Anywhere in the world the mere mention of Princess Diana’s name evokes feelings of admiration and awe on some level, regardless of how the divide between fans and detractors of Britain’s royal family is drawn.
The Princess of Wales, or the "Queen of Hearts" as she was fondly called by her avid followers, left an indelible mark on the family she married into at the age of 20.
Her death in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997, sent shock waves around the globe and prompted a huge outpouring of grief. Closer to home, it left a black hole in the monarchy and a massive void in her young sons’ lives.
A quarter of a century on from that fateful day, the legacy Diana left behind still inspires her fans, intrigues authors and even haunts the institution with which she wrestled.
‘She was like a meteor’
Richard Fitzwilliams, a royal commentator who has followed the royal family for more than two decades, said it is hard for anyone to argue with the idea that Diana was unlike any other member of the monarchy, or “the firm” as it sometimes called. She cared less about airs and graces and more about forging deep connections with the people and causes closest to her heart, and this was one of the reasons so many were drawn to her, he said.
“Diana was unique,” Mr Fitzwilliams told The National. “She has a legacy of charitable causes that are unique. It was extraordinary how much she achieved in her short life. It was amazing, considering she was personally unhappy.
“There’s no doubt that she has left her mark on the world. There’s no question that she was an extraordinary person.”
Mr Fitzwilliams said one of Diana’s most impressive traits was her ability to appear upbeat in public and carry out her role as a working royal to a high standard while her life was crumbling behind the walls of Kensington Palace. It was remarkable how put together she always appeared on engagements, given that she was “deeply unhappy with failed relationships” and her seemingly fairy-tale marriage had “turned out to be a nightmare”, he noted.
‘The People’s Princess’
Mr Fitzwilliams recalled the breathtaking scenes he witnessed outside Buckingham Palace in central London in the days after Diana died, as throngs of heart-broken mourners gathered to express the nation’s loss and add their bouquets to the “mountains of flowers” left in her honour. The scale of the response was testament to the popularity enjoyed by Diana, he said.
“It was absolutely unprecedented, the grief that seemed to sweep British life,” he recalled. “Usually there’s a precedent to things in the royal family but in this case there simply wasn’t.
“Tony Blair summed it up at the time as her being ‘the People’s Princess’”.
“She was the world’s most glamorous woman. It was almost impossible to take a bad picture of her.
“She was like a meteor and left a special legacy. I think this will be a torch that will be kept alive in different ways at different times. At the moment Diana died nobody dared criticise her.”
The royal expert said the powerful legacy left behind by the princess rises to the surface time and again, particularly during major royal occasions or when fresh revelations about her life come to light.
“There will always be interest in her,” he said.
An English rose
For all the glitz and glamour that surrounded Diana whenever she stepped out of a car to the applause of waiting crowds, the fashion icon and wife of the future king was strikingly humble.
This was evident to Edith Conn, then the vice president of the Red Cross’s Greater Manchester branch when she met the princess at an event in March 1990. The curious charity boss enquired about what plans Diana had for the evening, and was surprised at the run-of-the-mill response the royal gave.
“She said ‘I am going to go home and I’m going to have beans on toast and I’m going to watch Eastenders',” Ms Conn told The National. “That tells you all you need to know about the person. She was very regal but very down to earth. I really laughed about it. We have got this person who you would imagine going home to have caviar!”
Ms Conn, who was on holiday in Spain when she received the “shocking” news of Diana’s death, believes the mother of two left behind a legacy of kindness and generosity which has since inspired a new generation of royals.
A few years after their meeting, Ms Conn approached Kensington Palace requesting a signed portrait of the princess to auction at a fundraising gala for the Red Cross, as she was patron of the charity’s youth. What she received in response went above and beyond her expectations.
“I was bowled over. All I asked for was a signed photo and she sent back a letter, a signed picture and a trinket box for rings,” she remembered. “It was just quite fantastic.
“She’s the English rose, the queen of hearts. That will always be her.
“Kindness is not something that everyone has. It’s not a given. She had it and Prince William does.”
The princess who 'hogged the limelight'
The public simply could not get enough of Diana, with her natural beauty, show-stopping outfits, delicate mannerisms and bold statements. However, this proved to be a perfect storm for the royal institution which was keen to keep Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, on top. The more Diana, or “Lady Di” as she was informally known, shone as a star in the public’s eyes, the more Charles’ popularity waned.
Michel Faure, author of the book, Charles, King of England, published in 2021, said it took the future monarch the best part of a decade to rebuild his public image which had been battered by the infidelity scandal that led to the collapse of his marriage.
“For a while Charles was almost at the bottom of public opinion and Diana was this heroine of the story,” the author told The National. “She was beautiful and she wasn’t emulated by anybody. She was popular, she was a star, she was intelligent and she was good with the press.
“It was Charles who was not very engaging with people and he still is not.
“If there had ever been a challenge to see who would win it would have been her of course.”
Mr Faure said Diana’s willingness to speak openly about her marital woes and eating disorder threatened to plunge the monarchy into an irreversible scandal, particularly because the crown is “a very fragile institution”.
But despite her ability to attract the attention of millions during her hey days, Mr Faure believes the younger generations do not hold Diana in as high regard as their parents and grandparents.
“She’s a souvenir now,” he said. “When she died she was not forgotten at all and she is remembered as a really nice princess. To the younger generation, she’s a part of history and does not belong in the present.”
‘Diana opened the floodgates’
When Diana opened the first ward dedicated to Aids and HIV-related diseases at London’s Middlesex Hospital in 1987 she crossed a boundary not many others would during an era of stigma and public shame. Without gloves, she boldly shook the hands of the 10 patients lined up to meet her.
An iconic photo of her shaking the hand of one patient — the only one who agreed to be photographed — changed the way the world viewed those afflicted with the diseases.
Royal commentator Kristen Meinzer said Diana broke down an invisible but sturdy barrier when she ripped up the rule book to embrace members of the public and show empathy with people, including those who were seen as unapproachable.
“Rather than simply smile politely while those around her bowed and curtsied, Diana chose to treat her admirers like fellow humans,” she told The National. “She laughed with them and held their hands. She got down on the same level as children and played with them. She hugged people living with HIV and Aids. And this way of conducting herself went beyond royal business.”
In the decades since Diana lost her life, her sons Prince William and Prince Harry have also ventured into previously unforeseen territory for royals and campaigned for awareness of mental health issues. This, Ms Meinzer says, is just one example of how Diana’s legacy lives on today in the royal family.
“This humanity and vulnerability could not just be put back into the bottle once it was out,” she said. “It spilled over into the rest of the firm.”
She argued that even in today's open and more liberal society, royals would still be apprehensive to speak about difficult subjects “had Diana not first opened the door”.