Just her name brings back memories of a different time; for Europeans, for Americans, and we can assume for her sons, too. Princess Diana. She was a truly unique lady who married into a House that built itself on tradition and staying the course. However, Diana was not a ‘let it lie’ kind of girl. No, not at all. In fact, she admitted to having a confrontation with her husband’s mistress because she couldn’t just accept what was. She was the same way when she dealt with unfairness in the world. Children dying from landmines? She had to do something. A taboo about people infected with AIDS? Let them photograph her embracing those people.
Diana did a lot of things that broke the mold. And, despite her picture-perfect persona, she was a woman made of many contradictions. She was broken, lonely, and terribly self-conscious for a time. Diana was a princess and a woman who purged her pain alone in bathrooms. She railed against her husband for his infidelities but had a string of her own. This tragic figure was a loving, dedicated mother but those same infidelities and self-destructive behaviors inevitably hurt and confused her children. When she couldn’t put herself back together, she did what she could to heal the fissures in others.
For all the struggles Diana had, for all the mistakes she did or did not make, one thing is indisputable. She made room for a new version of princess, something divergent from the obedient helpmates from before. She made way for Catherine and Meghan, her sons’ wives and equals.
When Prince Harry was three and his older brother five, the third in line for the throne underwent hernia surgery. Diana stayed in the hospital with him for a night, then took him home. During his recovery, she stayed beside his bed on a mattress on the floor. While this seems like something any mama would do, Diana could have easily relied on a hired hand to care for her boy. After all, the boys’ father was vacationing in Italy at the time. He communicated about his son’s condition over the phone. During the hospital stay, Diana cancelled her public engagements.
In her book, comedienne Cleo Rocos said, “On we inched, through the leather throngs and thongs, until finally we reached the bar. We were nudging each other like naughty schoolchildren. Diana and Freddie were giggling, but she did order a white wine and a beer. Once the transaction was completed, we looked at one another, united in our triumphant quest. We did it!” What it boils down to is this- Freddy Mercury, Rocos, and Kenny Everrett dressed Diana up as a boy. They thought she looked like a male model. Then, they went and drank after pregaming at the house. Diana drank peach bellinis and white wine, which probably contributed to her going along with the plan.
While it’s true that the royals didn’t attend formalized schools until Prince Charles, all royals are given an in-depth education. Experts were brought in to educate Queen Elizabeth II in home. Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince Harry attended university (which is where William and Kate famously met). Even American Meghan Markle graduated from college. However, Diana failed her exams twice and didn’t make the grade to receive the equivalent of her high school diploma. She wasn’t an academic, but she was an accomplished athlete and musician. Later, the same would be said about Prince Harry, and claims would be made that Eton officials helped him fudge his way into graduation.
Diana’s now renown sapphire engagement ring was considered less than ideal by many tabloids at the time Charles gave it to her. Most royal jewelry is custom made by the crown’s official jeweler. Diana’s ring, however, wasn’t a tailored thing. Instead, Charles had Diana shown a selection of rings, and she chose the sapphire surrounded by diamonds. The papers at the time turned up their noses at her selection, some even calling it a “commoner’s ring.” Diana was not a commoner but a member of the peerage with the title ‘Lady’ since her father had the title of ‘Earl.’ However, when the ring was resized to fit the future Duchess of Cambridge’s finger, it would find a resting place on a commoner’s hand. Ironic.
Unlike many royals interred in prestigious churches, Diana was laid to rest on her family’s estate in Althorp, on a private island with extremely limited access. The island sits on a lake, and claims have been made that the entire burial site was rather neglected. The lake had algae, and some thought the grounds near her interment were overgrown. Recently, the entire site has been renovated. She was buried so remotely because her brother, also named Charles, feared that her body wouldn’t be safe in a public place. The uproar over Diana’s early death was unprecedented, and her brother wanted a place where Diana’s remains wouldn’t be hounded by crowds as she was in life and where her sons could mourn her privately.
Diana was godmother to seventeen children, but only one was kept secretly close at hand. Her friend, Rosa, suffered a premature birth with her second daughter and lost the baby. Diana was the one who encouraged Rosa to name the little girl and then offered her private garden at the palace as a site to lay the baby to rest. Only three people and a Catholic priest attended the ceremony, both as a means to keep the location private and because Diana had been advised against allowing this.
Later, Diana purchased an urn to mark the site, to which Rosa and her husband had a key so they could mourn whenever they felt the need. The urn was removed with Diana’s estate after her death, although the butlers that dug the grave took pictures first so that Rosa and her husband wouldn’t forget the location. Despite new royals taking over the garden, the baby’s peace has remained intact even during renovations. They were informed and quietly left that ground undisturbed.
It was the tradition before Diana became a princess and mother for the heirs to the throne to not travel on the same conveyance as the current prince. It was a way to ensure that the line of succession was secure. Diana, however, bucked against this tradition when it called for her to leave nine-month-old William behind while she and Charles traveled to Australia. Diana wouldn’t take no for an answer when it was suggested she leave the baby with nannies. Not only that, Diana was insistent that her baby travel in the same plane as her. This surprised many royal insiders, since Diana has been a shy presence in both the palace and media until then.
Diana was an accomplished dancer and once dreamed of being a ballerina. She was considered too tall at 5’11” for the elite profession. That didn’t stop her from reaching out to Wayne Sleep and asking if he’d help her surprise supporters of the ballet (including Charles) with a performance. Wayne struggled a bit to choreograph for her, since he was just over five feet and she was nearly six. The performance was kept secret, but the Royal Ballet did take some photos. The performance (which was to the song Uptown Girl) happened in 1985. The photos didn’t leak until 1995.
Image: Pinterest/VANITY FAIR
After her divorce, Diana had a few romantic liaisons. However, her most serious relationship was with a man named Hasnat Khan. He wasn’t a royal, far from it in fact. Her love interest was an Afghan-Pakistani surgeon. He reveled in being normal, and alongside him Diana did, too. Together they drank Guinness and stood in line to see late night comedians. They talked about getting married, but Hasnat admitted that there was no way he could deal with the media attention. When the relationship with her ‘Mr. Wonderful’ ended, insiders said that Diana was distraught. Some even speculated that her following relationship with Dodi Fayed was nothing more than a vehicle to make Khan jealous.
Diana’s struggles with wellness are known now, but at the time she lived them there was an atmosphere of secrecy around mental health. However, Diana spoke about her depression, bulimia, and stress induced anxiety. She didn’t shy away from acknowledging these challenges, and this openness helped others accept and seek assistance for their own mental health needs. Her sons have followed in her footsteps, partnering with their spouses to be active in their ‘heads together’ campaign. This is all in an effort to make sure that access to mental health services is available to all. It was while doing outreach for this campaign that Harry admitted that he struggled a great deal after the death of his mother and eventually had to seek therapy.
Princess Diana was loaned a tiara from the Queen’s collection for her wedding to Charles, Prince of Wales. That’s not the one she wore, though. Diana chose to don a tiara from her family’s vault, the same one her two sisters wore for their own nuptials. It’s called the Spencer tiara, and it wasn’t worn at all between her death in 1997 and 2018, when it was worn by Diana’s niece on her own wedding day. Diana didn’t just wear this piece to her ceremony. After her marriage she was granted Queen Mary’s Lovers Knot to use, yet she still wore the Spencer Tiara for formal events.
Princess Diana was having none of the royal traditions around childbirth. While most royal mamas gave birth within the palace, assisted by doctors and medicated into a semiconscious state dubbed “twilight sleep,” Diana wanted to do it her way. In a hospital. Unmedicated. Standing up. Charles assisted, helping to keep her upright. It was Diana who chose the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s and took those iconic photos holding William outside the hospital, a thing which the Duchess of Cambridge has repeated with all three of her children. No matter how any of the other royal babies come into the world, whether in a hospital or at home, it will be Diana who paved the way for their mothers to decide.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the 80’s many people believed that HIV/AIDS could be transmitted through any skin to skin contact. That meant that people infected with the disease were treated very poorly, often like lepers, even children. This was despite the fact that scientists had proven it wasn’t a virus that transmitted so casually. The belief was so pervasive Insider says, “ In 1985, the Los Angeles Times conducted a poll and found that 50% of respondents favored quarantining people with AIDS.” Diana didn’t put stock in this superstition. She held a HIV positive child in 1991, and in 1987 had her photo taken shaking a patient’s hand. Why was that a big deal? She did it without gloves, teaching people all over the world not to let fear and misunderstanding stand in the way of compassion.
Although she already had provided the monarchy with ‘the heir and the spare’ (which, can we agree, is a freaking awful turn of phrase?) Diana reportedly wanted a daughter. She thought Hasnat may be able to provide her thus, but it was not to be. As this Mommyish piece pointed out, Hasnat thought that the only way the two could be together and raise a normal family would be to move to Pakistan. Diana, however, had two boys to raise. Had she lived longer and found love again, Diana may have tried to have that baby girl she admitted to longing for. We can only imagine she would have been as devoted to her as she was to her boys.
Royal weddings weren’t always the public showcases they are today. But Diana’s, hers whipped up a fervor. Her wedding was the highest watched event in British television history, a thing even her sons’ weddings could not top. One of her bridesmaid’s was Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, and the bride donned a gown with a 25 foot long train. The couple had only been together on 13 occasions before saying “I do,” but somehow they felt the weight of fairy tale expectations from all corners of the globe. Diana was incredibly young, just twenty on the day of her wedding. Within a year she would be pregnant with the heir to the throne.
Diana wasn’t the first royal woman to be cheated on, far from it (here’s looking at you King Henry VIII). She wasn’t the first to have affairs of her own, either. No, infidelities and affairs have a long and sordid history in many monarchies, and the British one isn’t excluded. However, Diana was the first person to air the Windsors’ dirty laundry. In November of 1995 the princess sat down to a tell all interview with the BBC. It was during this that she uttered the famous line, “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," referring to Charles’ ongoing romance with Camilla.
Rumors swirled that the Princess of Wales was romantically linked to Bryan Adams. In fact, a not so subtle nod to Diana came in his song by the same name. His former girlfriend even claimed, “The first time Bryan met Diana I wasn’t invited. Ours was a stormy relationship and Bryan’s affair with Diana didn’t make it easier.” Could this all be an effort of muddying the waters? Sure. Bryan has adamantly said he and the princess were just good friends. However, the line, “Diana, I’d die for you- just let me in,” is a bit dramatic for a platonic relationship.
Diana certainly did things differently when it came to treating her boys like, well, small children instead of future princes and kings. She took them to McDonalds and taught them to order hamburgers. She sent them to nursery school to sing songs and finger-paint among children who weren’t of the peerage, something that hadn’t been done before. Before marrying, Diana had been a nursery school teacher herself which could have inspired her insistence that her children have this same experience. In fact, when the boys went to Disney their mother insisted they stand in line like all the other children do. William and Kate have followed in this. William once said, “As far as we're concerned, within our family unit, we are a normal family. I love my children the same way any father does."