Sad fact: Being the Queen used to come with more perks, like being able to send people to the Tower on a whim or invading France when there was nothing better to do on a rainy Tuesday.
One of the last remaining gloriously but archaic boon’s of being the sovereign is the royal train, a nine-carriage beast that seems more redolent of the Victorian era than the 21st century. It boasts the famed red livery of the royal household and is as grand as one would expect with the Queen’s private carriage featuring a bedroom, a bathroom and sitting room.
(When Her Majesty is on board, the palace-on-wheels stops or avoids bumpy tracks at 7.30am as that is when she has her bath and heaven forbid the sovereign’s bath water splashes too much.)
And it was here on the train dear reader, where one of the royal family’s most salacious – and lesser known sex – scandals took place. In fact, Monday marks exactly 40-years since Britons woke to read over their cornflakes all about their future King, a mystery blonde and two raunchy moonlit assignations. (OK, OK, I don’t actually know about the ‘moonlit’ part but let a girl enjoy a spot of Mills & Boon-esque creative license.)
So, it’s November 16, 1980. Margaret Thatcher is at Number 10 Downing Street. Steelworkers across the country had stopped striking. The Yorkshire Ripper is still at large. And there, splashed across the Sunday Mirror’s front page, is the headline ‘ROYAL LOVE TRAIN.’
The story claimed that earlier that month, Prince Charles had enjoyed not one but – fall on your fainting couch here – two night-time rendezvous in rural England with his most recent love interest, Lady Diana Spencer.
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According to the story, the then-19-year-old had been smuggled on board the train in Wiltshire under the cover of darkness while the prince was undertaking official duties in the area, and “there followed hours alone together for the couple whose friendship has captured the country’s imagination” as the report coquettishly put it.
It was a controversial story to run given that the image of Diana enjoying multiple trysts aboard the royal train with Charles ran provocatively counter to her image as the sweet ingenue whose public persona was all doe-eyed docility and coy silence.
However, here is where things get even messier.
According to the Mirror report, Diana and Charles enjoyed their meet up after which the teenager left to go to the nearby home of Camilla Parker Bowles. (You couldn’t make this up.)
(Keep in mind at the time, Diana and the world only thought of the blonde mother-of-two as nothing more than an awwwfulllly good friend of His Royal Highness, however it would only be a matter of months before the future Princess of Wales worked out the real relationship with Charles.)
Still, here we have the Prince of Wales and his teenage lover ostensibly enjoying two nights of passion, doing whatever it is that two courting toffs do when the private secretary’s back is turned. (Which I imagine translates to doing shots of Dubonnet while poring over Burke’s Peerage trying to compete to see who has a more aristocratic bloodline. The answer of course here is, seriously, Diana.)
While it might be fun to giggle at all of this from the distance of four decades but back then this scandalous news story was a serious crisis. At that point in time in 1980, engagement speculation was ratcheting up after Diana had spent a four-day weekend at Sandringham with the extended royal family to mark Charles’ 32nd birthday.
One of the unspoken prerequisites for a future Princess of Wales was that when she walked up the aisle she would be a virgin. (Gross, huh?) For one of the nation’s biggest papers to suddenly suggest that a potential future Queen might have been caught in flagrante delicto, that she and Charles might have turned Her Majesty’s train into the first regal shaggin’ wagon, was highly contentious.
According to Charles’ then valent Stephen Barry, the news story left the prince seething, reportedly saying “It’s rubbish and it has put Lady Diana in such a bad light.”
Diana herself later disavowed the whole naughty episode, telling the Daily Mail the same month, “I was sooo shocked. I simply couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been anywhere near the train, let alone in the middle of the night. Even though they rang me up first, they printed it anyway. Afterwards they rang up to apologise but that doesn’t change people’s minds about what they think when they read a story like that.”
Later, she told famed royal reporter James Whitaker that on the night in question, “I had some supper and watched television before going to bed early. I had been at Princess Margaret’s party at the Ritz the night before and I was feeling very frail and hungover.” What makes that such a head scratcher is that Diana didn’t drink.
When the palace pushed back over the press report, the Mirror’s editor Robert Edwards refused to publish an apology given that, allegedly, the source for the story was a policeman who had been part of the train’s security team.
There is another theory here. That there was indeed a blonde smuggled onto the royal train on those nights for a series of illicit meetings, it just wasn’t Diana.
According to leading Diana biographer Tina Brown, when the Mirror’s Edwards years later received a note form “veteran political insider Lord Wyatt of Weeford. It bore a cryptic message: ‘I think you’ll find it was Camilla’.”
So, could the woman enjoying a very personal tour of the royal train have been Charles’ longtime paramour?
As Brown points out in her book The Diana Chronicles (truly, a must read) on the nights in question the train was only around 30km away from her country home.
While the prevailing narrative would suggest that Diana was a blushing bride in every respect on her wedding day, a true innocent in matters of the boudoir (sorry, there’s that Mills & Boon again), Brown thinks otherwise.
“For a number of reasons I have become convinced it was indeed Diana on the royal train. If it was Camilla, why didn’t Diana include the incident in her remorseless narrative of marital torture and betrayal in any of her confessional gut spilling for Andrew Morton or Martin Bashir?” she has written.
“Her later discovery, before the wedding, that Charles was planning to give Camilla a bracelet, became an operatic incident in her long list of unforgivable hurts.
“It seems clear now that Diana, for reasons of panicked self-protection, colluded with the Palace machine to protect the anachronistic facade of virginity right up to the altar.”
Similarly, Brown makes the point that the policeman who was the source for the story was “unlikely to have confused the light-voiced nineteen-year-old girl of unusual height with a squat woman in her thirties who spoke in a distinctive baritone”.
Eighty two days after the ‘Royal Love Train’ story hit the press, Charles would finally take the plunge and ask Diana to marry him, setting in motion the series of events that would bring us to today, where the future of the monarchy depends squarely on the Princess of Wales’ two sons.
It is such a shame that The Crown has not included this particularly saucy chapter in its depiction of Charles and Diana’s courtship. So much of what was to come in their relationship was defined by suffering and recrimination, two people trapped in a doomed, miserable union.
Which is why it would be nice to think that, at the beginning at least, even for a moment, Charles and Diana enjoyed the delicious, naughty pleasures of a real romance; that they were truly into one another, just a bit, despite the sheer dynastic necessity of the whole sad situation. It would have been nice for it to be true and writ large on the screen, just once, that there was a glimmer or faint flame of real ardour between them.
Too Mills & Boon? Maybe. But I for one hope that Brown is right and that they did, for a night or two at least, truly want one another, even if it did take place in a railroad siding in Wiltshire.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
The Crown season 4 starts on November 15.