In Depth

How Princess Diana reshaped the Royal Family

Princes William and Harry unveil new memorial commemorating the People’s Princess

A statue has been unveiled by Prince Harry and Prince William at Kensington Palace today to mark what would have been the 60th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales. 

Harry, who has returned to the UK for the unveiling, delivered a speech earlier this week paying tribute to his mother’s legacy. The Duke of Sussex told recipients of the Diana Award, an accolade honouring young people working towards sustainable social change, to “never be afraid to do what's right.

“Stand up for what you believe in and trust that when you live by truth and in service to others, people will see that just as they did with my mum,” he said. 

Perceptions of the British monarchy around the world changed thanks, in part, to Diana’s personable approach to her royal role – a legacy her sons are keen to continue.

A softer approach

A stiff upper lip was seen as a key trait of the British monarchy in the days before Diana, one which the “People’s Princess” is often credited with softening. Diana strayed from the expected formalities of royal life, and even the smallest of gestures that deviated from the traditional came to take on significance in the public eye. 

Unlike other royals Diana never wore gloves, Vogue’s former deputy editor Anna Harvey, who became a friend of Diana’s, remembers. “She wanted flesh to flesh contact,” she writes.

A tireless advocate for ending the stigma around HIV/Aids, pictures of the princess shaking hands with patients drew much media attention, her actions were “revolutionary” in changing public perception around the disease, says Tatler

Princess Diana with cancer patient

Diana, Princess of Wales, with lung cancer patient John Collins in 1996

Sue Ogrocki/AFP via Getty Images

The media made the most of Diana’s candid and authentic approach to her role, and she quickly gained fans around the world. Her state visits were highly publicised affairs and her charitable work quickly established her status as a “prominent philanthropic force”, Harper’s Bazaar says.

She entered a sphere of influence beyond that which the royals had previously inhabited on the global stage, dancing with movie stars at the White House and adorning the cover of Vogue magazine no less than three times during her life. She was “a breath of fresh air”, winning the public round with “her very human flaws and vulnerabilities”, wrote Alicia Carroll in The New York Times almost a decade ago. 

“Before she came on the scene in 1980, very few people in the U.S. paid attention to the royals or could tell you the name of the queen of England,” she said. “Diana changed all that.” 

Refashioning the firm

Diana’s attitude and manner may have won the public round, but it seems she had to play a more forceful hand to try to change the monarchy’s ways.

In the landmark 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, Diana said she “would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people”. She took that responsibility on herself and her ability to create connections with the public through an apparent openness would go on to “legitimise the role of feeling in the public space”, wrote Matthew d’Ancona in The Guardian on the 20th anniversary of her death. 

The princess’s enthusiasm for her role and popularity with the public caused frictions within the family. The relationship between herself and Princess Anne was “even more tense” than The Crown made out, according to Vanity Fair. The reciprocity between the public and Diana was not mirrored behind closed doors; in the same 1995 interview, Diana told Bashir that her eating disorder was “a symptom of what was going on in my marriage”.

Princess Diana and John Travolta

Diana, Princess of Wales, dances with John Travolta

Pete Souza / The White House / Getty Images

Critics of “the firm” were quick to admonish the royals after Diana’s death – the Queen’s own statement on the tragedy came almost a week after the event. Julie Burchill, the writer widely recognised with coining the “People’s Princess” nickname, wrote in The Guardian two days after the fatal car crash in Paris that Diana had “showed the House of Windsor up for what it was: a dumb, numb dinosaur, lumbering along in a world of its own, gorged sick on arrogance and ignorance”. 

Her “brave, bright, brash life will forever cast a giant shadow over” the royals, she predicted. 

A lasting legacy?

“Saintly or scheming, misunderstood or manipulative”, Diana divides opinions among commentators, the “reams” written about her painting the princess in contradictory lights, says Reshmi R Dasgupta in The Economic Times. But on one point most can agree: the response to her death marked a change in the general public’s perception of the royals.

The flowers left at Kensington Palace “transformed a London park into something closer to Lourdes”, d’Ancona says. And when the Royal Family faltered in its response to her death, the public took note. “This most enduring of institutions looked as if it might actually implode under the weight of so much emotion,” wrote Sarah Lyall at The New York Times 20 years on from Diana’s death.

It was seen as a turning point in the British sensibility, “a bold punctuation mark in a new national narrative that favoured disinhibition, empathy and personal candour”, as d’Ancona puts it. 

Princess Diana with Princes Harry and William

Johnny Eggitt / AFP / Getty Images

But others view the princess’s legacy with scepticism. “It didn’t take long for Britons to tire of [Tony] Blair’s Diana-like emotionalism,” wrote Anne Applebaum on Slate in 2007, at which time the royals remained “pretty much the same, only quieter” than during the years of “Dianamania”. And if Applebaum was correct in thinking that the Royal Family learnt from Diana “that there is such a thing as too much publicity”, it’s surely a lesson they have been reminded of in the past three years amid the ongoing tabloid coverage of Meghan Markle

Diana left Britain “more inclined to value gut feeling over expert opinion” in both its politics and public discourse, says Lyall.

Princess Diana statue

Prince William and Prince Harry unveil their mother’s statue in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace

Dominic Lipinski/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The “complicated royal rebel” has left “an enduring imprint on the House of Windsor”, said The Independent ahead of what would have been her 60th birthday today. By interacting more “intimately” with the public – “kneeling to the level of a child, sitting on the edge of a patient’s hospital bed, writing personal notes to her fans” – she inspired other royals, including her sons, to “become more human and remain relevant in the 21st century”, says the newspaper.

“Diana didn’t invent the idea of royals visiting the poor, destitute or downtrodden,” it concludes. “But Diana touched them – literally.”

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