Fans remember ‘People’s Princess’ Diana 20 years after tragic death in Paris car crash
Fans of Princess Diana gathered at dawn at the gates of Kensington Palace on Thursday to celebrate the life of a woman who transformed Britain and its royal family when she died 20 years ago in a Paris car crash.
One of the most famous women in the world, Diana was killed aged 36 on August 31, 1997, when her limousine crashed in a tunnel as it sped away from paparazzi giving chase on motorbikes.
Her death prompted the biggest outpouring of grief seen in Britain in recent times and hurt the monarchy, which was accused of reacting coldly.
The events that followed, when Queen Elizabeth promised to learn from Diana’s life, are regarded as a turning point in the modernisation of the country and how the royal family relates to the public.
“She brought a breath of fresh air to the royal family,” said Caryll Foster, 57, who got to the palace for 3:00am to mark the time when the news of Diana’s death broke.
“The royal family can be a bit cold, and she was warm hearted and kind. She was very special and we want to keep her memory alive.”
On Thursday, fans gathered in the dark to lay candles and remember a woman who married Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, in a glittering 1981 wedding ceremony before their bitter divorce in 1996.
The 20th anniversary of Diana’s death has prompted a renewed fascination with the “People’s Princess”, as she was dubbed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, with her two sons Prince William and Harry leading the tributes.
The front pages of newspapers showed the two royals examining flowers and notes left for their mother, next to the same image taken 20 years ago when, aged 15 and 12, they met mourners and read some of the thousands of messages left at the gates.
Kathy Martin joined the stream of visitors laying tributes to Princess Diana outside the gates of Kensington Palace on Thursday, just as she did 20 years ago.
The 55-year-old Diana devotee vividly remembers being wakened by an early morning phone call from family in Australia telling her the princess had died in a Paris car accident, then raced to the palace with her daughter and was among the first to leave a floral tribute. Throngs of people began arriving 10 minutes later, adding cards, teddy bears and mountains of flowers.
Martin returns to Kensington Palace, where Diana once lived, every year on the anniversary of her death, on Christmas and on the princess’ birthday. On Thursday, she brought picture collages, poems and a Victorian sponge cake decorated with Diana’s picture, which she shared with other royal fans.
“She was just the beautiful, warming, caring humanitarian,” Martin said. “She touched all walks of life. Diana always put a smile on the face and that’s something for people.”
In documentaries broadcast in recent weeks, her two sons have spoken about the trauma they suffered from their mother’s death and their sense of confusion and bewilderment at the country’s grief.
Princes William and Harry added to the build-up with a series of heart-wrenching interviews in which they talked about their mother’s love and the pain of her death.
The Times newspaper said on Thursday the fact the royal princes could speak so openly about their emotions showed the lasting legacy of Diana, one of the first royal figures to talk about her emotions.
“Their courage to be openly vulnerable and to talk about these issues is a mark of how the royal family has changed and an example of the role a modern royal family can play in British life,” it said in an editorial.
“The princes have led the way in dispensing with the stiff upper lip against which Diana railed.”
On Thursday though, it was the public’s turn to recall “The People’s Princess”. Fans like Martin gathered at the palace to mark the two decades since Diana’s death triggered a flood of grief across Britain and beyond. Her admirers began paying tribute to the princess before dawn, placing candles shaped in the letter “D’’ at the palace gates.
“We had never met her and been nowhere near her, but I think she touched so many people because of who she was, the way she conducted herself in the context of where she was living and who she became,” said Mara Klemich, 55, a well-wisher from Sydney.
William and Harry weren’t scheduled to take part in any events Thursday. They honoured their mother Wednesday, visiting a garden at Kensington Palace where she used to stroll and talk to gardeners about their ever-changing displays. The princes and the Duchess of Cambridge, William’s wife, met with well-wishers afterward.
In Paris, royal watchers gathered at the tunnel on Thursday to remember Diana’s life. Some wept.
“It’s been 20 years now, but there are people you don’t forget, and she is one of them,” said Sylviane Rives, who works nearby. “That is what I wrote on a little card for her.”
Those who didn’t go to the palace or to the tunnel took to social media to express their grief and to recall her kindness.
The co-designer of Diana’s wedding dress, Elizabeth Emanuel, tweeted a picture of the princess soon after her arrival at St. Paul’s Cathedral for her 1981 wedding. In the image, the designers and bridesmaids straighten the dress’ immense train, unfurling a sea of white that flowed in her wake.
“Thinking of the wonderful times we spent with Diana and the great joy she brought into our lives and all those who knew her,” Emanuel said.
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) August 31, 2017
Elton John offered a tribute, posting an image on social media with his hand on her shoulder. Both are smiling.
The pop icon, who memorably performed his moving song “Candle In The Wind” at Diana’s funeral, wrote “20 years ago today, the world lost an angel. #RIP.”
As the day wore on, images of the day two decades ago ran on the television newscasts and websites, reminding the nation of events long past. Aerial photographs offered reminders of the carpet of flowers that people brought to the palace, one bouquet at a time.
Amazing its 20 yrs since the passing of Princess Di. I met her once when I was 6, we spoke about Thunderbirds. I still remember it #Diana20
— Oliver Phelps (@OliverPhelps) August 31, 2017
The intense outpouring will likely not be the final time the country mourns for Diana, said Pauline Maclaran, co-author of “Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture.”
Like other cultural icons, such as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, Diana will live on, even if the royals may have said all they wish on the subject.
“Maybe a new generation doesn’t relate to her that much,” Maclaran said. “But that will change. The media will find new and innovative ways to reinvent her.”