Princess Di, as she later became known to her adoring public, was born The Honourable Diana Frances Spencer, the youngest daughter of Edward John Spencer, the eighth Earl of Spencer, Viscount Althorp and Frances Spencer, Viscountess Althorp.
The couple had five children; Diana’s siblings are Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia (born 1955, now lady Sarah McCorquodale), Cynthia Jane (born 1957, now Lady Fellowes), John (died ten hours after birth, 1960) and Charles Edward Maurice (born 1964, currently the ninth Earl of Spencer). The family lived in Park House on the Sandringham estate.
By the mid 1960s, strain was beginning to show in the Althorp’s marriage and in 1967, when Diana was only six-years-old, her mother ran off with Peter Shand-Kydd, the heir to a wallpaper fortune. Two years later, the Althorps divorced in April 1969.
Lord Althorp fought for and won custody of the children. A short time after the divorce, Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, novelist Barbara Cartland’s daughter, moved in with the family. The children never liked her and nicknamed her ‘Acid Raine’. In 1969, Diana’s mother married Peter Shand-Kydd, becoming The Honourable Mrs Frances Shand-Kydd, and the couple went to live on the island of Seil, Scotland.
In 1975, when Diana’s father became eighth Earl of Spencer, the family moved from Park House to the 16th century ancestral home of Althorp and the following year, Diana’s father married Raine. Diana first attended school at Riddlesworth Hall Preparatory School in Norfolk and later, at West Heath Girls’ School (which subsequently has become the New School at West Heath, a co-educational special school) in Kent.
By self-admission, she was not much of an academic and left school in 1977, at age 16, after failing all her O-level exams. It was that same year that she met Prince Charles, a friend of her sister, at a hunting party. Following that, Diana’s father sent her off to a finishing school, the Institute Alpin Videmanette, in Rougemont, Switzerland. She showed some talent as an amateur singer and was a good sportswoman. In her heart, she always longed to be a ballerina but her height prevented this.
In 1979, Diana returned to London and moved into an apartment in South Kensington with three friends. She got her first job working as a part-time assistant at the Young England Kindergarten, a nursery school and day-care centre in Pimlico. The memorable photograph of the extremely shy Diana in a flimsy skirt, holding a young child, backlit by the sun, and showing the outline of her shapely legs, was taken by John Minihan during this time. Prince Charles had reached the age of 31 without finding a suitable partner and, as heir to the throne, was under pressure to do so. A list of candidates was drawn up and Diana was chosen from the shortlist. Diana met Prince Charles for the second time in 1980, when she and her family visited the Windsors during their summer holiday at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, and the royal romance began.
On 24 February 1981, Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, 32-year-old heir apparent to the British throne. It was a fairytale in the making, and the blonde, blue-eyed beauty posed with her husband to be for official photographs showing off her enormous diamond and sapphire engagement ring that matched her eyes and her royal blue dress. Immediately, jewellers around the world scrambled to make copies of the ring, which were snapped up by adoring Diana fans. Following the engagement, Diana moved out of the flat she shared with friends and into Clarence House, the home of the Queen Mother, in order to be taught her royal duties.
The Royal Wedding, which took place on 29 July 1981 in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, was attended by 3,500 guests, photographed by Lord Lichfield, watched avidly by approximately one billion people on televisions around the world and marked as a national holiday in the UK. The fairytale Princess looked every bit the part, arriving at the church in a glass coach, wearing the family tiara and a massive silk wedding dress incorporating 10,000 pearls and sequins, with a 25-foot train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runice, married the couple in a traditional Church of England service. On Charles’ request, New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa sang a beautiful rendition of Handel’s ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ during the ceremony. The married couple rode in the open-top state landau to Buckingham Palace for the kiss on the balcony the crowds had been waiting to see. The couple then joined their family and guests for a private wedding breakfast feast at the Palace. Diana’s new surname was Mountbatten-Windsor and her new title Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales. She was ranked as third most senior woman in the United Kingdom, after the Queen and the Queen Mother. The newlyweds enjoyed their honeymoon on board the royal yacht Britannia.
Wasting no time in starting a family, Diana gave birth, on 21 June 1982, to the second in line to the British throne, Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor of Wales (Prince William or ‘Wills’ as he is sometimes known). Three months later, Diana made her first official appearance outside the UK, when she represented the Queen at the burial of Princess Grace of Monaco. It wasn’t long before the Princess began breaking royal protocol, when she insisted Prince William accompany her on her tour of Australia, much to the delight of the Australian public. Two years later, on 15 September 1984, Harry was born. He is third in line to the British throne and his full name is Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales. The Princess had her Prince and two healthy and beautiful young sons.
The fairytale continued, with Diana gaining huge popularity, not only in the UK, but also worldwide, and she became known as the ‘People’s Princess’, a celebrity in her own right. With her natural beauty, her height and her grace, her ease with people, her candid honesty and warmth, it was an easy task for personal stylists to help her become a fashion icon, a role model, and possibly the most photographed and famous woman in the world. In the winter of 1985, Charles and Diana made their first official visit to America. President Reagan held a gala party at the White House in their honour and it was the society event of the year.
Unfortunately, all was not as bright on the home front and Charles and Diana’s marriage was starting to break down. Diana’s popularity with the public and the media was beginning to overshadow that of her husband and, in photographs, he would often be seen standing glumly in the background whilst his wife was in the spotlight. Behind the scenes, more trouble was brewing. Having long known about Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, Diana was finding it increasingly difficult to hold up a strong façade for the public. In 1990, Charles and Diana moved into separate apartments and, during their state visit to India that year, it became obvious to the world that the marriage was in dire straits.
In March 1992, Diana’s father died at the age of 68, which greatly affected her. In a move to have her side of the story heard, when the papers were filled with conjecture about the ‘War of the Waleses’ and the failing royal union, Diana approached British author Andrew Morton to write her biography. ‘Diana: Her True Story’ was published in June 1992. The sequel, ‘Diana: Her New Life’, was published in 1994, with both books becoming best sellers in the UK and the US.
On 25 August 1992, British tabloid newspaper The Sun printed intimate taped telephone conversations between Diana and car dealer James Gilby that had taken place in 1989, an indiscretion that was coined ‘Squidgygate’ and possibly speeded up the end of the Wales’ marriage. Until that point, Diana had been seen as the wronged party, but now she had to shoulder some of the blame. However, she seemed to attract more sympathy than Charles did and, in fact, many believed her to be victim of establishment persecution, as the bugging of her phone had been undertaken by British intelligence agencies.
It was on 9 December 1992 that British Prime Minister, John Major, officially announced that Prince Charles and Princess Diana had separated. Her sons were everything to her and at this turbulent time of her life, Diana said she would have been lost without them. In 1993, Diana announced her withdrawal from public life, much to the dismay of her supporters. It transpired that Charles had also had a turn to have his telephone bugged and the taped conversations, between himself and Camilla on 18 December 1989, were splashed all over the tabloids in 1993. Things that he had said in ‘Camillagate’ left Charles blushing, open to ridicule, and with somewhat of a black mark against the public’s view of his character. He maintained in an interview to David Dimbleby that he felt justified that his affair with Camilla was not adulterous, as he saw his marriage as already being over at that point.
The next scandal Diana had to face publicly was her previous involvement with military man, James Lifford Hewitt, also known as the ‘Love Rat’. Having met at a party in 1986, they reportedly had an affair from 1987 to 1992, once Hewitt had become a personal riding instructor for William and Harry and was spending a lot of time with the Princess. In 1994, Hewitt sold his ‘kiss and tell’ story to the tabloids, forcing Diana to admit to the affair. She did this in an extremely candid 1995 ‘Panorama’ television interview about her ongoing fight against bulimia nervosa, her crippling post-natal depression, her doomed marriage to Charles, the mental cruelty she endured over his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, her attempted suicide attempts and her own promiscuity. Through all of this, her complete loyalty to her children was obvious and their upbringing was constantly her priority.
The Queen could not stand the scandal to the royal family any longer and, in December 1995, she asked Charles and Diana to end their marriage. Charles agreed immediately, whilst Diana delayed her decision for another three months, only agreeing on 28 February 1996. After fifteen years of marriage, the couple divorced on 15 July 1996 and it was legally finalised on 28 August 1996, following six weeks of discussion. Diana ceased to be the Princess of Wales and could no longer use the title Her Royal Highness (HRH). She was, however, as former wife of heir to the throne and mother of his sons, granted permission by the Queen to be known as Diana, Princess of Wales, and the given the right to live in Kensington Palace, remaining a member of the royal family. Custody of Princes William and Harry was granted to both parents and Prince Charles remained living at Highgrove House, his private residence in Gloucestershire.
Following her divorce, Diana became no less popular in the press. In fact, it could be said that media scrutiny intensified, with the world eager to know her next step. She was first linked to married art dealer Oliver Hoare, to whom she reportedly made anonymous telephone calls. She then had a brief involvement with England rugby player, Will Carling. They met at an exclusive London gym and shared intimate coffee mornings but denied any physical aspect to their relationship. Following that, she publicly dated heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, for whom she had great respect and, according to friends, with whom she felt a ‘karmic’ bond and truly loved. Unfortunately, due to cultural differences, their relationship could not have a future. Dr Khan, being from Pakistan and believing in arranged marriages, would not get his parents’ approval to marry a divorced, Western, non-Islamic woman. Diana tried everything she could to persuade him that they should marry, including asking friend Imran Kahn, who himself had married a British aristocrat outside the Islamic faith, to speak to him. She approached his parents, writing letters and even travelling to visit them, but to no avail.
A few days after her break-up with Dr Kahn, Diana was photographed kissing Dodi Al-Fayed, son of Egyptian-born businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, owner (amongst other things) of Harrods department store in Knightsbridge, London. They enjoyed a brief time together and in 1997, Diana flew with her sons to Saint Tropez to holiday with Dodi.
A month after her 36th birthday, on 31 August 1997, Diana and Dodi were in a fatal car crash in the Pont de l’Alma underpass tunnel in Paris. They were en route back to Britain, after spending time on his yacht. On 30 August, Diana and Dodi had enjoyed a romantic dinner at the Hotel Ritz Place Vendome, Paris. The couple left the hotel via the rear entrance shortly after midnight, accompanied by bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, and French driver Henri Paul. On 31 August, at 00:25, the black Mercedes S-280 bearing the Princess and her party had an accident in the Seine Tunnel, near the Eiffel Tower. Emergency vehicles rushed to the scene, where Dodi and Henri Paul died, whilst Diana and her bodyguard were seriously injured but still alive. They were immediately taken to the closest hospital, the Pite Salpa Triere, where after intensive attempts to save her life, Diana died at 04:15. Rees-Jones survived and he was the only occupant of the car wearing a seatbelt. That afternoon, the Royal Squadron flew Prince Charles and Diana’s two sisters to Paris to bring back her remains to Great Britain. The coffin, draped in the royal flag, lay in state in the Royal Chapel in St James’ Place.
Fuelled perhaps by the beliefs of establishment persecution Diana had suffered with the ‘Squidgygate’ affair in 1992, speculation of conspiracy was once again rife, with many believing that the car crash was an assassination rather than an accident, notable amongst them was Mohamed Al-Fayed. It later emerged that Diana had written a letter to her butler, Paul Burrell, in October 1996, the year before she died. In it, she claimed there was a plot to kill her and she feared that the brakes of her car would be tampered with to cause ‘an accident’ resulting in serious head injury. She believed this would be to get her out of the way in order for Charles to marry Camilla. Following the French investigation into the crash, it was ruled an accident, caused by driver Henri Paul being under the influence of alcohol and driving at high speed.
The day before Diana’s funeral at Westminster Abbey on 6 September 1997, the Queen arrived back from her summer holiday at Balmoral Castle and made her first televised live speech concerning the death of Diana and praised her as ‘an exceptional and gifted human being’. The funeral was very moving and was watched by millions around the globe. Diana’s coffin, draped in the royal standard, was carried to the church on a gun carriage, behind which walked Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, Prince Philip and Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, followed by representatives of all her charities. Prime Minister Tony Blair read the lesson at the service and it was Prince Williams’ idea to get Elton John to sing the unforgettable ‘Candle in the Wind’. The Earl of Spencer gave a particularly moving speech about his late sister, which received a standing ovation. Following the funeral, Diana’s coffin was taken to her family home, Althorp House, and buried on a small island in the middle of an ornamental lake, called The Oval, in the Pleasure Garden on the estate. This was to ensure protection of her remains and to provide a private place for her sons to visit her grave.
During her life, the Princess was known for her high profile charity work, starting with her support of AIDS charities campaigns in 1987. Diana was the first celebrity to be photographed touching a person with the HIV virus. She did this knowingly and willingly. In an instant, the photographs of her compassionate gesture went a long way to helping shift public awareness of AIDS. Diana often made unannounced visits to terminally ill patients in hospital but with the request that she remain out of the media on these occasions.
She also supported the International Campaign for a Ban on Landmines. Possibly best remembered was her International Red Cross VIP volunteer visit to Angola in January 1997, with the poignant photograph of her in a helmet with a visor, wearing a simple top and jeans, touring a minefield. She also visited Bosnia in August 1997, which was to be her last trip as ‘Queen of Hearts’, with the Landmine Survivors Network. Her special interest was in how the children are affected and often injured by buried landmines, long after the conflict has abated. She was actively involved in the Red Cross.
In a legacy to her unending support of children, the Diana Memorial Award was created. It is granted to young people who have unselfishly devoted themselves to causes the Princess herself defended. Mohamed Al-Fayed contributed £3 million to the foundation of The New School at West Heath, as a tribute to the late Princess Diana. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain is located in Hyde Park, London. It was designed by American landscape artist, Kathryn Gustafson, with children in mind and was opened by the Queen on 6 July 2004.
An inquest into Diana’s death opened and adjourned in January 2004. Former Metropolitan Police force chief Lord John Stevens was then asked to undertake an official Scotland Yard inquiry into whether or not Diana and Dodi Fayed were murdered. After nearly three years, the report by Lord Stevens was released in December 2006. It concluded that the allegations of murder were unfounded and the car crash that killed the pair in Paris on 31 August 1997 was a tragic accident. Stevens also confirmed that Diana had not been pregnant and was not engaged or about to be engaged at the time of her death.
A princess taken in her prime, who came into the royal family and the public spotlight as a shy young woman and grew into one of the most popular and copied women in the world. She brought an unexpected breath of fresh air into the Windsor household and helped to change public perception of monarchy. She reached out and touched so many people’s hearts, whilst hers was often breaking. Diana did have her antagonists and she was maligned for having an unclassified mental illness and for manipulating the media for her own gain. For all her faults, however, she always did what she thought best and her children came first above all. Her two sons have grown into fine young men, with much of their mother’s feisty spirit. Diana’s memory will continue to live on, as she truly became a legend in her own time and stamped an indelible mark on history.