1961-1997

Who Was Princess Diana?

Diana, Princess of Wales, was the first wife of Prince Charles, the future king of the United Kingdom, and was the mother of Prince William and Prince Harry. Born Diana Frances Spencer, she became Lady Diana Spencer after her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer in 1975. She married Charles on July 29, 1981, and after a largely unhappy union under constant scrutiny from the media, they 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.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Diana Frances Spencer
BORN: July 1, 1961
DIED: August 31, 1997
BIRTHPLACE: Sandringham, England, United Kingdom
SPOUSE: King Charles III (1981-1996)
CHILDREN: Prince William and Prince Harry
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Cancer

Early Life and Family

a black and white photo of lady diana spencer as a child, wearing a dark coat and smiling at the camera

A young Lady Diana Spencer in 1965
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Diana was born on July 1, 1961, near Sandringham, England. Diana was the daughter of Edward John Spencer, the Viscount Althorp, and Frances Ruth Burke Roche, who was later known as the Honorable Frances Shand Kydd. Diana had two older sisters, Jane Fellowes and Sarah McCorquodale, and a younger brother, Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer. Another brother, John, died in infancy a year before Diana was born. Her grandmothers Cynthia Spencer and Ruth Roche were both ladies-in-waiting to Queen Mother Elizabeth.

When Diana was young, her parents divorced. There had been great strain on their marriage due to the pressure to produce a male heir prior to Charles’ birth, with Diana’s mother being sent to clinics to determine why she had not yet delivered a boy. Charles later said he believed this strain was “the root of their divorce,” according to Andrew Morton’s book Diana: Her True Story. Diana’s father won custody of the children following the divorce. He later married Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, with whom Diana had a poor relationship. Diana described her childhood as “very unhappy” and “very unstable,” according to Morton.

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.

Relationship With Prince Charles

lady diana spencer, wearing a blue dress, and prince charles, wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and blue spotted tie, smiling while standing outside

Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles following the announcement of their engagement on the grounds of Buckingham Palace on February 24, 1981, in London.
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Diana met Prince Charles in 1977, when he was dating her older sister Sarah. Although 13 years her senior, Charles first took interest in her as a potential bride when they reconnected at a mutual friend’s home during the summer of 1980. 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. Diana met Charles’ family during a visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland and was well received by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, according to the Tina Brown book The Diana Chronicles.

Charles and Diana had been dating for just a few months when he proposed in Windsor Castle on February 3, 1981. She was so surprised that she initially thought it was a joke, according to Morton. On February 6, 1981, Prince Charles proposed to Diana with an 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 Prince Albert had created in 1840 as a wedding present for Queen Victoria. The ring reportedly cost Charles £28,000 at the time (about $35,000).

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Charles and Diana made headlines during a television interview following their engagement when Charles was asked if they were in love. Diane responded, “Of course,” while Charles added, “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” adding that the phrase “in love” is open to “your own interpretation.”

Princess Diane and Prince Charles’ Royal Wedding

princess diana wearing a white wedding dress, and prince charles wearing a military uniform, sitting in a gold and red open carriage and smiling

Princess Diana and Prince Charles ride in an open carriage from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Buckingham Palace following their wedding on July 29, 1981, in London.
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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 a 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. Diana broke tradition during the wedding by omitting the word “obey” from her vows when she promised to “love him, comfort him, honor him, and keep him, in sickness and in health.” The omission generated some attention and criticism from the media at the time.

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, serving as a strong supporter of many charities and worked to help the homeless, people living with HIV and AIDS and children in need.

Sons

princess diana, wearing a black coat, smiles and sits next to the smiling young prince william and prince harry, both of whom are wearing winter coats

Prince William, Princess Diana, and Prince Harry visit Lech, Austria, in March 1993.
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Diana and Charles had two sons together: Prince William Arthur Philip Louis, born on June 21, 1982, and Prince Henry Charles Albert David—known widely as Prince Harry—born on September 15, 1984. In January 1982, 12 weeks into her pregnancy with William, Diana deliberately threw herself down the stairs at the Sandringham House royal residence in Norfolk, because she was feeling so despondent and inadequate in her marriage to Charles, according to Morton. The baby, however, was unharmed.

Diana experienced postpartum depression after her pregnancy with William and found the intense media attention surrounding her pregnancy difficult to bear. In 1983, when William was 9 months old, Diana could not bear to part with him during a planned six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand, so she broke royal tradition and brought the baby along with her, according to the book William by Tim Graham and Peter Archer. Although the decision drew some criticism, the appearance of Diana and the baby on the tour was largely applauded by the public, according to the book.

Diana said her relationship was Charles was “the closest we’ve ever, ever been” during her pregnancy with Harry, according to Morton’s book. Charles had hoped their second child would be a girl, and when Diana learned it would be a boy, she kept it from Charles so as to run their newly-found closeness. When Harry was born, Charles’ first words were, “Oh God, it’s a boy,” and Diana was so hurt that said it was the moment she knew their marriage had “gone down the drain,” according to Morton.

Divorce from Prince Charles

princess diana, wearing a white pantsuit and blue hat, standing next to prince charles, wearing a black suit and blue tie, both unsmiling, with several people in suits behind them

Princess Diana and Prince Charles pictured on November 2, 1992
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Diana and Charles became estranged over the years, and Diana struggled with depression and bulimia. During their union, there were reports of infidelities from both parties. Most notably, Diana was said to have been in a relationship with Mayor James Hewitt from 1986 to 1991, while Charles resumed his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and future wife Queen Camilla. By the early 1990s, Diana and Charles were so visibly unhappy together that the media dubbed them “The Glums.”

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. During an infamous 1995 interview with the BBC program Panorama, Diana questioned whether Charles could handle becoming king one day and said of his relationship with Camilla: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” The interview proved to be the final straw, and shortly afterward, Queen Elizabeth urged Diana and Charles to officially end their marriage.

Their divorce was finalized in August 1996. Diana was allowed to keep her apartment at Kensington Palace, as well as other apartments she could use with permission in advance, according to The New York Times. She was provided access to jets used by the royal family. Charles ceased to pay her bills after the divorce, significantly altering her lifestyle and financial control. Although she retained her title as Princess of Wales, Diana was stripped of the title Her Royal Highness, without which she was forced to curtsy to all her former family members, including her ex-husband and children. Queen Elizabeth II was reportedly willing to let her keep the title, but Charles adamantly insisted she lose it. Additionally, Diana gave up any claim to the British throne.

Post-Divorce Life

several people in beaching clothes sitting in the back of a boat, wearing sunglasses

Princess Diana and Prince William vacation in Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1997
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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. She also continued her royal duties and was offered continued security by Royalty Protection officers, though she refused such protection except when she travelled with her sons.

Diana had several romantic relationships after her divorce. She dated the British-Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan—who has been described as the “love of her life”—from 1995 to 1997, and started dating the Egyptian film producer and playboy Dodi Fayed in 1997. It was reported that some members of the royal family and former Prime Minister Tony Blair did not approve of the relationship between Diana and Fayed.

Death

While visiting Paris, Diana and Fayed were involved in a car crash early in the morning of August 31, 1997, reportedly after trying to escape from members of the paparazzi. Fayed and the driver were pronounced dead at the scene. Diana initially survived the crash but died from her injuries at a Paris hospital a few hours later. She was 36 years old.

a collection of newspapers with headlines about the death of princess diana

Newspaper headlines announce the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997.
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News of her sudden, senseless death shocked the world and sparked a global outpouring of public grief. 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.

Funeral, Gravesite, and Legacy

the interior of westminster abby, with several people in formal attire carrying a coffin adjourned with flowers, while many other spectators watch

The funeral of Princess Diana at Westminster Abbey in September 1997
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On the morning of September 6, 1997, Diana’s funeral procession commenced from Kensington Palace with 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, who rewrote the lyrics to his song “Candle in the Wind” in her honor. Diana’s body was laid to rest at a gravesite on a small island at her family’s estate, Althorp.

To continue 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. The fund is no longer actively fundraising, but any new donations are split between the charitable endeavors of Prince William of Wales and Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex. 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.

Both William and Harry have honored Diana through their daughters’ names. Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana was born on May 2, 2015, to William and his wife, Princess Kate. Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, welcomed their daughter Princess Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor on June 6, 2021.

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Portrayals in Pop Culture

Diana has been portrayed by a large number of actors in film, television, and other works of media. Among them were Serena Scott Thomas in Diana: Her True Story (1993), Genevieve O’Reilly in Diana: Last Days of a Princess (2007), Naomi Watts in Diana (2013), and Kristin Stewart in Spencer (2021). Stewart received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for portraying Diana in the film.

emma corrin, playing princess diana, sits inside the backseat of a car, she is wearing a long sleeve navy jacket and plaid long skirt with a pink small purse

Emma Corrin plays Princess Diana in a season 4 episode of The Crown.
Des Willie//Netflix

In the Netflix series The Crown, Diana has been portrayed in different seasons by Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki. Corrin was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for the role and won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series (Drama). Debicki also received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for her performance.

Quotes

  • They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?
  • Helping people in need is a good and essential part of my life, a kind of destiny.
  • Everyone needs to be valued. Everyone has the potential to give something back.
  • I’d like people to think of me as someone who cares about them.
  • [A] voice said to me inside: ‘You won’t be Queen, but you’ll have a tough role.’
  • The higher the media put you, place you, is the bigger the drop.
  • Here was a fairy story that everybody wanted to work.
  • When people are dying, they’re much more open and more vulnerable and much more real than other people.
  • I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts, in people’s hearts, but I don’t see myself being queen of this country. I don’t think many people will want me to be queen.
  • Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.
  • If you find someone you love in life, you must hang on to it and look after it.
  • You know, people think that at the end of the day a man is the only answer. Actually, a fulfilling job is better for me.
  • I am a free spirit—unfortunately for some.
  • I think the biggest disease this world suffers from, in this day and age, is the disease of people feeling unloved, and I know that I can give love for a minute, for half an hour, for a day, for a month, but I can give—I’m very happy to do that, and I want to do that.

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