Princess Diana Biography

The "People's Princess"

Diana with Prince William and Prince Henry
Diana with Prince William and Prince Henry. Anwar Hussein / Getty Images

Princess Diana (as she was known) was the consort of Charles, Prince of Wales.  What seemed to millions like a fairy tale marriage turned to public scandal and then divorce, with much of the public adopting her as "The People's Princess."  She was the mother of Prince William, currently in line for the throne after his father, Diane's former husband, and of Prince Harry. She was also known for her charity work and her fashion image.

  Lady Diana Frances Spencer was also known as Lady Diana and Lady Di.  She lived from July 1, 1961 to August 31, 1997.  Her proper title during marriage was Diana, Princess of Wales, rather than Princess Diana, though the latter is how so much of the world knows her.

Princess Diana Background

Diana Spencer was born into British aristocracy, though a commoner, not royal. She was a direct descendant of Stuart King Charles II.  Her father was (Edward) John Spencer, Viscount Althorpe, later Earl Spencer. He was a personal aide to King George VI and to Queen Elizabeth II, and was a godson of Queen Mary.  Her mother was the Hon. Frances Shand-Kydd, formerly the Hon. Frances Ruth Burke Roche.

Diana's parents divorced in 1969. Her mother ran away with a wealthy heir, and father gained custody of the children. Her father later married Raine Legge, whose mother was Barbara Cartland, a romance novelist.

Diana was the third of four children. Her sister Lady Sarah Spencer married Neil McCorquodale; before she married, Sarah and Prince Charles dated.  Diana's sister Lady Jane married Robert Fellowes, an assistant secretary to Queen Elizabeth II.  Their brother, Charles Spencer, Earl Spencer, was a godson of Queen Elizabeth II.

Childhood and School

She grew up practically next door to Queen Elizabeth II and her family, at Park House, a mansion next to the Sandringham estate of the royal family. Prince Charles was 12 years older, but Prince Andrew was closer to her age and was a childhood playmate.

After Diana's parents divorced bitterly when Diana was eight, her father gained custody of the four children. Diana was educated at home until she was nine, then she was sent to Riddlesworth Hall until she was 12, and Weest Heath School (Kent) from ages 12 to 16. Diana did not get along well with her stepmother, nor did she do well in school, finding an interest in ballet and, according to some reports, Prince Charles, whose picture she had on the wall of her room at school. When Diana was 16, she met Prince Charles again. He had dated her older sister Sarah. She made some impression on him, but she was still too young for him to date.  After she dropped out of West Health School at 16, she attended a finishing school in Switzerland, Chateau d'Oex. She left after a few months.

Matched with Prince Charles

After Diana left school, she moved to London, and worked as a housekeeper, nanny, and kindergarten teacher's aide.

She lived in a house purchased by her father, and had three roommates. In 1980, Diana and Charles met again when she visited her sister, whose husband worked for the queen. They began to date, and six months later he proposed. They were married July 29, 1981, in a much-watched wedding that's been called the "wedding of the century." She was the first British citizen to marry the heir to the British throne in almost 300 years.

After the Wedding

Diana immediately began making public appearances, despite her awkwardness about being in the public eye. One of her first official visits was to the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco. Diana rather quickly became pregnant, giving birth to Prince William (William Arthur Philip Louis) on June 21, 1982, and then to Prince Harry (Henry Charles Albert David) on September 15, 1984.

Dropping in weight by thirty pounds after the birth of Prince William, she began to struggle with bulimia, but also became more popular as a fashion figure.

Early in their marriage, Diana and Charles were seen to be publicly affectionate; by 1986, their time apart and coolness when together were obvious. The 1992 publication of Andrew Morton's biography of Diana revealed the story of Charles' long affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, and alleged that Diana had made suicide attempts. By December, the couple, obviously with the consent of the Queen and consultation with government officials, agreed to a legal separation, though disclaiming plans for a divorce.

By 1996, the dueling television interviews by Charles and then Diana, revealing photographs, and continuing scandal coverage by the press, all made clear that a divorce was imminent. Diana announced her agreement to a divorce in February, surprising the Queen whom she had not informed before making the announcement.

Divorce and Life After

The divorce was final on August 28, 1996. Settlement terms reportedly included about $23 million for Diana, plus $600,000 per year. She and Charles would both be active in their sons' lives. She continued to live at Kensington Palace, and was permitted to retain the title "Princess of Wales" but not the styling of "Her Royal Highness." At her divorce, she also gave up most of the charities she'd been working with, limiting herself to only a few: working with homelessness, AIDS, leprosy, the ballet, a hospital for children, and a cancer hospital.

In 1996, Diana became involved in the campaign to ban landmines. She visited several nations in her involvement with the anti-landmine campaign, an activity more political than the norm for the British royal family.

In early 1997, Diana was linked romantically with the 42-year-old playboy "Dodi" Fayed (Emad Mohammed al-Fayed). His father, Mohammed al-Fayed, owned Harrod's department store and the Ritz Hotel in Paris, among other holdings. Both father and son had somewhat spotty ethical reputations.

Diana's Tragic Death

Late on August 30, 1997, Diana and Fayed left the Ritz Hotel in Paris, accompanied in a car by an al-Fayed family driver and Dodi's bodyguard. They were pursued by paparazzi, and crashed in a tunnel in Paris. 

Just after midnight on August 31, 1997, in Paris, the car carrying Diana and Fayed, plus a bodyguard and a driver, went out of control in a Paris tunnel and crashed. Fayed and the driver were killed instantly; Diana died later in a hospital despite efforts to save her. The bodyguard survived despite critical injuries.

The world reacted.

First came horror and shock. Then blame: at first, the entire blame seemed directed at the paparazzi, photographers who were following the princess' car, and from whom the driver was apparently trying to escape. Later tests showed the driver had been well over the legal alcohol limit, but immediate blame was on the photographers and their seemingly incessant quest to capture images of Diana that could be sold to the press.

Then came an outpouring of sorrow and grief. The Spencers, Diana's family, established a charitable fund in her name, and within a week, $150 million in donations had been contributed.

Tabloid newspapers with sensationalist headlines written about the Diana/Dodi affair just before her death were pulled from newstands by request of the publishers.

Princess Diana's funeral, on September 6, drew worldwide attention. About half the people in the world saw it on television. Millions turned out to line the path of the funeral procession.

The day before Diana's funeral, apparently influenced by criticism that her reaction was too controlled, Queen Elizabeth made a rare public statement about Diana's death. Elizabeth also ordered the British flag on Buckingham Palace to fly at half-mast, an honor reserved over a millennium only for reigning monarchs.

Why the Reaction?

Not everyone's reaction was for the same reasons, but some of the reasons were:

  • Diana had already, through the quite-public display of her marriage falling apart and her divorce, her struggles with weight and self-esteem, become cast in a role of the beautiful tragic victim. Seeing her deprived of yet another possible "happily ever after" added to this image.
  • Diana had truly touched a human chord among the British people, contrasted to the other royals of the House of Windsor who seemed stand-offish, arrogant, and cold -- and the grief was a recognition of the loss of what prime minister Blair termed "the people's princess"
  • Some guilt and shame: the same people who loved to read about Diana's latest fashions or scandals realized that perhaps their hunger for gossip and news had contributed to the mad press frenzy -- and to the mad car chase that led to her death
  • Grief for the loss of the royal family's standing: Diana's death just highlighted how far the public image of what Diana once termed "the system" had fallen, through scandals and divorces
  • Identification with Diana's quite-public struggles -- her failed marriage, her weight and self-esteem issues

Diana's Appeal

Diana, Princess of Wales, and her story in many ways paralleled much in popular culture. She was married near the beginning of the 1980s, and her fairy-tale wedding, complete with glass coach and a dress that could not quite fit into the coach, was in synch with the ostentatious wealth and spending of the 1980s.

Her struggles with bulimia and depression, shared so publicly in the press, were also typical of the 1980s self-help and self-esteem focus. That she seemed to have finally begun to transcend many of her problems made her loss seem all the more tragic.

The 1980s realization of the AIDS crisis was one in which Diana played a part. Her willingness to touch and hug AIDS sufferers, at a time when many in the public wanted to quarantine those with AIDS based on irrational and uneducated fears of easy communicability of the disease, helped change how AIDS patients were treated.

She had even become involved in a very 1990s issue, that of banning landmines, about a year before she died -- the same issue that attracted a Nobel Peace Prize that year.

Woman of Contradictions

Certainly Diana was also a woman of contradictions, and so many who mourned her were quite well aware of those contradictions.

  • Diana was born into wealth, and yet seemed to have a "common touch." She worked, after dropping out of school, as a nanny, teacher's aide, and even housekeeper -- yet her father could buy her a flat. She sometimes wore blue jeans to public appearances -- but they were Armani jeans.
  • She hated the constant presence of photographers (paparazzi) and press, yet she knew how to "play" them to her advantage.
  • She struggled with her weight, yet it was only after dropping 30 pounds after the birth of Prince William that she became so fashionable. Her bulimia and eating problems were something she struggled with; yet her thinness made her arguably more popular, while sister-in-law Sarah Ferguson's eating problems that led to weight gain made Sarah less popular, a public joke rather than fashion icon.
  • Supposedly having transcended her self-esteem problems, she'd suddenly taken up with the playboy jetsetter son of a wealthy Egyptian whose business ethics had come into such serious question that he was unable to get British citizenship.
  • Diana was an attention-seeker, but she often stayed at hospitals and other charity sites after the press had left, and she dropped in and visited cancer, AIDS, and leprosy patients when there was no press present.
  • Diana's charity work and her landmine activism seemed truly rooted in caring and concern, yet these were also to her advantage in creating a public image.
  • Diana's emotional vulnerability was a major part of her popularity, and she was able to warmly mother her sons, and in the early days of marriage show genuine affection easily to her husband; she was able to serve charities and the people they served. Yet her emotional vulnerability also led her, according to some reports, to suicide attempts, and to what she describe in an interview as being a "basket case."
  • She was "one of them" (the royal family) and yet was also victim of them and public critic of them.