From her 1981 fairy tale wedding to the international coverage of her funeral some years later, Diana, Princess of Wales lived a very public life. And behind it all, as “Shy Di” became the young, glamorous and fashionable face of the tradition-minded British Royal Family, she somehow seemed to be a sad and searching young woman.
Diana Francis Spencer was born on July 1, 1961 as the daughter of Viscount and Viscountess Althorp at the family home near Sandringham and when her father became Earl Spencer in 1975 she became “Lady Diana.” She had two older sisters and a younger brother.
Diana was educated at preparatory and boarding schools, the last at Norfolk where she proved an accomplished pianist. She later went to a “finishing school” in Switzerland, attending till 1978 when she moved to London to be a nanny, and then a kindergarten teacher.
As Sandringham neighbors, Charles the Prince of Wales, and Diana had been casually acquainted for several years, and in fact he had briefly dated her older sister. Then when they became reacquainted after the Prince visited the family home at Althorp in 1977, the relationship became more serious and their engagement was announced in February, 1981. Then as the wedding plans continued Diana began to be the target of the popular press.
Their wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981 was seen on television by some 100 million viewers around the world, as well as by the thousands of people in London who lined the route from Buckingham Palace to the Cathedral. The ceremony was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and was accompanied by specially written music as Diana was the first Englishwoman to marry an heir to the throne for some 300 years. Audiences no doubt smiled as the shyly beautiful bride flubbed the groom’s name — reversing the order.
The new Princess of Wales and her husband honeymooned at an estate in England, toured the Mediterranean on the Royal Yacht “Britannia”, then returned to the royal family’s Scottish home at Balmoral. Soon they were living in London at Kensington Palace and in the Prince’s country estate at Highgrove House.
Their son Prince William Arthur Philip was born the next year in June, and Prince Henry (Harry) Charles Albert David arrived two years later in September, 1984.
As the Prince and Princess of Wales began their royal routine with tours at home and abroad, they were widely covered by the press — it seemed that cameras and reporters followed them incessantly. Yet behind all the press attention over the next few years the marriage was not always the fairy tale that had once been. There were rumors of infidelity and dissatisfaction on both sides and the couple was openly distant from each other when they carried out official duties
At last the rumors proved to be correct as in December, 1992 when it was announced that Charles and Diana were to separate, though at that time there were no announced divorce plans. Then in November 1994 Diana gave a television interview where she described how her marriage had become “crowded” because the Prince’s former girlfriend was an ongoing presence. She also explained how if there was a divorce she intended to continue her charity appearances and embracement of worthy causes — and that she wanted to be known as “the people’s princess.”
Divorce became a reality in August, 1996 though the couple continued to share responsibility for their young sons, and the Princess still was considered as a member of the Royal Family. She was to retain her title as Diana, Princess of Wales, but without the style “Her Royal Highness.” This was a title she had assumed at marriage and it was felt that it should logically be discontinued when the marriage was over. The final settlement was some $20 million.
Despite the divorce, Diana and Charles both continued as devoted and attentive parents of sons Princes William and Harry. For her part, Diana encouraged the boys to be as “ordinary” as possible. She took them to local fast food restaurants and to local theaters and introduced them to as many people as possible from varied backgrounds.
Though the Princess was known for her sense of fashionable style, she also worked closely with numerous charities for disabled people, children and particularly with AIDS/HIV patients. In fact, at a time when many were reluctant to touch an AIDS patient because of the fear of contamination, Diana made it a point to hold their hands, and speak personally with them.
In his 2003 book A Royal Duty, longtime aide Paul Burrell related that the princess’ compassion for AIDS/HIV patients was greatly inspired by the experience of a HIV-positive friend who later died. And according to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography, Diana, In Search of Herself, a physician working with AIDS patients remarked that “We hope if people see the Princess of Wales opening the ward it will help to demystify and destigmatize AIDS.”
Ms. Smith also described Diana’s special touch with the diseased and disabled: “During these years Diana’s unusual rapport with strangers, including those with deformities and terminal diseases, became more evident. Through a combination of natural warmth and curiosity about people, the gentle use of touch and her laser like intensity, Diana could make instant connections.”
In 1997 the Princess attended receptions as part of the sales promotion of some of her gowns for charity. She continued to be an advocate for other causes, such as to oppose manufacture and placing of landmines.
Despite continued press coverage, she maintained several romances during this time, and by 1997 her companion was Dodi Fayed, an Egyptian film producer, and son of a billionaire. Then in August, 1997 when they were leaving a restaurant in Paris, the press followed them. As both cars reached high speeds, the vehicle carrying Diana, Dodi, a bodyguard and the driver went out of control and slammed into a wall at a highway underpass. Dodi and the driver were killed, and Diana was transported to a local hospital, and despite emergency surgery she was declared dead. Though suffering serious injuries, the bodyguard survived, according to some reports because he had used his seat belt.
The overwhelming public grief at Diana’s death meant piles of flower tributes before the gates of royal homes, and her funeral on September 6 from Westminster Abbey was, like her wedding, televised internationally. The Queen also gave a tribute on a national telecast.
After the funeral and the transport procession to final burial began, the coffin was followed by Earl Spencer, her brother, as well as the Prince of Wales and Princes William and Harry. Burial was eventually on an island in the middle of a small lake at the family estate of Althorp. It was a physical end but her heritage and compassion still live on in the public mind.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.