Royal Family Controversies That Didn’t Make It Into The Crown

Plus a few affairs, divorces, and scandals that did.

by Sophie McEvoy
Originally Published: 
Princess Diana holds Prince Williams, 04 August 1982, after his Christening, flanked by the Queen an...
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During the First World War, King George V changed the British monarchy’s family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. Four monarchs later, the House of Windsor stands prominently as one of the most well-known families in the world. But their prominence hasn’t come without controversy.

Just over a decade into the newly named house, King Edward VIII caused the major scandal by abdicating from the throne in order to marry his American love, Wallis Simpson. It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth II’s reign began that the controversies returned, mainly revolving around the relationships between royal family members and their significant others.

The most recent generation of the House of Windsor hasn’t been without scrutiny either, with members including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepping down from their royal duties due to institutional racism and allegations about Prince Andrew’s connection to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Undoubtedly, there have been a lot of controversies surrounding the royal family since the 1930s. With that in mind, here are some of the most poignant scandals to have ever occurred in the House of Windsor.

Edward VIII abdicating the throne

After being crowned king in 1936, Edward VIII ended his short reign in controversy after becoming the first British monarch to voluntarily abdicate the throne. His reason? He’d fallen in love with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.

At the time, a twice-divorced partner was “unacceptable” as a prospective British monarch, and with no resolution, Edward decided to rescind his title. “I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love,” Edward said in a radio address.

Edward & Wallis Simpson’s “many encounters” with Hitler

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Following the coronation of George VI, Edward and Simpson moved to Europe in “semi-exile.” Visiting Germany 10 months after their departure from Britain, Edward and Simpson were welcomed as guests by Adolf Hitler and high-ranking Nazi officials.

According to Biography, the couple visited Hitler’s country home in the Bavarian Alps, where they had afternoon tea. They seemed to have kept in contact before and during World War II, and there was even a secret plan to reinstate Edward to the throne so he could be a “puppet king” with Simpson as queen, codenamed as “Operation Willi.”

Queen Elizabeth & Prince Philip’s age gap

On a trip with her parents and sister in 1939, and then 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth visited Dartmouth’s Britannia Royal Navy College. Prince Philip was also there and was tasked with entertaining the royal visitors, which is where Elizabeth first started falling for Philip, who was five years her senior.

However, due to the age gap, it was a while before they began their courtship. Philip asked Elizabeth to marry him in 1946, to which she agreed “without even seeking her parents’ permission.” Her father, King George VI, understood his daughter’s feelings but asked the couple to wait until Elizabeth was 21 “before publicly announcing the engagement.”

How Elizabeth & Philip are related

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As it turns out, Elizabeth and Philip are actually distantly related. They are both descendants of Queen Victoria as her great-great grandchildren, making them third cousins. Elizabeth’s lineage to Victoria is through her father’s side, while Philip is related to Victoria through his mother’s side.

This close relation comes down to a common ancestor between the majority of European royal families — King George II, who reigned over Great Britain and Northern Ireland between 1727 and 1760.

Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend

Like her uncle, Princess Margaret also fell for a divorcee. In 1952, a then 22-year-old Margaret fell for royal equerry Peter Townsend, who was 16 years older than her. It’s not entirely clear whether Townsend was still married when they began their relationship, but it was his divorce that prevented them from marrying a year later.

While the queen gave her consent for Margaret’s marriage, the government disapproved of the marriage, and would only allow it if Margaret was stripped of her royal privileges. Margaret would later release a statement, announcing that she would put her duty for the crown before her relationship with Townsend.

Margaret’s relationship with Antony Armstrong-Jones

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Margaret would later marry photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1962, but their relationship became fraught with issues. According to the Evening Standard, both Margaret and Jones had affairs during their marriage. One of the most highly publicised was Margaret’s relationship with landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, who was 17 years her junior.

The pair were photographed together in 1976 during a holiday in Mustique, the same year that Margaret and Armstrong-Jones had separated prior to their divorce in 1979. Theirs was the first royal divorce in 77 years.

Princess Anne’s affairs

In 1973, Princess Anne married Capt. Mark Phillips. Six years into their marriage, rumours began to circulate that Anne was having an affair with her personal bodyguard, Detective Sgt. Peter Cross. According to Cross, Anne used the pseudonym of “Mrs. Wallis” when she contacted him.

Anne’s marriage to Phillips survived this alleged affair; however, in 1985, Phillips was linked to New Zealand art teacher Heather Tonkin after the birth of her daughter, Felicity, of whom Phillips was the father. During this time, Anne was allegedly having an affair with Vice Adm. Sir Timothy Laurence, whom she met while serving on the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Princess Anne’s divorce from Mark Phillips

Anne and Phillips would later divorce in 1992, and Anne would go on to marry Laurence that same year. Their marriage took place at Crathie Kirk near Balmoral because at the time the Church of England “didn't allow divorced people to re-marry in its churches while their former spouse was still alive,” per Tatler.

This resulted in Anne being the first royal since Princess Victoria, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to be a remarried divorcee. Anne and Laurence currently live at Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire.

Prince Charles’ affair


In 1981, Prince Charles married Princess Diana in a fairytale wedding that was broadcast all over the world. The magic wouldn’t last long, however, as Charles still had feelings for his first love, Camilla Parker Bowles.

Diana claimed that she confronted Parker Bowles about the affair in 1989, in interview tapes recorded by Andrew Morton for her biography, Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words. Three years later, the British tabloids published a private phone call between Charles and Parker-Bowles, which was subsequently referred to as “Camillagate.”

Charles later confessed to the affair in a televised interview, where he said that he tried to stay faithful to Diana “until it became clear that the marriage had irretrievably broken down.”

Princess Diana’s affair

The same year that Charles and Parker Bowles began seeing each other again, the Princess of Wales reportedly started an affair with her horse riding instructor, James Hewitt.

Hewitt wrote of their affair in a 1994 book titled Princess in Love, which detailed their five-year relationship. Diana also confirmed the affair in her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir for BBC’s Panorama. “Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down,” she explained, referring to the publication of Hewitt’s book.

Charles & Diana’s divorce

As a result of the affairs on both sides, plus other issues in their relationship, Charles and Diana announced their separation in 1992. They continued their royal duties and would later divorce in 1996 following the Queen’s suggestion. As a result, Diana had to relinquish “Her Royal Highness” but maintained the “Princess of Wales” title.

Prince Philip notably took Diana’s side during the divorce, writing in letters to Diana that “Charles was silly to risk everything with Camilla for a man in his position.” The letters were revealed during a 2007 inquest into Diana and Dodi Fayed’s death in 1997.

Diana’s Panorama interview

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Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview stirred a lot of controversy for the royal family. The Princess of Wales wanted to tell her side of the story, discussing the dissolution of her marriage as well as detailing her mental health struggles as a member of the royal family.

In 2021, an independent inquiry took place to analyse how Bashir obtained the interview with Diana in the first place. Headed by Lord Dyson, a former senior judge, it found that Bashir had “used deception to secure the interview and then lied to BBC managers” about it. According to a graphic artist working for the BBC at the time, Bashir asked them to produce fake bank statements in order to “gain confidence” from Diana’s brother Earl Spencer so he would introduce Bashir to his sister.

Diana’s memoir

In 1992, royal reporter Andrew Morton published a book detailing the breakdown of the royal couple with Diana’s input. The Princess of Wales confirmed after publication that she “had told friends and family to cooperate and talk to Morton,” and that was as far as her involvement was with the book, initially titled Diana: Her True Story.

Following Diana’s death in 1997, Morton published a revised version of the book retitled as Diana: Her True Story In Her Own Words. In addition to confirming that the princess was the “main source” for the first edition, he also included an 18,000-word transcript of tape recordings from conversations with Diana in 1991 and 1992 where she talked about “her unhappy marriage, her bulimia, her feelings about Camilla Parker Bowles, and her parents’ divorce.”

The Queen’s reaction to Diana’s death

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A year following her divorce from Prince Charles, Diana started dating Egyptian billionaire Dodi Fayed. On August 31, 1997, they were involved in a fatal car crash in Paris as a result of a high-speed pursuit from local paparazzi through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Diana’s children, William and Harry, were on holiday in Balmoral with Prince Charles when the incident took place.

The queen was criticised somewhat for not publicly mourning the princess immediately after her death, but according to Tina Brown, the author of The Diana Chronicles, the queen “was adamant that her place was at Balmoral with her grieving grandsons,” she wrote. “Everyone rallied around the young princes.”

There was also controversy surrounding the flag at Buckingham Palace, as it wasn’t at half-staff. As the queen wasn’t at the royal residence at the time, the flag was not flying. This was later changed, and the queen ordered that the flag be flown at half-staff while she attended Diana’s funeral.

Sarah Ferguson & the “toe lick” scandal

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their separation on March 19, 1992, mainly as a result of Andrew’s career in the Royal Navy. A few months after their split, Ferguson was caught up in a media storm where she was photographed by paparazzi while on holiday in St. Tropez with financial adviser John Bryan.

There was one moment in particular that captured the media’s attention — when Bryan was seen sucking the Duchess of York’s toes. “She was at Balmoral when those photographs came out,” royal biographer Penny Junor told Metro. “The family came down for breakfast and there was Fergie in this shocking scene, and that was the end.”

Sarah Ferguson & Prince Andrew’s divorce

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Following their separation in 1992, the Duke and Duchess of York divorced in 1996. Describing it as “the most painful time” of her life, Ferguson explained that “it’s not right for a princess of the royal house to be commercial, so Andrew and I decided to make the divorce official so I could go off and get a job.”

Despite separating, the pair have described themselves as “the happiest divorced couple in the world,” remaining good friends and even living at the Royal Lodge in Windsor together. “We enjoy each other’s company; we allow each other to blossom,” Ferguson told the Daily Mail (via Town & Country). “I know it sounds like a fairy tale, but that’s the way we are.”

The bribery scandal

In 2010, the News of the World revealed that Sarah Ferguson promised an undercover reporter access to Prince Andrew for £500,000. Their exchange was secretly recorded, and Ferguson was heard telling the reporter that she “could open any door” they wanted. “Look after me and he’ll look after you. … You’ll get it back tenfold,” she said.

The Duke of York denied knowledge of the bribe, but Ferguson said she had told him prior to the meeting, and that he suggested the amount of money. The Duchess of York later apologised for the incident, going on to explain she had “a serious lapse in judgment” and that she was “very sorry that this happened.”

Sarah Ferguson allegedly accepted a loan from Jeffrey Epstein

In 2011, the Evening Standard reported that Ferguson accepted a £15,000 loan from Jeffrey Epstein to pay a former assistant. The money, which was obtained through Andrew, was given to the duchess in 2005. “I deeply regret Jeffrey Epstein became involved in any way with me,” Ferguson said in a statement, describing the payment as a “gigantic error of judgment” on her part. “I am so contrite I cannot say. Whenever I can, I will repay the money and will have nothing to do with Jeffrey Epstein ever again.”

Sarah Ferguson addressing the Prince Andrew scandal

During an interview on The Meredith Vieria Show, the Duchess of York commented on the association between her ex-husband and Epstein. “I don’t understand how in this day and age people can make salacious lies up, and how the media then write about it and follow on with it,” Ferguson said.

Describing the allegations as “defamation of character,” Ferguson went on to say that “it is just shockingly accusatory lies, which I won’t stand by and let anybody believe.”

Andrew’s controversial career as UK trade envoy

Prior to stepping down from the role because of the Epstein scandal, Prince Andrew was trade envoy to the United Kingdom, which saw him traveling around the world representing the country.

However, the royal was often criticised in the media for his choice of people to entertain. On one occasion, the prince allegedly lunched with a “notorious” member of the Tunisian regime, which happened to be the son of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, according to the Sydney Herald.

Another controversy arose from a report that he spent four days in Tunisia and met with a convicted gun smuggler as well as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, according to the Times.

“Randy Andy”

Throughout his life as a royal, Andrew has been given quite a few nicknames. One of which is “Randy Andy,” referring to his party lifestyle — which he denied during his 2019 Newsnight interview for the BBC.

According to the Guardian, he spent the majority of the ’80s enjoying relationships with models and actors. In that decade, he dated 21-year-old Tracie Lamb, actor Vicki Hodge, Miss U.K. 1980 Carolyn Seaward, and model Clare Park, as reported by Yahoo. He reportedly caused a major stir in 1981 after dating actress Koo Stark, who had also starred in a soft-porn film.

“Airmiles Andy”

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Another nickname for the prince was “Airmiles Andy” as a result of his jet-set lifestyle. The Duke of York was regularly criticised for his use of private jets and helicopters, when he could have easily traveled by train or car, as well as wasting taxpayers money on “career trips” where he’d spend time skiing and golfing.

Andrew’s justification for the £14 million spent on travel and security expenses over the course of his career as U.K. trade envoy was that it was “the maximisation of [his] time with the best value for money,” as the royal explained in an interview with ITV. “I’m not the one who makes those decisions.”

Andrew & the Epstein scandal

In 2015, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, known as Jane Doe No. 3 in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, alleged that she was given to Prince Andrew as a “gift” by Epstein in 2001. This sparked controversy surrounding Andrew’s involvement with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, both of whom he had been close friends with for decades.

Buckingham Palace has said the allegations about the Duke of York are “categorically untrue,” and Prince Andrew went on to tell his side of the story in a disastrous interview with BBC’s Newsnight in 2019. As a result of the interview, and the claims against him, Andrew stepped down from his duties as a royal in 2019.

Prince Harry & the Nazi costume


When Prince Harry was 20 years old, he created a lot of controversy when he was spotted wearing a Nazi uniform (complete with a swastika armband) at a costume party hosted by Olympic equestrian Richard Meade. The photo, which was first published by The Sun, resulted in Harry having to issue an apology for his actions.

“Prince Harry has apologised for any offence or embarrassment he has caused,” a statement from Clarence House said at the time. “He realises it was a poor choice of costume.”

Harry & the leaked Las Vegas photos

While on holiday in Las Vegas in 2012, Harry was photographed naked, reportedly playing strip billiards. First leaked to TMZ, the images spread across British and American media leading to a statement from St. James’ Palace that it had contacted the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) over the photos.

“They thought Prince Harry had a reasonable right to privacy, being in a private hotel,” a spokesperson said.

Harry & Meghan Markle “stepping back” from royal duties

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In January 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they’d be stepping back from royal duties. The couple explained that “after many months of reflection and internal discussions,” they wanted to “carve out a progressive new role” within the royal family.

This move came after a year of media scrutiny, racism, and online abuse that led to the couple suing The Mail on Sunday for publishing a private letter between Meghan and her father, Thomas Markle.

The Oprah Winfrey interview

Following their departure as senior British royals, Harry and Meghan sat down with Oprah Winfrey for a tell-all interview, explaining their decision to move to the States and how the constant scrutiny from the media and people online had affected them.

Meghan especially opened up about her struggles, explaining that she didn’t “want to be alive anymore” because of the relentless racism and hateful comments. She also revealed that through Harry, she learned that the institution was concerned about “how dark” Archie’s skin tone would be.

Harry opening up about his mental health


Taking part in Winfrey’s The Me You Can’t See docu-series for Apple TV+, Harry opened up about his struggles with mental health and how it was never dealt with properly in the royal family. He also links it back to the death of his mother, Princess Diana.

In one particularly poignant moment, he describes having to walk behind his mum’s coffin at the age of 12. “For me, the thing I remember the most was the sound of the horses’ hooves going along the mall, red brick road,” he explained. “By this point, both of us were in shock.”

Topless photos of Sophie

Less than a month before Sophie Rhys-Jones was due to marry Prince Edward, The Sun published a topless photo of the soon-to-be Countess of Wessex. Described by Buckingham Palace as “premeditated cruelty,” the photo depicted Rhys-Jones having her top lifted up by Chris Tarrant, who was her colleague on Capital Radio.

“It was a pretty stupid, thoughtless thing to have done, and I’d rather it hadn’t happened,” Tarrant told The Irish Times, saying that he knows he “shouldn’t have done it.”

Topless photos of Kate Middleton

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Kate Middleton was the subject of a similar revelation in 2012, when the French edition of Closer published photographs of the Duchess sun-bathing topless while on holiday in France. Prince William and Middleton would later sue the magazine for damages, which they won in 2017 after a French court ruled that her privacy was breached.

“The incident was a serious breach of privacy, and their royal highnesses felt it essential to pursue all legal remedies,” a statement read.

The Guardian investigation

In February 2021, the Guardian started an investigation into the royal family’s use of parliamentary procedure. Through uncovering documents at the National Archives, the newspaper found racial discrimination in Buckingham Palace’s hiring process, as well as issues surrounding the queen’s consent, which can influence parliamentary decisions quite significantly.

Buckingham Palace issued a statement in response to issues surrounding the queen’s consent, explaining that it is “purely formal” and that “any assertion that the sovereign has blocked legislation is simply incorrect.”

Tax haven allegations

During a global investigation called “The Paradise Papers” in 2017, documents revealed that the queen’s private fund, the Duchy of Lancaster, had ties to the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. Per Newsweek, the queen was allegedly “dodging nearly $15 million in taxes on her $680 million duchy.”

Representatives of the queen’s estate said that “all investments were legal and that less than 1% of funds were held in the Cayman Islands” and clarified that the queen doesn’t personally manage the estate.

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