The Heartwarming Ways Prince William Supported Mom Princess Diana During Her Split From Prince Charles

Sounding wise beyond his 14 years, Prince William made a heartfelt promise to Princess Diana when her marriage to Prince Charles officially ended in 1996.

By Natalie Finn Nov 17, 2022 8:00 PMTags
Watch: Elizabeth Debicki Portrays Princess Diana With Sons in The Crown

There's competition for rock bottom when it comes to the low points of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's marriage.

But for all their irreconcilable differences, no one (tabloid headlines excluded) doubted either's devotion to their children. The Prince and Princess of Wales sidestepped the widening rift between them for as long as they could to maintain an ostensibly intact family unit for the sake of Prince William and Prince Harry—until that, too, became an untenable situation.

And yet, actually splitting up was a last resort. 

"I'm not going anywhere, I'm staying put," Diana said, according to Andrew Morton's bombshell 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story. As far as she was concerned, if Charles wanted to end their marriage, he'd have to be the one to make the first move.

And while Charles had rekindled the flame with ex Camilla Parker Bowles in the 1980s, he was still telling friends that he hoped he and Diana could remain married—even if that meant being husband and wife in name only and amicably leading separate lives as friends.

All the Royal Scandals and Events That The Crown Skipped in Season 5

But Charles had a tipping point. According to Morton, a clash with Diana over a scuttled visit with William and Harry ended up being the last straw.

A few weeks after their tour of South Korea, which turned out to be their last official trip as a couple, Charles planned a shooting party for the weekend of Nov. 20, 1992, at Sandringham, timed specially for his sons' break from school. But, as the prince angrily informed the queen, Diana refused to bring the boys.

How Prince William and Prince Harry Have Paid Tribute to Princess Diana Over the Years

Incidentally, Diana not wanting to reunite for a country weekend came just days after the Daily Mirror published a two-part exclusive teasing "Charles's Secret Bedtime Phone Call" with Camilla—a precursor to the January 1993 scandal that came to be known as "tampongate."

But Charles apparently did not see it that way.

Julian Parker/UK Press via Getty Images

"'Don't you realize, she's mad, mad, mad,'" the prince said of his estranged wife, according to Ingrid Seward's 2000 book The Queen and Di. (Ironically, Nov. 20 ended up being the day a massive fire broke out at Windsor Castle and destroyed 100 rooms and nine state apartments, a fitting complement to the slow burn creeping its way through the royal family.)

After encouraging Charles and Diana earlier in the year to give themselves a few months to mend fences, Queen Elizabeth II agreed that they couldn't go on like this. 

So, after requisite discussions with the family matriarch, Charles and Diana met at Kensington Palace on Nov. 25 and agreed to separate. Prime Minister John Major relayed the palace's announcement of the split to the House of Commons on Dec. 9 as it was being shared wide.

Most Expensive Celeb Divorces

After he read the palace's statement, which noted that "the decision has been reached amicably, and they will both continue to participate fully in the upbringing of their children," Major took it upon himself to assure the assembled MPs that Charles and Diana's breakup had no constitutional implications and the line of succession remained intact.

Moreover, he added, "there is no reason why the Princess of Wales should not be crowned Queen in due course. The Prince of Wales's succession as head of the Church of England is also unaffected."

Diana, meanwhile, had already told Morton more than a year beforehand that she didn't see herself becoming queen. Though it was more of a self-deprecating, melancholy jab at Charles at the time, her comment proved hauntingly prescient.

Tom Wargacki/WireImage

Still, Charles and Diana got along better in the wake of the separation, and neither was motivated to upset the status quo. The prince told biographer Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994 that divorce was "not a consideration in my mind."

However, Charles also admitted to having an affair with Camilla in his televised Dimbleby interview—though, he said, only after his marriage to Diana became "irretrievably broken down, us both having tried."

After that bombshell aired, Diana went to visit William at school. 

Having access to tabloids, the 12-year-old wasn't entirely in the dark. Moreover, according to Morton, William had once witnessed his mother laugh and exclaim, "Good!" after a magician made her wedding ring "disappear" while they were out to lunch at a London restaurant. 

Prince William's Family Album

But he did have questions for her, Diana recalled to Martin Bashir in 1995 on the BBC's Panorama.

"I went to the school and put it to William, particularly, that if you find someone you love in life you must hang on to it and look after it, and if you were lucky enough to find someone who loved you then one must protect it," Diana shared. "William asked me what had been going on, and could I answer his questions, which I did."

Arthur Edwards - Pool /Getty Images

Diana said that William asked her if his dad's relationship with Camilla (who the young prince wouldn't meet until 1998) was the reason they split up.

"And I said, 'Well, there were three of us in this marriage, and the pressure of the media was another factor, so the two together were very difficult,'" Diana continued. "'But although I still loved Papa I couldn't live under the same roof as him, and likewise with him.'"

William apparently wasn't ignorant of his mother's indiscretions, either. After Anna Pasternak's Princess in Love—a purported tell-all about Diana's affair with James Hewitt—hit shelves in October 1994, much to Diana's distress, "the first thing I did was rush down to talk to my children," she told Bashir. "And William produced a box of chocolates and said, 'Mummy, I think you've been hurt. These are to make you smile again.'"

Diana also reiterated to Bashir her prediction that she'd never be queen—and her suggestion, originally made to Morton, that Charles might be best served by doing something other than becoming king one day.

Princess Diana's 1995 BBC Interview Bombshells

"Because I know the character, I would think that the top job, as I call it, would bring enormous limitations to him," Diana explained, "and I don't know whether he could adapt to that."

She also left the breakup ball in Charles' court once again. "I don't want a divorce," Diana said, "but obviously we need clarity on a situation that has been of enormous discussion over the last three years in particular. So all I say to that is that I await my husband's decision of which way we are all going to go."

A month after that explosive interview—which went over at the palace like "a cup of cold sick," according to the queen's press secretary at the time, Dickie Arbiter—the queen wrote to her son and daughter-in-law to inform them that it was time to pull the plug. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister agreed, the monarch told Diana, "you must divorce."

All the Actresses Who've Played Princess Diana

Diana's main concern other than her kids was maintaining her status in the family, according to multiple accounts. In addition to making the humanitarian work that had defined her tenure as a senior royal more impactful, the title of Her Royal Highness, in particular, implied a close connection to the crown because it was bestowed at the discretion of the sovereign.

The queen "had to decide on the future title, but she always made it clear to Diana, which was comforting, that she would have all the access she wanted to the boys," Morton told E! News upon the release of his latest book, The Queen: Her Life. "The one thing [Diana] feared above all else was that the boys would be taken away from her, and she knew that the royal family had the constitutional and the legal right to do that if they wanted. But the queen made it perfectly clear that wouldn't happen."

Diana and her mother-in-law seemingly enjoyed a relationship of "mutual respect," the author noted, though, in terms of public image, "the queen was the stiff upper lip and Diana was the trembling lower lip." But since the queen was overseeing the divorce negotiations on the crown's behalf, "there had to be a distance between them." 

All About King Charles III's Reign

On Feb. 28, 1996—the "saddest day of my life," Diana called it—the princess' office announced that she had "agreed to Prince Charles's request for a divorce." Her statement noted that she would "continue to be involved in all decisions relating to the children" and still be known as "Diana, Princess of Wales." 

Not so fast, said Buckingham Palace, which countered with a statement sharing that the queen was "most interested" to hear the news.

"We can confirm that the Prince and Princess of Wales had a private meeting this afternoon at St James's Palace," the queen's press office continued. "At this meeting details of the divorce settlement and the Princess's future role were not discussed. All the details on these matters, including titles, remain to be discussed and settled. This will take time."

With the press reporting that Diana was resisting giving up her HRH status at her in-laws' request, the queen's press secretary issued a rare denial, stating, "It is wrong that the Queen or the Prince asked her" to shed the HRH and insisting it would be Diana's choice.

Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images

Whether she wanted to or not, Diana did relinquish her HRH status. According to Morton, however, she was more secure in the choice after then-14-year-old William—who had watched the Panorama interview in the house master's study at Eton—told her it didn't matter a bit to him what her title was.

Even more poignantly, Diana's former butler Paul Burrell recounted in his 2003 book A Royal Duty that the princess was brought to tears when William told her, "Don't worry, Mummy, I will give it back to you one day when I am King."

Instead, William was mourning his mother's death barely 13 months later.

"I kept saying to myself that, you know, my mother would not want me to be upset," William said in the 2017 documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, recalling the immediate days after Diana's shocking death in a car crash on Aug. 31, 1997. "She'd not want me to be down. She'd not want me to be like this. I kept myself busy as well—which is good and bad sometimes—but allows you to kind of get through that initial shock phase."

William also stole away for moments alone.

"Our worry at the moment is William," grandfather Prince Philip was overheard saying when a palace aide was on the phone with the prime minister's office, per Tina Brown's The Diana Chronicles. "He's run away up the hill and we can't find him."

The queen and Philip immediately closed ranks around their grandsons, wanting to keep them sequestered at Balmoral for as long as possible to shield them from the media and prying eyes. The palace's initial refusal to speak out about the family tragedy provoked the biggest backlash of her entire reign, much to the stoic queen's storied surprise.

7 Ways Princess Diana Forever Changed What it Means to Be a Royal

But though Diana had eventually become estranged from the entire royal institution, she never wanted to jeopardize either the monarchy or William's predestined place in it.

"I would never do anything to hurt the monarchy," she told Seward after her divorce was finalized. "I have no wish to upset what is essentially William's inheritance, whether he likes it or not."

And though she was finally free to openly seek the sort of romantic partnership that had eluded her during her marriage, she knew that would be a tricky subject with her sons. In the meantime, William was "quite happy to have me to himself," Diana said. "I always tell my boys what I am doing—and I always ask their advice."

—With reporting by Beth Sobol

Get the latest tea from inside the palace walls. Sign up for Royal Recap!