When Prince Charles and Princess Diana tied the knot in 1981, their nuptials were dubbed the “wedding of the century.” But while the BBC confirms the wedding was one of the most-watched broadcasts in history, we all know that some drama managed to play out on the world stage without the public even noticing. These rare images from Charles and Diana's iconic big day expose specific details, from dodging traditions to covered mistakes, that we're only just learning 40 years in retrospect.
1. The Gathering Crowds
Charles and Diana got engaged just five months prior to their big day on July 29, 1981. Despite the short timeframe, it was long enough for wedding fever to take hold in the U.K. as 600,000 people lined the London streets in the hopes of watching history unfold. This picture shows a small part of that crowd, many of whom were waving flags as they waited for the royal party to pass by.
Indeed, there was an atmosphere of enormous excitement in the crowds filling London's streets. But it wasn’t just everyday folk who were excited by the prospect of the royal wedding.
2. Wedding guests of high esteem
Here, comedian Spike Milligan can be seen entertaining the crowds on the big day. Milligan had been made famous by The Goon Show back in the 1950s and was one of Britain's best-known faces of the era. He joined an illustrious congregation of 3,500 people at the wedding, which included royalty from across Europe, as well as numerous heads of state, and many individuals from the showbiz and celebrity world.
Royal couples often receive wonderful and wacky gifts to celebrate their union, and Charles and Diana were no exception. Pupils from the school where Diana taught gifted the couple with some of their own artwork.
3. Exquisite gifts from high places
Among the most distinguished guests was Nancy Reagan, the then-First Lady of the United States. Her husband Ronald had become president just six months earlier, in January 1981 and this would be one of his first appearances abroad as the leader of the U.S. The presidential couple gifted Charles and Diana a bespoke Boehm porcelain centerpiece and an engraved glass bowl by Steuben on behalf of the people of the United States.
Meanwhile, Canada's representatives presented the royal couple with some antique furniture, and Australia sent 20 inscribed silver platters, combining grand elegance with a personal touch. It's all a far cry from what an everyday couple might expect.
4. A big break for St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral began to fill up as the guests arrived for the wedding service. Charles and Diana had broken with tradition by opting for this venue in the center of London, as Westminster Abbey — sitting close to Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament — had been the more usual choice for royal weddings. However, the latter was reported to have had less of a “wow” factor for the bride.
Lady Colin Campbell explained in her book The Real Diana that St. Paul’s “was more beautiful, could hold a full orchestra, and had a world-famous choir.” It's undoubtedly a spectacular building.
5. Royalty from all over
Among the guests at Charles and Diana’s wedding were representatives of many of Europe's various royal families. In this photo are Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II and Prince Henrik. Meanwhile, behind them is Norway’s King Harald V. In addition to that, royals from Monoco, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium, were also all in attendance. It feels like a scene from another age, as kings and queens and princes and princesses assemble to pay tribute.
Spain’s King Juan Carlos, on the other hand, turned down his invitation. That was due to the couple’s apparently controversial decision to kick off their honeymoon cruise in Gibraltar, the British territory at the mouth of the Mediterranean.
6. The Queen arrives
Members of Charles’ family then proceeded to arrive at St. Paul’s in a series of eight horse-drawn carriages. These included Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. They are photographed here on their way to their eldest son’s grand wedding. Elizabeth had celebrated her Silver Jubilee four years earlier, back in 1977 — and with the royal controversies of the 1990s still years away, it was another age for the royal family.
Diana had known the royal family since she was a child, and they reportedly approved of her relationship with Charles. In fact, Charles had briefly dated Diana's sister Sarah back in the 1970s.
7. Two Royal "supporters"
Prince Charles also traveled to his wedding in a stately carriage. He was accompanied by his younger brother Prince Andrew. According to tradition, royals have “supporters” instead of best men, but they are essentially the same thing and have many of the responsibilities that we will all be familiar with. The groom chose both of his brothers – Andrew and Edward – to fulfill this important function at his wedding.
Prince Andrew was serving with the Royal Navy at this time. He was in training as a helicopter pilot at the Royal Naval College Flight, and he had been appointed to the position of midshipman.
8. Charles in good spirits
Charles seemed to be in good spirits as he smiled and waved at the excited onlookers on the way to his wedding. He wore his naval commander uniform — and he had perhaps never looked more distinguished. The design of the uniform features three gold bands on the cuff, which symbolized his role within the Royal Navy. He also sported epaulets and the royal cipher of the Prince of Wales.
Like many of his forebears, Charles also served in the armed forces. As well as serving as a helicopter pilot, he commanded frigates, destroyers and minehunters in the Royal Navy.
9. Thousands spent on crowd control
Meanwhile, people flocked to The Mall and formed a huge crowd as the day got underway in London. The tree-lined street — running alongside St. James' Park — connects Trafalgar Square, the heart of the city, to Buckingham Palace, the royal family's primary London residence. The Mall is often a point of focus for the public during parades and royal weddings. And crowd control was no small matter for this occasion.
According to CBS News, in a bid to maintain order on Charles and Diana’s big day, $600,000 was spent just on crowd control and security as thousands took to the streets.
10. The bride's debut
Diana arrived at the wedding accompanied by her father Earl Spencer. They had traveled to St. Paul’s in a glass coach, rather than an open-topped carriage. The coach seemed to be barely big enough to accommodate both its passengers and the bride’s humongous gown, however. Nevertheless, the young Diana looks happy here as she waves and smiles at the onlooking crowd. Of course, marrying Charles would completely change the course of her life.
The dress itself was actually one of the priciest individual items for the big day, costing some £9,000 (around $37,000 today). All in all, Charles and Diana's wedding cost approximately $70 million.
11. Charles left a note for Diana before the wedding
For the royal family and for the public, it was a day full of hope. Indeed, as they prepared for their wedding, few onlookers could imagine that Charles and Diana's relationship would eventually head for disaster. According to Time magazine, the prince actually left a note for his bride-to-be before the event. In it, he said how proud he was of her. He also had some thoughtful words of advice.
He also suggested how best to make it through the big day: “Just look 'em in the eye and knock 'em dead.” Few could doubt that Diana did anything else.
12. The longest train in royal wedding history
It seemed that Diana wanted to make quite the impression on her big day, as she stepped out with the longest train in royal wedding history. It measured 25 feet and was designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. Here, some of Diana’s five bridesmaids grapple with the huge item as she prepares to make her entrance into St. Paul’s Cathedral — and it may have been just as hard to handle as a real train.
Elizabeth Emanuel is quoted in Diana: The Portrait as saying, “[The dress] had to be something that was going to go down in history, but also something that Diana loved.”
13. Her Shoes Had a Hidden Message
No one was supposed to see the bottom of Diana’s shoes on the day, but that didn’t stop her designer from going above and beyond and applying a special touch. The man responsible, Clive Shilton, decorated the suede shoes with a heart pattern, 132 pearls, 542 sequins. In addition, the tiny initials “C and D” — for Charles and Diana — appeared on the heel, as a particularly touching detail.
Another secret detail of Diana's outfit was that her petticoats apparently had an 18-karat gold horseshoe stitched into them. This was to give Diana good fortune — and who can argue with that?
14. She had a back-up wedding dress
Diana’s second wedding dress was so secret that even she didn’t know about it. Her dress designers whipped another frock up just in case something unexpected went wrong with the first outfit. “We didn’t try it on Diana. We never even discussed it,” Hello! magazine quoted Emanuel as saying in 2018. “We wanted to make sure that we had something there; it was for our own peace of mind, really.”
Diana had apparently dropped from a size 14 down to a size 10 in the run-up to the wedding, meaning that fittings were fraught. Many involved in the process were afraid that the final dress would not fit perfectly.
15. Diana had to be sewn into her dress
Signs of the terrible stress that Diana was under were becoming evident long before the wedding. After the first fitting for her gown, she had lost a lot of weight. The only solution was to sew the bride into her gown on the day when she needed it the most. Later, it would become clear to all that Diana had an eating disorder and that she was, in fact, bulimic.
Nevertheless, Diana's dress proved to be influential in the years that followed, and puffed sleeves and full skirts all became popular with the public. Indeed, exact copies of the dress were on sale soon after the big day.
16. Walking Down the Aisle
Diana was accompanied down the aisle by her father, Earl Spencer. And she walked to the sound of “Trumpet Voluntary in D” by Jeremiah Clarke. In this shot, the bride makes her way past some of the top figures in British politics at the time. These include then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and politicians Leon Brittan and Michael Heseltine, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary of State for the Environment, respectively.
Also among the illustrious crowd were François Mitterrand, President of France, Karl Carstens, President of West Germany, and Robert Muldoon, Prime Minister of New Zealand. It was a truly extraordinary gathering.
17. The Engagement Ring Was “common”
On becoming engaged to Prince Charles, Diana did something very unusual for a soon-to-be royal bride: she actually bought her engagement ring from a catalog. Over the years, snobs have called it “the commoner’s sapphire” because of its origin. But Prince William would probably be furious to hear that. Not only did the ring belong to his mother, but it now also belongs to his wife, Kate Middleton — who would eventually take on her title to become the Princess of Wales.
The ring itself was bejeweled with a 12-carat Ceylon sapphire, surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds and set into 18-carat white gold. What's more, the design was reminiscent of Diana's mother's own engagement ring.
18. Just like a fairytale
After Diana reached the end of the aisle, it was time for her father to give her away to her husband-to-be. The ceremony was officiated by the leader of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. He said of the wedding during his sermon, “Here is the stuff of which fairytales are made.” But tellingly he warned that the marriage ceremony was just the start of this story.
He carried on, saying “Fairytales usually end at this point with the simple phrase: 'They lived happily ever after.' This may be because fairy stories regard marriage as an anticlimax after the romance of courtship.” Indeed, this would only be the start of a much more complicated story.
19. What did he whisper?
The couple was seen sharing a tender moment during the ceremony, as Charles seemingly whispered in Diana’s ear — though we can only imagine just what he said. It’s reported that the bride accidentally stained the wedding dress with her favorite perfume, Quelques Fleurs, on the big day. As a result, she apparently covered the mark with her hand throughout her nuptials. It seems like she must have had a lot on her mind.
Among the features of Diana's outfit were an antique lace, the Spencer family tiara and a blue bow attached to her waistband — covering the tradition of including something old, something borrowed and something blue.
20. The chief bridesmaid
Diana’s chief bridesmaid at her wedding to Charles was Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, the daughter of Princess Margaret and the Earl of Snowdon and cousin to Charles, who had been seventh in line to the throne at her birth. In 1981 Sarah was just 17 years old, three years younger than the 20-year-old bride. Charles, meanwhile, was 32 on his wedding day and a fair bit older than both of them.
Diana’s other bridesmaids included 13-year-old India Hicks, granddaughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten, and 11-year-old Sarah-Jane Gaselee, as well as two younger girls — with a slew of grand names listed among their ancestors.
21. Charles' second wife was a guest
The cathedral looked rammed to the rafters with distinguished guests ahead of Diana’s arrival in the historic building. Among the individuals in the congregation was Camilla Parker Bowles: then Charles’ ex-girlfriend, but in the future, his wife and the Queen Consort. Diana was aware of her husband’s feelings for Camilla, but while Camilla was allowed to attend the public ceremony, she was not present at the couple’s private wedding breakfast.
Years later, it would be revealed that in the run-up to the wedding, Diana had discovered a gift that Charles had purchased for Camilla. She was so upset about it that she considered calling the wedding off — but was eventually persuaded to go ahead.
22. Another of Charles’ exes was there
Before Charles became involved with Diana, he had actually dated her older sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale. However, the relationship didn’t last. That was perhaps because Sarah had spoken to the press about the romance, reportedly angering the prince. But Sarah still attended the wedding, along with her husband, and apparently never bore any ill will towards her younger sister. One can only imagine the complicated emotions given the unique situation.
Sarah would later become the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire. She also served as president of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, helping the organization to raise over £100 million (approximately $150 million) for charitable causes.
23. Diana had two wedding bouquets
After Queen Elizabeth had a flower malfunction on her wedding day, she kicked off the practice of royal brides having two wedding posies. And Diana followed that example. David Longman was chosen as the florist for the big day, and he clearly had a big responsibility on his hands. “We made two bouquets. The first one had to be delivered at eight o’clock to Buckingham Palace,” he revealed to the Express in 2018.
“We had a police escort who took us all through the city to the palace,” he continued. “Then we came back, and by that time they had finished the second bouquet, and back we went again.”
24. Diana's family watched from the sidelines
Members of Diana’s family watched on from the sidelines during the ceremony. They included her parents, John Spencer and Frances Shand Kydd, and her brother Charles, who would later follow in his dad’s footsteps to become the 9th Earl Spencer. Meanwhile, Diana’s maternal grandmother, Lady Fermoy, was also in attendance. In a nod to the family, Diana's main wedding cake was a fruitcake decorated with flowers from her family crest.
The cake also featured Charles’ unique coat of arms. Not only did it cost $40,000, but two of them had to be made to stave off disaster if one got damaged. Dessert-lovers at the wedding must have been delighted.
25. A few hiccups
Charles and Diana enjoyed a fairytale wedding, but it was not without the odd hiccup. While saying her vows, Diana mixed up her groom’s names — referring to him as “Philip Charles” rather than “Charles Philip.” For his part, Charles offered his bride “thy goods” instead of his “worldly goods.” Clearly, both the future king and his young bride were suffering from a case of nerves — only naturally, given the circumstances.
The reception would come later and was a more intimate affair than the couple’s ceremony, with just 120 guests in attendance. The celebration took place away from public eyes, and this gave the bride and groom some privacy on their big day.
26. Becoming a princess
The signing of this document by Prince Charles, Diana, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was an act of history in the making — and this was the document that proved it. Upon her marriage to the future king of England, Lady Spencer became Diana, Princess of Wales. Following her vows, she would go on to become one of the most beloved members of the royal family until her untimely death in 1997.
It wasn't the only memento of the wedding, though. Because the ceremony was such a huge occasion, slices of Charles and Diana’s wedding cake are still around. They are even on sale for the right price — although you certainly shouldn’t eat them after purchase. Poignantly, Diana’s brother Charles owns a piece of the cake with her name on it.
27. Time-honored traditions
Charles and Diana’s wedding might seem as traditional as they come. But if you look closer, the couple did break from convention in some significant ways. For one, they were the first members of the British royal family to ditch an old-fashioned vow to “obey.” Nevertheless, some time-honored rituals were adhered to — as is seen here — when Diana curtseyed to the Queen after becoming the Princess of Wales.
The couple actually forgot to kiss following their vows in St. Paul’s, but they made up for it later with a public smooch in front of the crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace.
28. Back down the aisle
Charles and Diana then left St. Paul’s together with their bridesmaids once the wedding ceremony was over. The two youngest were Catherine Cameron and Clementine Hambro, who were six and five, respectively. The latter had been a favorite pupil of Diana’s from her time working at the Young England kindergarten in Pimlico. And like the bride, she was a relative of Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister during World War II.
Indeed, Diana was famous for her love of children, and she worked as a nursery teacher's assistant in Pimlico and as a nanny for an American family. It might only be years later that these children realized that they had been in the presence of future royalty.
29. One of the bridesmaids fell over
Clementine Hambro was just five years old when she was one of Charles and Diana’s bridesmaids. She was also the youngest member of the wedding and acted pretty much like you’d expect a child of that age to act. At one point, while walking with the bride through Buckingham Palace, she fell over and started crying. Diana — who was, after all, once a schoolteacher — quickly went to comfort her.
Of course, we've become very familiar with the sight of tired and upset youngsters at royal events in the years since — with princes George and Louis making some notable appearances.
30. The iconic Spencer Tiara
Charles and Diana subsequently emerged from St. Paul’s Cathedral as husband and wife following their nuptials. Here, the newly appointed Princess of Wales waves to onlookers as she stands side-by-side with Charles. And as Diana takes off her veil, her family heirloom — the Spencer Tiara — can now be seen in all its glory. The tiara consists of several pieces of jewelery from various sources and periods. The oldest elements were apparently taken from a piece owned by Frances Manby, the last Viscountess Montagu.
Diana's blonde hair under her ivory veil, meanwhile, had been styled by Kevin Shanley — later known as the inventor of “the Lady Di do.” Every part of her exquisite appearance had been worked on and brought to perfection.
31. The tiara gave Diana a headache
Wearing a tiara all day might sound like fun, but it definitely wasn’t for Diana. Her brother Charles told Entertainment Tonight in 2010 about how the precious jewelry affected her. “In the evening we all went to a semi-private party. She was there and she seemed incredibly relaxed and happy. And I remember she had a cracking headache too because she wasn’t used to wearing a tiara all morning,” he said.
Perhaps she could ease her mind by thinking of the various gifts presented to the royal couple. Among the strangest of these were a heart-shaped potato from two little girls and gingerbread figures made to look like the bride and groom.
32. A procession through the streets of London
Charles and Diana arrived at St. Paul’s separately, though they left together as man and wife in a gold-encrusted, horse-drawn carriage. The coach would take them to Buckingham Palace to continue the celebrations. First, though, the couple enjoyed a procession through the packed-out streets of London — smiling and waving to the massed crowds as they went. The festivities of the royal wedding then included a grand military parade outside of Buckingham Palace.
And the day’s pageantry was widely celebrated by the international press. Reporting on the event, The New York Times said that it symbolized “the continuity of the monarchy” in the United Kingdom.
33. A spectacle to behold
It’s clear to see from this image just what an enormous spectacle Charles and Diana’s wedding procession was to behold. The parade was flanked by members of the Household Cavalry and the Foot Guards, and it had all the pomp and ceremony that we’ve come to expect from a grand royal wedding. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that the happy couple seemingly delighted the crowds as they rolled by in their carriage.
Indeed, this would be the most significant royal wedding until the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, over 30 years later, which came in at a cost of around $34 million.
34. A few moments of joy
It’s hard to imagine what a whirlwind Diana’s wedding must have been. But in this image, it appears that she is taking a second to soak it all up. Later, leaked audio tapes would reveal that Diana called her nuptials to Charles the “worst day of [her] life.” But judging from the smile on her face, it would appear the new princess did find moments of joy on her big day.
“I don't think I was happy,” Diana was heard saying in tapes released decades later. “I never tried to call it off, in the sense of really doing that, but I think [it was] the worst day of my life.”
35. Practically royalty
The Queen and Earl Spencer traveled to Buckingham Palace together, as the mother of the groom and the father of the bride, following Diana and Charles’ wedding ceremony. Despite the perception of Diana as an everyday woman, the Spencers had many connections to the royal family. They rented a home owned by the Queen, while the monarch was also the godmother of Diana’s brother Charles, later to take the title of Earl of Spencer.
Indeed, when Diana's father, John Spencer, got married in 1954 in Westminster Abbey, Queen Elizabeth II and other members of her family were in attendance. Clearly, this was a distinguished clan.
36. Bringing families together
Meanwhile, Charles’ father Prince Philip — the Duke of Edinburgh — and Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd, also shared a carriage in the grand procession. The Princess of Wales’ parents had divorced back when she was a child, and her father had won custody of her and her siblings. Diana was not close to her mom — though the remarkable family resemblance between mother and daughter is striking to see.
Charles and Diana would later emerge on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet the crowds as part of their big day. The spot has often been a focal point during royal events and weddings since 1858. The tradition was started by Princess Victoria — the daughter of Queen Victoria — who was the first to utilize the platform on her wedding day.
37. The eyes of the world
It would be fair to say that the eyes of the world were on the couple throughout the royal wedding. Charles had long attracted media attention as heir to the British throne. However, his relationship and subsequent marriage to Diana particularly captivated the press and general public alike. Their wedding was watched in as many as 74 countries, according to Biography.com. Charles and Diana would become two of the most famous people alive.
For the crowds gathered to see Charles and Diana's special day, it seemed like a fairytale. However, the enormous amount of public attention also represented a huge burden for the royal pair.
38. No strangers to divorce
Part of the interest in the wedding was no doubt due to the fact that the royal family came out in force to celebrate the big day — Charles was first in line to the throne at the time, after all. Here, Charles’ aunt Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, is seen traveling in the procession with his sister, Princess Anne. By this point, both women had enjoyed royal weddings of their own.
Margaret had married Antony Armstrong-Jones back in 1960, while Anne wed Mark Phillips 13 years later. Sadly, both marriages ended in divorce — but that would hardly make them unique in the family.
39. A successful marriage
For his part, Prince Edward also formed part of the wedding procession. Charles’ youngest sibling is seen here riding in a carriage alongside some of Diana’s bridesmaids. He would go on to marry Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999 and is the only one of the Queen’s children who has not been divorced. And the wedding procession was quite the sight to behold as it snaked its way through the streets of London.
Flags and bunting hung along the route between St. Paul’s and Buckingham Palace. As can be seen in this picture, some people took to balconies in a bid to catch a glimpse of the historic moment, while others perched precariously on a store sign.
40. People watched from balconies and rooftops
Charles and Diana made an understated exit from Buckingham Palace in an open-top carriage following their wedding breakfast. They were bound for Waterloo Station, where they would catch a train to Broadlands – a country pile where they would spend the first part of their honeymoon. And tied to the back of the landau was a homemade “just married” sign to mark the occasion. It seemed that Prince Charles and Princess Diana might one day become the King and Queen of Britain back on that day in 1981.
However, their marriage was not to last. They eventually separated in 1992 and subsequently divorced in 1996. Sadly, Diana died one year later following a car crash aged just 36.