Twenty years ago, the death of Britain’s glittering, delicate, troubled global superstar, Princess Diana, shook the British monarchy and revealed a dangerous chasm between the palace and the people. In the wake of her death in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, the royal family was in danger of losing much loyalty and trust over its shabby treatment of “the people’s princess.” Today, though, two decades on, the monarchy is perhaps the most popular institution in British public life — a remarkable restoration that, more than anything, is the lasting legacy of Diana herself.
At first, the royal family was no more capable of dealing with Diana in death than it had been in life. While millions mourned her, and thousands gathered to light candles or lay flowers in her memory in Kensington Gardens close to her residence, the palace — preoccupied by protocol, precedent and duty — maintained a frozen silence.
The royals had been exasperated by Diana’s refusal to submit to being incarcerated in a marriage of mutual dislike; they had hoped that her divorce from Prince Charles, a year earlier, had finally rid them of this troublesome princess. They failed to grasp that with every mute hour that passed, they reinforced the powerful story that Diana had told — that they were a cold, hidebound lot.
For a handful of deluded days after her death, they clung obstinately to their principles of remoteness and privacy behind the gates of their Scottish castle, while popular anger grew. Britain’s tabloid newspapers, eager to distract attention from the press’s own role in the fatal pursuit of Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, attacked the royals with increasing ferocity: “Show us you care,” and “Where is our Queen?” and “Your people are suffering — speak to us, Ma’am.”
It took Britain’s new prime minister, Tony Blair, to perceive the ugly mood that was brewing and persuade an obtuse royal establishment that they had to address it. Only on the fifth day did the royal family return to London, fly a flag at half-mast, speak, mingle with the mourning crowds, and even, as far as was possible, emote.
When Queen Elizabeth finally addressed the nation, live on the eve of Diana’s funeral, she was patently drained, but attempted to be less formal than before. She abandoned the royal “we,” spoke of grief, anger and shock, and conceded that she had much to learn from Diana’s life, and the extraordinary reaction to her death.
I was out in Kensington Gardens that night, recording interviews for a BBC program, and the queen’s words defused much of the sullen, febrile atmosphere. Nobody, however, expected the broadcast to mark a real change in the royal family’s behavior. The palace, after all, had won. It had survived, while the rebellious, compassionate, lonely princess was dead. Her bereft sons would be swept back into the straitjacket of royal protocol and privilege, brought up by their father as stuffily as he had been.
It is now clear that Diana is the ultimate victor. The most obvious sign is that Prince Charles has not escaped public blame for her sad life. In a recent poll, 51 percent of respondents wanted the crown to pass directly from Queen Elizabeth, now 91, to Prince William, 35. Only 22 percent thought his 68-year-old father should be the next king.
Diana’s tragedy also forced the palace to modernize its attitudes and revise its archaic codes, liberating the living princes. Charles chose an aristocratic ingénue as his bride because duty demanded it and he’d been trained to submit to that. Diana was selected for the role with the same sort of attention that might have been paid to the purchase of a race horse, scrutinized purely for external qualities — looks, breeding, virginity, youth — and with no thought for the fragile young woman beneath.
In a recent broadcast of previously unseen private tapes, Diana told her voice coach, with wry regret, that she and Charles had met just 13 times before their marriage. It is a staggering claim. No wonder that, within weeks of wedding, both felt bewildered and betrayed. The marriage was Charles’s torment, too.
After Diana, the royal family came to accept that modern marriages must be based on compatibility, understanding and love. Charles has his Camilla; they are evidently happy. The next generation has been set free.
William could take all the time he needed, living with and splitting up from Catherine Middleton (often called Kate) over eight years before concluding that the person he most wanted to share his life with was her: not an aristocrat, but a commoner whose mother had been born in a council flat. Catherine went into the marriage with no illusions about the combination of stultifying duty and fishbowl celebrity her role requires.
If Prince Harry decides to marry his current girlfriend, Meghan Markle, an American actor and humanitarian whose father recently declared bankruptcy, the palace’s role will be limited to making the arrangements for a suitable date, not imposing judgments.
But Diana’s most remarkable influence has only lately become apparent. For many years, her sons have been engaged in the usual princely activities: charities, parties, polo, serving in the armed services. They looked to be pleasant enough young men, but it was easy to assume that as rich royals, deferred and pandered to, they would be entitled and dull.
Instead, the young princes have blazed into public consciousness as the shining inheritors of their mother’s grace, empathy and humanity. They have taken up a neglected cause, mental health, and together with Catherine have begun a campaign to encourage Britons to share their worries and distress. They have done so by talking with raw, disarming vulnerability and eloquence to a series of interviewers about the wrenching loss of their mother, their stoic if damaging attempts to ignore their own sorrow, and their realization that people everywhere are struggling with sadness: from the wounded soldiers with whom Harry served in Afghanistan to the injured people whom William airlifted in the ambulance service to the young mothers Catherine meets. Compellingly, they treat those they encounter with evident respect.
By doing so, the princes have consciously broken with the conventional palace wisdom that, as the Victorian political essayist Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867, “we must not let in daylight upon magic.” The fear was always that the mystique of the monarchy would shrivel and die if human frailties were revealed. The princes, learning from the poignant example of their mother’s private travails, have thrown open the curtains.
The effect has been galvanizing, especially among the young. People who never cared much about the monarchy have been deeply impressed by the princes’ thoughtfulness, humor, openness and concern for others. Polls put their approval rating at close to 80 percent, far ahead of their father’s. Diana’s sons combine the best of their parents: their mother’s acute sensibility and their father’s dutiful sense.
Their impact is all the greater because William and Harry have shone just as British politics slumped into disarray. Twenty years ago, it was a charismatic prime minister who effortlessly connected with the public mood, while the royal family looked incompetent and out of touch. Today, it is the politicians and the prime minister who are terrifyingly confused and inarticulate about the state of the nation, and it is the hereditary princes, with their honesty, their ethic of service, Harry’s impish ease and William’s gravitas, who are the public figures offering some hope for the future.
When the queen dies, Charles will inherit the throne. A much-misunderstood man who means well, he will not inherit the public’s great affection for his mother. But that will not now be any threat to the monarchy’s survival because his sons’ popularity will carry him forward. Diana’s last gift to the family that both made her and helped to destroy her has been to refashion it for the modern age.
Jenni Russell, a journalist and broadcaster, is a columnist for The Times of London.