Charlotte and Diana: the parallel lives of two Princesses of Wales whose deaths sent the nation into mourning
Tracy Borman reveals four similarities between two Princesses of Wales, Charlotte and Princess Diana, whose untimely deaths prompted outpourings of national grief – yet whose similarities stretched all through their lives
In modern memory, it is Diana, Princess of Wales, who is the People's Princess – but before that there was another. Tracy Borman highlights the similarities between Princess Diana and Charlotte, Princess of Wales, the daughter of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, one considered the country's glory – and Europe's hope...
Childhood: Warring parents led to years of misery
Charlotte | Charlotte’s parents’ marriage was one of convenience. The relationship got off to a disastrous start. Upon meeting Caroline, George IV fled from the room in horror, leaving his prospective bride to reflect: “I think he’s very fat, and he’s nothing as handsome as his portrait.”
They separated almost immediately, but not before George had got his new wife pregnant. Charlotte’s birth drove a further wedge between the couple, and the very public spats between the “warring Waleses” blighted the princess’s childhood.
Diana | Diana was the third daughter of John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and Frances née Roche. Her parents had hoped for a boy, and the increasingly pressing desire for an heir added strain to their relationship.
The birth of their son, Charles, in 1964 failed to save the Spencers’ marriage, and they divorced in 1969.
Diana’s parents both remarried, and Earl Spencer won custody of the children. Diana had a difficult relationship with her stepmother, Raine, Countess of Dartmouth and reflected that her childhood had been “very unhappy”.
Public opinion: Their popularity soared above the other royals
Charlotte | From a young age, Charlotte captured the nation’s hearts. Her innocence provided a welcome contrast to her petulant father and to her scandalous mother.
Like Diana, she did not fit the mould of a typical princess, and as she grew to maturity, she won even greater popularity for her informality and spontaneity.
Huge crowds gathered to witness her every public appearance, and her marriage served to intensify the level of interest in her. In common with the later princess of Wales, Charlotte seemed to represent a bright new future for the monarchy.
Diana | From the moment Lady Diana Spencer was first mooted as a potential bride for Prince Charles, she became a figure of intense public interest. Soon, she was the most photographed woman in the world – the royal family’s own global superstar.
After their wedding in 1981, the Prince and Princess of Wales were hailed by Time magazine as “the most glamorous couple on Earth”, but Diana’s popularity far exceeded that of her husband.
Her glamour, charm and informality shone an unflattering light on the Windsors, who appeared stiffly formal and staid by comparison.
Death: Intense public mourning boiled over into outrage
Charlotte | Princess Charlotte’s death prompted an unprecedented wave of public grief. “England, that great country, has lost everything in losing my ever beloved daughter,” lamented her mother, Caroline.
Tributes poured in from across the globe. Charlotte was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and a monument was erected at her tomb, by public subscription.
But grief soon turned to retribution. The prince regent was accused of showing inadequate sorrow at the loss of his daughter and was even held responsible for her death. And the backlash against Sir Richard Croft, who had superintended the princess’s ill-fated labour, led to his suicide a few months later.
Diana | Few events in British history have prompted the scale of national dismay that followed the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris on 31 August 1997. An estimated 1.3 million floral tributes were placed at the gates of Buckingham and Kensington palaces.
Diana’s funeral eclipsed her wedding in the level of public interest it generated. Held in Westminster Abbey, it was attended by around 2,000 guests, with an estimated 2.5 billion worldwide watching the television broadcasts. Grief turned to anger, most of which was directed against the royal family – for failing to lower the flag at Bucking- ham Palace to half mast, and at the Queen’s decision to remain at Balmoral rather than returning to London.
Legacy | Predictions the monarchy would crumble proved false
Charlotte | The deaths of both princesses sparked predictions that the monarchy would fall.
This was perhaps more valid in Charlotte’s case, given that she had been George III’s only legitimate grandchild. In fact, her death would save the monarchy by prompting her “wicked” uncles, George III’s younger sons, to make respectable marriages in order to produce an heir to the throne.
The one who succeeded was the fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, whose new wife, Victoria, gave birth to “a pretty little princess” in May 1819. Christened Alexandrina Victoria, but known by her second name, she rescued the monarchy from the abyss and ruled over an empire “on which the sun never set”.
Diana | “I for one believe that there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death,” the Queen declared during a broadcast to the nation a week after Diana’s demise. Although there was some effort on the part of the Windsors to mirror the late princess’s example – tea in a Glasgow housing association bungalow, and so on – it was far from the seismic shift that some had predicted.
Instead, Diana might be compared to other estranged royals who shook the monarchy to its core during their lifetime, but whose long-term impact proved minimal. But her legacy differs from theirs in one crucial respect: she left behind progeny who will one day inherit the throne.
This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
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