Diana Frances Spencer, or to us, “Lady Di”, the “People’s Princess” and “Princess Diana” left an enormous legacy on the world, specifically the United Kingdom after just 36 years of life. On July 1st 2021, this would have marked Lady Diana’s 60th birthday. In memory and honour of the Princess of Wales, here is the story of Diana Spencer’s life.
Diana’s early days…
Diana was born on July 1st 1961 in Norfolk as the fourth of five children to John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer and Frances Spencer (later Frances Kydd). The Spencer family were close with the British royal family for many generations, with Diana’s grandmothers serving as ladies-in-waiting to The Queen Mother. Diana was named after a many-times-great-aunt, Lady Diana Russell who was almost the Princess of Wales also. As a child, Diana was nicknamed ‘Duch’ by her family due to her duchess-like attitude.
Diana grew up with her three siblings, Sarah, Jane and Charles. Diana had another brother, John, who passed away shortly after birth, a year before Diana was born. According to Diana’s brother, Charles, this was a dreadful time for his parents and he explained “it was probably the root of their divorce because I don’t think they ever got over it.” Diana grew up in Park House, located on the Sandringham Estate which the Spencers leased from the homeowner, Queen Elizabeth II. Here, Diana used to play with the Queen’s sons, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, the brothers to her future husband. At aged 7, Diana’s parents divorced and she lived with her mother until her father won a bitter custody battle. In 1976, Diana’s father married British socialite, Raine Spencer who had a poor relationship with Diana as her step-mother. It was said as an adult, Diana was ‘needy’ and this stemmed from an “unhappy” and “unstable” childhood, in her own words.
Diana became known as Lady Diana in 1975 when her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer in 1975, and the family relocated to Northamptonshire.
Initially, Diana was home-schooled but later joined Silfield Private School and all-girls boarding school, Riddlesworth Hall School aged 9. She later joined her sisters at West Heath Girls School in Sevenoaks but it was said she didn’t shine academically, failing her GCE O-levels twice. However, Diana’s brother, Charles, had explained that although Diana was shy as a child, she excelled in music and sports, specifically dancing and piano. During her time at West Heath, she was recognised with an award for her outstanding community spirit- something that clearly stayed with her as a Princess. As a teenager, Diana also kept a pet pony called “Scuffle”!
After attending Institut Alpin Videmanette, a Swiss finishing school, Diana returned to London where she lived with her mother. Diana took a range of courses and low-paying jobs in this time, working as a dance instructor, nanny, and nursery teachers assistant. For her 18th birthday, her mother bought her a flat where she lived until 1981, with her three flatmates.
When Diana met Charles…
Lady Diana first met Prince Charles, the Queens eldest son when she was 16 in 1977. At the time, the Prince was 29 and dating Diana’s older sister, Lady Sarah. Diana had watched Charles play polo when he started to take interest in her as a potential partner. The friendship progressed into an age-gapped relationship and she went to meet his family, including his mother, The Queen in 1980. Lady Diana was well-received by the Queen, the Queen Mother and the Duke of Edinburgh. The paparazzi hounded Diana from the earliest signs of her and Charles dating. (See above to the right a picture they snapped of her in her kitchen in London).
It was the following year on February 6th 1981, where the Prince proposed and the pair kept it a secret for two weeks. Princess Diana got to choose her own engagement ring and left her job at the nursery after the proposal. The engagement ring went on to be the world’s most famous blue sapphire ring and is now worn by Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, Diana’s daughter-in-law who she never got to meet. Her son, William explained giving the ring to Catherine was his way of making sure his mother didn’t miss out on his wedding day.
The engagement was made publicly official on February 24th 1981 and Diana moved to live at Buckingham Palace until the wedding. Diana was about to be the first royal bride who had a paying job before her engagement.
Following her engagement, Diana made her first official public appearance in March 1981, just a month after the announcement in a charity event at Goldsmiths’ Hall.
On July 29th 1981, just months after the couple got engaged, 20-year-old Diana married 32-year-old Prince Charles, making her the Princess of Wales. Diana had recalled in later years that she had met Prince Charles just 13 times before they tied the knot. The pair married at St Paul’s Cathedral and was described as a “fairy tale wedding” as 750 million from 74 countries watched on television, and 600,000 spectators lined the streets. Diana’s dress stunned the world with a 25-foot train, being record-breaking for any royal wedding dress.
During the ceremony, a traditional vow of “obeying” your husband was something Diana was not willing to say, which caused some comments at the time, but something the couple had requested to leave out. Charles also forgot to kiss his bride at the alter, but made up for it, in tradition on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Most people only have a wedding cake, but not Charles and Diana. The pair had an incredible 27 cakes, with the main cake being five feet tall. Made by the Naval Armed Forces, it reportedly took half an hour to crack all the eggs required for the cake!
After getting married, the pair moved into Highgrove House and just a few months later, on November 5th 1981, Diana’s pregnancy was announced. Just weeks later in January 1982, Diana fell down a staircase at Sandringham, suffering bruising around her stomach, but the foetus was uninjured. Diana is said to have confessed years later that she had intentionally thrown herself down the stairs, despite being pregnant. She said she did it because she felt “inadequate” and Prince Charles was very dismissing of the accident, going riding after the accident, whereas The Queen was upset and very supportive at the time.
The following month in February 1982, the paparazzi were relentlessly following Charles and Diana. The pair were holidaying in the Bahama’s when pictures of the pregnant princess in a bikini were published in the media. The Queen described this as “the blackest day in the history of British journalism”.
Becoming a Mum and Diana’s advocacy…
According to Diana: Her True Story In Her Own Words, the scheduling around Prince Williams birth had to work around Prince Charles’ pony polo games. Diana said “we had found a date where Charles could get off his polo pony for me to give birth. That was very nice, felt very grateful about that!”
On June 21st 1982, Diana gave birth to the next heir to the throne, Prince William at the Lindo Wing at St Mary’s Hospital. Diana broke royal tradition by giving birth in a hospital as royal births traditionally take place at home. Now, the majority of royal births take place in a hospital, following Diana’s lead. In Diana’s biography, the first thing the Queen said when she saw Prince William was “thank goodness he hasn’t got ears like his father.”
After the birth of her first son, Diana suffered from postpartum depression alongside an ongoing battle with Bulimia. Diana and Charles took Prince William on their first major tours of Australia and New Zealand despite him being a baby. Although they received media criticism, the decision was later applauded. These tours were a huge success as immense crowds gathered to see the couple. The press began to focus more on Diana than Charles in this time, coining the term ‘Dianamania’ as a reference to the people’s obsession with her.
It was also in this year when she confided to the Premier of Newfoundland, Brian Peckword saying “I am finding it very difficult to cope with the pressures of being Princess of Wales, but I am learning to cope with it.” The Dianamania as well as her ongoing charity work and public appearances was a lot for the new Mum to handle. In the 80s, Diana developed a huge passion for helping people who are suffering from serious illnesses such as AIDS and Leprosy. This is a huge part of her legacy with Stephen Lee, director of UK Institute of Charity Managers claiming “her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century.”
After admitting her own struggles, Diana became an advocate for mental health and social issues, with organisations such as Relate and Turning Point. Relate was relaunched to become National Marriage Guidance Council. Turning Point is a charity to support those affected by drug and alcohol misuse and mental health problems.
Princess Diana gave birth to her second son, Prince Harry, two years later on September 15th 1984. Harry was born a week early and Princess Diana is said to have read a book for the first six hours of her nine-hour labour, whilst her husband Charles napped in a chair next to her. Diana had claimed that throughout her pregnancy with Harry, the couple were at their closest, but despite Diana knowing the gender, she didn’t tell anyone else, including Charles.
During the boys’ upbringing, Diana played a huge part, making theirs very different from the usual for royal children, famously, Diana would take the boys to theme parks etc, making their upbringing as close to ‘normal’ as possible. Diana dismissed a royal nanny, choosing her own instead, and would take the boys to school as regularly as she could. This was extremely hands-on for the royals back in the 1900s.
In 1985, the couple returned to Australia and again, it was extremely well received. The public referred to Diana as “Di-amond Princess” and the “Jewel in the Crown”. In the late 80s, the princess did many more tours, with a particular tour of Harlem Hospital Centre making a profound impact on the public as Diana spontaneously hugged a seven-year-old child with AIDS. This was a taboo at the time, and Diana spent many years working with AIDS foundations and charities.
Diana began her work with patients who had AIDS in the 1980s and famously was not averse to making physical contact with the patients, being the first royal figure to do so. She famously hugged, held hands and shook the hands of the patients to de-stigmatise the condition. Although it was said the Queen didn’t approve of this, Diana explained, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it. What’s more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys.”
Diana also became a patron of the HALO Trust in this time, which is an organisation that removes debris in landmines, left behind by war. Although many accused her of being politically vocal doing this, describing her as a ‘loose cannon’, HALO states that Diana’s efforts raised international awareness about landmines and the subsequent sufferings caused by them.
In 1987, Diana was awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City of London in recognition of her lifetime achievement, aged just 26. This is the highest honour in the power of the City of London to bestow on anyone.
In the later years of the 80s, Diana visited a Leprosy hospital in Indonesia where she later became a patron of the Leprosy Mission, an organisation dedicated to providing treatment, medicine and support for those with the disease. Although many believed Leprosy could be contracted through casual contact at the time, Diana was seen hugging the patients. Diana explained, “it has always been my concern to touch people with leprosy, trying to show in a simple action that they are not reviled, nor are we repulsed”.
The marriage breakdown and Diana’s later life…
Throughout Diana and Charles’ marriage, an ex-girlfriend of Charles was always by his side, as a family friend. This ex-girlfriend was Camilla Parker Bowles. Just five years into the marriage, cracks began to show with many putting it down to the couple’s incompatibility and age difference. Cracks began to show in the late 80s. In 1989, Diana was at Camilla’s sisters birthday party. Diana confronted Camilla about her and Charles’ affair that she suspected. When the marriage deteriorated, Charles was asked in a BBC interview with Jonathan Dimbleby if he had been faithful to Diana, he responded “yes”, paused and followed with “until it became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried.” Charles resumed his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, who he married in 2005, and Diana began a new relationship with Major James Hewitt, a British former cavalry officer in the British Army and the family’s former riding instructor.
It was reported that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had hosted a meeting with Charles and Camilla in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the couple. Prince Philip had openly expressed his disappointment in both Charles and Camilla for their affairs.
Although it was evident that Diana blamed Camilla for the breakdown of her marriage with Charles, in 1993, Diana wrote to her loyal butler, Paul Burrell which supposedly claimed that she believed Charles was involved in other affairs. She wrote about her suspicions of him being in love with his PA, Tiggy Legge-Bourke and said he was planning to have her killed “to make the path clear for him to marry Tiggy”.
Throughout this time, the public witnessed a lot of ‘lasts’ for the couple as they publically separated. Her final trip with Charles took place in 1992, as the pair went to India and South Korea. During their visit to India, Diana visited Mother Teresa’s hospice, where the pair met and developed a personal relationship.
Following this, Diana became a patron for Centrepoint in 1992. Centrepoint is a charity that provides accommodation and support to homeless people, with the Princess focusing mainly on young homeless people as she said “they deserve a decent start in life”. Diana would regularly take her young sons to visit Centrepoint services and their homeless shelters. Prince William later became the patron of this charity in 2005.
In December 1993, Diana announced she would withdraw from public life, but made a partial return the following November for the British Red Cross’ 125th-anniversary celebrations. The Queen also invited her to many major national occasions throughout the marriage separation as she was still considered a senior member of the royal family.
In November 1995, the infamous Panorama BBC show aired whereby BBC journalist, Martin Bashir interviewed Diana whereby the Princess spoke on her own and her husbands’ extramarital affairs. “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”, Diana commented as she referred to Charles and Camilla. The interview was the tipping point and just a month later, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen had sent letters to both Charles and Diana, advising them to divorce – something that was quite a taboo in the royal family at the time.
By July 1996, the couple had agreed on the terms for their divorce, which followed shortly after Diana’s accusations that Charles’ PA, Tiggy had aborted his child. The divorce was finalised on 28th August 1996, almost exactly a year before she passed away. Diana lost the style “Her Royal Highness” but kept her title of the Princess of Wales, as her son (Prince William) was expected to one day ascend to the throne. The Queen reportedly wanted to let Diana keep the Royal Highness style, but Charles insisted on removing it.
In March 1997, Diana made a visit to South Africa, where she met with the President, Nelson Mandela. The pair played to collaborate her charities with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund to tackle issues surrounding AIDS in Africa. Mandela praised Diana for her efforts saying “when she stroked the limbs of someone with leprosy or sat on the bed of a man with HIV/AIDS and held his hand, she transformed public attitudes and improved the life chances of such people”. Years later in 2002, Mandela announced that his charity alongside the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund would team up to help people with AIDS.
After the divorce, Diana resided in an apartment on the north side of Kensington Palace, that she had shared with Charles in their first year of marriage. Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell claimed Diana had asked her brother, Lord Spencer to allow her to live at their family estate, Althorp, but he had refused the request.
Diana’s 36th and final birthday was on July 1st, 1997. The celebration took place at the Tate Gallery, which also acted as a commemorative event for the gallery’s 100th birthday. Just 20 days later, Diana had her last official engagement, a visit to Northwick Park Hospital.
Diana dated Hasnat Kahn, a British-Pakistani heart surgeon for almost two years with many claiming after her death, that he was the love of her life. Diana kept this relationship very secretive and would often lie to the press about her relationship with him. Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd disapproved of her daughter’s relationship, as he was a Muslim man. By the time of Diana’s death, just a month after, she had not spoken to her mother in four months. The pair split in July 1997 and quickly after, Diana started a relationship with Dodi Fayed, a film producer and the son of her billionaire summer host, Mohamed Al-Fayed. That summer, Diana wanted to take her son to New York, but security officials prevented the trip. Without that holiday, she accepted Fayed’s invitation to join his family in the south of France. Fayed had a huge compound here with high-level security which caused no concerns to the Royal Protection squad.
Diana’s passing, the tributes and her funeral…
On August 31st 1997, Diana died in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, Paris. It was said the driver, Henri Paul was fleeing the paparazzi. Diana, Dodi Fayed and Henri Paul all died in the crash, with Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones being the only survivor.
Diana was taken to Paris’s Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in the early hours after her heart stopped due to the crash. An anaesthetist who treated Diana, Daniel Eyraud claimed there was a team of eight hospital staff that battled for hours to keep the princess alive, until stopping and declaring her death.
Many conspiracies surrounded Diana’s death, and continue to circulate over 20 years on. The initial French judicial investigation came to the conclusion that the crash was caused by Henri Paul’s intoxication, reckless driving, speeding and side effects of prescribed medication. In February 1998, Mohamed Al-Fayed publically accused the MI6 and the Duke of Edinburgh of planning the crash. An inquest in London in 2004 and went on until 2008 trying to establish any links or causes of the crash. The inquest attributed the crash to grossly negligent driving by Henri Paul and to the relentlessly pursuing paparazzi who forced Paul to speed. The final verdict said it was “unlawful killing”. After 10 years of Al-Fayed’s campaign to discover the truth of the death of his son and Diana, he stepped down claiming he’d leave the work to God, and he did it for the sake of Diana’s sons.
Diana’s death was sudden and hugely unexpected. It still stands as a situation where you could ask anyone where they were when they found out, and they could tell you the exact situation. The world went into mourning like it never had before. Despite royal protocol, the family insisted Diana’s coffin be draped with the royal flag as she was brought back to the UK by Prince Charles and Diana’s sisters. Her coffin was placed in a private mortuary until it was taken to the Chapel Royal, St James’ Palace. On September 5th, Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to Lady Diana in a live television broadcast.
Diana’s funeral took place in Westminster Abbey on September 6th 1997. Her young sons (Prince William and Prince Harry), ex-husband (Prince Charles) and brother, Lord Spencer walked behind her coffin. In a eulogy by Lord Spencer, he said his sister had “proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic”. Many felt he used his eulogy as a way to bash the royals, but others say he used it to bring light to the legacy of his sister. The funeral also saw Elton John perform a rewritten version of his song, Candle in the Wind, especially for Diana. The ceremony was watched by 32.10 million Brits, being one of the UK’s highest viewing figures ever. Millions more watched it around the globe.
The burial took place privately later that day with just Diana’s sons, mother, siblings, ex-husband and clergyman present. She was buried in a long-sleeved black dress designed by Catherine Walker with a set of rosary beads that Diana had received from Mother Teresa, who had passed in the same week as Diana. She was buried on an island within the grounds of Althorp Park, the Spencer family home. She was buried here so her sons and family could visit her grave privately.
Anniversaries and memorials for the people’s princess…
On the first anniversary of Diana’s passing, the public left flowers for her outside Kensington Palace as a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey. All flags at royal residences were flown half-mast on the Queen’s orders. The Union Jack was first lowered to half-mast mast on the day of Diana’s funeral and has set a precedent, as based on the previous protocol no flag could ever fly at half-mast over the palace “even on the death of a monarch”.
As 2007 marked 10 years since the passing of Diana, a few significant events were held in this year. On what would’ve been Diana’s 46th birthday, and just weeks before the 10th anniversary of her passing, her sons, William and Harry organised The Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium. All proceeds of the event were donated to Diana’s charities.
On the 10th anniversary of Diana’s passing, August 31st 2007, the royals as well as Diana’s family, friends and representatives gathered for a memorial service in the Guards Chapel. Invitees included politicians, Gordan Brown and Tony Blair as well as Elton John, Cliff Richard and David Frost. Tributes were also held at the Spencer family estate including exhibitions and The Diana Award. A restyling of Kensington Gardens also took place, creating a new section, named The White Garden which represented Diana’s life, legacy and style.
Diana’s activism left her handprint on the world and continues to make an impact every day. The glamourous princess was hugely popular within British society as she faced her own struggles out loud, whilst prioritising the de-stigmatisation of various illnesses. Celebrated for her unconventional approach to raising awareness and advocacy, she is an icon within the LGBTQ+ community, thanks to her charity work on improving the lives of minority groups, best known for her involvement with AIDS patients and landmines. Lady Diana had a powerful balance of being the ‘shy’ princess, whose actions spoke louder than her words.
It is safe to say that Diana’s legacy had a deep impact on the royal family as well as British society.
Rest in peace and happy birthday, Princess Diana.