(L to R) Former husband of Diana Prince Charles, their son Harry, her brother Earl Spencer, her other son William and the Duke of Edinburgh follow the coffin of the Princess of Wales as it enters into Westminster Abbey in London for the funeral ceremony 06 September.
 / AFP PHOTO / AFP/WPA POOL / JOEL ROBINE        (Photo credit should read JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: JOEL ROBINE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
(L to R) Former husband of Diana Prince Charles, their son Harry, her brother Earl Spencer, her other son William and the Duke of Edinburgh follow the coffin of the Princess of Wales as it enters into Westminster Abbey in London for the funeral ceremony 06 September. / AFP PHOTO / AFP/WPA POOL / JOEL ROBINE (Photo credit should read JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Kate Williams: The royals made a grave mistake in initial handling of Diana's death

It has taken nearly two decades for royal family to regain public support, she says

Editor’s Note: Kate Williams is a professor of history at the University of Reading, the author of “Young Elizabeth” and a CNN royal commentator and contributor. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN) —  

In the early hours of August 31, 1997, the media began reporting that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been injured in a car crash in the Pont l’Alma tunnel in Paris. By 4:45 am, news channels were citing sources who claimed Diana had died.

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PHOTO: AFP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) Princess Diana (L), Prince Harry, (C) and Prince William (R) gather for the commemorations of VJ Day, 19 August 1995, in London. Prince William turned 25 Thursday 21 June 2007, and in doing so became entitled to part of the multi-million pound (euro, dollar) inheritance left to him by his late mother, princess Diana. The second in line to the throne is now allowed access to the income accrued on the 6.5 million pounds he was left in his mother's will after she died 10 years ago in a car crash in Paris. AFP PHOTO/JOHNNY EGGITT/FILES (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)
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PHOTO: WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 30: (L-R) , Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry are seen during a visit to The Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace on August 30, 2017 in London, England. The garden has been transformed into a White Garden dedicated in the memory of Princess Diana, mother of The Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth- WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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Members of Britain’s royal family were on their annual summer break at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. They issued a statement at 5:25: “The Queen and Prince Philip are deeply shocked and distressed by this terrible news. Other members of the royal family are being informed of the Princess’s death.”

They thought this would be enough.

But the royals made a grave error in how they reacted to the news of Diana’s death – one that lost them public respect at the time and has taken nearly two decades to regain.

As the news spread, a wave of grief swept across the world, taking everyone by surprise – most of all the royals. Politicians