Royal Scandals: A Brief History of the British Royal Family’s Many Controversies


For being the picture of prim and proper Englishness, the royal house of Windsor is also kind of scandal-plagued. In terms of royal scandals, Queen Elizabeth II managed to keep her reputation pretty stainless, but her family failed to follow suit and have ended up tabloid fodder far more often than they'd care to admit.

Here are the controversies faced by the British royals, starting with the Missing Middleton Mess and going all the way back to Wallis Simpson, who kicked off a century of scandal.

The case of the missing princess

In early 2024 Kensington Palace announced that the Princess of Wales would be undergoing abdominal surgery and would be absent from public events until at least the end of March. All the while, the public speculated about her condition and whereabouts. After the palace posted a heavily edited picture of the princess and her three children, claims of a cover-up intensified. (Read more about our Kate coverage here.)

Kate Middleton, Princess Charlotte, and Prince George on Christmas Day 2023

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Kate Middleton, Princess Charlotte, and Prince George on Christmas Day 2023
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Prince Andrew’s friend Jeffrey Epstein

Deceased sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell allegedly had close ties to King Charles III's brother Prince Andrew. They were pictured together and Prince Andrew has not denied a “friendship” with the late billionaire, but it's yet to be shown definitively one way or the other how much involvement Andrew had with Epstein's various heinous crimes. He did privately settle a sexual assault allegation. In the meantime the royal family has been distancing itself from Andrew (he's no longer a “working royal” and has been stripped of his patronages), as this scandal is still ongoing as of 2024.

Harry and Meghan’s flight from the palace

In January 2020 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a.k.a. the Sussexes, announced that they were stepping away from their royal duties. This decision came after years of the British press making racist jabs at Markle, and amid stories of a growing feud between the brothers (and possibly their wives). Meghan and Harry moved to California and in 2021 took part in a lengthy interview with Oprah Winfrey, giving their side of the many stories about them. One anecdote that cast the other royals in a particularly bad light was an unnamed member of the family asking about their son Archie's skin tone. They also reveal that the palace was unable to help Meghan access mental health care as she dealt with suicidal ideation. The William-Harry feud generated headlines again in 2023 following the release of Prince Harry's memoir, Spare.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in 2024

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Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in 2024
Karwai Tang

Prince William’s maybe-affair

Sarah Rose Cholmondeley (née Hanbury), the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, allegedly had an affair with the future king in 2019. Rose and Kate, formerly close friends, apparently had a falling-out as a result. At the time, palace PR worked hard to quash the rumors while at the same time doing little to help the then newly married Meghan Markle, who was being ripped apart by the same press. It's even been speculated that someone in The Firm let the tabloids smear Meghan in exchange for not running the cheating allegations.

The rumor made the rounds again in 2022 after popping up in a Deux Moi blind item with an added detail: pegging. That version of the story casts William as a repeat cheater whose wife was okay with the physical aspect, but didn't like that William and Rose had become emotionally involved during their now over affair.

Prince Harry’s bad Halloween costume

By 2005, 21-year-old Prince Harry was already known as the bad boy of the family, thanks to his history with pot and alcohol. But it was still shocking to see him display incredibly poor judgment and choose, as part of his Halloween costume, a Nazi armband. When pictures of him in his outfit his the newsstands, Harry apologized immediately.

Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson’s controversies

A longtime friend of the royal family and Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson fell madly in love with Prince Andrew, and the pair married in 1986 after only a three-month engagement. However, his naval career kept them apart for most of the year, and after welcoming two daughters, they separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. They've maintained a famously close and amicable relationship, but “Fergie” was still able to stir up a little drama that reflected not super well on the royal family.

In 1992, the Daily Mirror published photos of Ferguson on vacation with her financial adviser John Bryan. In the pictures the two are getting intimate, though not in the way you might think. He has her toes in his mouth. The public assumed he was “sucking” on them, though Bryan said he was just kissing them. There were other NSFW pics from the vacation, but the toes are what people remember.

Sarah Ferguson in 2023

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess Of York In Conversation With Samantha Barry: "A Most Intriguing Lady"

Sarah Ferguson in 2023
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In 2010, Ferguson found herself in the hot seat again after an undercover reporter for News of the World posed as a businessman and recorded Ferguson accepting money in exchange for a promise of access to her ex-husband. The Duchess of York went on Oprah Winfrey's show to explain and apologize, saying that part of the money was for a friend in need, and the rest would have gone to paying off her own considerable debts. She said she'd been “living beyond her means” and had to move back in with her ex-husband since she couldn't afford rent. She also dropped the interesting tidbit that she accepted less money in the divorce than she might have gotten in order to stay on good terms with the royal family. “I wanted friendship with the boss,” she said, referring to Queen Elizabeth II.

It was later revealed that Ferguson avoided bankruptcy thanks, in part, to the generosity of one of her ex's friends, Jeffrey Epstein. At the time, Epstein had already served a sentence for sexual offenses against a minor, so it's not like Ferguson didn't know anything was up, and according to Newsweek, she quickly expressed guilt and regret about accepting the money.

The death of Princess Diana and its aftermath

In August 1997 Princess Diana died at a Paris hospital after the car she and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed were riding in crashed into the wall of a tunnel. This tragic event launched a number of scandalous narratives, some true and some not. The royal family was heavily criticized for not responding quickly or with enough emotion. An official inquiry was launched to investigate rumors, many of them coming from Dodi's father, that the princess was pregnant at the time, that the car had been tampered with, and that MI6 was involved. The inquiry found that it was just a tragic accident, but some conspiracy theorists still believe that the royal family was responsible for Diana's death.

William and Diana in 1991

William's First Engagement

William and Diana in 1991
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Charles and Diana and Camilla

So this is like 18 royal scandals in one. King Charles III was pressured into marrying the virginal Diana Spencer despite his ongoing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles (who was married to another man and thus ineligible to be his bride), and while the British public embraced the new princess, the marriage was not a happy one. They wed in 1981 and welcomed two children, but in 1992 announced a separation. In 1993 the “tampongate” scandal broke: a secret recording of a 1989 conversation between Charles and Camilla that made it super explicit that they were in a relationship and in love. In 1995 Diana gave an interview on the TV program Panorama, in which she revealed her struggle with bulimia and her awareness of her husband's affair from its beginning. That interview generated plenty of controversy, and became doubly controversial after an investigation revealed that journalist Martin Bashir had essentially lied to Diana to get her to talk to him. Charles and Diana divorced in 1996, and he finally got to marry Camilla in 2005.

Princess Margaret’s complicated love life

Had Queen Elizabeth II's younger sister been born 50 years later, it's very likely her life would have turned out quite differently. As it was, she was held to the monarchy's most rigid standards, and her refusal of certain norms paved the way for the next generation.

It started when she fell in love with war hero Group Captain Peter Townsend, who had divorced his wife to be with her. When they announced their engagement, however, the Church of England didn't allow divorcées to remarry if their ex-spouse was still alive, and according to a centuries-old decree, members of the royal family needed the monarch's permission for any marriage. Elizabeth refused to let Margaret marry Peter, a controversial decision at the time. They could have married in a civil ceremony, but Margaret ultimately chose “duty” over love and ended the relationship.

In 1960 she married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, with whom she welcomed two children…but they divorced after she had an affair with the family's gardener, who was almost 20 years younger than she was.

Princess Margaret and her husband Antony Armstrong-Jones leave Westminster Abbey after their wedding

Princess Margaret and Antony Jones

Princess Margaret and her husband Antony Armstrong-Jones leave Westminster Abbey after their wedding

Wallis Simpson and the abdication

In 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American socialite who, per the customs of the royal family, would not be an appropriate queen. The pair lived abroad for the rest of their lives, and pre–World War II were…let's say, really good friends with the Nazi party. Edward's abdication placed his brother George VI on the throne, who was later succeeded by his daughter Queen Elizabeth II.

Originally Appeared on Glamour