Diana, Princess of Wales is a figure that seems to be ever-present. She comes back into the public imagination on the advent of any royal ceremony, be that the wedding of her former husband or both of her children. It is difficult to think of a royal that has had a similar impact, one that is continually, universally popular. Perhaps it is fitting that her own children, the next generation of royals, seem to be on the path of gaining similar levels of popularity from the public. But why is she so popular, and why was she dubbed the People’s Princess?
Diana married Charles when she was a 19-year-old kindergarten teacher, and was seen as the young, pure woman who managed to snag bachelor Prince Charles. Friends noted her keen sense of fun, and quick wit. One particularly funny story recounts her riding her bike around Buckingham Palace the night before her wedding. Their wedding came at a time of national upheaval, following the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Riots were breaking out in Brixton also, and so the impending royal wedding was an easy way to unite the country in revelry and festivity. Diana’s advancement to become the Princess of Wales immediately styled her as the young woman entering into the dream fairy-tale. At the wedding, held on the 29th of July 1981, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself declared that the vision before him was the ‘stuff of which fairy-tales are made.’ The wedding was watched by 750 million.
Their romance had been slightly strange up until this point. Charles had first met Diana while dating her sister, Lady Sarah Spencer. Richard Kay, a friend of Diana and journalist, noted that Diana and Charles’ romance was incredibly formal, and that she had to call him Sir. Essentially, they never got to fully know each other, at least not enough to realise that they were massively incompatible. In retrospect, former BBC royal correspondent Jennie Bond argues that, as Charles could not marry long term girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles, he went for the next best option.
Diana was stalked by the media very early on, and was dubbed by Kevin Mackenzie, former editor of the Sun, as ‘The Princess of Sales.’ He noted that she changed the way in which the royals were reported, and that Diana herself pushed the royals forward into the 80s.
However, problems in the relationship of Charles and Diana started early on. Following their engagement, Charles flew to Australia on tour. Diana was caught crying on camera, not because she feared missing him, but because she had caught him on the phone with Camilla shortly before his departure. Diana recounted on several occasions, that she suffered from bulimia, and was violently sick the night before the wedding. Reportedly, on this night, Charles told Diana that he did not love her. Her waist shrunk prompting several refits of her dress, emphasising the delicate state of her mental health. She described this as a ‘symptom’ of what was happening in her relationship, which only worsened when she became Princess of Wales. Diana’s former Personal Protection Officer, Ken Wharfe recently said that Camilla was always on the scene. Kevin Mackenzie, claimed that Diana’s young age and naivete made the situation ‘even more deceitful by Charles.’
Their 1983 tour of Australia bought further trouble, as Charles became increasingly jealous of Diana’s popularity. This sparked a growing resentment between the couple. Former photographer Ken Lennox saw that, when Diana was weeping on tour, Charles did not give her a second glance. After Prince Harry’s birth in 1984, Diana told author Andrew Morton that ‘the shutters came down.’ Baroness Rosie Boycott, a former newspaper editor, believes that Charles emotionally abused her. Former butler Paul Burrell asserts that, as Diana had provided ‘the heir and a spare,’ it left Charles free to go back to Camilla. Morton asserts that Diana was ‘being lied to by everyone,’ and that everyone knew and supported Charles’ clandestine relationship with Camilla. The couple began to lead separate private lives.
At this point, we see Diana as a young woman trapped and essentially tricked into a loveless, deceitful marriage. Her descent from the fairy-tale princess into the prisoner is incredibly tragic and is in part why she is remembered. The sheer sympathy that the public felt for Diana is quite overwhelming, and still stands today. It is even more remarkable what Diana did with her elevated position.
Diana is remembered for her empathy and charity work. In 1987, Diana opened a ward in Middlesex hospital, specially built to treat AIDS/HIV patients. At the time, there was a great fear of the disease. People did not know how it was transmitted. Diana shook hands with nurses and patients, without wearing gloves. This event displayed Diana’s endless empathy towards those in need, and she singlehandedly debunked the theory that HIV can be transmitted through touch. This was, and is incredibly powerful, and caused Diana’s popularity to soar. It is difficult to match another royal act to this, that had such an impact on AID’s sufferers, the public as well as scientific studies about the disease.
Following, Morton’s 1991 book, which Diana secretly helped with, the Squidgygate and Camillagate tapes and revelations that both parties had been adulterous… the couples’ separation was announced in 1992, although they had no plans to divorce. This meant that Diana would still one day be queen. On the 20th June 1994, Charles tried to hit back at Diana’s popularity by giving an interview with ITV. He stated that he was only unfaithful to Diana after their marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down.’ Here, her confirmed his adulterous affair. Both Charles and Camilla were vilified in the media. Cue Diana’s 1995 Panorama interview.
Diana was approached by Martin Bashir, who stated that he had ‘proof’ that her friends were spying on her. At the time Diana was paranoid about the secret service, and was concerned she was being watched. The interview was certainly dubiously obtained, but it is more remembered for its shocking content. In the space of half an hour, Diana lifted the lid on her marriage, which confirmed details present in Morton’s book. She also criticised members of the royal family, including Charles and the Queen Mother. Paul Burrell termed the interview as ‘unprecedented,’ and all recordings and tapes were under constant guard. Diana told the palace about the interview moments before the BBC announced it. The whole affair was shrouded in secrecy. Diana was swayed, partly because of the bank statements Bashir presented her with, but also because she feared that an impending divorce meant an impending gagging order.
Seen as ‘earth shattering,’ ‘explosive television’ and one of the most important interviews given in the 20th century, the interview was watched by 23 million people. Diana’s description of her bulimia, in graphic detail, helped people better understand a previously misunderstood illness. She stated that she was blamed for the failure of her marriage, as she was frequently referred to as ‘unstable.’ Baroness Boycott saw this as a message to all people in the world, telling them that it was ok to be vulnerable. In Boycott’s eyes, Diana unbuttoned a fairly ‘buttoned up society,’ with her frankness. She validated the feelings and fears of everybody. She famously stated that there were ‘three of us in this marriage,’ and also confirmed her own infidelity with James Hewitt, stating ‘yes I adored him, yes I was in love with him.’ Mackenzie and his team were shocked, as all stories that they had run on the royals, which had previously been denied, were confirmed by Diana in the space of half an hour.
As a result, the Queen asked the couple to divorce, and the Queen’s Christmas broadcast was also shown on ITV. The interview itself greatly affected the relationship between the monarchy and the BBC. Diana, in the interview, wished for a monarchy that had a more ‘in depth understanding’ of its people, and wished this for William and Harry. Following her death in 1997, Charles took up some of Diana’s AIDS work, and it is Morton’s belief that Diana paved the way for Meghan Markle’s entrance into the royal family.
So, why is Diana still remembered today? With her 1995 interview, Baroness Boycott felt that Diana ‘blew the lid off the world,’ and in a way, she did this during her lifetime. Her beginnings as a young naïve woman made the public fall in love with her, a feeling that only strengthened upon seeing her compassion and empathy towards AIDS sufferers. Her honesty in her 1995 interview was shocking, as viewers saw their future queen admit her vulnerability, validate the vulnerability of others and share her own hopes for the future of the British monarchy.
Thanks for reading!
 Information taken from:
The Diana Interview, Revenge of a Princess (television programme) (London: ITV Television, November 24 2020).