Dubbed the “most photographed woman in the world,” Diana, Princess of Wales’s rare mix of shyness, fashion sense, charity and turbulent personal life captivated the world until her tragic death in August of 1997. Decades after her death, discrepancies about Diana’s legacy persist. She is described as warm but volatile, naïve yet calculating. With a tribute to the princess included in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s 2018 nuptials, and her being a focal point in season 4 of Netflix’s The Crown, Diana remains at the forefront of the world’s attention. This is especially the case when similarities are being drawn between Diana’s hardships in the palace and those of her American daughter-in-law.
While Great Britain and the rest of the world grapples with Diana’s complicated legacy, let’s review three reasons that support Diana’s legacy as a royal angel, and three reasons she might be more accurately determined a fallen one.
The People’s Princess
Unlike the young monarchs who came before them, Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, spent loads of time with their mother. In contrast to her husband’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Diana insisted her children accompany her on royal tours abroad, even as infants. Diana made concerted efforts to engage her children with life outside of the palace walls, whether that meant enrolling them in local preschools, riding roller coasters with them at Disneyland, or taking them to visit homeless shelters and hospitals. William recalls, “She was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun…She understood that there was a real life outside of Palace walls.”
The People’s Princess.
Diana had genuine deference toward her subjects. Although born in the aristocracy, Diana shared none of the royal family’s preoccupation with rank or class-based decorum. Before becoming engaged to the prince, she worked common jobs – as a kindergarten aide and even a house cleaner. Diana would speak to people eye-to-eye, crouching down (unthinkable for royalty) to speak to children or the infirm. The princess described herself as “much closer to people at the bottom than to people at the top,” and backed up her words with support for over 100 charities. She leveraged her celebrity to bring much-needed exposure to ubiquitous problems like homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and landmines. Her humility and dedication made her the queen of the people’s hearts and made the whole Crown a bit dearer to all.
Wrong place, wrong time.
It cannot be overlooked that Diana was a young girl of nineteen – a naïve bride – when she became wife of the 32-year-old Prince of Wales. By all accounts, the marriage was fueled by Diana’s whimsical ideas of love and marriage, combined with her juvenile crush on Prince Charles. (Diana was said to have kept pictures of him in her room as a girl.) The advent of Charles’s affair with his ex, Camilla, must have been world-shattering. Add to this the pressure of royal life – packed with endless public engagements, stiff protocols, and the unbridled prying of an ungenerous media that labeled Diana “unstable and unbalanced” – and a sympathetic picture of a woman, struggling alone, as her son Harry has acknowledged, and at the mercy of forces beyond her control begins to emerge.
She tarnished the Crown.
Diana made a habit of publicly airing the details of her personal life and her opinions of her husband and in-laws, in direct opposition to the throne’s proclivity for privacy. The princess initiated the clandestine interviews that became the centerpieces of the biography Diana: Her True Story. In the book, Diana blamed her bulimia, self-harm, and suicide attempts on the coldness of her husband and the royal family. Even the book’s author questioned Diana’s motives, pondering in a later article whether she was trying to position herself as the innocent party in a doomed marriage. Her airing of dirty laundry continued in an interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir, wherein Diana bashed the prince as a bad father and called him unfit to be king. Whatever Diana’s qualms, discretion was her royal duty – one she betrayed.
Affairs of her own.
Prince Charles was publicly demonized for his well-known affair with long-time sweetheart, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Lesser known are Diana’s own string of indiscretions, beginning with her bodyguard, Barry Mannakkee, in 1985 – a tryst thought to predate Charles’s affair with Camilla. Major James Hewitt followed, from 1986-1991. In a leaked phone conversation with another lover, James Gilbey, Diana brags about spoiling Hewitt with a new wardrobe that “cost me [Diana] quite a bit.” If Charles’s public favor was won and lost on his level of marital fidelity, it is only fair to observe that Diana, too, fell short of this mark.
Diana’s public demureness and composure stands in contrast to reports of her offered by friends and staffers. Long-time friend, designer Roberto Dovorik, described her as having something of a “split personality,” in that she could be reliable one moment and totally irrational the next. Her former security guard claimed that she was prone to outbursts and sulking, and that she had the ability to make “life impossible for everyone.” In the wake of the national backlash against Charles following their divorce, friends of the prince rushed to supply the press with accounts of her tempestuousness. They alleged that she taunted Charles and forced him to renounce his friends. Whether driven by insecurity or circumstance, Diana’s frenetic behavior surely played a role in the unraveling of her family life.
The Bottom Line: Following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview rekindled memories of Diana, we find ourselves asking: Should Diana be remembered as an attention-seeking, manipulative problem-child, or as a shy princess-turned-lioness in the face of difficult circumstances?