Princess Diana and the Tudors

Did you know that Diana Princess of Wales (1961-1997) was a descendant of Henry VIII and the Boleyn family?

Diana’s aristocratic ancestry boasts of more than a few illustrious figures, including Henry VIII, Margaret Tudor, Mary Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, and Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (with whom Diana bears more similarities than mere blood – both women led tragic lives, enjoyed the public’s widespread adoration, and suffered highly publicized collapses of their marriage, but more on that later).

Through Margaret Tudor (1489-1541), Diana Spencer was the 13th great-grandniece of Henry VIII, the King who took six wives and cleaved England from the fold of the Catholic Church. Touched by her own fair share of scandal, Henry’s sister, Margaret, was herself thrice married.

Widowed by her first husband King James IV, Margaret petitioned for a divorce from her second, Archibald Douglas, against the pious warnings of Cardinal Wolsey that the bond between husband and wife was “divinely ordained”.  Nearly five hundred years later, Diana and her husband, Charles, then the Prince of Wales, would also seek legal separation. Their divorce was finalized in August of 1996 and received global attention.

Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland, courtesy of the Hulton Archive

Margaret Tudor’s son, James V, King of Scotland, would eventually be succeeded by his infant daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, whose own life was marred with tragedy and controversy. If you trace the extensive royal lineage of this fallen queen down to the present day, you would find Diana Spencer, her 11x great-granddaughter, and Diana’s two sons, William and Harry. Interestingly, Princes William and Harry are twice descended from Mary Queen of Scots, through both their mother and father (making Diana and Charles very distant cousins).

Diana is also descended from another renowned Tudor lady. Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne Boleyn, was Diana’s 13th time great-grandmother via her daughter Lady Catherine Carey. Catherine served as a chief Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth I, her first cousin, and was rumoured to have been a witness to her aunt Anne Boleyn’s execution on 19 May 1536. Diana descends from Catherine’s daughter Lady Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex, by her husband Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. 

It is held by some historians that Lady Catherine was, herself, the illegitimate offspring of Henry VIII. During the late 1510s and early 1520s, Mary Boleyn was rumored to be the King’s mistress for an uncertain period. However, there is limited contemporary evidence to substantiate the claim that her two children were indeed the King’s. Henry VIII never acknowledged Catherine as his child, and it seems that the affair between Mary and the King concluded around 1520, coinciding with Mary’s marriage to William Carey.

Portrait of a Woman, probably Catherine Carey, an ancestress of Diana Princess of Wales.

However, if Henry VIII was Catherine’s true father – a claim Catherine never openly recognised – then Diana would have been twice descended from him.

It is also via Mary Boleyn’s table of descendants that Diana is related to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the charming, beautiful, and infamous Georgian noblewoman who, like her fourth-great niece Princess Diana, indulged in a love of fashion, high-stakes love affairs, and married one of the richest peers in England only for the union to end in infidelity and scorn. 

Interestingly enough, Catherine Middleton and Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of Prince Andrew, also share ancestry with Mary Boleyn – a woman whose life began with modest origins but later suffered disgrace as a former mistress, shunned from the royal court at a stroke. Despite her tumultuous life, Mary’s blood now flows through the veins of the British royal family, and will for years to come. Princes William and Harry are descendants of Mary on both their mother’s and father’s sides.

Suffice to say, the numerous similarities between Mary Boleyn and her 13x great-granddaughter Diana are fascinating. Both Mary and Diana hailed from relatively prosperous families with a lengthy tradition of service to the crown. Both courted scandal, achieved infamy, and acted, although not always in their best interests, from the heart.

Both Mary and Diana married young and made decisions they might have later regretted. They each held fervent causes close to their hearts and clashed with the rigid traditions of the monarchy. They refused, in Diana’s own words, to “go quietly.”

Their legacies are both alive and well, and their blood continues to pump in the veins of the heirs to the British throne.

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