A lot of failed marriages begin as enviable love stories, gradually breaking down despite everything the couple has going for them and stunning friends and family in the process. And then there are marriages like that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, where the red flags are glaringly obvious from day one. Exhibit A? That excruciating engagement interview, as recreated in The Crown season 4.
Charles proposed to Diana in February of 1981 after less than a year of dating. He’d been under pressure to find a suitable wife for some time, and having finally achieved that goal, he didn’t want to waste any time locking it down. Are you swooning yet? The engagement was officially announced on February 24, 1981, and per royal tradition, the newly betrothed couple gave a TV interview shortly after the news became public.
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The overall vibe is pretty awkward—32-year-old Charles and 19-year-old Diana both look like different varieties of deer in headlights as the interviewer prods them for details on their hasty engagement. But the worst moment by far comes right at the end of the above clip. The interviewer asks if they can find the words to sum up how they’re feeling.
“Just delighted, and happy,” Charles says, looking over at Diana. “I’m amazed that she’s been brave enough to take me on!” So far, so endearingly self-deprecating. The interviewer, clearly hoping for something a little more effusive, prompts him: “And, I suppose, in love?”
“Of course!” Diana responds quickly, after which Charles says, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
Oof. Although Diana laughs this off in the moment, she revealed years later that the comment upset her deeply. “We had this ghastly [TV] interview the day we announced our engagement,” she recalled in audio featured in the 2017 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words. “This ridiculous [reporter] said, ‘Are you in love?’ I thought, what a thick question. So I said, ‘Yes, of course, we are,’ and Charles turned round and said, ‘Whatever love means.’ And that threw me completely. I thought, what a strange answer. God, absolutely traumatized me.”
As callous as Charles’s words may seem, royal experts have cautioned against judging him too harshly. Bedell Smith, author of the 2017 biography Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, told People that his comment during the interview needs to be understood in the broader context of his views on romance. “It was a totally inappropriate thing for him to say, but understandable given the way his mind worked,” she said. “You should look at those words in the context of the series of interviews he gave in the 1970s about what he wanted in a wife and what being in love was all about. He can over-think things and was thinking out loud. I don’t see it as a cynical, cruel statement.”
The sentiment also wasn’t a new one; when Diana described Charles’s proposal to biographer Andrew Morton, she recalled him saying something similar: “‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I love you so much, I love you so much.’ [Charles] said, ‘Whatever love means.'”
Outwardly, the cracks in Charles and Diana’s relationship didn’t begin to show for some time. Diana admitted to BBC Radio, per the Radio Times, that she found the prospect of getting married “quite daunting,” but added “I hope it won’t be too difficult, and with Prince Charles beside me I can’t go wrong.”
But according to Andrew Morton, who wrote the infamous 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, Diana had second thoughts before the wedding, and even considered calling it off. The tipping point, according to Morton, came days before their wedding when Diana discovered a bracelet Charles intended to give his former girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles. (Another scene depicted in The Crown‘s fourth season.)
“She was confused, upset and bewildered by the train of events,” Morton wrote, and described a lunch Diana shared with her older sisters Sarah and Jane. “At that moment, as she seriously considered calling off the wedding, [her sisters] made light of her fears and premonitions of the disaster which lay ahead. ‘Bad luck, Duch,’ they said, using the family nickname for their younger sister, ‘your face is on the tea towels now so you’re too late to chicken out.’”
And so, despite their clear mutual misgivings, Charles and Diana were married at Westminster Abbey on July 29, 1981.
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