Princess of Hearts: How the Reverberations From Diana’s Death are Still Felt Inside and Outside the Palace
Diana Spencer, seen here with her boys in 1989, rejected the ready-made mold waiting for her within the Royal family, leaving behind a legacy still felt within the monarchy today. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In honour of the occasion, we revisit the cover story from Zoomer’s June/July 2021 issue, in which journalist Leanne Delap explores the legacy the People’s Princess left behind on what would have been Diana’s 60th birthday.
Princess Diana’s funeral exists in our collective memory, distilled into a single, searing image of princes William and Harry, heartbreakingly stoic, walking behind her coffin borne aloft a gun carriage, and flanked by their father, grandfather and uncle. In our mind’s eye, we see only the two bereaved sons. It’s an iconic generational moment that mirrors John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father, a slain American president. There is a lesser-known moment captured the same day: Standing in front of Buckingham Palace gates, the Queen bowed her head as Diana’s coffin passed. It was significant, as the Queen bows to no one save God. But royalty is theatre, and on that September morning in 1997, the Queen chose this unprecedented gesture to telegraph her respect, and to put to rest public outcry that the palace had not responded swiftly enough, or with appropriate emotion, to Diana’s death.
It showed the world that Diana — warm where the monarchy was perceived as cold, touchy-feely in a family that even curtsied and bowed to each other in private, according to rank — had changed the behaviour of the House of Windsor. The day before, in a special address to the nation, the Queen admitted as much. “I, for one, believe that there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death,” she said. “I share in your determination to cherish her memory.”
More than two decades later, on the eve of what would have been Diana’s 60th birthday on July 1, reverberations from her death are still felt inside and outside the palace gates. British journalist Andrew Morton, who collaborated with her for his 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story, says she prompted the Royal Family to reflect on their reputation for being distant and unfeeling. “Since her death, the monarchy has become more relaxed and less remote,” he says in a telephone interview from his second home in Pasadena, Calif. “The sight of a member of the Royal Family hugging someone no longer excites headlines. It is commonplace, and Diana turned hugging into an art form.”
Displays of emotion in the Royal Family, discouraged by the stoic example set by the Queen and the late Prince Philip, have become more accepted since Diana’s death. We saw the Queen crying when the Royal Yacht Britannia, her ocean-going home, was decommissioned in 2017, and tearing up at a Remembrance Day ceremony in 2019. Then, at Prince Philip’s funeral in April, it was particularly sorrowful when Prince Charles, the product of his parents’ formal upbringing, was photographed wiping away tears as he walked behind the custom Land Rover bearing his father’s coffin.
Diana’s compassion for marginalized and vulnerable people also changed the planet’s world view. When she shook hands with an AIDS patient at a London hospital in 1987, with one simple gesture she dismissed the widely believed fear that you could be infected through touch. And when she confessed to cutting herself, struggling with bulimia, and throwing herself down a set of stairs when she was pregnant with William, Diana shattered long-standing prejudices about mental illness, where those with psychiatric disorders were dismissed as weak and had to suffer in silence.
She bequeathed a new approach to philanthropy to her children and their wives, who follow in her footsteps by devoting themselves to their own passions, as well as charitable causes close to her heart. That’s why Harry, who did two tours in Afghanistan with the British Army, created the Invictus Games for wounded war vets and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, supports racial justice and works tirelessly to advocate for women’s and girls’ rights. William, a former air ambulance pilot, has homed in on health-care workers during the pandemic, and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, has focused on her commitment to early childhood development. Harry and William devote themselves to mental health initiatives such as their Heads Together charity, invoking Diana’s name as they amplify a tectonic shift in the public’s attitude to mental illness in the decades since she died. All this work would have made their mother proud.
Meanwhile, the accusations Diana levelled about cold and callous treatment by “the Firm” play out today in the modern-day schism in the House of Windsor, with Harry repeatedly saying he fears “history repeating itself” with his wife. It burst into the open with the March Oprah Winfrey interview, where the couple accused the Royal Family of being racist, ignoring Meghan’s pleas for help even when she was suicidal, and failing to defend her to the press, to the point where they walked away from life as working royals, abandoned the family and even quit the country.
The Queen has had to deal with the fallout, which has driven a wedge between Charles’s sons and caused public support of the monarchy to plummet in recent polls in both Canada and the U.K. It’s the most significant crisis the monarchy has faced since Diana’s death and has serious ramifications for the Royal Family’s future, which is intricately tied to public perception. Because the Queen is the personification of the Crown, her fortunes (and, by extension her family’s), ride on maintaining goodwill with 15 constitutional monarchies and 54 countries that belong to the Commonwealth. Any one of the 16 could — as Barbados just did in 2020 — write the Queen out of the constitution and institute a republic, or quit the Commonwealth.
Finding Her Voice
What would Diana have been like at 60? Lost at the peak of her beauty and youth, a supernova captured in an unprecedented wealth of imagery, she is an idol frozen in time. Thus, the idea of Diana looking older than 36 boggles the mind. When Newsweek “aged her up” a decade ago to mark her 50th birthday — a simple Instagram-filter trick today — it was uncomfortable because it made her loss all the more poignant. She never got to experience the peace and confidence that comes with greying hair and a softer jawline. But 60 is a moment to contemplate legacies, and there is much to examine in terms of the profound effect Diana had on the Crown, and the rest of us.
Diana Spencer’s transformation from coy kindergarten assistant with doe eyes peeking out from under a fringe of blond hair to chin-up, empowered humanitarian rocking sleek couture was alchemy, powered by fame and charisma. When she died, the years of suffering at the hands of her unfaithful husband — the man who came to symbolize the British monarchy’s insensitivity and its suffocating bureaucratic machinery — were behind her. She was a newly independent woman forged of that pain, with so much unrealized potential.
Gone in an instant in a Paris underpass, she was transformed again, this time into an idea — or an ideal, rather — suspended in time like a scarab in amber. When someone young and beautiful dies, especially when they are otherworldly famous, the good memories eclipse the bad. She was born of aristocracy and elevated to the monarchy, but Diana transcended both to become an icon of international celebrity. Think of Elvis Presley, think of Marilyn Monroe, think of Kurt Cobain. There is no room for anything but idolatry on the peoples’ pedestal. This is a disservice to Diana’s memory, because her flaws are what made her most interesting, for those flaws laundered our own sins.
People — and I would argue women, especially — see themselves in Diana to this day. Anyone who has been cheated on could relate to her experience. Although she saw herself as a victim, she also fought back, unleashing her rage and, in the end, exacting a measure of revenge. Thus she achieved a complicated kind of empowerment, imperfect but deeply resonant. It’s a fantasy we all harbour at times, and we will never know if the rancour would have healed over time.
Once she emerged from the early years of motherhood, when she rarely spoke and communicated only in clothing and pantomime gestures during her royal duties — cutting ribbons, standing on airplane gangplanks and hospital steps — she found her voice and, stoked and emboldened by the media’s fascination, learned how to use it. Diana openly shared her vulnerability, marital woes and mental health struggles at a time when the British upper lip was nowhere stiffer than in the Royal Family.
The British people, following the Royal Family’s lead, were known for a reserve so deadpan it was almost comical. They came through the Blitz without blinking, rebuilt the country and got on with it. Overnight, they were unglued by Diana’s death, as if undergoing a collective nervous breakdown. “In London, emotion raged and ruled, emotion that had been uncorked from some deep place, but that also had an obvious element of performance,” social critic Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic magazine last year. “The seawall breached, all of the emotions flooded in — not just sorrow for Diana, but anger at the Queen for remaining in Scotland.” If the Queen personified the monarchy, Diana represented the people. They were crying over their own pain in life, and someone had to take the blame.
In life, Diana was gloriously multidimensional, a cacophony of contradictions. She was seductive and manipulative on one hand and dedicated to difficult, unpopular and non-traditional causes on the other. She was a square peg in a round hole: tactile and vital in a family where the Queen greeted her two young children after a long 1954 royal tour with a handshake. Diana was mercurial and impulsive and said what was on her mind, damn the consequences, in a family that uses the phrase “no comment” more than any other. She understood the heady power she gained from fame and public devotion and was widely seen to have “won” the War of the Waleses. But she was playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the press, which grew rabid when she was no longer protected by the palace. She flirted with the media — from day one there was that coquettish glance, the unscripted wink. She arranged paparazzi shoots and used the media to deliver her version of events, most famously via her collaboration with Morton for Diana: Her True Story, which blew the doors off her marriage. There is a parallel dynamic at play right now in the Sussexes vs. the Windsors saga.
In Her Image
Diana’s chief legacy is, obviously, her sons. The way she raised her children guaranteed change in the monarchy, because she shaped the man who will be king. She raised both boys to be cognizant of their privilege and to connect with common people. “I want them to have an understanding of people’s emotions, people’s insecurities, people’s distress, and people’s hopes and dreams,” she told Martin Bashir in the controversial 1995 Panorama interview on BBC. (During the broadcast, Diana also questioned if Charles would ever be King and expressed doubts that his character “could adapt” to “the top job,” forcing the Queen to order the couple to divorce.)
The daughter of an earl, from an aristocratic family more ancient than the monarchy, she eschewed the usual posh gigs embraced by her crew of “Sloane Rangers.” She worked as a kindergarten assistant, shared a flat with girlfriends and cleaned her sister’s place for a pound a week. Similarly, Diana ensured her sons had as “normal” a childhood as possible, and much has been made of their outings to McDonald’s, log rides at the water park and visits to homeless shelters. She did the school run every day, and once competed, barefoot, in a mother’s race at Harry’s sports day.
When it came to education, William was the first royal monarch to be sent off to nursery school at the age of three, after generations of princes and princesses had been home-schooled at the palace, including Charles, who was taught between the ages of five and eight by a governess. But boarding school was non-negotiable: Boarding away is a royal tradition that has seen generations of young children ‚— Prince Philip, as well as Charles and his siblings — shipped off, alone, at a young age. Diana was reportedly in tears when Prince Charles insisted William, just eight, be sent to Ludgrove School in Berkshire. Diana coped by visiting her boys (Harry’s education followed the same plan as William’s) on the weekends and writing them letters.
Harry is more his mother’s son, a Spencer rebel. That spirited lineage was on display when Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, delivered her eulogy. “I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned,” he said, in what was widely interpreted as a dig at the Royal Family.
Like William, Harry married a commoner, but, in a radical departure for a Royal Family scion, chose Meghan Markle, a divorced, biracial American TV actress, as his bride. William has grown into the embodiment of Windsor ancestral duty, with his sedate and pitch-perfect wife, Catherine, and their three children. “William is far more disciplined about what he shows about his feelings,” biographer Clive Irving says in an interview from his home in upstate New York.
The royal reporter, who started out on Fleet Street in the mid-’50s just after Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, has just published The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy-Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor. “Harry has never been inclined to be disciplined. You could glibly say that Harry is a Spencer and William is a Windsor. But both are recognizably Diana’s boys.”
He wonders “who William and Harry would have been had she still been around. The sudden loss of their mother threw them into the kind of traumas we still see today.” As for Charles, Irving takes a dim view of how he picked up the slack. “It raises the question about Charles’s role as a father, a distant father. He seemed far more occupied with Camilla than with them.”
Diana is a difficult mother-in-law to have in absentia, given she is almost a deity. Catherine and Meghan have both emulated her in different ways. Catherine more often uses visual cues: For the birth of Prince George, she wore a sweet, blue, polka-dot Jenny Packham dress for the photo on the steps of the Lindo Wing, paying tribute to a similar light-green, ’80s-style polka-dot dress Diana wore to present William in the same spot. For the birth of Prince Louis, Catherine wore another Jenny Packham dress, red with a white collar, a modernized take on the red dress with white collar that Diana wore to show off Prince Harry. Then there’s Diana’s sapphire engagement ring that sits on Catherine’s finger, visible in nearly every one of the zillions of photos of the Duchess of Cambridge at work. Following in the footsteps of Diana, she is a master of diplomatic dressing as seen in the couple’s recent trips to Pakistan, Ireland and even the pandemic train tour last Christmas. But Catherine is far more suited to the job of Queen-in-waiting. She is even-tempered, not prone to revealing facial expressions, and gives a solid show of a happy and thriving working wife and mother.
As for Meghan, there is the now-famous image of her wedding reception outfit, a stunningly simple, white Stella McCartney halter dress that allowed Diana’s emerald-cut aquamarine cocktail ring to serve as nostalgic punctuation. Meghan also regularly wears a gold Cartier Tank Française watch of Diana’s that Harry gave to her, and the fashion press regularly scrutinizes her wardrobe choices for echoes of
But Meghan may be far more similar to Diana in temperament, wearing her heart on her sleeve and expressing her disappointment with how the palace treated her. Her recent admissions of mental health struggles due to the pressures and isolation of royal life were eerily reminiscent of those of the Princess of Wales. The denouement of the Megxit saga, culminating in the interview with Oprah, shows how “the Firm” can still close ranks when the institution is threatened.
There are other echoes of the way Diana’s royal years ended. Her son and daughter-in-law were stripped of their security detail, patronages and Harry’s military titles, although the palace stopped short of taking away their HRH designations, even if they can’t use them. It was a lesson clearly learned from the public response to Diana’s divorce terms, which deprived her of the HRH designation and crucially, led to a downgrading of her security from Scotland Yard’s Royalty and Diplomatic Protection Group. Yes, these steps had to happen, as the Sussexes had decided to no longer be working royals.
Continuing Her Work
Royals have always put “giving back” at the centre of their public service. Prince Philip devoted much of his time to the World Wildlife Fund and the youth-empowerment program, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, while Princess Anne made an early decision to focus on Save the Children. Charles, for his part, used his £7,400 navy-severance pay to fund community initiatives to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth in 1976, a passion that grew into the Prince’s Trust.
But Diana wanted to make an impact on the lives of those suffering from poverty and illness, saying, “I lead from the heart, not the head.” Once she had left the Royal Family, she was able to take on the philanthropic challenges she wanted. “Diana’s trajectory in her life was that of an international humanitarian shining a light on often forgotten or neglected causes,” says Morton, who has just published a new royal biography called Elizabeth & Margaret. “She had spent much of the last year of her life away from Britain and was thinking of establishing herself in America. Following her divorce from Prince Charles, she saw herself as a princess for the world rather than a Princess of Wales.”
She had an innate understanding about the human condition, which is why she connected so deeply with so many. It was born, as her brother Charles said in a 2020 interview with The Sunday Times, of the pain of their mother’s abandonment when Diana was five and he was two. “While she was packing her stuff to leave, [our mother] promised Diana she’d come back to see her. Diana used to wait on the doorstep for her, but she never came.” That early trauma clearly gave Diana an empathy she channelled into helping others.
We want to imagine things would have worked out for her. In the 2011 Newsweek cover story, journalist Tina Brown predicted Diana would have needed to marry well — to someone who could provide her with, as she called the finer things in life, “all the toys.” Whether she was likely to have married Harrod’s heir and Ritz Hotel owner Dodi Al Fayed or not, as a boyfriend, he would have been able to give her creature comforts, the money to continue her charitable work and security. Sadly, although Al Fayed did provide a security detail that fateful night, he couldn’t protect Diana from the paparazzi and Henri Paul, the inebriated Ritz Hotel employee who was driving his boss home and baited the press to catch them.
Brown saw Diana moving in “post-palace power circles” that would have included non-governmental organizations in vogue at the time, like the invitation-only World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the Clinton Global Initiative. In fact, Brown shared that just before her death in 1997, “Diana told me she’d been discussing the idea of making television films about the causes she worked so hard for: the victims of landmines, leprosy and HIV/AIDS.”
Fulfilling Diana’s desired destiny, Harry and Meghan are now in the vanguard of today’s version of progressive philanthropy, exemplified by friends and mentors Oprah and Michelle and Barack Obama. It’s a nexus where social-justice warriors join forces with Silicon Valley and Hollywood, and use their celebrity to promote their causes. In Harry’s case, he’ll champion mental health as Chief Impact Officer for the San Francisco-based startup called BetterUp. Harry and Meghan have clearly taken a page from the Obamas’ playbook, with both couples inking multi-year deals with Spotify for podcasts and with Netflix for films and TV series. Harry and Meghan’s first project under a 2020 contract between their Archewell Productions company and Netflix for “scripted and unscripted series, film, documentaries, and children’s programming” will be Heart of Invictus, described as a docu-series on athletes who compete in Harry’s Invictus Games.
Irving surmises Diana would have been an effective change maker, not to mention a continuing challenge for the monarchy. When she began her campaign against landmines in 1997, she caused an uproar with British MPs, who accused her of overstepping her role and dabbling in politics; she responded by calling the criticism an “unnecessary distraction.” That didn’t dissuade Diana from meeting amputees maimed by landmines and walking through an Angolan minefield, a visit — and photo op — that was repeated by Harry on the royal tour of Africa in 2019. The princess scored a posthumous victory when her passion was converted to measurable progress with the Ottawa Treaty, signed just months after her death. Some 160 nations have since signed on to the United Nations effort to eliminate anti-personnel mines around the world.
Irving also believes Diana would have become a substantial political and public figure. “Not political in the sense of political party, rather in representing her generation and her ability to connect with people.” That ability, he says, was “extraordinary and in great contrast to members of the Royal Family.” With her parallel court of celebrity, much like Harry and Meghan’s today, “it would have been like watching a rival show.” He feels she would have been “an enormous force for British culture. Her maturity by now would have done a great deal of good, done great works. She would have had institutions named after her.”
In Her Memory
The media earthquake that ensued when Diana married Prince Charles 40 years ago will rumble to life when her feuding sons reunite, for the second time, since Harry scorched the palace gates on his way to California with Oprah on speed-dial.
They began a tentative rapprochement after Harry flew to England for his grandfather’s funeral in April. The estranged brothers reportedly had a meeting with their father before Charles left for Wales and Harry returned home to Meghan, who is expecting their second child this summer. And they have jointly agreed to loan their mother’s wedding dress to Historic Royal Palaces for an exhibition called “Royal Style in the Making,” which opens June 3 at Kensington Palace, Diana’s former home. When she walked down the aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981, the top-secret dress designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel was revealed, a fairy-tale confection with an epic 25-foot train — the longest in royal history. It will be the first time the iconic piece has been displayed in a quarter of a century.
Hopefully, this will take some of the pressure off at the July 1 unveiling of a statue in Diana’s honour, to mark what would have been her 60th birthday. The statue’s progress toward its home in the Sunken Gardens of Kensington Palace, where Harry and William grew up, is a metaphor for the boys’ own difficult relationship of late. They jointly commissioned the piece by British sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley in 2017, on the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. Things were going swimmingly at the time: The fab three, along with Catherine, were soon to become the fab four when Harry proposed to Meghan at the end of the year. But the boys fell out amid the drama of the ensuing 2018 royal wedding and the subsequent separation of their official offices. Tensions rose as Harry and Meghan left for North America, then hit a crescendo with the tell-all interview this spring. Meanwhile, the boys were approving the plans and sketches from Rank-Broadley separately. Turning their focus to their mother at the memorial’s unveiling will serve as a reminder that they share a history greater than their differences. All families suffer fractures; some are able to come together again, forging even stronger bonds.
As for their mother, had she lived, Morton thinks Diana’s solace would have been her family. “Having picked the wrong guy the first time around, she wanted to be certain when it came to husband number two. At the same time, she wanted to have more children and would have made a doting ‘glamma,’ a glamorous grandmother to what will be five grandchildren this summer.”
While we can’t imagine Diana at 60, we can easily picture her enjoying the children. The shy, 19-year-old kindergarten teacher had a powerful effect in her short life, and managed to forge a new path through the archaic traditions and manners of a 1,200-year-old institution. She moulded the next generation by imprinting an emotional intelligence on her boys. She has already changed the “family business,” and no doubt her influence will be felt well into the future. But Diana’s legacy — and the greatest of losses — is captured in the heartbreaking cards of remembrance drawn for her each year on Britain’s Mothering Sunday by George, Louis and their sister, Charlotte, who will never get one of Granny Diana’s hugs themselves.
A version this article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue with the headline “Princess of Hearts,” p. 40. It also appeared online in June 2021 with the headline “Princess of Hearts: Exploring Diana’s Legacy in What Would Have Been Her 60th Year.”