Angry at the spectacle of soiled royal linen being washed in public, Queen Elizabeth II has ordered her son Prince Charles and his estranged wife, Princess Diana, to divorce, Buckingham Palace said Wednesday night.
The queen’s command came in separate letters to Charles and Diana earlier this week, a palace spokesman said.
In response, Charles, 47, whose future position as England’s king would not be affected by a divorce, has agreed in writing to formally end his 14-year marriage to Diana.
The response from Diana, 34, separated from Charles for the past three years, is not known. With her consent, a divorce could come within the next few months, according to constitutional specialist Vernon Bogdanor.
“After considering the present situation, the queen wrote to both the prince and princess earlier this week and gave them her view, supported by the Duke of Edinburgh [the queen’s husband, Prince Philip], that an early divorce is desirable,” a palace statement said, adding that Elizabeth and Philip “will continue to do all they can to help and support the Prince and Princess of Wales, and most particularly their children, in this difficult period.”
British analysts said Wednesday night that a television interview last month in which Diana admitted to adultery was the catalyst for the queen’s decision.
“One cannot underestimate how angry the queen has been. At the palace there’s a huge sigh of relief. The queen has decided that enough is enough,” said royals reporter Simon McCoy of Sky TV.
The queen acted, McCoy said, from a conviction that “the monarchy was seriously in danger” amid tit-for-tat public revelations of sordid backstairs life at the palace. Last year, Charles admitted adultery with a longtime lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The archbishop of Canterbury, senior prelate of the Church of England, which British sovereigns head, and Prime Minister John Major were both consulted and agreed with the queen’s action, the palace said.
In context, the divorce itself appears less an issue than the financial arrangements for Diana and custody of 13-year-old future king Prince William and his 11-year-old brother, Prince Harry.
With the marriage irretrievably broken, analysts said, the queen’s concern was for the future of the monarchy and the well-being of her two grandsons.
Diana, whose portrayal of herself as the betrayed victim of palace intrigue has found strong popular support in Britain, is seeking a future role once she is no longer part of the official royal family.
On Wednesday, before the divorce order was known publicly, Diana met with Major for an hour in what was described as a regular contact between the government and the royal family.
In retrospect, Diana and Major may also have discussed the queen’s order as well as Diana’s statement in last month’s television interview that she wants to be a “Queen of Hearts” as a roving ambassador for Britain.
In the BBC interview, Diana admitted adultery with her former riding instructor, James Hewitt. She also complained of hostility from palace officials she said regarded her as slow-witted and unstable, and voiced doubts about Charles’ ability to become an effective king.
Asked about a divorce, Diana said that she did not want one but that “I await my husband’s decision on which way we will all go.”
Earlier this week, Buckingham Palace announced that Diana had changed her holiday plans and--at her request--would not spend Christmas with her royal in-laws for the first time since her marriage. Princes William and Harry will spend Christmas with their father at the queen’s country home of Sandringham.
During the television interview, the Princess of Wales spoke publicly for the first time about the misery of her married life, describing unhappiness that led her to self-mutilation and bulimia.
Married to Charles in a fairy-tale 1981 wedding, Diana said she was thrust uncomfortably into a popularity contest with her husband in which she was more sought-after.
By 1986, she said, she learned that Charles had resumed his premarital affair with Parker-Bowles, the wife of an army officer until their divorce earlier this year.
Once the royal divorce is a matter of record, the key question will become Charles’ future intentions. Will he marry Parker-Bowles?
It would need the queen’s permission, but constitutional experts say there is no legal impediment. And neither would remarriage prevent Charles from succeeding his mother to the throne.
On the other hand, experts wonder if Britons would accept a Queen Camilla, particularly with Diana on public display at every turn.