Princess Diana: a mother who ripped up the rule book

As the outpouring of grief at her death showed, Diana’s informal attitude to royal protocol and parenting struck a chord with the public. Here, Matt Elton reveals how the legacy of her caring nature and charity work still continues today

Making a splash: Diana relishes taking her sons on a water ride at the Thorpe Park theme park in 1993. William has since recalled how his mother loved "laughter and fun". (Photo by Getty Images)

Princess Diana was a thoroughly modern princess—and nowhere was her iconoclasm more evident than in her determination to define the lives of her young sons, William and Harry, on her own terms. Yet, as is often the case when someone in the public eye breaks with tradition, Diana’s resolve was met with strong praise and strident criticism alike. And Diana was in the public eye to a remarkable degree. From the moment that she became engaged to and married Charles in 1981, the princess’s every move and every action was closely scrutinized. This scrutiny extended to her pregnancy: when photographs of her in a bikini in the Bahamas, while five months pregnant, were published in 1982, the Queen dubbed it “the blackest day in the history of British journalism”. It was a sentiment that was to foreshadow even blacker days to come in Diana’s ongoing battle with the press over her family’s privacy.

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Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 - 1997) pose together during their honeymoon in Balmoral, Scotland, 19th August 1981. (Photo by Serge Lemoine/Getty Images)

Yet this close scrutiny also helped forge a strong sense of empathy among the British public for the princess’s sons. Speaking later about the birth of William, on June 21, 1982, Diana remarked that she “felt the whole country was in labour with me”. Her role would never be a passive one, either. In interviews with Diana, carried out in 1991 for the project that eventually became Andrew Morton’s biography of the princess, she revealed that she had chosen the first names of her sons. Charles had wanted Arthur and Albert, she said, but she’d replied “No, too old, no thank you”. The parents would incorporate the rejected choices among their sons’ middle names.

Keeping the children close

The first sign that this was not to be a traditional royal motherhood came early in William’s life, with Diana’s first official overseas visit in 1983. Historically, other royals would have left their offspring with a nanny, but the prince’s parents brought him with them for a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, following Harry’s birth, on September 15, 1984, Diana would often try to reschedule her duties to give herself the longest time with her sons.

This desire to be close to her children, rather than leaving them behind while she carried out her official role, was born out of her caring personality. This is demonstrated by the jobs she worked in before marrying Charles, when she had been employed as both a nanny and a nursery teacher’s assistant. And her very public displays of affection were very new for the typically reserved royal family. On one of the instances when she returned from being away on royal business without her sons, Diana was photographed publicly greeting them with a hug. It was a radical departure from a young Prince Charles staidly shaking his mother’s hand.

Josephine Baker with her adopted children. She called them the ‘Rainbow Tribe’. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Yet rather than simply being a sign of her individual single-mindedness, Diana’s actions and priorities reflected a wider trend towards informality in British parenting, particularly among the upper classes. This is highlighted perhaps most clearly through her decisions about William and Harry’s education. It was traditional for members of the royal family to be instructed at home: the Queen, for instance, had been taught by a retinue of experts in subjects as diverse as constitutional history and French, while Prince Charles’ early education had been administered by a governess. Yet governesses were increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and both William and Harry began their school career at Wetherby School in Kensington—a school chosen by Diana. Admittedly, it still wasn’t exactly a standard comprehensive school, and both boys went on to attend Eton College, but it still marked a departure from the established norm.

Diana drops Harry off for his first day at Wetherby School in 1989, along with his brother. The school was one she had selected. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Diana drops Harry off for his first day at Wetherby School in 1989, along with his brother. The school was one she had selected. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

And not only was this decision a break from traditional royal parenting decisions, it was also part of Diana’s eagerness for her children to experience as much as possible of a world outside of pomp and privilege. Interviewed for a 2017 TV documentary, marking the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death, William remembered that “she was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun… She understood that there was a real life outside of palace walls”. This fun took many forms, from holidays—including an Austrian ski trip in 1991—to days out, including several visits to Thorpe Park theme park. According to her biographer Andrew Morton, she often planned trips herself, and rarely deferred to Charles or the family in decisions about her children.

Yet there was a serious side to Diana’s attempts to connect her sons with the reality of everyday life. Speaking to the journalist Martin Bashir for the BBC’s Panorama in 1995, Diana described how she had “taken William and Harry to people dying of Aids—albeit I told them it was cancer. I’ve taken the children to all sorts of areas, where I’m not sure anyone of that age in this family has been before”. This was new territory not only for her sons, but also for Diana herself: she was the first British royal figure to have contact with Aids patients.

Britain's Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, make the journey by carriage procession to Buckingham Palace following their wedding ceremony on April 29, 2011 in London. (Image by Matt Cardy/AFP/Getty Images)

When asked about her motivation to include her sons in this work, Diana said: “I want them to have an understanding of people’s emotions, people’s insecurities, people’s distress, and people’s hopes and dreams. I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people”. Diana’s own relationship with Britain’s people remained very open and honest, through her marital difficulties with Charles in the late 1980s and early 1990s to their divorce in 1996. During that process, the princess fought to shield her sons from the glare of the media spotlight. In 1995, a “gentleman’s agreement” was established between Buckingham Palace and the UK press, agreeing that they wouldn’t intrude on William and Harry’s private life in the way that Charles had experienced as a young man.

Paparazzi pressure

The media’s relationship with Diana was never easy. As journalist and author David Barnett noted in 2017, “In the months before [her death], she had appeared with almost exhausting regularity on the front pages of the newspapers, and indeed had a profile that today we rarely see among the royals”. The princess had begun a new relationship with Dodi Fayed, son of the then owner of Harrods, and “there was an obsession with Diana; her every move was checked and documented and filed”.

These moves included, tragically, her final journey that led up to the crash in Paris on August 31, 1997. Even in this, the media was a constant presence—although, despite the fact that she had been pursued by paparazzi at the time, the French judicial enquiry placed the blame with the car’s driver (the British inquest blamed both). At first, the details of the crash were hazy: initial reports suggested that Diana was seriously injured, but still alive. Later updates revealed that not to be the case.

William and Harry were staying with their father at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and he woke them early with the devastating news. The images of the funeral, a week later, remain extraordinary: mass tributes, crowds of mourners and, at the heart of it all, two boys following behind their mother’s coffin.

Princess Margaret attends the premiere of Captain Horatio Hornblower, Leicester Square, 1951. (Photo by Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images)

Amid the outpouring of public grief, many British newspapers reflected on the changes that Diana had brought to British life. The Independent noted that the princess had introduced a new emotionality into the “buttoned-up discourse of civic life”. This was a transformation that had spread outwards from the relationship she had with her sons. They share her candor, speaking in recent years about how the loss of their mother affected them deeply. In 2017, Harry described how counseling had helped him in the grieving process, while William spoke of his desire to keep his mother’s memory alive in his own home life with Kate and their children.

We can trace, in the adult lives of William and Harry, echoes of the trailblazing, tragically curtailed path carved out by their mother. Through the fraught process of balancing the very public demands of royalty with the need for privacy and intimacy, Diana redefined what it meant to be part of the royal family in the modern age.

Matt Elton is an editor and writer specialising in world events and global history. 

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This article was first published in The Riches of Britain Special Collector’s Edition ‘Bringing Up the New Royals’