Every time Diana chose to speak out about her eating disorder or her unhappy marriage, she was doing more than just garnering the attention of her husband and his family – Diana was slowly breaking down the way the British monarchy had operated for hundreds of years. When Andrew Morton’s book was published in 1992, “it shattered the myth of the royal family” and its “image as the ‘perfect’ family” (337, Morton). This image was the very thing the Queen wanted to preserve as she pushed back against her son’s desire to end his unhappy marriage. And I’m sure it irked the royal establishment that this perceived smear campaign was coming from one of their own, a British aristocrat.
In fact, Diana was “the first Englishwoman to marry an heir to the throne for 300 years” (royal.uk). For the past three centuries the Prince of Wales had married a foreign born princess, ensuring that the Queen of England was not actually English. It was an unprecedented break in tradition, doubled by the fact that Diana was a “commoner”, and cleared the way for Charles’ own son William to do the same. Today it is hard to imagine the Queen of England not being from England! However, a member of the royal family marrying a commoner was not unprecedented and it also clearly was not a recipe for success. The marriages of Queen Elizabeth’s sister Marget and her husband Antony Armstrong-Jones, the Queen’s daughter Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, and Prince Andrew and Fergie had all ended in divorce. The difference this time was that Charles would one day be king (or so he thought, he probably wasn’t banking on his mother living forever…) and none of the aforementioned figures attracted the public’s attention like Diana did.
A Whole New World
Transformation in the British monarchy was certainly inevitable and things had been changing course long before Diana arrived on the scene. By the 20th century, the crown was merely ornamental in Great Britain and events such as the World Wars had irreversibly changed the role of monarchies across Europe. The rise of television and tabloids meant that it was harder for the royal family to hide during scandals and made it easier for the public to voice their displeasure. When news broke that Diana had died, the worldwide reaction was palpable. It wasn’t just that people were sad. They were also angry and many felt that the Queen and her family did not show the proper level of grief that was due to the mother of the future king and his brother. Not surprisingly, as we often see after the death of public figures, “it was conveniently forgotten that [Diana] was for a time widely seen as a destructive influence upon the whole fabric of the British monarchy” (321, Morton). Diana’s death ensured that her legacy would always be a positive one and the tragic circumstances surrounding her deadly crash changed the way the royal family approached their relationship with the media.
Today, the royal family understands and accepts that their everyday lives are open to the public, as it is quite literally their job to attend public engagements and support local charities. However, the new generation of royals has made it very clear that there is a line that they are not willing to allow the media to cross. In 2017, William and Kate won a five-year legal battle with a French tabloid over the printing of photos of Kate topless during a private vacation. More recently, Harry and Meghan have battled British tabloids over the publishing of a letter written by Meghan to her father. Before Harry and Meghan stepped down from their royal duties and moved to America, Harry was extremely outspoken about the parallels he saw between how his mother had been treated in the media and how his wife was being treated. Again, they stressed that although styled as princes and princesses, they were first and foremost human beings with the right to a certain amount of privacy and respect afforded to other citizens. And although Prince Charles and his family were often worried about the negative effects that Diana’s behavior would have on the monarchy, one could argue that her popularity pumped new life into an establishment that was in danger of becoming obsolete.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
The stories of any one of the number of monarchs we have covered in ULTC over the last year will show you that Diana was far from the first royal to suffer from mental and physical illness. But what made Diana a groundbreaking figure was her willingness to speak about her struggles openly and a desire to relate to people on a human level. The effects of her efforts can be seen through the work of her children – William and Harry are both great supporters of mental health organizations, with William and Kate beginning an initiative called Heads Together which encourages change in the way society talks about and approaches mental health. Today Diana is memorialized for a new generation in books, TV shows, documentaries, commemorative beanie babies and the popularity of her kids. But there are priceless and meaningful lessons we can take from Diana’s life, other than her impeccable fashion sense and iconic hairstyle.
Her determination to break from the mold of tradition encouraged Diana to shed light on difficult and oftentimes controversial issues. One of Diana’s greatest passions was the care of people suffering from AIDS and in the 1980’s the world did not have the same knowledge of HIV and AIDS that we do today. It was even thought that by simply touching an infected person, or sharing the same toilet, someone could be exposed. The Princess of Wales went a step further than simple gestures and words when she “opened the UK’s first purpose built HIV/Aids unit that exclusively cared for patients infected with the virus” (bbc.com). In 1997, seven months before her fatal accident, Diana traveled to Angola and was photographed walking through a live minefield. Not only did that moment open many peoples’ eyes to this deadly practice, but “her trip was credited with boosting the campaign for a global landmine treaty signed later that year” (bbc.com). Amidst the troubles she was experiencing in her own personal life, Diana made time for people in need, determined not only to use her position for good, but to show her two young boys that there was more to being royal than the glitz and the glamour.
In the end, Diana was not perfect, and that is exactly what made her the People’s Princess.
BBC News, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/diana/panorama.html.
Emma.Goodey. “Diana, Princess of Wales.” The Royal Family, 31 Mar. 2020, http://www.royal.uk/diana-princess-wales.
“How Princess Diana Changed Attitudes to Aids.” BBC News, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-39490507.
Morton, Andrew. Diana: in Her Own Words Her True Story. New Holland, 1997.
“Princess Diana’s Iconic Minefield Walk.” BBC News, BBC, http://www.bbc.com/news/av/stories-43331879.