10 Times The Royal Family Sued The Press And Why They Took Drastic Measures

The relationship between the British royals and the U.K. press has always been an odd one — at times symbiotic, at others antagonistic. Buckingham Palace has long utilized the press to both plant and kill stories, sometimes offering access to a member of the royal family in a quid-pro-quo exchange. While Britain's notoriously sensationalistic newspapers are expected to cover royal ribbon-cuttings and the like, the folks that run those outlets know that what really sells newspapers is scandal and innuendo.

As a result, some members of the media have gone to pretty extreme lengths to capture the royals in unguarded moments, away from the stiffly staged spectacles we're used to seeing. When this happens, it's ticked off the royal family enough that lawsuits have been lodged against those media outlets. From allegations of libel to invasion-of-privacy charges over topless pics of a future queen, this litigation has run the gamut — and, ironically, provided even further fodder for the royal-hungry press.

Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was the first royal to sue the press

Some members of Britain's royal family may be nostalgic for a simpler time when royals didn't need lawyers. Back in the days of King Henry VIII, for example, a matter like divorce wasn't handled by attorneys, but by papal decree or, occasionally, the royal executioner. However, as society became more civilized, a point came when royalty could no longer simply imprison and torture those who displeased them, necessitating the use of lawyers. 

That was the case in 1844, when 60 personal etchings created by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were leaked to newspaper reporter Jasper Tomsett Judge (via the Daily Mail). After paying a £5 bribe to an employee of the print shop handling them, Judge made plans to sell the royal etchings at a huge profit, even producing a catalog. When Victoria caught wind of it, she was furious. Prince Albert leaped into action and unleashed his lawyers, who claimed that the couple's privacy had been invaded. The judge agreed and granted an injunction under the grounds that publishing the etchings in a catalog constituted an intrusion. Those etchings, once the subject of scandal and litigation, are now on display at The British Museum.

Queen Elizabeth II sued The Sun for prematurely publishing her Christmas message

Each year since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II delivered her annual Christmas Day address to the nation. In 1992, however, a copy of her speech was obtained by The Sun, which published it two days before the broadcast. Queen Elizabeth was miffed enough that she got her barristers involved, launching a lawsuit against the tabloid that alleged breach of copyright.

The following February, The Sun issued a front-page apology, along with a £200,000 donation to a charity favored by Elizabeth's daughter, Princess Anne. As the Independent reported at the time, the newspaper's editor said the payment and apology had come straight from the top, at the direction of the newspaper's owner, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. "We accept that, unintentionally, we caused you personal offence by publishing your Christmas message two days in advance. We regret that," the apology read, while also maintaining that the tabloid hadn't done anything illegal. 

A Buckingham Palace spokesperson confirmed the queen's lawyers received a call from The Sun, stating: "Any proposals that they are making will be looked at carefully but in the meantime the matter remains with the solicitors" (via the Independent). Queen Elizabeth ultimately accepted the apology, and a spokesperson stated that Her Majesty was "content to regard the matter as settled since the making of the payment by the newspaper must be seen as recognizing the basis of the claim" (via UPI).

Queen Elizabeth II sued the Mirror after a reporter snuck into Buckingham Palace

In 2003, Britain's Mirror published a shocking exposé written by reporter Ryan Parry, who managed to land a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace. As Parry pointed out, security was so lax that a background check wasn't done, allowing him to snoop around the palace for eight solid weeks. He was also able to take photos — including one of Queen Elizabeth II's breakfast table, which juxtaposed crisp linen tablecloths with Corn Flakes in a Tupperware container. During his tenure as a footman, Parry served breakfast to visiting dignitaries, including U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Not once during the entire three-month operation did anyone ever search me or my bags as I came and went at Buckingham Palace," Parry wrote. 

The queen was understandably infuriated. Her lawyers went to court and were granted a temporary injunction prohibiting the Mirror from publishing any more of Parry's scoops gleaned from his weeks as a faux footman.

The case ultimately ended with a settlement. As The Telegraph reported, the Mirror ceded to Her Majesty's demand not to publish anything else related to Parry's infiltration of Buckingham Palace. In addition, the newspaper agreed to pay £25,000 — not in damages, but to cover the costs of the queen's lawsuit. Despite losing the case, Mirror editor Piers Morgan (yes, that one) gloated that the whole thing was moot since they'd already published all the juicy stuff anyway.

David Armstrong-Jones took legal action after a newspaper reported on his rowdy antics at a pub

David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowdon — aka Viscount Linley, aka Princess Margaret's son — made headlines in 1989 when British newspaper Today published a story claiming the royal, then 28, was banned from a pub after drunkenly sloshing beer on other patrons. He sued the newspaper for libel and for describing him as a "lager lout" (via the Los Angeles Times). 

According to The New York Times, the judge in the case blasted Today's story as a "tissue of lies." The newspaper's lawyers claimed the story was based on an eyewitness account from the bar manager, Carolyn Peacock. However, in court, Peacock denied being the source. ″I would not have recognized Viscount Linley if I'd seen him, I'm afraid,″ she said (via the Associated Press).

Armstrong-Jones emerged victorious and was awarded $57,000 in damages. Additionally, the newspaper was also ordered to pay his legal fees of approximately $122,000. "I decided to issue proceedings in respect of the story in Today newspaper because it was a complete invention, and my request for the publication of an immediate apology was refused," the royal — who at that time was 12th in line to the British throne — said in a statement after the verdict (via the Los Angeles Times). His lawyer, Brian Murphy, said his client was satisfied with the outcome. "He has no desire that this matter should continue to be litigated," Murphy said (via the Associated Press).

Princess Diana sued the Mirror Group for publishing photos of her working out in a gym

In 1993, photos emerged of Princess Diana working out in a gym, published in the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror. It eventually came to light that those photos were taken with a hidden camera stashed out of sight by the gym's owner, Bryce Taylor. But Diana fought back. Her lawyers issued writs against the newspaper and Taylor, alleging a breach of confidence. It was later revealed that Taylor hoped to get "a few hundred thousand pounds" for the photos. "If I told you I had an absolutely legal scam, which didn't hurt anyone and which would make you a million pounds, wouldn't you say 'yes'?" Taylor said at the time (via the Independent), insisting most people would have done the same thing.

Diana triumphed, and the ruling prohibited any further sale or publication of the images. At the same time, the money the newspaper agreed to pay Taylor would instead be donated to a charity of the Princess of Wales' choice. All existing copies of the photos, as well as the negatives, were to be destroyed.

"Her Royal Highness is pleased that her determined stance in defense of her right to privacy has been so completely vindicated," Diana's lawyers said in a statement (via UPI).

King Charles sued the Mail on Sunday for publishing his diary entries

In 2005, then-Prince Charles was not amused when a royally snarky entry in his private journal somehow found its way into the pages of the British tabloid Mail on Sunday. As the Independent reported, the 1997 journal entry documented the British handover of Hong Kong to China, which King Charles wryly described as "The Great Chinese Takeaway." In the unvarnished entry, Charles described the Chinese president's speech as propaganda and decried the "awful Soviet-style display" of Chinese soldiers goose-stepping in unison before lowering the Union flag. He also described the delegation accompanying China's president as a "group of appalling old waxworks."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Charles had reportedly sent 11 copies to "close friends" — one of who apparently allowed a copy to fall into the Mail's clutches — albeit nearly a decade later. Sir Michael Peat, the king's principal private secretary, claimed that the tabloid had been warned no less than five times not to publish Charles' essay. "Nevertheless, the Mail on Sunday proceeded to publish these extracts despite the knowledge that it was a breach of the Prince of Wales' copyright and confidence," Peat said.

Charles sued the Mail on Sunday for breach of confidentiality and copyright, with the newspaper claiming that what Charles had written was a historical document that they had every right to publish. Charles ultimately won. The newspaper appealed and lost a second time. 

Prince William and Princess Catherine sued a magazine for publishing topless photos of her

In 2012, a pair of paparazzi armed with a powerful telephoto lens and questionable judgment snapped some shots of Princess Catherine as she sunbathed topless in a private chateau while vacationing in Provence with her husband Prince William. Those photos were sold to a French magazine, Closer, which gleefully published them. "A red line's been crossed," a Buckingham Palace source told People, while a spokesperson compared the intrusion to the paparazzi hounding Princess Diana at the time of her tragic death. The couple launched legal action to bar the magazine from publishing any further images, in addition to seeking £1.3 million in damages.

Meanwhile, French authorities launched an investigation that resulted in several people going on trial for violating France's notoriously stringent privacy laws. These included the magazine's publishers, while the editor was charged with complicity. In addition, the two photographers also faced charges, including invasion of privacy.

When the case finished winding its way through the courts in 2017, Prince William and Princess Catherine were awarded £91,000 in damages, while the magazine's editor and CEO of the parent company were each ordered to pay a €45,000 fine (via The Guardian). The royal couple was reportedly satisfied with the outcome. "The incident was a serious breach of privacy, and their royal highnesses felt it essential to pursue all legal remedies," read a statement from their rep.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sued a news agency over intrusive photos taken via helicopter

After their royal wedding, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle moved into their new home in 2018 — a lavish estate in Britain's Cotswolds district. Oddly, just a year after moving in, the newlyweds moved out, citing concerns with security.

Those concerns came to light when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sued Splash News, alleging the news agency had utilized a low-flying helicopter to fly onto the property and take photos through the windows — which were published in various news outlets. The case was settled in 2019, with the royals receiving an apology and undisclosed yet "substantial" damages, according to The Guardian. The security breach was so severe, they were forced to leave the home they'd just moved into and redecorated. "The duke was awarded a significant sum towards damages and legal fees, which will be put towards a donation to charity and covering the duke's legal costs," said a spokesperson for the prince.

The Sussexes butt heads with Splash News again the following year in 2020 while staying in Vancouver Island, when a paparazzi photographer staked out the place they were residing at in order to take photos of their infant son, Archie. This time, the Duchess of Sussex sued, and won. Not only did Splash News issue a promise to never again take unauthorized photos of the couple and/or their children, but the legal battle pushed the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Prince William received a substantial settlement from Rupert Murdoch

In 2011, Britain's News of the World was shuttered due to the fallout from the infamous phone-hacking scandal in which the privacy of numerous celebrities was invaded by tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch. In the midst of a lawsuit brought by Prince Harry against Murdoch's media empire in 2019 regarding the hacking, an interesting tidbit of information emerged. For decades, the royals have had a secret deal with Murdoch's various news outlets, authorized by Queen Elizabeth II, in which said outlets would issue apologies while members of the royal family would be prevented from appearing in court to testify about the embarrassing stuff contained in those hacked phone messages.

The Associated Press reported that defense lawyers contended Harry's lawsuit was filed too late to be valid, however, Harry insisted the only reason he hadn't sued earlier was because of the "secret agreement" between the royals and Murdoch's newspapers. During the trial, it was revealed that Harry's brother, Prince William, had clandestinely received "a very large sum of money" in 2020 from Murdoch's companies, as a settlement relating to the phone hacking scandal.

While details about the figure of that settlement were kept under wraps, Harry revealed that the covert deal between the royals and Murdoch's newspapers dated back to the infamous "tampongate" scandal, when media outlets obtained a salacious private phone call between King Charles and Camilla, Queen in 1993 while he was still married to Princess Diana.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have launched several additional lawsuits against the press

When it comes to the title of most litigious royals, one has to give it up for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Over the years, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have launched numerous lawsuits aimed at the press. 

In addition to the two aforementioned suits targeting Splash News, and Harry's phone-hacking suit, the couple also sued celebrity photo agency X17 for using a drone to take photos of their son Archie at their California home. A settlement was reached, with the royals receiving an undisclosed sum and an apology. In addition, Meghan sued Associated Newspapers in 2021 when the Mail on Sunday published excerpts of a letter she'd written to her estranged father. Meghan won the suit while the publisher lost a subsequent appeal. Then, in 2022, Harry sued the same company, contending he'd been libeled in a story about his battle with the British government over his personal security.

Harry was also one of several celebrities (including Elizabeth Hurley, Sir Elton John, and Sadie Frost) to sue Associated Newspapers over alleged phone tapping, alleging that espionage-type listening devices had been planted in their homes and vehicles. Harry also sued the Mirror Group in 2023 for phone hacking. In his book, "Spare" (via Twitter), Harry wrote that his father had discouraged him from trying to take on the press, describing it as a "suicide mission." Harry replied: "Maybe. But it's worth it."