In Depth

A history of royal divorces

The monarchy has a patchy record when it comes to successful marriages

The Queen’s nephew, the Earl of Snowdon, and his wife have revealed that they are to divorce – the second royal separation of 2020.

The earl, David Armstrong-Jones, is the son of the late Princess Margaret. He has been married to Serena, the Countess of Snowdon, for 26 years and they have two children.

The announcement that the pair have “amicably agreed” to divorce follows the news that the Queen’s grandson, Peter Phillips, and his wife Autumn also plan to split.

Despite three of her four children having dissolved their marriages, the Queen feels “sad but pragmatic” about royal divorces, although feels it is “too easy to get divorced”, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine, Ingrid Seward, told the Daily Mail.

The message has clearly not got around to her nearest and dearest. Here is a brief history of royal divorce.

Henry VIII 

The grandfather of royal divorces, Henry went to pretty extreme lengths to separate from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

His disagreement with the Pope on the question of divorce led Henry to initiate the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from papal authority and dissolving Catholic convents and monasteries up and down the country.

The annulment came as a result of Henry’s desire for a male heir and saw the king appoint himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England – a title still held by the reigning monarch to this day. 

Prince George of Wales

In 1795, the eldest son of King George III, Prince George of Wales, married Princess Caroline who, according to Reader’s Digest, the prince “detested”.

The couple had one child, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, but always lived apart owing to their mutual disdain for one another. 

In 1820, George, who had just become King George IV, decided a divorce was in order to stop his wife becoming Queen. He sued her for “divorce based on infidelity”, a claim that Readers’ Digest labels as “the pot calling the kettle ‘black’”.

The divorce proceedings were not successful, but George still excluded his wife from his coronation and she fell ill on the same day, dying three weeks later, on 7 August 1821. Historians have speculated that she was poisoned.

King Edward VIII

Edward abdicated the throne in 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

The highly controversial decision to abdicate was necessary because Simpson had previously been married.

While the Church of England permitted divorce, it didn’t permit remarriage to a divorcee whose spouse was still living. This legislation remained in effect until 2002.

Simpson was seen as a “temptress, the woman who pulled a king away from his duty”, says CNN. Edward’s abdication saw his younger brother, who would become George VI, take to the throne.

Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon

Edward’s niece and Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Margaret, became the first senior member of the royal family to divorce in 77 years when she separated from photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1978. 

Season three of The Crown portrays the split, which followed the emergence of photographs of Margaret holidaying in Mustique with author and TV presenter Roddy Llewellyn in 1976.

However, Harper’s Bazaar says there were years of rumoured extramarital affairs. Armstrong-Jones reportedly “conducted multiple extramarital affairs”, while Margaret is also alleged to have played away from home with “her husband’s friend Anthony Barton and a nightclub pianist Robin Douglas-Home”, says the magazine.

Princess Anne, The Princess Royal

In 1992, the Queen’s second eldest child and only daughter, Princess Anne, divorced her husband Captain Mark Phillips after a three-year separation.

Later that year, she became the first child of a British monarch to remarry, when she wed her current husband Timothy Laurence.

The Church of England’s rules about divorcees remarrying had not been changed at this point, but Anne avoided that pitfall by holding her second wedding in Scotland.

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales

One of the most high-profile royal divorces to date was that between Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1996. 

The divorce made Charles the first Prince of Wales and heir apparent to be granted a divorce, and was the subject of international (and media) fascination, owing in part to the popularity of Diana.

In 1995, Diana gave an explosive interview to the BBC’s Martin Bashir in which she claimed there were “three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” in response to a question about Camilla Parker Bowles.

The interview was initially kept a secret from Buckingham Palace, The Sun reports, and a few weeks later the Queen wrote to both Charles and Diana requesting that they formally divorce.

Diana’s death in 1997 meant that remarrying was permissible for Charles; however, he did not remarry until 2005 when he wed Parker Bowles.  

In 2002, the Church of England began permitting divorcees to remarry even while their former spouses were still alive in “exceptional circumstances”, reports the BBC, meaning that Camilla’s former spouse, Andrew Parker Bowles, was no longer a stumbling block.

Prince Andrew, Duke of York

The controversy of Andrew’s divorce from Sarah Ferguson arguably pales into insignificance in comparison to his current woes. But, at the time, the separation was a national scandal.

The split was announced in 1992 – a year the Queen has referred to as her “annus horribilius” – following six years of marriage.

Neither remarried, and in 2016 Ferguson said that the pair are still close and “never really left each other”

Five months after their separation was made public, Ferguson became embroiled in a scandal that the Daily Mirror claims “drove [her] out of the royal family”, when she was pictured having her toes sucked by Texan millionaire John Bryan.

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Meghan Markle, The Duchess of Sussex

Prior to her wedding to Prince Harry in 2018, Markle was coupled up with American director Trevor Engelson.

The pair were married in 2011, but split approximately 18 months later, according to Town & Country magazine. They were granted a no-fault divorce in August 2013, citing irreconcilable differences.


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