Princess Diana: What we know now about her life and legacy
Even more than 20 years after that tragic night in Paris, the world still remembers Princess Diana of Wales for her independent spirit and generous heart. Join us as we look back on secrets and surprising facts from the too-short life of one of the most beloved and controversial figures in modern history.
Destined for royalty?
Diana may have technically been a “commoner” when she met Prince Charles, but she was closer to the royal family than one might think. Because her father was an earl, she had an aristocratic title of her own — Lady Diana Spencer. She, like her future husband Prince Charles, is a distant descendant of King Henry VII.
The couple were actually 16th cousins, so although they were technically “related,” no one would consider them to be close family members. Beyond the royal family, Diana had several other famous relations: her stepmother was the daughter of a famous romance author, Barbara Cartland; she was second cousin once removed to actor Oliver Platt, and she was seventh cousins with the incomparable Humphrey Bogart! But wait, there’s more …
We know Diana had familial ties to the royal British dynasty, but the links don’t stop there. Surprisingly enough, both of her grandmothers served in Queen Elizabeth I’s court as ladies-in-waiting! Growing up, the future Princess of Wales was no stranger to the royal family, either.
Her childhood home, Park House at Sandringham Estate, had quite a famous landlady — Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, who lived only a mile away! Because she grew up in such close proximity to her royal neighbors, Diana’s first playmates included her future siblings-in-law, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, and she would often spend holidays with them at their vacation home. That didn’t mean her childhood was entirely ideal, however.
Her childhood was anything but charmed
The first major tragedy that befell the Spencer family was the death of Diana’s infant brother, John, who passed away about a year before she was born. Until the youngest sibling, Charles, was born, there was no male heir to their family, which caused tension between John and Frances, Diana’s mom and dad.
By the time Diana was just 7 years old, her parents’ marriage had deteriorated to the point of failure. After years of heated arguments and physical violence, John and Frances Spencer officially called it quits, leading to a bitter custody battle for their five children. Their divorce had a profound effect on young Diana, and she decided as a child that she would only marry if she was truly in love, as she never intended to divorce as her parents did.
It was almost Sarah and Charles
When Diana and her future husband Prince Charles first met, Diana was just 16 years old, compared to Charles’ 29. He was actually dating her older sister, Sarah, at the time. Their relationship came to a screeching halt when, in an interview with the press, Sarah confessed, “There is no chance of my marrying him. I’m not in love with him.”
Prince Charles was not overly pleased with her candor, and the two stopped dating shortly after. Lady Sarah, knowing that her sister Diana would be a much better fit for the eligible bachelor, introduced the two, and the couple began dating a few years later. Sarah never seemed to mind, and often bragged that she was the “Cupid” that brought Diana and Charles together.
A brief engagement
As soon as Prince Charles and Diana started dating, they began to be hounded by the press. They were first spotted together at Balmoral, the royal family’s holiday abode in Scotland. Not long after, rumors began to swirl about whether the couple would soon be engaged.
The public didn’t have to wait long for their answer, as they would announce their intent to marry just a few months later. Their hurry to get hitched meant that the two had only spent time together on 12 occasions before they decided to tie the knot! In their (painfully awkward) official engagement interview, Charles was asked if he loved Diana and he replied, “Yes … whatever love means.”
The wedding of the century
Despite the couple’s somewhat lukewarm connection, their wedding was certainly the most anticipated event of the year. Over 750 million people around the world watched the historic wedding, with approximately 600,000 lining the streets outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The blushing bride wore a stunning taffeta wedding gown with a record-breaking train. Designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, the train stretched out for 25 feet and was hand-embroidered with over 10,000 pearls. The world watched with anticipation as she entered the church, looking nervous but happy. Though we now know their story would have a tragic ending, emotions were high and everyone was hopeful for the future.
Atypical wedding vows
Though many aspects of their wedding were determined by years of royal tradition, one notable change would make waves for generations to follow. Diana, during her vows to her new husband, omitted the section about “obeying,” where the bride promises her subservience to the groom’s will.
Diana, ever the modern princess, decided to skip this part of the wedding vows — a controversial decision for a royal bride back in the ’80s. Years later, her daughters-in-law Catherine Middleton and Meghan Markle would also choose to omit the “obey” line during their marriages to Prince William and Prince Harry, respectively. Princess Eugenie also followed suit in her 2018 marriage to Jack Brooksbank.
Wedding day flubs
From an outside perspective, Charles and Diana’s big day was picture perfect: Everyone looked beautiful, the crowds cheered happily, and the weather was warm and sunny. However, the romantic event wasn’t without its bloopers. Diana started by spilling perfume on her wedding gown just before leaving for the church.
The most obvious blunder was when, during the wedding vows, Diana accidentally called her betrothed by the wrong name … yikes. In her defense, he has four names and she just happened to call him “Phillip Charles” instead of “Charles Phillip” when she had to repeat his laundry list of given titles. The newly married Prince and Princess of Wales also forgot to kiss after their vows in the church, but made up for it with a smooch on the Buckingham Palace balcony, starting another royal wedding tradition.
She struggled with mental illness
On the surface, Diana seemed to be living out the fairy-tale dream that so many young girls aspire to, but there’s far more to being crowned princess than just carriage rides and fancy balls. Living under the constant scrutiny of the public eye would be stressful for anyone, and Diana was no exception.
She struggled with insecurity, especially once she discovered her husband’s ongoing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. She became more and more depressed, and even experienced suicidal tendencies, which she confided in sources close to her. She also developed severe bulimia as a way to cope — according to her wedding dressmaker, Diana went from a 27-inch waist to a tiny 23 inches on her wedding day.
The awkward honeymoon
After the conclusion of their epic wedding, Charles and Diana sailed off in the Royal Yacht Britannia for a luxurious cruise through the Mediterranean and Greek islands, ending at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. It should have been a romantic getaway for the newlyweds, but the deep cracks in their doomed relationship had already begun to form.
According to the prince’s valet, he was calling his former flame Camilla every day, and became irate if they couldn’t talk that day. He also constantly wore the cuff links Camilla had given him as a wedding present — they featured intertwining C’s for Charles and Camilla. This only inflamed the jealousy that Diana already felt, and as the days went on and the couple bickered, it became clear how unhappy they both were.
Anything but ‘happily ever after’
Charles and Diana’s problems weren’t confined to the honeymoon trip. The state of their marriage continued to decline as Charles focused more of his time and attention on Camilla, and Diana grew resentful. Even after their two sons were born, Prince Charles continued to pursue his affair with Camilla, and the rest of his time was occupied with other pursuits like polo.
Diana, feeling abandoned and alone, sought affection from others and descended deeper into depression. In self-recorded audio diaries released after her death, Diana admitted to a five-year affair with her riding instructor, Major James Hewitt. She also detailed how she once confronted Camilla about Charles’ infidelity, which sparked yet another heated row between the troubled royal couple.
Princess Diana: Supermom
In spite of the tumultuous inner workings of her marriage, Diana found respite from the pain in her role as a mother. The princess loved her two sons with her whole heart, and was adamant about raising them as “normally” as possible. She was often pictured taking the two boys to theme parks and fast food restaurants, simply having fun as any mother and her children would.
With that being said, she wasn’t opposed to using their status to arrange the occasional special surprise. Prince William once recounted a story about how, upon finding out that he had a crush on Cindy Crawford, Diana invited her and fellow supermodels Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington for a visit at Kensington Palace! For a teenage boy, it was a pretty amazing experience, and the prince recalled being utterly befuddled. Too cute!
Seeking hope through charity work
Another way Diana coped with her inner pain was through her strong commitment to charity work. She lent her power and influence to a variety of causes, including HIV/AIDS research, anti-land mine advocacy, and the arts. She was known for being down-to-earth and unpretentious when it came to hands-on work, and people loved her for it.
She famously held hands with a patient diagnosed with HIV, a controversial action in a time when most of the world didn’t understand how the virus was spread. Her younger brother, Earl Charles Spencer, would later say, “For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom.”
What happened to Barry Mannakee?
As Diana and Charles’ marriage continued to decline, the facade of their seemingly perfect lives began to crumble before the public eye. Both Charles’ affair with Camilla and Diana’s with Maj. James Hewitt were publicly revealed in the tell-all book, Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words, which was released in 1992. The announcement sent shock waves throughout the country.
Additionally, a 1992 videotape that Diana recorded with her voice coach shows her discussing being “deeply in love with someone who worked in this environment,” from 1984-86. The popular belief is that she was referring to her bodyguard Barry Mannakee, who was fired in 1986 and died in a motorcycle accident a year later. No link was ever proven, but Diana (and others) suspected that he had been “bumped off” by royal security services.
What it meant to lose her title
Eventually, Diana and Charles’ 11-year marriage had deteriorated so completely that the queen herself commanded the two to officially divorce. Princess Diana never actually wanted anything more than separation, however. A complete divorce would mean that she would also lose her title of “Her Royal Highness,” and would be forced to curtsy to others with the distinction.
This included her ex-husband, ex-in-laws, and even her own sons, which had to have been more than a little humiliating. She also lost much of her household staff and security team, and a significant portion of her funding for charities. Her son William swore to her that when he became king, he would restore her title, but sadly, we know that he would never get the chance to make good on that promise.
Life after ‘Her Royal Highness’
After the divorce was finalized, Diana continued to live at Kensington Palace in the apartment now occupied by Prince William, Kate, and their children. Though she was now without many of the resources afforded to her as Prince Charles’ wife, she continued her charity work as much as possible. She and her ex-husband co-parented their two boys as agreeably as they could, and things seemed to calm down for the family.
Diana even began dating again, and fell hard for a heart surgeon named Hasnat Khan, who was said to have been “the love of her life” by close friends. The two dated for two years before they split — though who actually ended the relationship (and why) is still up for debate. Sources close to the princess claim that Diana was still in love with Hasnat when she started seeing Dodi Fayed just a month later.
‘My God, what’s happened?’
Diana and Dodi had been together for just a few weeks when they jetted off for a romantic getaway while William and Harry stayed behind at Balmoral. On the evening of August 31, 1997, the couple dined at the Ritz Paris, where they originally planned to stay the night. During their meal, Fayed became suspicious that the paparazzi had snuck in and were photographing them, so he requested their food be sent up to the room.
Around 12:20 a.m., the two decided to head back to Fayed’s apartment and boarded a black Mercedes driven by security officer Henri Paul, with bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones sitting shotgun. Minutes later, the car would collide with a concrete pillar at over 70 mph. Paul and Fayed were killed instantly. Diana was alive, and as she was pulled from the wreck, she exclaimed, “My God, what’s happened?” Though ambulances were dispatched immediately and the princess appeared to be relatively unharmed, she too would be pronounced dead at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital around 4:00 a.m.
Were the paparazzi at fault?
Many people blame the paparazzi’s role for the deadly crash, claiming that if not for being harassed and stalked for photos, there would have been no reason for the couple to be driving that night. They had originally planned to stay at the Ritz, but the constant media attention made them decide to head somewhere more private.
Attempting to evade the press, they were also traveling far above the posted speed limit when the crash occurred, making it far more destructive than if they’d been driving slower. Even after the incident, the cameras kept flashing, and no one stopped to try to help the injured. Seven photographers were arrested at the scene and charged with manslaughter, but were later found not guilty.
Was the driver drunk?
Among the mysterious factors in the fateful crash was the fact that the driver, Henri Paul, was found to have had a blood alcohol level four times the French legal limit at the time of the crash. He had been off duty since 5 p.m. but was called back after midnight to drive Diana and Dodi to the apartment. Receipts show that he did have two Ricards (an anise liqueur) at the hotel while waiting on the couple to leave, but other reports say he may have drunk as many as 10.
The postmortem toxicology report also showed the presence of trace amounts of antidepressants and, oddly, an antiparasitic drug. The official jury ruling declared that Paul was the responsible partly due to his intoxication, but many people, including Paul’s parents and the Al Fayed family, believe the test results were flawed or tampered with. They still insist that there was a deeper, more sinister plot at work, and that their deaths were “collateral damage.”
Was it more than just an accident?
Mohamed Al Fayed, father of Dodi Fayed and owner of the Ritz Paris, believed that the crash was an orchestrated attempt to murder the famous couple. He’s not the only person to come up with alternate theories about what happened that night. Other theorists claim that Diana was pregnant with Fayed’s baby at the time of her death, but her postmortem examination showed no evidence that this might be true.
It’s certainly not far-fetched to imagine that someone, somewhere, might have wanted to hurt Diana. In a note to her butler Paul Burrell just 10 months before she died, Diana herself reportedly confessed her suspicions that someone was “planning an accident” in her car that would clear the way for Prince Charles to marry again. At the time, Burrell wrote it off as paranoia from the troubled princess, but it became a chilling memory once the details of her death came to light.
A seat belt would have saved her life
Regardless of the “real” cause behind the crash, one thing that doctors have determined is that, had Diana been wearing a seat belt, she would most likely have survived the collision with minor injuries. The only survivor of the incident was bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, who, coincidentally, was the only passenger wearing the proper restraints.
This is yet another odd detail about that night, as Diana was known for always wearing a seat belt in the car, while members of her security detail often traveled unrestrained to be able to move or react quickly when needed. Nobody knows why she decided not to buckle up on that particular occasion, but tragedy very well could have been avoided if she had.
The world in mourning
The global outpouring of grief that began once Diana’s death was announced was unprecedented. Hundreds of thousands left flowers as tribute outside the hospital, Diana’s residence in England, and outside the palace to show their grief and support for the royal family.
Around the world, 2.5 billion pairs of eyes were glued to television screens to watch the coverage, making it one of the biggest televised events of all time. For her official funeral, which was held on September 6, 1997, 2,000 people attended the services at Westminster Abbey, including notable figures like Hillary Clinton, Elton John, Richard Attenborough, and many more. Outside, more than a million mourners rained flowers on her coffin as it processed through the streets of London.
The queen’s response
Diana’s relationship with her mother-in-law had been strained for years when she died. The queen had never fully accepted Diana from the start, and the young Princess of Wales often lamented that she felt isolated and alone among her new family. With each choice she made in her life as a royal, she seemed to stray from tradition.
The queen was so cynical about her ex-daughter-in-law that it’s rumored she said, “Someone must have greased the brakes,” when she initially heard Diana had been in an accident. She later took to the television to make an official statement, and seemed truly sorrowful as she expressed the family’s grief, as well as thanking the public for their support, though she maintained her usual stoic composure.
Her private resting place
Though members of the Spencer family were historically interred at the family vault in Great Brington, due to her fame, Diana was buried on a small island in the middle of a lake at Althorp Park. They wanted to have a private place where her loved ones (specifically her sons) could come pay their respects without prying eyes disturbing them.
The design of Diana’s resting place was created with symbolic intent, as well as for privacy. The path leading up to her grave is lined with 36 oak trees, one for each year of her too-short life. Hundreds of Diana’s favorite flowers, white roses and water lilies, were planted around the grounds, adding to the sense of tranquility.
Kate Middleton now wears her ring
Though she’s been gone for over 20 years, Diana’s presence and influence in the royal family remains, and as her boys grew into adulthood and began their own families, they included sweet tributes to her memory in significant life events.
When her oldest son (and future king) Prince William proposed to his wife Kate Middleton, he gave her the ring that was once Diana’s. The iconic 12-carat sapphire surrounded by solitaire diamonds was yet another controversial aspect of Diana’s time with the royal family. She chose a ring straight from the Garrard catalog rather than a custom ring, as was the long-standing tradition with royal engagement rings.
Celebrities remember her fondly
Not only did her family and the general public mourn Diana’s passing, but she was also remembered fondly by many famous friends. She had close relationships with Liza Minnelli, Elton John, and Gianni Versace, and briefly got to know many others. Rumors say that she once even dressed in drag to accompany Freddie Mercury on a night out at a gay club!
No one can confirm this, but if it’s true, it’s a pretty remarkable story. One thing we know for sure is that she danced with John Travolta at a White House gala dinner in November 1985. Travolta recalled that, at the request of Nancy Reagan, he asked the princess to dance, and they took to the floor for about 15 minutes, dancing to hit songs from the film Saturday Night Fever. Talk about a night to remember.
She paved the way for her sons
Diana’s legacy wasn’t confined to matters as superficial as her jewelry, either. Her lifelong passion for charity inspired her sons to champion similar causes and continue her tradition of helping those who needed it the most. The brothers have worked hard to make sure that Diana’s efforts are remembered.
One cause that was of particular concern to Diana before she died was the use of land mines, which have been known to cause civilian injuries long after battles, and often, the victims are children. Prince Harry is now the patron of the HALO Trust, a charity which aims to rid the world of land mines by 2025. He’s also worked with his brother William on the Heads Together campaign, which raises awareness of mental health issues.
She and Meghan Markle share a connection
Prince Harry’s wife, former actress Meghan Markle, was one of the people who watched along tearfully as the Princess of Wales was laid to rest, never imagining at the time that she’d one day marry one of her sons. Her admiration for Diana, as well as her own struggles with tabloid media, have inspired the Duchess of Sussex’s mission to reduce public figures’ harassment at the hands of the media.
The paparazzi chasing Diana’s car is still thought to be the major reason behind her untimely death. Recently, after one of Markle’s private letters was leaked to the media, she and Prince Harry announced their intent to sue the tabloid publication Mail On Sunday. In their statement, Harry mentioned that, “My deepest fear is history repeating itself … I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
A modern monarchy
Diana is also known for having changed the way the public views and interacts with the royal family. Her warm and open demeanor was completely different from the isolated, aloof attitude associated with royals in the past, and people looked up to her as a human figure — someone more like themselves than a deific being ruling from on high.
These days, the modern royal family is far more connected to the general public through charity work and outreach programs. The focus is less on maintaining a “stiff upper lip” as in the past, and royals are opening up about their everyday struggles with mental health, family relationships, and simply being human.
She’s still influencing the new generation
As the new generation of royals grows up, Diana’s legacy will continue to influence them in many ways. For one, Prince William is very likely to have a long reign as king of England, and of course, his mother’s life and memory has done a lot to shape him into the man he is today. His children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis, will have a very different experience growing up than their ancestors did.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have taken things a step further, declining to give their son Archie a royal title. They would prefer that the young boy grow up as normally as possible, away from the responsibilities associated with nobility. Only time will tell how things will change as the new generation comes of age, but it’s clear that Diana’s spirit is very much alive to this day.