By 1976, the question of who and when Prince Charles would marry had become a matter of national preoccupation. At the age of 28, having completed his naval service, the Prince too began to consider more seriously the constitutional need for him to find a wife. His situation, however, like much of his earlier life, was complicated by his position. He was required not only to find a wife, a woman with whom he could happily share his life, but someone who could one day undertake the role of Queen.
Encouraged by his great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles did not shy away from romantic encounters with the opposite sex. Indeed, after completing his naval service, he was associated with a string of girlfriends, in each of whom the public and the tabloid press saw a potential Queen. Both the country and the Family were growing increasingly eager to see the royal “action man” joined in holy matrimony.
But as Charles was only too well aware, marriage into the Royal Family was a serious undertaking, and one that was likely to intimidate any potential bride. Speaking 12 years earlier to the television interviewer Brian Connell, he said, “You have got to choose somebody very carefully, I think, who could fulfil this particular role...it has got be somebody very special.” Charles understood that a potential wife must have some knowledge or sense of the way of life into which she would marry, otherwise she would be undertaking a huge risk. When his proposal in 1979 to Amanda Knatchbull, his cousin and the granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten, was rejected – a response by which he appeared not in the least surprised – the nature of his particular predicament became even clearer.
Though Mountbatten was keen that his nephew should date a number of young women, he counselled him that his future wife should be without “a past”. There could be no room for scandals or complicated previous relationships, and no grounds for tabloid speculation or reproach. In July 1980, after he had begun an association with Lady Diana Spencer, whom he first met three years earlier at the family home, Althorp Park, he recalled Mountbatten’s advice. Here was a young woman, demure, enthusiastic, from a suitable background and, most importantly for a potential love-match, with no evident past. Charles began to believe that in Diana, he had found not only a potential wife, but a future Queen of England.
From the summer of 1980 onwards, Diana was invited to spend time with Prince Charles at Balmoral and Sandringham. The Prince was struck by her kindness and warm-heartedness, and while he confided to a friend that he did not yet love her, he believed that he could fall in love with her. By the autumn, it was common knowledge that the two had been spending much time together. Their relationship was taken out of their hands and thrust into the public realm. As the tabloids grew ever more insistent that a match was imminent, Charles felt that he was to be forced into taking some decisive action.
In the midst of growing pressure, Charles was advised by his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, to make his choice, and to do so quickly. To delay, said the Duke, would risk Diana’s reputation. Still uncertain of his feelings, and interpreting his father’s words as an ultimatum, Charles felt he must either end the relationship, or propose marriage. On February 24, 1981, Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. He was 32, and she 19. At a press photocall on that same day, when asked if they were very much in love, Lady Diana asserted her feelings without hesitation. The Prince, on the other hand, seemed a little more uncertain, answering only, “Well, yes, whatever it is that love may be.”
A few days after the engagement was announced, Diana moved from her apartment in Chelsea into Buckingham Palace. Despite efforts to make her feel at home, she found the atmosphere stuffy and inhospitable. Feeling trapped and frightened, it was perhaps only then that Diana realised the true gravity of her position.
It was not long before the strain began to show. Her mood swings were noted, and some courtiers believed that Diana first showed signs of the eating disorder, bulimia. Prince Charles was baffled by the transition from the happy, energetic girl to whom he had proposed and the apparently depressed woman he was soon to marry. Unused to such behaviour, both the Prince and the Palace staff, to whom Diana’s distress was evident, attributed her malaise to the pressures under which she now found herself. The prospect of marrying the Heir to the Throne was perhaps terrifying enough. For an inexperienced 19-year-old, it must have been unbearable.
Contents copyright 1999-2001 The Royal Report
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