends divorce
After so many high-profile troubles and three years of separation, Queen Elizabeth made her thoughts on the matter of Charles and Diana’s marriage known.
“After considering the present situation, the queen wrote to both the prince and princess earlier this week and gave them her view, supported by the Duke of Edinburgh, that an early divorce is desirable,” a statement from the palace read.
In James Patterson and Chris Mooney’s book “Diana, William & Harry: The Heartbreaking Story of a Princess and Mother,” the authors state that the letter Diana received was addressed to “Dearest Diana” and signed “With love from Mama.” But within the body of the message there was “no hint of glad tidings.” Instead, the monarch mentioned that a divorce, rather than the pair’s ongoing and often messy separation, was in “the best interests of the country.”
February 1996: The divorce date is finalized
Prompted by the queen’s recommendation, and Charles’ own expressed desire for a divorce, Diana acquiesced.
“The Princess of Wales has agreed to Prince Charles’ request for a divorce,” read a statement from her spokesperson on February 28, 1996. “The princess will continue to be involved in all decisions relating to the children and will remain at Kensington Palace with offices in St. James’s Place. The Princess of Wales will retain the title and be known as Diana, Princess of Wales.”
August 1996: Married no more
Charles and Diana’s divorce was finalized August 28, 1996 — just one year before the tragic death of the Princess of Wales. Her sons opened up about the way their lives changed in that moment, and their father's role in their lives.
In the BBC documentary “Diana, 7 Days,” Harry recalled how he learned of Diana’s death and he prided his father for telling him what had gone on.
“One of the hardest things for a parent to have to do is to tell your children that your other parent has died,” he said.
“How you deal with that? I don’t know. But you know, he was there for us. He was the one out of two left, and he tried to do his best and to make sure that we were protected and looked after,” Harry continued. “But ... he was going through the same grieving process as well.”
Diana's words about being queen during her interview with BBC Panorama come to mind at this time: “I’d like to be a queen in people’s hearts, but I don’t see myself being queen of this country.”
August 1997: Diana's death
Diana's life came to a disastrous end on Aug. 31, 1997, when she was 36 years old.
On the day before her death, the princess spoke on the phone to her two sons, who were in Scotland while she was in Paris with her romantic partner and filmmaker Dodi Fayed. The couple arrived in Paris the day before following a week in the Mediterranean and ate their final meal together at Ritz Paris, a hotel owned by Fayed’s father.
It was reported that Diana and Fayed fled paparazzi in a car driven by security guard and driver Henri Paul. Photographers pursued them as they entered the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, where the driver ultimately lost control and rammed into the tunnel’s 13th pillar, according to NBC.
Fayed and Paul were killed instantly. Diana was pronounced dead hours later.
Diana's funeral took place on Sept. 6, 1997. According to the BBC it was a global event, with billions around the world watching as her coffin was carried through the streets of London to Westminster Abbey. That same day, Diana's body was returned to the estate of her childhood home where she grew up at Althorp, Northamptonshire and was ultimately laid to rest.