Brief History: British Royal Scandals

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Granger Collection

Edward VIII with the Dutchess of Windsor in 1943.

Sarah Ferguson, the ex-wife of England's Prince Andrew, knows the sting of ridicule: she's widely mocked as the Duchess of Pork for her work with Weight Watchers, and a tabloid once published photos of her topless as a multimillionaire (not her husband) sucked on her toes. But on May 23, she experienced scandal on a whole new level. In an undercover sting operation, British tabloid News of the World filmed her offering a reporter disguised as a businessman access to Andrew--the Queen's second son and a British trade envoy--for about $720,000. "I have not got a bean to my name," she is heard saying. "I left the royal family for freedom, and in freedom, it means I am bereft."

Fergie's antics may amuse the public, but they don't affect the nation's cultural and political fabric as did scandals of old. In 1534, Henry VIII--the monarch who beheaded two of his wives--established the Anglican Church because the Pope wouldn't grant him an annulment from his wife. Four centuries later, in 1936, Edward VIII sparked a constitutional crisis when he abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite whom government ministers believed the public would never accept as Queen. (TIME went on to name her its first-ever Woman of the Year.)

The royal family's responsibilities have waned since then, which has just given them more time to get in trouble. Or perhaps technology has just given us better ways of uncovering their failings. In 2006, cadets videotaped Prince Harry calling a Pakistani army comrade a "raghead." And in 1992, Harry's still married father Prince Charles was recorded telling his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, that he longed to be her tampon. In the age of YouTube and camera phones, the Windsors would be wise to update their Facebook privacy settings.