Who Was Princess Diana?
Princess Diana became Lady Diana Spencer after her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer in 1975. She married the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, on July 29, 1981. They had two sons and later divorced in 1996. Diana died on August 31, 1997, from injuries she sustained in a car crash in Paris. She is remembered as the "People's Princess" because of her widespread popularity and global humanitarian efforts.
Early Life and Family
British royalty Diana Spencer was born on July 1, 1961, near Sandringham, England. Diana was the daughter of Edward John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, and Frances Ruth Burke Roche, Viscountess Althorp (later known as the Honorable Frances Shand Kydd). Her parents divorced when Diana was young, and her father won custody of the children.
Diana had two older sisters, Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale, and a younger brother, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer.
Following her initial education at home, Diana attended Riddlesworth Hall School and then West Heath School. Although she was known for her shyness while growing up, she showed an interest in music and dancing. She became Lady Diana Spencer after her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer in 1975.
Diana had a great fondness for children. After attending finishing school at Institut Alpin Videmanette in Switzerland, she moved to London. She began working with children, eventually becoming an assistant at Young England Kindergarten.
Courtship With Prince Charles
Diana began dating Prince Charles, heir to the British throne who was 13 years her senior, in 1977. The couple first met when Diana was a child and reportedly played with Charles’s younger siblings, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, while her family rented Park House, an estate owned by Queen Elizabeth II.
Charles was usually the subject of media attention, and his courtship of Diana was no exception. The press and the public were fascinated by this seemingly odd couple—the reserved, garden-loving prince and the shy young woman with an interest in fashion and popular culture.
On February 6, 1981, Prince Charles proposed to Diana with a 18-karat white gold ring topped with a 12-carat oval Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds. It was made by the crown jeweler Garrard and reportedly inspired by a brooch created in 1840 for Prince Albert as a wedding present for Queen Victoria. The ring reportedly cost Charles £28,000 at the time (about $35,000).
After Diana's death, her son Prince William proposed with the ring to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.
Wedding to Prince Charles
Diana Spencer became Diana, Princess of Wales, when she married Charles on July 29, 1981. Their wedding took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the presence of 2,650 guests. The couple arrived separately and departed together by carriage ride through the streets of London.
Diana wore a taffeta wedding dress made with silk and antique lace and 10,000 pearls, created by husband-and-wife design team David and Elizabeth Emanuel. She donned an 18th-century Spencer family tiara with a 25-foot veil. Her ensemble barely fit in the carriage, and it took Diana 3 and a half minutes to walk down the aisle.
The royal wedding ceremony was broadcast on television around the world; nearly one billion people from 74 countries tuned in to see what many considered to be the wedding of the century.
Divorce from Prince Charles
Diana’s separation from Charles was announced in December 1992 by British Prime Minister John Major, who read a statement from the royal family to the House of Commons. Their divorce was finalized in August 1996.
The couple became estranged over the years, and Diana struggled with depression and bulimia. During their union, there were reports of infidelities from both parties. According to The Diana Chronicles, a book by Tina Brown, Diana had fallen head over heels for Hasnat Khan, a Pakistani heart surgeon whom she met in 1995.
Queen Elizabeth II urged Diana and Charles to officially end their marriage. Diana retained her title of “Princess of Wales” and her apartments at Kensington Palace, but she agreed gave up the title “Her Royal Highness” and any claim to the British throne.
After the couple’s fairy tale wedding, Diana felt overwhelmed by her royal duties and the intense media coverage of nearly every aspect of her life. She began to develop and pursue her own interests. She served as a strong supporter of many charities and worked to help the homeless, people living with HIV and AIDS and children in need.
Following her divorce, Diana devoted herself to her sons and charitable efforts, including raising awareness about the dangers of leftover landmines in war-torn Angola. She maintained a high level of popularity with the public.
Relationship with Dodi Fayed
Diana whipped the British tabloids into a frenzy when she began dating Egyptian film producer and playboy Dodi Fayed in 1997. Fayed invited Diana and her family on his yacht in the south of France.
The couple reportedly met at a 1986 polo match when Fayed and Charles played on opposing teams. They reconnected and openly dated over the summer of 1997, spending time together in Sardinia, the south of France and Paris.
Their courtship was widely covered in the tabloids. It was reported that some members of the royal family and former Prime Minister Tony Blair did not approve of their relationship. Diana’s butler and confidant Paul Burrell told the BBC that Fayed was “a rebound” from her relationship with Hasnat Khan.
While visiting Paris, Diana and Dodi Fayed were involved in a car crash after trying to escape from the paparazzi early in the morning of August 31, 1997. Fayed and the driver were pronounced dead at the scene. Diana initially survived the crash but succumbed to her injuries at a Paris hospital a few hours later. She was 36 years old.
News of her sudden, senseless death shocked the world. Queen Elizabeth II, who was criticized for not immediately responding publicly to Diana’s death, made a televised address from Buckingham Palace on September 5, in which she said: “No one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her. I, for one, believe there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death. I share in your determination to cherish her memory.”
Following an investigation into Diana’s fatal car accident, a report released in 1999 determined that the driver was at fault for driving at a high speed while under the influence of alcohol and antidepressant drugs. Charges were dropped against several photographers who were initially blamed for causing the crash.
Despite the report, rumors persisted for years about alternative reasons for the accident. One conspiracy theory held that it was part of an assassination arranged by the royal family, although no additional evidence emerged to support that theory.
Funeral and Gravesite
On the morning of September 6, Diana's funeral procession commenced from Kensington Palace, her coffin resting on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses. Thousands of mourners packed the street to watch, with 15-year-old William and 12-year-old Harry joining the final stretch of the four-mile procession for their mother.
An estimated 2.5 billion people tuned in on television to watch the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, which featured a powerful eulogy from Diana's brother, Earl Charles Spencer, and a performance from Elton John.
Diana’s body was laid to rest at a gravesite on a small island at her family's estate, Althorp.
Memorials and Charities
In 2007, just before the 10th anniversary of her death, William and Harry honored their beloved mother with a special concert that took place on what would have been her 46th birthday. The proceeds of the event went to charities supported by Diana and her sons.
William and his wife Kate Middleton also remembered Diana when naming their second child, Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, who was born on May 2, 2015.
Continuing her charitable efforts, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund was founded after her death to provide resources for palliative care, penal reform, asylum and other issues. In 2013, the fund was incorporated into The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
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