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Princess Diana Biography and Visits


Diana was a huge star during the 1980s and 1990s and a vast amount has been written about her. Most of what was written involved insights into her life, gained either by intrusive journalists, or provided by less than honourable people who knew her and decided to cash in. Not surprisingly I, like most people have no contact with the royal family, and have no desire to hide under bushes to take pictures of them, or tap their phone to listen in on conversations. So I have nothing new to tell you. But I was around when Diana mania was at its peak, and I did experience the conflicting messages that came out as she battled through the media with her husband, the Prince of Wales. And it is the image that is important in the story of Diana, as it is in so much of history. The images coming from Diana, and those coming from the royal publicity machine were very much at odds. So the question is who won? This is really the only question we can reasonably answer. The truth of the marriage is for all practical purposes beyond us. Indeed the people who were actually involved and who knew most about what happened were those whose opinions were most likely to be coloured by personal concerns. Who is to say where the truth lies? As Diana herself said with reference to the divorce of her own parents: "We all have our own interpretations of what should have happened, and what did happen. People took sides."

This is a quote from Diana Her True Story - In Her Own Words by Andrew Morton. Most people know about Diana's life through this book, originally published in 1992, and then in an updated form in 1997 following Diana's death. This book was based on taped answers to questions smuggled into Diana's home at Kensington Palace, and was a massive bestseller, far outselling a book by Jonathon Dimbleby which attempted to show things from Charles's perspective. This is important to bear in mind in assessing the image war between the Prince and Princess of Wales. A book sympathetic to Diana won out.




Sandringham Church - Diana was christened here

The family of Diana's father, the Spencers, originally made their fortune in the sixteenth century, when through a lot of hard work they became some of the richest sheep farmers in Europe. Althorp House was built as a suitably impressive country seat in 1508. Charles I recognised the Spencers' wealth and power by making them earls, and Spencers then served in many royal and government roles through the ensuing centuries. The family even has links to seven American presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt. The family of Diana's mother, the Fermoys also have long standing royal connections. The Fermoys were friends of George V, who granted Maurice, 4th Baron Fermoy, the lease on Park House, a large property close to the royal residence of Sandringham in Norfolk. Park House - now a hotel for the disabled - was the childhood home of Diana Spencer, born on 1st July 1961, third daughter of John and Frances Spencer, Viscount and Viscountess Althorp. Seemingly this was a fortunate situation in which to be born. She had the huge grounds of Sandringham House to play in, and would go and stay at Sandringham during the school holidays. But privilege it seems meant little to her. Diana hated the visits to Sandringham, where the children would be shown a video of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang year after year. Emotionally Diana had a difficult life from the start. When Diana was born the Viscount was disappointed at the birth of another daughter, desperate as he was for a male heir. Incredibly, considering this is a story from the later part of the twentieth century, Frances was sent to Harley Street doctors for intrusive investigations to ascertain why she was giving birth only to girls. These traumatic and unnecessary examinations were a major factor in ruining the Spencer marriage, leading on to a divorce when Diana was six. Ironically by the time Frances finally decided to leave her husband, the longed for son had arrived. Charles Spencer was born in May 1964. But by then it was too late for the marriage to be saved. In 1967 Lady Althorp had an affair with an Australian entrepreneur named Peter Shand Kydd, which led on to a hostile divorce. Frances tried to win custody of the children, but John was a nobleman, and this, according to Andrew Morton, influenced the law to favour his application for custody. Diana and her brother continued to live at Park House, with visits to their mother's flat in London's Belgravia, and her properties, in Itchenor, West Sussex, and on the Isle of Seil in Scotland. There was more upheaval in 1975 when John moved his family to Althorp following the death of Diana's grandfather, 7th Earl Spencer. At around this time John, now the 8th Earl, was becoming involved with Raine McCorquodale, the feisty daughter of novelist Barbara Cartland. John Spencer married Raine in July 1977, and she seems to have been loathed by the Spencer children. Fortunately perhaps Diana was away at school through most of these years, at Riddlesworth Hall, and then at a finishing school in Switzerland. Her education, characterised by promise in sports, dancing and animal care, and absence of interest in academic subjects, ended with no formal qualifications. Lack of academic qualifications wasn't viewed with too much concern, however, as the marriage market was really the destination for girls like Diana. The Spencer sisters were at the high end of this market. Diana's sister Sarah was involved with Prince Charles no less, maintaining a nine month relationship with him. It was during this period of her sister's romance that Diana herself first came into contact with Prince Charles, meeting him in the middle of a field near Nobottle Wood on the Althorp Estate during a shoot in November 1977. Nothing came of this, and nothing came of Sarah's royal marriage hopes either, following a magazine interview which was judged as indiscreet by Charles. Diana thought no more of Charles as she lived through a turbulent period which saw her father suffering a stroke in September 1978, leading to hospitalisation which lasted until January 1979. Then in a sudden upswing in fortune Diana entered what was the happiest time of her life. In July 1979 she moved into her own apartment at 60 Coleherne Court on the Old Brompton Road in west London, bought for her as a coming of age present. She lived here with three friends, working for various select clients as a cleaner, waitress and nanny. She also worked several afternoons a week at the Young England Kindergarten at St Saviour's Church Hall in Pimlico. Showing great aptitude for this work her hours were increased. Leisure time was spent reading, watching television, eating in bistros and playing practical jokes on friends living around London. Diana had many admirers, all public school, often military men, but all kept at arms length.


Meanwhile the Prince of Wales was over 30 and unmarried. He enjoyed his bachelor life, and left to himself he may not have married at all. But marriage was a duty. Charles saw marriage, in his own words, as "a much more important business than falling in love" (quoted Morton P109). Charles's view of marriage is one that has its roots in marriage traditions which have prevailed in powerful families since the chaotic period following the Roman Empire's collapse in the fifth century (see The Development of Marriage of Family and Marriage in Europe by Jack Goody ). In this chaos there were only two real sources of unity and leadership. Firstly there were powerful families who ran their own little kingdoms in their local area. These families used arranged marriages, often to cousins, to maintain their position. The unpredictability of young love was not allowed to muddy the waters. This tradition of arranged marriage to cousins continued in Britain's royal family right up to the marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1947. But powerful families had a rival for power in the chaos of post Roman Europe, and that was the Roman Catholic Church. Whether by accident or design the Church moved against powerful families by challenging their marriage traditions. Marriage of cousins was made sinful, and the idea of marrying for love became increasingly fashionable. In this way unpredictable young love would be allowed to have its way, and who knows where that might lead. The tension between marriage traditions favoured by the Church and by powerful families was dramatised in the late sixteenth century by William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. This is a play in which the idea of Juliet's sensible arranged marriage to Count Paris collides with Juliet's exuberant, and highly unwise plan of marrying Romeo. Romeo and Juliet are members of rival families, and their marriage is damaging to both. The naive Friar thinks the match will bring peace between warring factions. What it actually brings is two dead youngsters. Shakespeare celebrated love with lots of great poetry, but also pointed out how unpredictable and hazardous young love can be. The story of Charles and Diana presents the same battle, with Diana, a great fan of Barbara Cartland romantic novels, meeting Charles who thought that marriage was too important to allow love to confuse things.


St Paul's Cathedral, where Charles and Diana married on 29th July 1981


The meeting that really started Diana's royal romance took place in the summer of 1980 at the home of Robert de Pass in Petworth, Sussex. De Pass was a friend of Charles, and his son invited Diana to a party because he thought she would be amusing company for Charles. Diana, who always seemed drawn to emotional pain, was sympathetic when Charles talked of his distress following the murder of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten by the IRA. Charles seemed overwhelmed by Diana's thoughtful reaction and immediately turned his attentions on her, much to Diana's initial confusion. Invitations followed to join Charles at the opera, on the Royal Yacht Britannia, and then on the royal family's Scottish retreat at Balmoral. The press were soon besieging Diana's flat at 60 Coleherne Court. On 3rd February 1981 Charles rang from Klosters in Switzerland and indicated that he was going to ask Diana a question when he returned. He asked the question in the nursery at Windsor Castle on the evening of 6th February. Diana said yes, and went home to Coleherne Court to tell her excited friends all about it. But within days of this thrilling event Diana was coming up against the hard headed reality of royal marriage. Charles, or so it seemed to Diana, had no intention of giving up his relationship with long time girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles - great granddaughter of Alice Keppel, a mistress of Edward VII. Charles had been involved with Camilla for a long time, and might have married her. Due to a combination of dithering, and advice that she was not right as a royal consort, he had not done so. But cutting his ties with her completely seemed impossible. Whatever the truth of Charles's continued relationship with Camilla - and it seems likely that it was not nearly as extensive as Diana imagined, it clear that Diana believed it was continuing. Even before the wedding Diana seemed to know that she was in for trouble, and talked to her sisters of calling the whole thing off. Living at Clarence House the eating disorder bulimia had already set in. But by now a massive public expectation had built up. Diana was advised that her face was on the tea towels and she couldn't back out. So, after a long summer of waiting, at Clarence House, and Buckingham Palace, the wedding took place at St Paul's Cathedral on 29th July 1981. According to the BBC the global audience was around 750 million, making this the most popular television broadcast in history.



Kensington Palace

The image of the wedding was one of romance. Indeed the wedding of Charles and Diana could probably be seen as the definitive symbol of romantic love. A kindergarten teacher marries her prince in a fairy tale wedding. The fact that this kindergarten teacher was a daughter of one of Britain's noble families was played down. In this way the idea of marriage for love was triumphant - how could a prince be making a dynastic wedding when he is marrying a kindergarten teacher? But of course this image was colliding with the old idea that in powerful families marriage was not a matter of love, but of convenience. Charles did not marry for love. He himself said that love would not be his main motivation in finding a wife. Charles married Diana as a show wife, seemingly a woman of the people, someone who could give the stuffy old Windsors an up to date image. With someone like Diana this wasn't going to work. Problems were assured, and duly followed. Diana has said that the marriage really ended in 1984 with the birth of her second son Harry. They stopped sharing the same sleeping quarters during an official tour of Portugal in 1987. Diana then made her own life, living in Kensington Palace, and working to support health care organisations, particularly those associated with AIDS and leprosy. Mutual antipathy between the Prince and Princess reached a new peak in June 1991, when their eldest son William suffered a head injury while playing with a golf club. There were risks in the operation to treat a compressed fracture that followed, but Charles went off to the opera as planned, while Diana stayed at the hospital. Did Charles continue to do his duty in difficult circumstances that night, or did he neglect his duty to his son? Jonathan Dimbleby presents a very different picture to Morton - Dimbleby describes doctors reassuring the prince that his son was in no danger, and the procedure he needed was entirely routine (see The Prince of Wales, A Biography P738) . But the press chose to present Chillers as a negligent father. When there was a negative media reaction to Charles's decision to carry on with his engagements, Morton reports that Diana felt blamed for making a fuss about the head injury, making it seem worse than it was. Angry and completely disillusioned, Diana began to secretly communicate with Andrew Morton about a book describing the difficulties of her life. Serialisation of Diana Her True Story began in The Sunday Times on 7th June 1992. Formal separation was announced the following day. A summer of public and private acrimony followed. Charles's biographer Penny Junor described Diana as "irrational, unreasonable and hysterical" (quoted Morton P219). The struggle ebbed and flowed. In August 1992 tapes of intimate telephone conversations between Diana and James Gilby were made public. In January 1993 it was Charles's turn, when an embarrassing telephone conversation between himself and Camilla Parker Bowles was made public. At this stage it wasn't really clear who was winning. Was it the steady Prince, bravely battling on with a stiff upper lip and sense of duty, or was it emotional Diana, whose caring nature and romantic outlook seemed to make the Windsors look out of touch? At the time I would suggest it wasn't all that clear. The media's excitement at the battle skewed a complicated story into black and white. You were either on Diana's side or Charles's. Jonathan Dimbleby's biography of Charles appeared in 1995 and he was immediately recruited for the Charles camp. In reality Dimbleby's book was a thoughtful piece which did not shy away from "candour about the prince's personality nor from criticism of his attitudes and actions" (Preface to The Prince of Wales, a Biography). But this was a battle for public consumption, which meant that nuance was not really allowed.

One thing that did come out of this long battle was the fact that the marriage was unworkable in any form. The decree absolute ending the twentieth century's most famous marriage came on 28th August 1996. Things then seemed to start looking up for Diana. Tony Blair, the new Labour prime minister elected in May 1997, thought that Diana had great potential. Soon after coming to office Blair discussed an ambassadorial role with her, where her empathetic skills would be put to work on humanitarian missions overseas. This quickly led to trips designed to publicise the dangers of land mines in war zones around the world. This new ambassadorial role, however, did not stop Diana brooding over Charles and her personal loneliness. Astrologers were consulted to try and help her see a better future. In July 1997 Prince Charles announced that he would be hosting Camilla's 50th birthday party at his Highgrove home. This upset Diana, and deciding she needed to get away, she accepted an invitation to stay at a villa belonging to Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed in St Tropez. The weather was lovely, the surroundings beautiful. The holiday makers swam, jet skied, and sunbathed. Four days into the holiday she met al-Fayed's son, Emad, known as Dodi, a 41 year old playboy, and Hollywood film producer. Even though Dodi already had a holiday companion, the Californian model Kelly Fisher, Diana and Dodi seemed to fall in love almost immediately. It seemed like a wonderful love affair, even if in the background Mohammed al-Fayed must have been calculating the value of a marriage between his son and one of the most famous recent members of the British royal family. Al-Fayed, might have been fabulously rich, but he was not accepted by the British establishment, and a marriage to Diana would have great dynastic value for him and his family. Romantic idealistic Diana met the charming man of her dreams on a heavenly summer holiday. But tougher considerations were still there, as they always had been. With their relationship quickly developing Diana and Dodi continued their holiday with a cruise off Portofino. Diana talking with friends back home said that suddenly her life was bliss. No matter what happened it is very doubtful this bliss would have lasted, but it all came to an end in the most brutal of ways. Returning to London from their holiday, Dodi and Diana decided to spend a few nights in Paris. They stayed at the Paris Ritz, and then planned to visit Dodi's home on the Champs Elysee. The couple left the Ritz in the early hours of 31st August, in a car driven by al-Fayed's chauffeur Henri Paul, a man who was later found to have three times the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream. Pursued by press photographers Paul drove at nearly a hundred miles an hour into the Place de L'Alma underpass where the speed limit is 30 miles an hour. The car crashed into a pillar, killing Henri Paul and Dodi instantly. The bodyguard, the only passenger wearing a seat belt, survived, waking up from a coma two weeks later. Diana survived unconscious for about twenty minutes before dying of her injuries.




Diana Memorial Fountain, Hyde Park

Then came dramatic confirmation of who had won the image battle over the previous few years. The outpouring of emotion at Diana's death was incredible. Mountains of flowers were left outside her home at Kensington Palace. And when the royal family, then at Balmoral, did not come immediately to London, there was much anger and resentment. There was also anger that the flag over Buckingham Palace was not flown at half mast, because tradition did not require this. Such was the outcry that the Buckingham Palace flag soon dropped. There was much talk of Charles being unfit for the throne, and the possibility of skipping a generation to make his son William heir. The story of Charles and Diana is a modern Romeo and Juliet, in that the idea of romantic love collided with the hard headed dynastic view of marriage. Diana's view won. Andrew Morton's book was a world wide best seller. Dimbleby's book, which in many ways gives a much more rounded picture of Charles, didn't even come close. According to The Independent, Andrew Morton's book was on the best seller list for 58 weeks, and in its two editions was the best selling book of the 1990s (The Independent online edition Saturday 26th September 1998). Diana won the battle with her husband, and her romantic values are the ones that have won through in western culture. Things are different in other cultures. Asian societies still use arranged marriages. But in the West an ideal which the Church came up with in the dark days after the Roman collapse, is the ideal which people looked for in the life Diana Spencer, a kindergarten teacher who married a prince.