Peter and Autumn Phillips' marriage started with a tinge of controversy.

In 2008, they tied the knot at St George's Chapel in Windsor and then celebrated at Frogmore House (a combination which a decade on would be repeated by Harry and Meghan).

Sure, the bride got to wear a big flouncy dress and don a glittering tiara as the royal family came out in droves to celebrate the first of the Queen's grandchildren getting hitched.


However, there was one particular person at the party who later caused quite the ruction: A photographer from Hello! magazine.

Reportedly unbeknown to the Queen, the couple had sold the shots of their big day for a reported $970,000.

The photos, including some of the then-Kate Middleton and Prince Harry's then-girlfriend Chelsy Davy hitting the dance floor, were splashed across 59 glossy pages and provided an unprecedentedly intimate peek behind the royal curtain.

The couple on the cover of Hello! magazine. Photo / Hello! magazine
The couple on the cover of Hello! magazine. Photo / Hello! magazine

The Queen was not amused, with a senior royal source telling the Telegraph at the time, "It will never ever happen again. In hindsight it should never have happened in the first place."

In a certain tragic symmetry, the end of the Phillips' union is creating a whole new headache for Her Majesty.

Earlier this month, the Sun reported the couple had parted ways before they themselves confirmed it in a statement saying: "Both families were naturally sad at the announcement, but fully supportive of Peter and Autumn in the joint decision to co-parent their children."

On a personal level, this is sad news given the couple have two young daughters, Savannah, 9, and Isla, 7.

But this development could not have come at a worse time for the royal family's brand, after several bruising months during which the Windsors managed to keep losing front-facing members with startling regularity. (Okay, a quick note: Yes, Peter is not technically "royal" even though he is 15th in the line of succession but for the purposes of how his actions might affect the Queen we shall consider him one.)


First came Prince Andrew's mortifying exit from public life in the wake of a disastrous TV interview about his links to convicted paedophile Jeffery Epstein. Then in January Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, stunningly quit working royal life.

The hits just kept coming. In January cringe-worthy ads starring Peter plugging British milk for the Chinese market emerged and then just weeks later the end of his 12 year marriage was announced.

This week, David and Serena Armstrong-Jones, the Earl and Countess of Snowdon, (Princess Margaret's son and daughter-in-law) announced they too were splitting, 26 years after their glittering 1993 wedding.

It is enough to make even the most sanguine of sovereigns wonder if the Palace might need cleansing with sage or if it's time to bring someone in to fix the feng shui.

The Phillips' split came as a shock even to the most obsessive of royal watchers. In hindsight Peter's appearance at church at Sandringham in mid-January solo (he was reportedly staying at the Queen's Norfolk summer home and was celebrating his birthday with a shooting weekend for chums) might have been a sign.

Theirs had long been seen as one of the most enduring Windsor marriages, their relationship having started in 2003 in Autumn's native Canada when both were working at the Montreal Grand Prix.

Only weeks after meeting, she flew to England to see her British beau before later making the move permanent.

Interestingly, it took Autumn six weeks of dating before she twigged who her hunky new bloke really was. According to the Daily Mail, it was only when she and her mother were watching a TV report about Prince William's 21st birthday and a photo of Peter was shown on the screen that Autumn realised his royal connections. "What have you gotten yourself into?" her mother is reported to have said at the time.

The couple dated for five years before he popped the question in a proposal gone gloriously awry. A scenario involving a hot air balloon had been planned but bad weather put the kybosh on that idea. Still, Peter went ahead with the proposal.

"I certainly didn't see the question coming," Autumn later told the Telegraph. "I looked horrible in my wellies with wet hair. I said yes straight away though."

On May 17, 2008 they tied the knot in Windsor and Peter became the first of the Queen's grandchildren to marry.

"The whole thing was just fantastic from beginning to end," Peter told Hello! "I wouldn't have changed a single thing. It's just one big happy memory."

Peter and Autumn Phillips announced their divorce this year. Photo / Getty Images
Peter and Autumn Phillips announced their divorce this year. Photo / Getty Images

Interestingly, their wedding made news for another reason aside from the magazine involvement. Prince William was unable to attend (he was in Africa at a pal's wedding) so he asked his girlfriend Kate to go in his stead. That day is believed to be the first time that Kate met the Queen and signalled the seriousness of her relationship with William.

In the years since then, Peter and Autumn, along with their daughters, have been a regular, beaming sight at high profile events in the royal calendar such as Trooping the Colour and Ascot. Their closeness to cousins William and Harry is also evident, with the Phillips and the Cambridges regularly photographed together at events such as the polo and horse shows.

Cringe-worthy milk ads aside, it had looked like the couple were a true royal success story, having built a seemingly happy life together, living in a house on the 600-acre Aston Farm, next door to his mother's Gatcombe Park estate. Search online and you can find shot after shot of the duo laughing and kissing, their chemistry apparent.

Quite where things went wrong is unclear though it is believed that the Windsors have known about the couple's split for months.

The same is reported to be true for David and Serena Armstrong-Jones, the Earl and Countess of Snowdon who appear to have been separated for some time.

Theirs was a more conventional royal union, with Serena being the daughter of the 12th Earl of Harrington, Viscount Petersham, who is reported to be worth around $500 million.

When they wed in 1993, Serena donned her mother-in-law's famous and beloved Poltimore tiara and in an obvious but touching ode to Princess Margaret, chose a nearly identical wedding dress to hers.

Like Peter, David has long worked, having set up his own furniture company, Linley, in 1982. In the years since then his has become the go-to firm for high-end interior design with clients including Elton John and designer Valentino.

The couple played an unwitting role in one of the biggest royal controversies (prior to recent events) when they lent William and Kate their French chateau for a holiday. It was there in 2012 that Kate was caught by a paparazzo, believed to have been up to a kilometre away, sun bathing topless.

While both couples have stressed the amicable nature of their separations, the end of these two marriages will affect the Queen.

For a woman who has enjoyed a 72-year marriage, these splits will surely be upsetting. She might officially command an army but she is also a doting mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and will be affected by these latest developments.

These impending divorces could also represent a branding problem for an institution that is keenly sensitive to public perception in that it creates the unfortunate (and incorrect) perception that women who have married into the Windsors are getting out in droves.

Family remains an essential cornerstone of their brand. It was Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert who understood the inherent seductive quality and sheer power of putting an idealised version of family at the centre of the royal family's image. That savvy thinking remains as relevant in 2020 as it was in the 1850s.

Today, the royal family sells not only pomp and ceremony but has come to symbolise a certain admirable clannish quality given they have not had a split since Charles and Diana's 1996 divorce. Consider, in only 15 years there have been engagements (six), weddings (five) and babies (eight).

Walk through any official Palace gift shop (yes, they have those) or tacky London souvenir emporium and you will find item after item celebrating these life events in all their glossy glory.

It's a feel good jamboree that warms even the coldest of hearts and makes you desperately want to acquire a commemorative biscuit tin or three.

While the Windsor family has a long and unfortunate track record when it comes to divorce, this recent one/two bad PR punch could have an out-size impact on the royal family given this has happened hot on the heels of the Andrew and Sussex crises. To speak plainly, the royal family desperately needs a win right now.

It seems that the Queen & Co have suffered hit after hit in recent months and just can't quite catch a break. I wonder if she must look back fondly at the early naughties when the biggest crisis was more photos of Harry stumbling out of a Chelsea nightclub being splashed across the front of the tabloids.

With March 31 announced as Harry and Meghan's last official day as working members of the royal family and Andrew still facing scrutiny, the controversy around the royal family doesn't look set to let up any time soon. Perhaps it is time to get some sage in Ma'am.

*Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.