THE DEATH OF DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES
(August 31, 1997 — Paris, France)
Diana, Princess of Wales
The Official Story
DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES
Diana, Princess of Wales (born Diana Frances Spencer; 1 July 1961 – 31 August 1997), was a member of the British royal family. She was the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles III), and mother of Princes William and Harry. Diana’s activism and glamour made her an international icon and earned her enduring popularity as well as unprecedented public scrutiny, exacerbated by her tumultuous private life.
Diana was born into the British nobility and grew up close to the royal family on their Sandringham estate. In 1981, while working as a nursery teacher’s assistant, she became engaged to Prince Charles, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II. Their wedding took place at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981 and made her Princess of Wales, a role in which she was enthusiastically received by the public. They had two sons, William and Harry, who were then second and third in the line of succession to the British throne. Diana’s marriage to Charles suffered due to their incompatibility and extramarital affairs. They separated in 1992, soon after the breakdown of their relationship became public knowledge. Their marital difficulties became increasingly publicised, and they divorced in 1996.
As Princess of Wales, Diana undertook royal duties on behalf of the Queen and represented her at functions across the Commonwealth realms. She was celebrated in the media for her unconventional approach to charity work. Her patronages initially centred on children and the elderly, but she later became known for her involvement in two particular campaigns: one involved the social attitudes towards and the acceptance of AIDS patients, and the other for the removal of landmines, promoted through the International Red Cross. She also raised awareness and advocated for ways to help people affected by cancer and mental illness. Diana was initially noted for her shyness, but her charisma and friendliness endeared her to the public and helped her reputation survive the acrimonious collapse of her marriage. Considered photogenic, she was a leader of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s. Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris led to extensive public mourning and global media attention. An inquest by the Metropolitan Police returned a verdict of “unlawful killing”. Her legacy has had a deep impact on the royal family and British society.
Journalist Martin Bashir interviewed Diana for the BBC current affairs show Panorama. The interview was broadcast on 20 November 1995. Diana discussed her own and her husband’s extramarital affairs. Referring to Charles’s relationship with Camilla, she said: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” She also expressed doubt about her husband’s suitability for kingship. Authors Tina Brown, Sally Bedell Smith, and Sarah Bradford support Diana’s admission in the interview that she had suffered from depression, “rampant bulimia” and had engaged numerous times in the act of self mutilation; the show’s transcript records Diana confirming many of her mental health problems, including that she had “hurt [her] arms and legs”. The combination of illnesses from which Diana herself said she suffered resulted in some of her biographers opining that she had borderline personality disorder. It was later revealed that Bashir had used forged bank statements to win Diana and her brother’s trust to secure the interview, falsely indicating people close to her had been paid for spying.
The interview proved to be the tipping point. On 20 December, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen had sent letters to Charles and Diana, advising them to divorce. The Queen’s move was backed by the Prime Minister and by senior Privy Counsellors, and, according to the BBC, was decided after two weeks of talks. Charles formally agreed to the divorce in a written statement soon after. In February 1996, Diana announced her agreement after negotiations with Charles and representatives of the Queen, irritating Buckingham Palace by issuing her own announcement of the divorce agreement and its terms. In July 1996, the couple agreed on the terms of their divorce. This followed shortly after Diana’s accusation that Charles’s personal assistant Tiggy Legge-Bourke had aborted his child, after which Legge-Bourke instructed her attorney Peter Carter-Ruck to demand an apology. Diana’s private secretary Patrick Jephson resigned shortly before the story broke, later writing that she had “exulted in accusing Legge-Bourke of having had an abortion”. The rumours of Legge-Bourke’s alleged abortion were apparently spread by Martin Bashir as a means to gain his Panorama interview with Diana.
The decree nisi was granted on 15 July 1996 and the divorce was finalised on 28 August 1996. Diana was represented by Anthony Julius in the case. She received a lump sum settlement of £17 million (equivalent to £33,947,736 in 2021) as well as £400,000 per year. The couple signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibited them from discussing the details of the divorce or of their married life. Days before, letters patent were issued with general rules to regulate royal titles after divorce. Diana lost the style “Her Royal Highness” and instead was styled Diana, Princess of Wales. As the mother of the prince expected to one day ascend to the throne, she continued to be regarded as a member of the royal family and was accorded the same precedence she enjoyed during her marriage. The Queen reportedly wanted to let Diana continue to use the style of Royal Highness after her divorce, but Charles had insisted on removing it. Prince William was reported to have reassured his mother: “Don’t worry, Mummy, I will give it back to you one day when I am King.” Almost a year before, according to Tina Brown, Prince Philip had warned Diana: “If you don’t behave, my girl, we’ll take your title away.” She is said to have replied: “My title is a lot older than yours, Philip.”
On 31 August 1997, Diana died in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris while the driver was fleeing the paparazzi. The crash also resulted in the deaths of her companion Dodi Fayed and the driver, Henri Paul, who was the acting security manager of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. Trevor Rees-Jones, who was employed as a bodyguard by Dodi’s father, survived the crash; he suffered a serious head injury. The televised funeral, on 6 September, was watched by a British television audience that peaked at 32.10 million, which was one of the United Kingdom’s highest viewing figures ever. Millions more watched the event around the world.