Princess Diana

Princess Diana received a top royal title when she married Prince Charles in 1981, but her family, the Spencers, had been English aristocrats for centuries. And there are a number of unusual characters to be found on their family tree, with all of the drama you would expect from a wealthy, generation-spanning lineage. The most infamous of the early members of the family was Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland. Born in 1641, Robert fancied himself a bit of a political player (via Britannica). Charles, the current Earl Spencer, wrote in "The Spencers: A Personal History of an English Family" that "nearly 200 years on, my father would talk about him with an ashamed, resigned chuckle" (via Vanity Fair).

The 2nd Earl was known to have a "mischievous temper" and "a cold heart." His cool and calculating temperament aided him in the good favor of three different English kings, Charles II, James II, and William III. As an adviser to Charles II, he schemed against the king’s brother (who later became King James II), which cost him his post as secretary of state. But he didn’t stay out of the inner circle for long. In fact, Spencer even changed his religion — converting to Catholicism — to please King James II. Nevertheless, his newfound faith was quickly discarded when the future King William III took power, and Spencer remained a key adviser to the king until being forced out by political adversaries in 1697.

The Duchess of Marlborough tried to boss around a queen

Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough

Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, was one of the biggest schemers in the family, but she actually had her own daughter marry into the Spencer line. So, not a Spencer by birth, but she still influenced the future generations of Spencers to come. Indeed, she arranged for her daughter Anne to marry Charles Spencer, who was to become the 3rd Earl of Sunderland (via Vanity Fair).

The Duchess was also a childhood friend of Queen Anne and became one of her inner circle when she took the throne. She used her position to wield political influence on the queen’s policies and to better the lives of her family members, including her son-in-law (via Britannica). The Duchess was known for being a member of the liberal Whig Party, and she sought to line the queen’s cabinet with those who shared her views. When the Duchess found her position with the queen threatened by a rival named Abigail, she stopped at nothing to ruin the woman’s reputation. The battle for the queen’s favor was so dramatic that it later inspired the 2018 film "The Favourite."

Queen Anne, who later frequently clashed with the Duchess on political matters, finally had enough of Sarah and ordered her to leave her palace apartment in 1711. Despite this loss of royal standing, the Duchess still had a tremendous fortune to fall back on.

The Duchess of Devonshire courted controversy

The Duchess of Devonshire

There’s another sensational duchess in the Spencer family tree. Born in 1757, Georgiana Cavendish was the daughter of John Spencer, the 1st Earl Spencer (via Vanity Fair). While she was still in her teens, she wed William, Duke of Devonshire. She caused quite a stir and was known for wearing elaborate fashions, including a 3-foot-tall headdress made of ostrich feathers (via Brooklyn Museum). Georgiana lived a hedonistic life that was shocking for the times, which she wrote about in the thinly veiled 1778 novel "The Sylph." Her wild lifestyle ended up being portrayed on the big screen in the 2008 drama "The Duchess."

The Duchess proved to be bold in other ways, too. Despite the fact she couldn’t vote herself, she later became an outspoken champion of the Whig Party. She was often mocked in the press for her activism, and one infamous cartoon alleged that she traded kisses for votes (via Regency History). In her personal life, the Duchess struggled with a gambling addiction. She and her husband also raised more than a few eyebrows with their a ménage à trois arrangement with her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, for more than two decades (via the National Portrait Gallery). The friend ended up becoming the Duke’s second wife not long after the Duchess died in 1806.

Princess Diana’s parents had a bitter breakup

Princess Diana with her father, Earl Spencer

Princess Diana grew up in the midst of a family scandal. In the beginning, her parents’ marriage seemed like a fairy tale. Her father, John Spencer (later the 8th Earl Spencer), had served in the Royal Scots Greys during World War II and was hailed as a hero upon his return (via Vanity Fair). He was much older than his lovely bride, Frances Ruth Roche, who was only 17 years old when the pair got engaged. The couple had five children together — four of whom lived to adulthood — and settled at one of her family’s rural properties. But Frances wasn’t a fan of the slow pace of country life, and she began escaping to London to enjoy a more stimulating time. In the 1960s, she had an affair with Peter Shand Kydd, heir to a wallpaper fortune (via Heart Radio).

Frances decided she wanted to be with Shand Kydd, and she and her husband then engaged in one of the ugliest custody battles of the time. Frances’ own mother testified against her, and the court eventually awarded custody to John. Frances quickly married Shand Kydd, and the pair spent many years in Scotland in a self-imposed exile. After that, Princess Diana’s relationship with her mother remained strained. According to an Associated Press report, the mother and daughter hadn’t spoken in four months before Princess Diana’s death, and the princess had returned her mother’s letters unopened (via the Sun-Sentinel).

Her big sister had a big mouth

Lady Sarah Spencer and Prince Charles

At one time, it seemed possible that the Spencers were going to have a Princess Sarah instead of a Princess Diana. Diana’s oldest sibling, Lady Sarah McCorquodale (born Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia Spencer), may officially be a lady, but she also had a wild streak. Notably, she was kicked out of boarding school and once rode a horse into her grandmother’s house (via Vanity Fair). Sarah also had a great admirer in Princess Diana, something she used to her advantage growing up. "I idolized my eldest sister, and I used to do all her washing when she came back from school," Diana told biographer Andrew Morton, per Vanity Fair. "I packed her suitcase, ran her bath, made her bed — the whole lot."

Sarah first met Prince Charles at Royal Ascot, and the pair dated for a short time. But the unusually candid Spencer soon fell afoul of the prince by talking about their relationship to the press. In one instance, she claimed that she had "thousands of boyfriends" before Prince Charles (via the Daily Express). Sarah also said that "I’m not in love with him. And I wouldn’t marry anyone I didn’t love whether he were the dustman or the King of England," according to Time. Her candid outbursts put an end to her relationship with Prince Charles, but she did introduce her little sister to the heir to the throne in 1977. And in 1980, Prince Charles began dating Sarah’s sister Diana with his ex’s blessing.

Princess Diana’s brother Charles is an outspoken earl

Charles, Earl Spencer, at Althrop House

Princess Diana’s brother, Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, has been known to engage in some seriously bad behavior. According to Tatler, he gave his much-despised stepmother, Raine Spencer, the boot the family estate after the death of his father in 1992. Years later, his first marriage to model Victoria Lockwood ended in 1997 after news of his affairs made the press, and the number of his mistresses may have been as high as 12 (via The Irish Times). His second marriage to Caroline Freud didn’t fare much better, and the pair broke up over rumors of boredom and infidelity on Charles’ part (via Independent.ie).

While he may have had some rocky relationships, Charles has remained a steadfast supporter of his sister, the late Princess Diana. He gave the eulogy at her funeral, describing her as "the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty," and railed against how badly the press treated her (via USA Today). Even after her death, he saw to it that she was laid to rest at Althorp, the Spencer family estate, for better security and privacy (via BBC).