Princess Diana: when grief gripped a nation

What does the extraordinary outpouring of emotion that followed Princess Diana's death tell us about the state of Britain 20 years ago? Dominic Sandbrook investigates

Floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside Kensington Palace. (Photo by Liba Taylor/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

There are moments in history when you can feel a nation changing course, and the summer of 1997 felt like one of them. On the first day of May, the British electorate had unceremoniously slammed the door on 18 years of Conservative government, handing Tony Blair’s Labour party the biggest landslide in postwar history. When, in the small hours of the morning, Blair addressed Labour’s election-night party at the Royal Festival Hall, he began with the words: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”

Advertisement

At lunchtime the following day, as his car pulled into Downing Street for the first time, London was bathed in brilliant sunshine. Britain, Blair had once said, must be a “young country” again. And as the new prime minister shook hands with the lines of Labour activists waving their Union Jacks, there was a palpable sense that something had changed.

Three months later, on Sunday 31 August, Blair was in his constituency home in the north-east of England when he heard the terrible news that Diana, Princess of Wales had been killed in a car crash in Paris. Almost immediately his thoughts turned to what he would say, scribbling some thoughts on the back of an envelope. Among them was a phrase suggested by his press chief, Alastair Campbell, that came to capture the public’s relationship with the dead woman. “She was,” he told the cameras that morning, “the people’s princess.”

Later, Blair himself admitted that it sounded like “something from another age. And corny. And over the top.” But it caught the public imagination for a reason. For in the next few days, the popular reaction to Diana’s death escalated to a point when few people could remember a precedent.

Outside her London home, Kensington Palace, well-wishers left more than a million bouquets. At the family home, Althorp, so many people tried to bring flowers that the police begged them to stay away because the traffic chaos was endangering public safety. When Diana’s funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on 6 September, an estimated three million people poured into the streets of London, while a further 2.5 billion people watched the worldwide television coverage.

The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, took place at Westminster Abbey on 6 September 1997. (Photo by Ken Goff/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, took place at Westminster Abbey on 6 September 1997. (Photo by Ken Goff/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

A global spectacle

I was in the Balkans that summer, backpacking after graduating from university. Diana’s death made the front page of every Bulgarian newspaper for days. On the day of her funeral, I and my friends were in a little Black Sea fishing village. At the appointed hour, a man came out into the square carrying a battered old television, and the locals gathered around to watch the pictures. The spectacle of the villagers solemnly listening to Charles Spencer’s eulogy, delivered in a language almost none of them understood, was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen.

Twenty years on, Diana’s death remains an obvious landmark in our recent history. Yet the passions that surrounded it – the fury at the popular press, which was thought to have hounded her to her grave; the outcry at the royal family, who were criticised for their reluctance to mourn more publicly; even the enthusiasm for Tony Blair, who saw his public satisfaction rating rise to a record high – have now faded to the point when many feel almost embarrassed to recall them.

In the aftermath of the wedding of Prince William, the diamond jubilee and the birth of a new heir, the monarchy has never been more popular. Despite having left office 10 years ago, Tony Blair is arguably one of the least popular public figures in the country. And even Diana herself has disappeared from our national conversation to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable in those heady days after her death. By 2016 there were even reports that her grave at Althorp was overgrown and neglected, a metaphor for the way the most photographed woman in the world has faded from our national story.

What does it all mean? And what will future historians make of the moment when, as the legend has it, a nation wept as never before, and when the monarchy itself seemed in peril?

Public frenzy

The first obvious point is that Diana’s death was not unprecedented. Royal occasions have always provoked public fervour and commanded vast crowds, while one of the few certainties of history is that the death of an attractive young woman, especially one with small children, will always produce more public tears than the demise of an older one, or a man. The frenzy following Diana’s death was indeed different from the more solemn reactions to the deaths of George VI in 1952 or Victoria in 1901. But there is actually a good precedent for the events of 1997: the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1817.

As the eldest child of the future George IV, Charlotte would have become queen if she had lived. Like Princess Diana, she was the child of an unhappy marriage with a complicated love life of her own. Her father tried to arrange a match with the Prince of Orange, but despite signing a marriage contract, she eventually broke off the engagement. At one point, when her father tried to confine her to her house, she fled, managing to escape by the simple process of running into the street and hailing a cab. Not surprisingly, all this made her a national celebrity: whenever she took a coach to the seaside, she was invariably mobbed by huge crowds.

Alas, after a successful marriage to the future Leopold I of Belgium, Charlotte died at the age of 21 while delivering a stillborn son. In the aftermath, the country was plunged into mourning.

Even the poorest people in the land were reported to be wearing makeshift black armbands, while the capital’s shops, the docks, the law courts and the Royal Exchange closed for two weeks. The story goes that demand for colourful ribbons and other bright clothes collapsed so completely that manufacturers begged the government to reduce the mourning period, which they resolutely refused to do. As the Whig politician Henry Brougham remarked:

“It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.”

One lesson of Charlotte’s death is that there is nothing the British people enjoy so much as a chance to indulge their taste for public sentimentalism. But there was an obvious difference between 1817 and 1997. In the age of the Regency, nobody talked of the stiff upper lip. In the late 1990s, thanks not least to Paul Gascoigne (pictured below left), who had wept so spectacularly at the end of the 1990 World Cup, Britain was only just emerging from a long period in which public tears were generally regarded as weak and unmanly.

In this context, the outpouring of national sentiment at Diana’s death had a clear political connotation. The outgoing Conservative administration had not only been dominated almost entirely by men, it had been led by a prime minister immensely unlikely to burst into tears in public, the determinedly understated and ostentatiously unemotional John Major.

But if Major was a man who always seemed uncomfortable talking about his feelings in front of the cameras, Blair was different. And his visibly emotional reaction – the tremor in his voice, the sentimentalism of his words – struck a chord with a nation rediscovering the intoxication of collective tears.

Diana was "the people's princess", said Tony Blair on the morning of her death. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Diana was “the people’s princess”, said Tony Blair on the morning of her death. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

There was another element to the death and funeral of Princess Diana: the extraordinary prominence of a man who, only a few years earlier, would have been an utterly implausible guest at such a solemn royal occasion. This was Elton John, whose rendition of ‘Candle in the Wind’, which he memorably performed at Westminster Abbey, soon became the most popular single of all time.

Released on Saturday 13 September 1997, ‘Candle in the Wind’, rocketed to number 1 within minutes of the shops opening. By lunchtime that day, most stores had already sold out; the next day, Mercury Records sent a thousand employees to the printing presses to prepare another million copies for Monday. By this point the record had already sold more than 600,000 copies, going platinum in just 24 hours. By the end of the year, sales had reached almost 5 million, which meant that one in five households owned a copy.

Rock royalty

In a wider context, the remarkable thing was not the song’s astounding popularity so much as the fact that Elton John had performed it at all. He was hardly an obvious candidate to sing at such a solemn royal occasion. The former NME journalist Barbara Ellen thought “a pop song at a royal funeral seemed about as appropriate as receiving holy communion in a nightclub toilet”. Meanwhile the Spectator’s Simon Hoggart wrote that “there was something deeply moving about the sight of a plump, red-nosed gay in a ginger wig performing at a royal occasion of any kind”.

One reader of the Guardian was less deeply moved. “Who suggested that Elton John sing at the funeral?” complained Raul Jaylan of London N11. “I’m sorry, but this man made Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert look cheap. Hopefully he will at least take that stupid rug off his head.” But as the record sales suggest, most people were rather more charitable. Indeed, at one level the success of ‘Candle in the Wind’, like the spectacle of Diana’s funeral itself, was a powerful reminder that no successful monarchy can ignore the appeal of popular culture.

Fifteen years later, after the concert that marked the 2012 diamond jubilee, the conser-vative columnist Peter Hitchens lamented that the Queen had “pledged allegiance to the vile new culture of talentless celebrity”. Yet monarchies have always harnessed the energies of their most successful, fashionable and popular cultural figures, from Hans Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII and Handel’s coronation anthems for George II to the Queen’s cameo alongside James Bond at the 2012 Olympics. In that sense, there was nothing inappropriate about Elton John’s presence at Diana’s funeral.

The greatest temptation is to see the reaction to Diana’s death as a reminder, in an increasingly individualistic age, of the appeal and power of collective national sentiment. Twenty years on, when our politics is much more visibly informed by questions of patriotism, national identity and collective belonging – Scottish or British? British or European? – the first week of September 1997 looks like a harbinger of things to come. After all, squabbles about flags and invocations of the ‘people’ against a remote elite are only too common today.

The coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, being carried through the streets of London on its journey to Westminster Abbey. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
The coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, being carried through the streets of London on its journey to Westminster Abbey. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Yet perhaps Diana’s death also serves as a lesson that, whatever grand pattern we impose on the past, it can never be anything other than a partial and misleading sketch. Yes, millions turned out for her funeral. But a poll afterwards found that, while two out of three people said they had been upset or very upset by her death, the rest had been relatively unmoved. Three out of ten had either laid flowers or wanted to; yet seven out of ten had no intention of doing so.

During the funeral, as the historian Thomas Dixon remarks, the television cameras unwaveringly zoomed in on faces streaked with tears or contorted with emotion. What they did not capture, though, were the faces that remained unmoved, or the millions of people who were simply doing something else.

No doubt there were many people like that in 1817, too: those who simply got on with their lives, even as their neighbours pulled on the black crepe. Historians rarely mention them, of course. But they were there, all the same.


Three other deaths that broke Britons’ hearts

1997 was far from the first time that the country was devastated by the demise of a public figure…

1

Princess Charlotte of Wales, died 1817

Like Diana, Charlotte captured the public imagination like no other member of the royal family. When the daughter of the future George IV died in childbirth at the age of 21, The Times thought it a national “calamity” – although the radical poet Shelley claimed that the execution of three men in Derby, who had been convicted of plotting against the government, was a much greater calamity.

When her funeral was held in Windsor, thousands turned out to watch, and “the road and streets through which it passed were lined with spectators”. Afterwards, Charlotte’s doctor, who blamed himself for her demise, committed suicide.

2

Queen Victoria, died 1901

Since Victoria was 81 when she died, her death hardly came as a shock. But, as she had been on the throne since 1837, millions of people had never known another monarch, and her funeral was a genuinely international event, with one of the largest gatherings of European royals in history.

Victoria had left detailed instructions, asking for her coffin to be draped in white, and requesting a military procession, with the coffin on a gun carriage. Again the funeral was held in Windsor, with thousands lining the streets. But every city in the British empire observed a period of mourning, from Canada to India.

3

Horatio Nelson, died 1805

Perhaps the most spectacular and emotional funeral in British history was that of Lord Nelson, killed during the victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson was not only an all-conquering admiral who had saved his country from invasion, he was a national celebrity.

When his body lay in state in Greenwich, the crowds were so great that thousands were turned away. The funeral ceremonies took five days, including a procession along the Thames and a simple but moving ceremony at St Paul’s, which ended with the sailors from HMS Victory ripping up their ship’s battle-torn flag.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and television presenter. His books include Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974–1979 (Penguin, 2013).

Advertisement

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine