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The British royal family is used to navigating tricky situations, from sudden abdications to scrutiny in the press. 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 the biggest moments in history that changed the royal family forever.
1837: Queen Victoria's Ascension to the Throne
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 (opens in new tab) 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.
1839: Queen Victoria’s Wedding Dress
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 (opens in new tab) on their wedding day when she married Prince Albert. Before then, women didn't wear one set color.
1861: The Death of Prince Albert
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 (opens in new tab)—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.
1917: Becoming the Windsors
In the midst of World War I, the British royal family changed their family name (opens in new tab) 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.
1932: The First Christmas Broadcast
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 (opens in new tab).
1936: Edward VIII Abdicates the Throne
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 (opens in new tab). 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.
1937: King George VI Ascends the Throne
Prince Albert of York, who never expected to rule, was suddenly coronated and became King George VI (opens in new tab). He and his family moved into Buckingham Palace and Princess Elizabeth II was named heir to the throne at the age of 10.
1939: Britain Enters World War II
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 (opens in new tab) for safety. Later, Princess Elizabeth served as a mechanic in the war.
1947: Princess Elizabeth Marries Philip Mountbatten
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 (opens in new tab) for a future monarch to promise.
1947: India Gains Independence
India was one of the most valuable territories under the British empire's control, so when the country sought independence in 1947 (opens in new tab) 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.
1952: King George VI Dies
After the death of her father King George VI (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab) that all members of the royal family must travel with a mourning outfit in case a similar situation arises.
1953: Queen Elizabeth's Coronation
In 1953, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey was the first to air on television (opens in new tab). The historic moment was watched by over 27 million people around the world.
1953: Princess Margaret and Captain Peter Townsend
When news broke of Princess Margaret’s relationship with Captain Peter Townsend, it was a royal scandal (opens in new tab). 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.
1960: The First Televised Royal Wedding
Princess Margaret’s Westminster Abbey wedding to Antony Armstrong Jones was the first British royal wedding to air on television (opens in new tab). Since then, it’s become a tradition to televise royal weddings.
1979: Lord Mountbatten Is Assassinated
Prince Philip’s uncle and close member of the royal family's inner circle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (opens in new tab) (IRA) when they planted a bomb on his boat. Mountbatten, his grandson, and two others were killed in the explosion.
1981: Prince Charles and Princess Diana Wed
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 (opens in new tab) and lured a whole new generation of people—including Americans—into the royal fairytale.
1982: An Heir Is Born
The Queen’s grandson, Prince William, was born on June 21, 1982 in the Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital (opens in new tab). 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.
1989: Princess Anne Divorces
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 (opens in new tab) shortly after her divorce was finalized.
1992: Prince Charles's Cheating Allegations
A leaked telephone conversation (opens in new tab) 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.
1992: Charles and Diana Announce Their Divorce
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 (opens in new tab).
1992: Windsor Castle Catches Fire
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.
1992: Another Royal Separation
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 (opens in new tab)," meaning horrible year in Latin.
1992: The Duchess of York’s Tabloid Scandal
Soon after her separation was announced, Ferguson was caught in a compromising position (opens in new tab) 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.
1995: Princess Diana’s Unauthorized Interview
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.
1997: Princess Diana’s Tragic Death
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 (opens in new tab)...so much that Queen Elizabeth addressed the nation in a televised speech, which had never been done before.
2002: The Queen Loses Princess Margaret and Her Mother
Queen Elizabeth faced two tremendous losses within the same year. Her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and her mother passed away (opens in new tab) within months of one another.
2010: Sarah Ferguson's Bribery Scandal
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.
2011: Prince William Marries Kate Middleton
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 (opens in new tab)” in British society.
2012: The Queen Reaches Her Diamond Jubilee
The Queen celebrated her 60-year reign in 2012 with her Diamond Jubilee. Four years later, she passed Queen Victoria (opens in new tab) as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
2013: Prince George Is Born
Prince William and Kate Middleton welcomed their first child, Prince George, in 2013. The arrival of the royal baby was met with much pomp and circumstance, as he became third in line to the throne.
2015: Princess Charlotte Makes History
Princesses typically get the short end of the stick when it comes to the line of succession, but thanks to the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013 (opens in new tab), Princess Charlotte became the first princess whose position in line for the crown would not be overtaken by the birth of a second male heir.
2017: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Get Engaged
After months of speculation, Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle announced their engagement at Kensington Palace in November 2017. The decision was made with the Queen’s blessing. It was a historic moment, as Markle is of mixed-race, divorced, and the first American to marry into the royal family.
2018: Meghan Walks Herself Down the Aisle
After her father was unable to attend her wedding ceremony (opens in new tab), Markle chose to walk herself down the aisle.
2018: Feud Rumors Arise
Rumors about a rift between the Duchesses (that's Cambridge and Sussex, BTW) began in November 2018. Allegations and "inside scoops" flew back and forth for months (opens in new tab) before it came out that the rift reportedly lied between Prince William and Prince Harry. The media coverage of the supposed feud even prompted the palace to make a statement (opens in new tab) about it, which was extremely unprecedented. Meghan addressed the rumors (opens in new tab) in her Oprah tell-all interview.
2019: Prince Andrew Is Associated With the Jeffrey Epstein Case
Prince Andrew’s friendship with convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, had been a subject of controversy for years. In 2019, the royal announced he was stepping back from all royal duties after one of the victims in the Epstein case (opens in new tab) named Prince Andrew personally.
2019: Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor Is Born
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex welcomed their first child in May 2019. The couple opted against giving their newborn a royal title and instead named him Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor (opens in new tab).
After returning from their royal tour of Africa, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex released a personal documentary (opens in new tab), in which the couple expressed their recent struggles with the media scrutiny. The interview shocked the public, as royals do not typically give direct interviews. A few days after the documentary’s release, Meghan announced she was suing a British media company (opens in new tab) for publishing a private letter written to her father.
2020: Harry and Meghan Leave the Royal Family
In a move that shocked the world—including the Queen—Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced via Instagram (opens in new tab) that they "intend to step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen." Their message spurred a response from the palace (opens in new tab), where the monarch stated that the couple would split their time between the U.K. and Canada.
2020: Peter Phillips Announces His Divorce
News of another royal divorce circulated in February 2020. Queen Anne's son, Peter Phillips, and his wife, Autumn, announced their divorce (opens in new tab). They said they would continue to co-parent their two daughters.
2020: Meghan Markle Gets Her First Post-Royal Project
Not long after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle decided to seek financial independence, the source of the couple's first non-royal paycheck was revealed. The Duchess signed on to a project with Disney (opens in new tab), narrating a wildlife documentary about elephants. It was the first role she held after joining the royal family in 2018.
2020: The COVID-19 Lockdown Happens
As COVID-19 cases soared in March 2020, the royal family was forced into lockdown, as was the rest of the world. The Queen and Prince Philip isolated at Windsor Castle with a limited staff (opens in new tab), while Prince William and his family left Kensington Palace for their country home in Norfolk.
2020: The Queen Goes to a Public Engagement
After months of cancelled engagements, the Queen stepped out for her first public engagement since the beginning of the pandemic in October 2020. She was joined by her grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, to visit Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Salisbury, England.
2020: The Family Has a Distanced Christmas
As the country entered the holiday season under strict government guidelines, the royal family chose not to gather at Sandringham for Christmas, per their usual tradition. Instead, only the senior members of the family posed for a distanced photograph outside of the Queen's lockdown residence, Windsor Castle.
2021: Meghan and Harry Reveal All to Oprah
In an unprecedented move, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down for a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey in March 2021. Among the many topics that were discussed was Meghan's struggle with suicidal thoughts (opens in new tab), issues of racism (opens in new tab) within the royal family, and the exciting news that their second child is a girl (opens in new tab).
2021: Prince Philip Passes Away
Buckingham Palace announced the news of Prince Philip's death on April 9, 2021. The Duke of Edinburgh was 99 years old when he passed away and had been married to Queen Elizabeth for 73 years (opens in new tab). The Queen was poignantly photographed sitting alone, due to coronavirus restrictions, at his funeral, which was held on April 17, 2021 at St George's Chapel (opens in new tab) in Windsor.