The British royal family is used to navigating tricky situations, from sudden abdications to constant tabloid scrutiny. But through the good and the bad, they've managed to remain one of the most influential monarchies in the world. Here, we take a look back at some of history's biggest moments that changed the royal family forever.
Queen Victoria was fifth in line for the throne, but after her father's death in 1820 when she was eight months old, she became the heir because her uncles had no direct heirs. She became Queen when she turned 18 in 1837 after King William II (the brother and successor of Victoria’s grandfather) died and changed the royal lineage forever. She served as monarch for 63 years and was the longest English reign until her great-great granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, passed her in 2015.
If you were a fan of Meghan Markle or Kate Middleton’s wedding dresses, you kind of have Queen Victoria to thank. The British monarchy started the tradition of brides wearing white on their wedding day when she married Prince Albert. Before then, women didn't wear one set color.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert married in 1839 and remained extremely loyal to one another throughout their marriage. When the prince died in 1861, Queen Victoria not only lost her devoted husband, but a strong political advisor. Following his death, the Queen entered into intense mourning—sleeping with a plaster cast of his hand, wearing only black for the remainder of her life, and receding from courtier life, which led to 25 years of seclusion.
In the midst of World War I, the British royal family changed their family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in order to tone down their German ancestry. Here, King George V is pictured with his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, in Berlin just before the start of the war.
King George V was the first monarch to deliver a speech to the entire nation by radio broadcast on Christmas. Although the King was hesitant about doing the speech, it was a big deal for people across the empire to hear his voice in their own homes. His short message, written by Rudyard Kipling, was the monarchy's first step at embracing modernization. "I take it as a good omen that wireless should have reached its present perfection at a time when the Empire has been linked in closer union. For it offers us immense possibilities to make that union closer still," the King said in 1932.
The monarchy entered into a constitutional crisis on December 11, 1936 when Edward VIII, who was set to take the throne after his father's death, announced his abdication. In the Prince's speech over radio broadcast, Edward spoke of his inability to carry out his duties without the woman he loved by his side, American divorcée Wallis Simpson. After his abdication, he took the title of Duke of Windsor, married Simpson, and the two lived in exile in France.
Prince Albert of York, who never expected to rule, was suddenly coronated and became King George VI. He and his family moved into Buckingham Palace and Princess Elizabeth II was named heir to the throne at the age of 10.
The entire nation was devoted to the war effort in 1939. While the King and Queen stayed in Buckingham Palace, the princesses were moved to Windsor Castle for safety. Later, Princess Elizabeth served as a mechanic in the war.
Royal advisors weren't too keen on the match between Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, who was a member of the exiled Greek royal family. But the young princess advocated for him and the two were married on November 20, 1947, in which the Princess promised to "love, to cherish, and to obey" her husband—which many thought was a bold move for a future monarch to promise.
India was one of the most valuable territories under the British empire's control, so when the country sought independence in 1947 it was a huge loss to the crown. But World War II made the monarchy realize they couldn't maintain a global empire, so they helped India form a new government, which Lord Mountbatten oversaw.
After the death of her father King George VI, Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth II. The Princess heard of the news while standing in for her ailing father on a royal tour in Africa and had not packed a black dress. She had to change into one on the plane after landing in London and has since created a royal protocol that all members of the royal family must travel with a mourning outfit in case a similar situation arises.
In 1953, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey was the first to air on television. The historic moment was watched by over 27 million people around the world.
When news broke of Princess Margaret’s relationship with Captain Peter Townsend, it was a royal scandal. Not only was Townsend a royal officer who worked as an equerry for the household, but he was married. Townsend divorced his wife, but parliament wouldn't approve of their marriage because the Church of England was against divorce and it was too soon after the Duke of Windsor's abdication scandal. There was nothing for Queen Elizabeth to do, but the press was heavily on the couple’s side and vilified the monarchy’s strict stance.
Princess Margaret’s Westminster Abbey wedding to Antony Armstrong Jones was the first British royal wedding to air on television. Since then it’s become a tradition to televise royal weddings.
Prince Philip’s uncle and close member of the royal family's inner circle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) when they planted a bomb on his boat. Mountbatten, his grandson, and two others were killed in the explosion.
When the Queen's eldest son, and heir apparent, announced his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer, the world became captivated with the couple. Their July wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral was watched by more than 750 million people and lured a whole new generation of people—including Americans—into the royal fairytale.
The Queen’s grandson, Prince William, was born on June 21, 1982 in the Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital. The birth of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's first son reordered the line of succession, with the newborn becoming second in line to the throne.
The Queen’s only daughter, Princess Anne, announced her divorce from Captain Mark Phillips in 1989, which was finalized in 1992. The couple had been married since 1973 and shared two children. The Princess married Timothy Laurence shortly after her divorce was finalized.
A leaked telephone conversation between Prince Charles and his married ex-girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles, revealed that the Prince of Wales had been cheating on his wife, Princess Diana.
In 1992, Buckingham Palace released a statement that the Prince of Wales planned to divorce his wife, Princess Diana. The couple, who had been plagued by rumors of infidelity for years, expressed their plans to separate before formal divorce proceedings could be drawn up.
A massive fire broke out in Windsor Castle in November 1992. The fire damaged more than 119 rooms in the palace and resulted in extensive renovations.
Another one of the Queen's children, Prince Andrew, announced his separation from wife Sarah Ferguson in 1992. The Queen has since called the year of 1992 "annus horribilus," meaning horrible year in Latin.
Soon after her separation was announced, Ferguson was caught in a compromising position while on vacation with American financier, John Bryan. The images covered every newspaper and was tabloid fodder for a while, causing great embarrassment to the royal household. It resulted in Fergie being removed from the inner circle.
While separated from Prince Charles, Diana decided to give her side of the story and organized an unauthorized interview from her Kensington Palace apartment. In the unprecedented interview, Diana not only revealed the full extent of Prince Charles’s infidelity (it had been going on for a long time), but also described how she struggled to cope with the pressures of royal life.
In August 1997, news broke that Princess Diana had passed away in a tragic car crash in Paris. People all around the world mourned and flooded to Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace to pay their respects. She was dubbed "the People's Princess" and the royal family’s silence following Diana’s death prompted outrage from citizens...so much that Queen Elizabeth addressed the nation in a televised speech, which had never been done before.
Queen Elizabeth faced two tremendous losses within the same year. Her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and her mother passed away within months of one another.
The former Duchess of York damaged her relationship with the monarchy once again when she was exposed for exchanging money with an undercover reporter for access to her ex-husband.
Prince William made headlines when he proposed to longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton in 2010, with his late mother's engagement ring. As Middleton did not come from a noble background, she was technically considered a “commoner” in British society.
The Queen celebrated her 60-year reign in 2012 with her Diamond Jubilee. Four years later, she passed Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.