Princess Diana’s death has stunned the world – and changed the royals
LONDON (AP) – Above all, there was shock. That’s the word people keep using when remembering the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris 25 years ago on Wednesday.
The woman the world watched grow from a shy kindergarten teacher to a glamorous celebrity who comforted AIDS patients and campaigned for landmine removal couldn’t be dead at the age of 36, could she?
“I think we have to remember that she was probably the most famous woman in the English-speaking world, aside perhaps from Queen Elizabeth II herself,” said historian Ed Owens.
“And given the massive celebrity personality that she had developed, that she was wiped out overnight, that she died under such tragic circumstances at such a young age, I think that came as a massive shock to a lot of people.”
It was this disbelief that cemented Diana’s legacy as the woman who brought lasting change to the British royal family and helped bridge the gap between centuries of tradition and a new, multicultural nation in the internet age.
First, there was the grief of the public, who flocked to the Princess’ home at Kensington Palace to mourn the loss of a woman most had never met. That alone forced the royals to realize that Diana’s shared touch was connected to people in ways the House of Windsor hadn’t yet considered.
Those lessons have since inspired other royals, including Diana’s sons Princes William and Harry, to be more informal and approachable. Proof is the glittering concert that was a centerpiece of June’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrating the Queen’s 70 years on the throne.
There were rock bands and opera singers, dancers and lasers drawing pictures of corgis in the sky. But the biggest applause was for Elizabeth herself, who appeared in a short film to share a pot of tea with British national treasure Paddington Bear. Then she solved a long-standing mystery and revealed what’s inside her famous black purse: A jam sandwich — just for emergencies.
It’s been 25 years since the royal died in a car accident in Paris. People gather at a nearby location to pay tribute. (Source: CNN)
It wasn’t obvious that Diana would be a royal rebel when she married Prince Charles.
A member of the aristocratic Spencer family, Diana was known for flounced bows, sensible skirts and a boyish blonde bob when she first started dating the future king. After leaving school at 16, she spent time at a grammar school in the Swiss Alps, working as a nanny and pre-school teacher while living in London.
But she blossomed and became an international style icon when she walked down the lace-lined aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981, followed by a 25-foot procession.
From that moment on, reporters and photographers followed Diana wherever she went. Although Diana hated the intrusion, she quickly learned that the media was also a tool she could use to raise awareness and change public perception.
This effect was best known when, on April 9, 1987, the Princess opened Britain’s first specialist ward for AIDS patients.
Such ribbon-cutting ceremonies are part of royal duties. But Diana realized there was more at stake. She reached out and took the hands of a young patient to demonstrate that the virus cannot be transmitted through touch. This moment, captured through photos broadcast around the world, helped combat the fear, misinformation and stigma surrounding the AIDS epidemic.
A decade later, Diana was even more media savvy.
Seven months before her death, Diana donned a face shield and flak jacket and walked down a path cleared through a minefield in Angola to support the work of the HALO Trust, a group dedicated to removing mines from former war zones Has. Noticing that some photographers hadn’t taken the shot, she turned around and did it again.
The images drew international attention to the campaign to rid the world of explosives that will lurk underground long after the war is over. A treaty banning landmines was signed today by 164 countries.
But this public platform came at a price.
Their marriage fell apart, and Diana blamed Charles’ ongoing association with his longtime lover, Camilla Parker Bowles. The princess also struggled with bulimia and admitted to attempting suicide, according to Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, published in 1992 based on tapes Diana sent to author Andrew Morton.
“When I began my public life 12 years ago, I knew the media might be interested in what I was doing,” Diana said in 1993. “But little did I realize how overwhelming that attention was going to become. Nor to the extent that it would interfere with both my public duties and my personal life in a way that was difficult to bear.”
In the end, it contributed to her death.
On August 30, 1997, a group of paparazzi camped outside the Ritz Hotel in Paris hoping to take pictures of Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, chasing their car to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel where their driver lost control and hit a car had an accident.
Diana died on August 31, 1997.
A stunned world mourned. Bouquets of flowers, many with personal notes, covered the grounds outside Diana’s home at Kensington Palace. Weeping citizens lined the streets outside Westminster Abbey during her funeral.
The public reaction contrasted with that of the royal family, who were criticized for not being quick to appear in public and refusing to lower the flag to half-mast over Buckingham Palace.
The grief sparked a soul-searching among members of the House of Windsor. They set out to better understand why Diana’s death had created such an overwhelming spectacle, said Sally Bedell Smith, historian and author of Diana in Search of Herself.
“I think her legacy was something that the queen, in her wisdom, wanted to adjust in the early years after her death,” Smith said of focus groups and studies the monarchy used to capture Diana’s appeal.
“The Queen was more likely to interact with people and I think you see now that the informality is amplified, particularly with William and Kate,” she said.
William and his wife Kate, for example, made improving mental health services a priority, going so far as to publicly discuss their own struggles. Harry is also an advocate for wounded military veterans.
Redefining Charles’ reputation would have to wait until public anger at his treatment of Diana began to fade. That’s in full swing now, helped by his marriage to Camilla in 2005, which softened his image. The Queen said earlier this year she hopes Camilla will become Queen consort when Charles takes the throne and tries to heal old wounds.
But there are lessons for the monarchy to learn as it grapples with the fallout from the scandal surrounding Prince Andrew’s links to convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. On top of that, there’s Harry and his wife Meghan’s decision to step down royal duties for life in Southern California.
Meghan, an American multiracial former actress who grew up in Los Angeles, said she feels constrained by palace life and one member of the royal family even inquired about the possible skin color of her first child before it was born.
This episode shows the royals haven’t fully learned Diana’s lesson, said Owens, author of The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public 1932-1953.
“Once again, not enough space was made,” Owens said of Meghan.
Diana had her own struggles with the Palace and expressed her grievances in a 1995 BBC interview that continues to make headlines. The BBC was forced to apologize last year after an investigation found reporter Martin Bashir had used “fraudulent methods” to secure the interview.
Diana’s brother said this year that the interview and the manner in which it was received contributed to Diana’s death because it led to her being denied further palace protection following her divorce.
But her words about how she wanted to be seen are fresh in the mind.
“I would like to be a queen of people’s hearts, of people’s hearts, but I don’t see myself as the queen of this country,” Diana said in the interview. “I don’t think many people want me to be queen.”
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