It’s now nearly 40 years since Prince Charles began courting Lady Diana Spencer; more than 20 since her death following a car accident in a Paris underpass. It feels as if – slowly, cautiously – she is beginning to pass into history. To look back to the early days of her public life is to realise how far we have come.
It was 1980 when the 32-year-old Charles encountered the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer, youngest daughter of Earl Spencer, at a weekend house party. They had met before, since Charles had been involved with her elder sister, Sarah, but then Diana had been a mere 16 – and now, Charles was under pressure to find a bride. His beloved mentor Lord Mountbatten, recently assassinated by the paramilitary Provisional IRA, had urged Charles to “choose a suitable, attractive and sweet-charactered girl before she met anyone else she might fall for”. It was Diana’s tragedy to be chosen for what she did not have – experience, any sign of independent opinions – rather than for any more positive qualities.
Not that Diana was reluctant; she actively sought the prince’s interest. Unhappy at home, thanks to her parents’ bitter divorce and her father’s remarriage to the daughter of the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, she was looking for her path in life. Without a qualification to her name (“thick”, she cheerfully called herself), marriage was the obvious option. That autumn the press spotted Diana sitting beside Charles as he fished the river Dee. Immediately they took up the tale of ‘Shy Di’, the aristocratic English rose, so modestly working as a kindergarten assistant. Her uncle Lord Fermoy assured the press she was a virgin; her biographer Andrew Morton would write that she knew she had to “keep myself tidy”. There have been few high-profile women in the modern western world who were chosen so exclusively for what was valued in their forebears: virginity, aristocracy and fertility.
The engagement was announced on 24 February 1981, Charles telling a friend he wanted to do “the right thing for this country”. There is also another quote that sums up his position as neatly. Of course, the pair were in love, “whatever ‘in love’ means”, he told reporters, while Diana smiled shyly.
With hindsight, it feels now as if everyone should have seen trouble ahead. But most didn’t, actually. On the contrary, the couple – both of whom were later revealed to have had qualms – were pushed into commitment by the united desires not only of their family, but of press and public. “Here was a fairy story that everyone wanted to work,” Diana later noted, ruefully.
The couple were married in St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 29 July 1981 in a show-stopping public ceremony. The Queen was only one of those who felt that at a time of unemployment, rioting and IRA violence, it would cheer up the country – just as her own wedding had done, in the aftermath of war. The guest list was heavy on foreign notables and the bride chose the hymn I Vow to Thee My Country.
Prince Charles later told the TV presenter Jonathan Dimbleby that it was on honeymoon on board the royal yacht Britannia that he first learned Diana suffered from the eating disorder bulimia. The press and public saw a different side of the story. Almost immediately, at the beginning of November, the Palace announced that the Princess of Wales was pregnant.
When Prince William was born on 21 June 1982, Diana said later that she had “felt the whole country was in labour with me”. Their second son, Prince Harry, followed in September 1984 – but the two parents’ approach to their families would come to dramatise the differences between them. There were famous photographs of Diana, warmheartedly flying to hug her sons after a separation, which contrasted with the image of a young Prince Charles, exchanging a solemn handshake with his mother, the Queen, after she returned from a long royal tour.
After the birth of both sons, Diana’s transformation from dowdy posh girl into glamorous icon began. Blond, blue-eyed and ever more stylish, she evoked the romantic image of the fairytale princess. By the tour of the US in 1985 – where Diana danced with John Travolta – she was, so Reader’s Digest declared afterwards: “The World’s Number One Celebrity”. And – though she would famously later complain that there were three in her marriage, thinking of her husband’s affair with his future second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles – Diana too had begun to look elsewhere.
Her bodyguard and close confidant Barry Mannakee was transferred to other duties; when he died in a motorcycle accident, Diana, foreshadowing the conspiracy theories that would follow her own death, believed he had been killed, presumably by the British security services. In 1986, she met army officer James Hewitt and, by the end of their 18-month affair – when Diana returned instead to a former flame, James Gilbey – the royal marriage had effectively foundered.
The end was nigh. When, in 1992, the couple were persuaded to tour India together, Diana had herself photographed, ostentatiously alone, in front of the Taj Mahal. The same year, Andrew Morton’s biography, Diana: Her True Story In Her Own Words, provoked a hostile questioning of many aspects of the monarchy. At the end of what the Queen called her annus horribilis – her horrible year – Buckingham Palace announced that “with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate”, but that “their constitutional positions are unaffected”. It was hard to see how that could be.
Within weeks came ‘Camillagate’, the published transcript of a deeply embarrassing conversation between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. After that, the ‘Squidgygate’ tapes of Diana’s conversation with James Gilbey seemed positively tame, notable chiefly for Diana’s words: “After all I’ve done for this fucking family.” Diana, now, was the saint – visiting hospices and orphanages, embracing lepers and Aids victims, getting 10 times the press coverage that was given to Charles’s activities. She was winning the publicity war – and never more so than on television.
In the summer of 1994, Charles’s interview with Jonathan Dimbleby was televised, in which he admitted infidelity and revealed both a lack of sympathy for Diana (shown as “nothing more than a hired womb”, in the words of American biographer Kitty Kelley) and a worrying distance from his family. The programme and Dimbleby’s subsequent book inflicted another injury on the already wounded monarchy, described by even the far-from-radical publication The Economist as “an idea whose time has passed”.
Diana was following in a time-honoured line of rebellious royal consorts. On the grand scale, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France had both conspired against their spouses for rule of the country. But a closer comparison – albeit one unflattering to Diana – would have to be with Caroline of Brunswick, wife of George IV. Unappealing to her husband and seeking consolation elsewhere – itself the subject of an extraordinary public investigation into her morals – Caroline was turned away from the doors of her husband’s coronation.
There was, of course, an echo of the threat that Diana represented closer at hand, one from earlier on in the 20th century. Eyeing both the Princess of Wales and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York – and recalling the abdication of her brother-in-law Edward VIII over his relationship with the scorned Mrs Simpson – the Queen Mother is reported to have noted: “It’s Wallis all over again.”
As she became ever more alienated from the royal family, Diana’s own increasingly eccentric behaviour (nuisance calls, rumoured affairs and New Age therapies) was also being discussed widely and crudely. She struck back. The interview with Martin Bashir on the current affairs TV show Panorama – aired on 20 November 1995 and watched by some 200 million worldwide – is still shocking today. [In 2021, an independent inquiry found that Martin Bashir used deception to secure the interview]. Casting doubt on Charles’s ability to be king, Diana said that her aspiration was not to be queen of England, but “a queen of people’s hearts”. Within weeks, the Queen suggested the Wales should divorce – and quickly.
As Diana moved through middle age, would divorced life have represented an opening or a closing of doors for her? Her year as a divorced woman witnessed controversial relationships with surgeon Hasnat Khan and Harrods heir Dodi Fayed, but it also saw the anti-landmines campaign which stands as her lasting memorial. But the events of 31 August 1997 put an end to the possibilities. Diana’s death in Paris prompted an extraordinary outpouring of public grief and a commensurate hostility towards the only people who appeared not to care: the royal family.
In the febrile climate of blame – the tears in the street, the mounds of flowers outside her Kensington Palace home, the funeral in Westminster Abbey – it was prime minister Tony Blair who found the popular tribute. Diana had been, he said, “the people’s princess”. And yet, within a comparatively short space of time, royal popularity was climbing again, slowly.
In part that was down to a new generation: Diana’s sons. But the older royals, too, had been kickstarted into some adjustment to changing public moralities. On her golden jubilee in 2002, the Queen invited Camilla Parker Bowles to the ceremony. Prince Charles’s happy second marriage is in part his first wife’s legacy. And whatever the short-term effect on the royal family’s popularity, in the long term the Diana story, with its tragic end, may have restored our sense of their humanity.
Without Diana’s wide-eyed appealing presence, the difficulties she caused – as well as those she endured – show up more clearly. It remains true that there is a whole generation of women for whom Diana to some degree symbolised their own challenges. Ironically, providing a unifying symbol for our national concerns has always been the role of the royal family.
Since her death, Diana has been portrayed as a victim whose legend still sets her above her oppressors. It’s a popular way to view the women of history. But perhaps the time has come to think about setting that aside – to retain the late Princess of Wales as, above all, an icon of 20th-century celebrity, at once both confessional and celebratory. The combination of glamour and accessibility that Diana injected into the royal family has given it new options for the present day. And, looking at the next generation, her mantle shows no sign of being immediately put away.
Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist, broadcaster, former film journalist and commentator on royal affairs.
This article was first published in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Royal Women’ bookazine