Huge Scandals That Rocked The Royals

Britain's royal family and scandalous behavior have walked hand-in-hand for centuries — just imagine the field day that supermarket tabloids would have had with Henry VIII, or Mary, Queen of Scots' scheme to assassinate her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. 

Yet those historic monarchs never had to face the glare of the modern media spotlight, amplifying any whiff of royal scandal to the nth degree while providing salacious entertainment for the rest of us. As the British monarchy adapted and evolved to meet changing times, so too did the scandals that dogged them, with each new generation of royalty managing to build on the imbroglios of their forbears. While the Queen herself has remained more or less scandal-free for most of her decades-long reign, the same cannot be said for her relatives — heck, even the family's fake name was the result of a scandal, when the original moniker, House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was changed in 1917 to the more anglicized House of Windsor to evade anti-German sentiment during the First World War. 

For an even deeper dive, read on to discover some of the huge scandals that rocked the royals.

King Edward VIII gave up the crown

Of the 20th century's various royal scandals, it's tough to top one that led the king of England to relinquish his throne.

When King Edward VIII was crowned after the death of his father, George V, his dalliance with Wallis Simpson was problematic. As BBC News recalled, British PM Stanley Baldwin urged him to end the relationship and convince Simpson — who was married and American — to call off her divorce. Edward balked, determined to marry her. Warned that the British public would never accept an American divorcee as queen, and that the entire cabinet would resign if they wed, Edward ultimately abdicated the throne. His younger brother was then crowned King George VI.

Edward and Simpson were married in 1937. As Vogue recalled, the couple were exiled to France, and could only return to Britain with the monarch's permission. To ensure Edward behaved, the government threatened to cut financial support if he stepped out of line. Simpson was apparently bitter. "For 24 years my husband has been punished, like a small boy who gets a spanking every day of his life for a small transgression," she griped in McCall's, via her 1986 New York Times obituary.

Princess Margaret entered into a forbidden relationship

Elizabeth II was just 27 when she became queen in 1952. Almost immediately she faced a looming scandal in younger sister Princess Margaret's affair with her late father's extra equerry, Peter Townsend. According to Vanity Fair, not only was Townsend 15 years older than Margaret, he was also divorced. The headstrong princess ignored the Queen's advice to break it off, insisting they marry.

For Elizabeth, the parallels between her sister's situation and her uncle's were undeniable. According to a 1953 report in Time, when the affair was reported in the New York Daily News, the British media dismissed the notion of Margaret marrying Townsend as "quite unthinkable."

Elizabeth laid down the law: if Margaret went through with it, she'd lose her royal privileges — and all financial support. Margaret ultimately caved, issuing a statement that Townsend reportedly wrote for her before he was assigned to a post in Brussels. "I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Capt. Peter Townsend," read the statement, via Townsend's 1995 New York Times obituary. "Mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others."

Princess Margaret's history-making divorce

After her romance with Peter Townsend was scuttled, Princess Margaret eventually married photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, dubbed the 1st Earl of Snowdon after their 1960 wedding. As Town & Country recalled, the marriage was a turbulent one, with Snowdon's biographer, Anne De Courcy, noting that both were "pretty strong-willed and accustomed to having their own way." The longer they were married, the more frequent — and public — were their clashes. In his biography Me, rock star Elton John writes about being invited by Margaret to Kensington Palace for dinner in the 1970s. According to Sir Elton, Lord Snowdon "stormed in midway through the meal and literally snarled 'Where's my f**king dinner?' at her. They had a huge row, and she fled the room in tears."

According to the Evening Standard, both spouses became increasingly unfaithful as the marriage unravelled. In 1976, they separated, divorcing two years later — making Margaret first British royal to divorce since King Henry VIII in the 1500s. 

"The marriage has broken down and the couple have lived apart for two years," read a statement from Kensington Palace, via The New York Times. "These are obviously the grounds for divorce."

Prince Charles and the leaked 'Tampongate' conversation

Prince Charles' wedding to Lady Diana Spencer was the media event of the 1980s, with 750 million people watching the royal nuptials on television. Sadly, the marriage itself proved to be far less successful. While the couple had two sons and initially appeared happy while performing royal duties, behind the scenes the marriage was coming apart at the seams.

A big factor was that Charles was still in love with his former girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and they'd been having an affair throughout his marriage to Diana. That became incontrovertible in 1993 when a cringe-inducing telephone conversation between the prince and his mistress, recorded in 1989, made its way to a British newspaper.

As The Express recounted, in the recording Charles jokingly tells her things would be easier if he could "live inside your trousers." She then quipped, "What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers?" Charles replied, "Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck!" He added, "My luck to be chucked down a lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round on the top, never going down." The British press dubbed the ensuing scandal "Tampongate."

Princess Diana and the secret 'Squidgygate' conversation

While Prince Charles was understandably mortified by his "Tampongate" conversation, a year earlier his soon-to-be-ex experienced her own scandal due to a secretly recorded conversation that likewise generated salacious headlines. In the 23-minute phone call, Princes Diana is speaking with alleged lover James Gilbey, who repeatedly tells her "I love you," and calls her by the nickname "Squidgy" a whopping 53 times. Naturally, the British press had a field day with the scandal that became known as "Squidgygate." 

An inquest into Diana's 1997 death revealed how the recording — taped on New Year's Eve 1989 — made its way to the media. As The Telegraph reported, Princess Diana's former bodyguard, Ken Wharfe, testified that telephone conversations of the royal family were routinely recorded by British intelligence during that time, "ostensibly to help protect them against assassination by the IRA." 

Wharfe testified that he believed that particular conversation was recorded "and then broadcast on a 'loop,'" allowing two separate ham radio operators to pick up the broadcast and record it. Those radio enthusiasts then "passed their recordings to the media."

Princess Diana gave a tell-all interview before her divorce

In December 1992, recounted History, British PM John Major announced Princess Diana and Prince Charles had separated. In the years that followed, they lived apart but didn't officially divorce. Legal proceedings were hastened when Diana gave a scorched-earth TV interview to journalist Martin Bashir. The interview generated worldwide headlines, with Diana claiming her husband's affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles had driven her to "rampant bulimia." Asked if the affair is what led to the destruction of her marriage, she replied, "Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

As BBC News recounted, a few weeks after Diana's interview, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson issued a statement in which the Queen revealed she had written to both Charles and Diana to share her opinion "that an early divorce is desirable."

In July 1996, The New York Times reported that the Prince and Princess of Wales had agreed to divorce terms. Instead of receiving alimony payments, Diana received a lump sum, reported to be $22.5 million. She also gave up the title "Your Royal Highness," but she would still be "regarded as a member of the royal family," per a statement from Buckingham Palace. 

Sarah Ferguson's toe-sucking and sting scandals

Sarah Ferguson made something of a public re-emergence in 2020 with the launch of a YouTube channel where she posts story time videos for kids. Before that, however, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew of Prince Andrew was better known for some far less wholesome activities.

Arguably the most memorable — and undeniably the most salacious — took place in 1992, shortly after she and Andrew separated. As The Washington Post reported, photos were taken of Fergie and "financial adviser" John Bryan "smooching, snuggling, nuzzling, embracing, back-rubbing, and generally carrying on" while sunbathing in the south of France. Some of the photos featured the duchess topless, while another featured Bryan enthusiastically sucking her toe. 

While that scandal brought embarrassment, an altogether different one found her caught red-handed in 2010 when a British tabloid's sting operation recorded her demanding a big cash bribe in exchange for access to the royals. As The Guardian reported, she requested £500,000 (approximately $640,000) be wired into her account. "That opens up everything you would ever wish for," she told her would-be briber, promising he'd rake in "tenfold" that amount. Her ex-husband claimed to have no knowledge of the scheme, and she later apologized for her "serious lapse in judgement."

Prince Harry's 'poor choice of costume' sparked outrage

As a young man, Prince Harry developed a reputation as a royal party animal. An early sign emerged, as Hello! recalled, when Prince Charles sent teenage Harry to spend a day in a rehab facility after learning he'd been smoking weed and drinking underage.

As Harry grew older, his judgement wasn't always sound. This was evident when, in 2005, the 20-year-old prince was photographed at a costume party dressed in full Nazi regalia, complete with a swastika armband. After the photo landed on the front page of a British tabloid, BBC News reported, Clarence House issued a statement insisting that Harry had "apologized for any offence or embarrassment," and that he was aware "it was a poor choice of costume." 

There were more embarrassments. In 2011, video emerged of the seemingly plastered prince dancing at the edge of a swimming pool before falling in. This was followed by a 2012 trip to Vegas, during which Harry was photographed buck-naked while partying with pals (supposedly playing "strip pool"). To Harry's credit, he later expressed remorse. "I probably let myself down, I let my family down, I let other people down," he told told BBC News in 2013.

Prince Andrew's connection to Jeffrey Epstein

Prince Andrew's longtime friendship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein has dogged him for years, even leading him to stand down as U.K.'s trade envoy way back in 2011. Epstein's 2019 arrest and subsequent suicide reignited the scandal, as did Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giufre's allegations that she was forced to have sex with Andrew when she was 17 ("the longest 10 minutes of my life," she said in court documents). Andrew denied it, claiming "no recollection" of ever meeting her, although a vintage photo indicated otherwise. 

In late 2019, Andrew tried to quell the scandal by appearing Newsnight. It was a disaster. The Sunday Times reported that the Queen expressed "incredulity and alarm" when learning of his interview, while a palace source described the whole mess as "one of the single worst PR moves in recent history.

Arguably the interview's weirdest moment was Andrew refuting Roberts Giufre's claim that he perspired profusely while dancing with her at a nightclub, making the bizarre assertion that "I don't sweat or I didn't sweat at the time." Not coincidentally, a few days later Andrew issued a statement announcing he'd be stepping back from "public duties" while claiming to "unequivocally regret my ill-judged association with Jeffrey Epstein." 

Kate Middleton's topless tabloid lawsuit

Kate Middleton found herself embroiled in scandal thanks to a snooping paparazzi and a powerful telephoto lens. It all went down when the Duchess of Cambridge and husband Prince William were vacationing in the south of France in 2012, and she decided to ditch her bikini top in order to soak in a little sunshine.

When photos captured the topless future queen, the French edition of Closer magazine published them, slapping the pics on its cover. According to a report in The Guardian, a source claimed the couple was "saddened their privacy has been breached" while the royals were exploring their legal options.

As it turned out, those options went fairly well for the royals. They took the magazine's publisher to court and won, with the judge determining the magazine breached France's privacy laws by publishing the pics. As The Guardian reported in 2017, the couple was awarded €100,000 in damages, while the magazine's editor and the CEO of the publishing company were each fined the maximum amount, €45,000. While the verdict was considered a legal victory, it was still substantially less than the €1.5 million the lawsuit initially sought.

Meghan Markle's family became tabloid fixtures

When TV actor Meghan Markle married Prince Harry in 2018, the newly minted Duchess of Sussex was certainly not immune from scandal. An outsized portion of it, however, was generated by her own family. 

In the run-up to the wedding, the Daily Mail discovered that the duchess' dad, Thomas Markle, had been paid big bucks to stage a series of photos that were purported to be taken by a paparazzo without his knowledge, including shots of him being measured for a suit for his daughter's wedding. Harry and Thomas reportedly had words, and Markle subsequently missed the wedding when he underwent heart surgery. (At the time, it was reported he allegedly faked the heart attack. Thomas would go on to provide the Daily Mail with "medical bills to prove I had a heart attack.") His subsequent interviews, such as a 2018 chat with Good Morning Britain, didn't exactly heal his rift with the royals. 

Then there was the duchess' half-sister, Samantha Markle. After making numerous inflammatory statements to the media, she put it all on the line in British TV documentary Meghan & the Markles: A Family at War. As Us Weekly reported, Samantha said Duchess Meghan's treatment of her father proved "she doesn't have a heart," and wondered why she was "embarrassed about her family."

The Queen was blindsided by 'Megxit'

The parallels between Prince Harry and his great-great-uncle Edward VIII were tough to ignore. Not only did both marry divorced American women, Harry likewise exited royal life after he and his wife made a bombshell announcement in January 2020: they intended "to step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent."

Appearing on Today, royal analyst Victoria Arbiter was asked if she believed the Queen had been "blindsided" by the couple's announcement. "I think she was," said Arbiter, with Elizabeth II seemingly confirming that by issuing a statement explaining the "complicated issues that will take time to work through."

The Queen ultimately gave her consent to what the press dubbed "Megxit," issuing a statement insisting the family was "entirely supportive" of their decision. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ultimately settled in California, and in April sent an incendiary letter to various media outlets declaring they would no longer "offer themselves up as currency for an economy of clickbait and distortion." In September 2020, the couple seemingly ensured their financial independence by entering a multiyear production deal with Netflix, with The New York Times reporting they had been seeking "in the neighborhood of $100 million."