Editor’s Note — Don’t miss CNN’s six-part documentary series “Diana” on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
In 1995, two years before Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris, she said in a TV interview that she’d like to be a queen. But she wasn’t talking about the British monarchy into which she’d married. She wanted to be a queen of people’s hearts.
In the 24 years since her death on August 31, 1997, it’s become clear how well she fulfilled that hope. Every August, tributes pour in to celebrate her life and legacy – one that valued authenticity over protocol, and humanity over prestige.
She used her celebrity to raise awareness for a number of causes, from leprosy to domestic violence to mental health. She made headlines in 1987 when she intentionally shook hands with an AIDS patient, working to dispel the myth that HIV/AIDS could be spread through touch. And in the months before she died, she took her media spotlight and placed it squarely on the dangers of landmines in Angola.
She was, in the words of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, “the people’s princess.”
‘People felt a kinship with her’
When Blair used that phrase in a speech following Diana’s death, he was searching for words to help a nation grieve a shockingly sudden loss.
The Princess of Wales had finalized her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996, but intense media scrutiny still trailed her as she went on vacation the following summer with boyfriend Dodi Fayed. Just after midnight on August 31, a Mercedes carrying Diana and Fayed crashed in a tunnel not far from Paris’ Eiffel Tower. The accident killed Diana, Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul.
The news reached the royal family while they were away in Scotland at Balmoral Castle. Within hours, Charles flew to Paris to retrieve Diana’s body before returning to Balmoral to be with his and Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
“The immediate reaction of the royal family was to say, ‘We must hunker down and protect the children; there will be formalities that will followed but that’s what we do,” says author Jonathan Dimbleby in CNN’s Original Series on the royal family, “The Windsors.”
“Charles’ priority was those boys. He was desperately worried about them,” adds biographer Penny Junor.
At 15 and 12 years old, William and Harry “were at a very tender, difficult sort of age … this was the most shocking and terrible and ghastly thing to happen.”
As TV broadcasts began to report on the deadly accident, the royal family released a short statement that they were “deeply shocked and distressed” by the news.
But “to this grieving population, it seemed like nothing,” recalls historian Kate Williams in “The Windsors.”
As the hours ticked by, with notoriously reserved Brits in open mourning, all eyes were on Buckingham Palace to make a larger gesture or statement – to make a connection, in the way Diana had always been able to do.
“People felt so emotional about Diana because she had an extraordinary connection with everybody,” says Anji Hunter, Blair’s former adviser, in the CNN series. “People felt a kinship with her; it was like your own beloved friend, mother, sister had died.”
And from the public’s perspective, the Queen and her Firm were being far too silent.
“I think the public were waiting for the Queen to lead the morning,” says Junor. “And she didn’t.”
Capturing a country’s grief
Into this growing criticism stepped Prime Minister Blair, himself just four months into the job. In his autobiography, he recalls being well aware of the grief and anger that were beginning to radiate from the public.
The Palace’s response “was all very by the book but it took no account of the fact that people couldn’t give a damn about the book,” he wrote, according to the BBC. Blair said his role was “to protect the monarchy, channel the anger before it became rage, and generally have the whole business emerge in a positive and unifying way rather than be a source of tension, division and bitterness.”
Blair jotted down notes for his now famous address on the back of an envelope, with guidance from his communications lead Alastair Campbell.
Once Blair reached the microphone, he shared the emotion the public was searching for. “I feel like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated,” he said of Diana’s death. “She was a wonderful, and a warm, human being. Though her own life was often sadly touched by tragedy, she touched the lives of so many others, in Britain (and) throughout the world, with joy and with comfort … She was the people’s princess, and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories, forever.”
Reflecting on the phrase “the people’s princess” in his book, Blair said it “seems like something from another age, corny and over the top.”
Yet it is hard to argue with how well it captured Diana’s legacy, particularly in that moment, journalist Richard Kay says in “The Windsors.”
“He coined this wonderful phrase about the people’s princess and it struck a chord,” says Kay. “It seemed to sum up the feelings of a country in a paralysis of grief and shock in a way that the Queen did not do.”
The Queen responds
Ahead of Diana’s funeral, Queen Elizabeth II did respond to a public demanding that the royal family somehow show that they cared.
On live TV, she addressed her subjects as a “Queen and as a grandmother,” remarking on Diana as an “exceptional and gifted human being.” And at the funeral, the Queen took an additional step to pay tribute.
“The Queen bows to nobody – ever,” says historian Jane Ridley in the CNN series. And yet, as the funeral procession rode past Buckingham Palace, the Queen was seen out front, “making a bow to her daughter-in-law.”