5 Scandals the British Royal Family Wishes We'd Forget

By: Dave Roos  | 
Elizabeth Debicki, Princess Diana
Elizabeth Debicki plays Princess Diana in season 5 of the Netflix series "The Crown." Netflix

"The Crown," entering its fifth season, reminds audiences that being royalty is far from a fairy tale. While the producers of the Netflix show certainly take artistic license, the on-screen drama is based on real-life scandals that rocked the royal family throughout the 20th century.

Here are five of the most explosive and embarrassing British royal scandals, listed in chronological order.

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1. Edward VIII Gives Up the Throne for Love

Edward, Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson
Edward, Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII of England, and his wife Wallis Simpson marry June 3, 1937, at Chateau de Candé in Monts, France. OFF/AFP via Getty Images

While it might look tame by modern standards, there was nothing more shocking at its time than Edward VIII's 1936 decision to step down as king so he could marry the twice-divorced (no!) American socialite, Wallis Simpson.

Marrying a divorced person went against centuries of royal tradition and the teachings of the Church of England, which the monarch headed. When Edward made it clear that he planned to marry Mrs. Simpson — with whom he'd had a longstanding affair while she was still married — it was controversial enough to trigger a "constitutional crisis."

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The British prime minister and Parliament gave Edward an ultimatum. He could not be both king and the husband of a double divorcee. He had to choose.

On Dec. 11, 1936, Edward addressed the nation on BBC radio and announced that he had officially abdicated the throne to his younger brother, the Duke of York, explaining, "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

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2. Charles and Camilla Resume Their Affair

When Charles III is officially crowned king on May 6, 2023, he will be accompanied by his second wife, Camilla, who carries the title "Queen Consort." To see the couple today as respectable, gray-haired royalty, it's easy to forget the secret affairs and embarrassing revelations that marked their decades-long relationship.

Once upon a time, Charles and Camilla were two 20-somethings in love, but the young prince was advised not to marry Camilla, as she was not an aristocrat and had had several boyfriends. So, they both moved on — Camilla married Andrew Parker Bowles and Charles famously married Lady Diana Spencer, a 19-year-old with an acceptable pedigree and a lack of "past."

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But the sparks between Charles and Camilla were never fully snuffed out. In 1986, both unhappy in their marriages, Charles and Camilla rekindled their love affair. As Charles and Diana's relationship deteriorated, the British tabloids breathlessly covered the illicit affair. The lowest moment came in 1989, when the tabloids published a humiliating "phone sex" exchange between Charles and Camilla that became known as "Tampongate."

Camilla was subjected to painful public criticism for Charles and Diana's separation and divorce, and Queen Elizabeth reportedly called her "that wicked woman." But through it all, including Diana's tragic death, Charles and Camilla stuck together. In 2005, the royal couple did what they probably should have done 30 years earlier: They tied the knot.

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3. Princess Diana Gives an Explosive Interview

Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana
Martin Bashir interviews Princess Diana in Kensington Palace for the television program "Panorama." © Pool Photograph/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated in 1992, but it took years to make the divorce official. In the interim, British writers and biographers aired the couple's dirty laundry in tell-all books and articles.

Finally, Diana decided it was time to set the record straight. So, she agreed to a prime-time BBC interview with journalist Martin Bashir. The British TV network said that 23 million people tuned in Nov. 20, 1995, to hear their heartbroken princess on her own terms.

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Diana didn't hold back. She accused the royal family of turning their backs on her and casting her as "unstable" during bouts of postpartum depression. She openly discussed how her feelings of low self-worth led to struggles with eating disorders and self-harm. She called it a "symptom of what was going on in my marriage."

In an unforgettable moment in the interview, Diana admitted to her own infidelity, but also called out Charles on his heartbreaking affair with Camilla. "There were three of us in this marriage," said Diana, "so it was a bit crowded."

Diana even questioned Charles' fitness to be the king, saying that she thought he'd find the top job "suffocating."

The interview sent shockwaves through the United Kingdom and really irked the royal family. Queen Elizabeth wrote separate letters to Charles and Diana urging them to finalize their divorce.

(In a related scandal, a 2021 investigation uncovered evidence that journalist Martin Bashir produced fake documents to convince Diana to participate in the interview and the BBC apologized for its "clear failings." However, friends said that Diana had no regrets about doing the interview.)

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4. Prince Andrew Is "Banished"

A dashing helicopter pilot in his bachelor days, Prince Andrew had a reputation as a "playboy" frequently linked with models and actresses (the tabloids dubbed him "Randy Andy"). But the dark side of Andrew's "appetites" was exposed in 2019 when the prince was linked with Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender.

During Epstein's downfall, Andrew denied any involvement with the young women that Epstein and his assistant Ghislaine Maxwell were convicted of trafficking. But then a damning photograph emerged of Andrew with his arm around a 17-year-old girl named Virginia Giuffre, who accused the prince of sexually assaulting her multiple times in 2001.

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Queen Elizabeth was crushed. When the case went to trial, she took the extraordinary step of stripping Andrew of his royal titles (no more "His Royal Highness") as well as his honorary military titles. The former prince and Giuffre recently settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Andrew no longer performs any royal duties.

5. Harry and Meghan Do a "Megxit"

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex l
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, leave Westminster Hall Sept. 14, 2022 in London, following a procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall where Queen Elizabeth would lie in state until her funeral on Sept. 19. Nariman El-Mofty - WPA Pool/Getty Images

In January 2020, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, made an earth-shattering announcement: They were stepping back from their duties as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. In other words, they were breaking up with the royal family.

In their official statement, Harry and Meghan couched their decision in vague explanations of wanting to focus on a new charitable foundation and splitting time between the U.K. and North America.

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But the real reasons emerged a year later when Harry and Megan sat down for a revelatory interview with Oprah that echoed, in many ways, the interview that Diana gave in 1995. Like Diana, Meghan revealed that she had struggled with postpartum depression and even contemplated suicide. Both Harry and Meghan said they felt unsupported and "trapped" in the royal bubble and needed to get out for their own mental health.

Harry said he was particularly disturbed by the way that the press had treated Meghan, citing the racist undertones in both tabloid and mainstream coverage. Given the way that Diana's life ended, chased down by paparazzi, Harry couldn't let history repeat itself.

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