The truth about Princess Diana's real royal legacy

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The Princess Of Wales during her speech to the Eating Disorders 93 Conference in Kensington, West London.   (Photo by Martin Keene - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Diana gives a speech asking for privacy in 1993. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Princess Diana died exactly 24 years ago, on 31 August 1997. Like the death of JFK, for many it's a 'what were you doing when you heard?' moment, while for those who loved the real woman, it's the anniversary of a life-changing tragedy. 

In the almost quarter-century since the car crash that killed both the Princess of Wales and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, alongside driver Henri Paul, the Royal Family has changed dramatically.

Her beloved sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, both married 'commoners'. 

Heir to the throne William choosing the eminently suitable and sensible Kate Middleton.

Harry married US actor and campaigner Meghan Markle and triggered a tsunami of drama, with the couple 'stepping back' from their royal roles soon after the birth of Archie, now two, and moving to California, Meghan's home.

BALMORAL, SCOTLAND  -  AUGUST 18:   Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Harry play on the banks of the River Dee, near Balmoral Castle.during a Summer vacation, on August 18, 1987, in Balmoral, Scotland. (Photo by Julian Parker/UK Press via Getty Images)
Diana with little Harry, messing about on the river at Balmoral. (UK Press via Getty Images)

Now, he and William are barely speaking, in the wake of the revealing Oprah interview earlier this year, while Prince Charles and his younger son remain at a distance.

Meanwhile, the Queen continues to cope stoically as a recent widow, and none of the family has openly commented on the accusations of abuse levelled at Prince Andrew. 

Yet back in the '90s, Diana was seen as the disruptive element in the family, refusing to stay quietly married to a man who was in love with someone else, and openly speaking about her resulting pain and trauma on TV and to biographer Andrew Morton.

Read more: On This Day: The death of Princess Diana, a campaigner to the very end

She also tried to update fusty royal traditions, taking her boys to theme parks and bringing them with her on secret visits to hospital Aids wards, to prepare them for their lives of service. 

Whether she really roller-skated in the palace, as depicted in The Crown, is uncertain. But the disco and fashion-loving princess, who was just 19 when Charles proposed, was determined to modernise The Firm, and reach out to the public in a way that previous generations had not. 

LAUNCESTON, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 31: Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a cream gabardine suit designed by Jasper Conran with a matching hat with flowers and a veil designed by John Boyd, speaks to well-wishers during a walkabout in Launceston on March 31, 1983 in Tasmania, Australia. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
The Australia tour of 1983, when Diana was mobbed by an adoring public. (Getty Images)

“If I’m going to have cameras pointed at me the whole time, I might as well use all this publicity for good,” she said of her humanitarian work with landmines, homeless people and hospital patients. 

In the documentary, Diana, Our Mother, William said; "She was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun. But she understood there was a life going on outside the palace walls and she wanted us to understand that from a very young age.”

His younger brother Harry recalled her saying: "You can be as naughty as you want, just don’t get caught." 

"She made the decision that both of us were going to have as normal a life as possible," he said. "If that meant sneaking us out for a burger or to the cinema or driving out on country roads in her old BMW with the top down and Enya playing, then so be it.”

She perhaps hoped that her boys would go on to continue her work, bringing openness and warmth to what was back then often seen as a cold and closed-off institution of tradition and privilege. 

Picture From File:Diana Princess Of Wales, Prince William & Prince Harry Visit The 'Thorpe Park' Amusement Park. . (Photo by Julian Parker/UK Press via Getty Images)
Diana with William and Harry, living it up at Thorpe Park. (UK Press via Getty Images)

In adulthood, William has created the life that Diana herself perhaps longed for – plenty of time spent in both town and country, charity work and a happy family. He has also spoken out about mental health via the Heads Together campaign, talking about the impact of her death. 

"I've thought about this a lot, and I'm trying to understand why I feel like I do," he said in 2019. "But I think when you are bereaved at a very young age, any time really, but particularly at a young age... you feel pain like no other pain."

Watch: Sarah Ferguson thinks Princess Diana would support Prince Harry's memoir

Harry, however, has been more brutal in his approach to truth-telling, recently saying: “Like, every possible opportunity the forces were working against us... trying to make it impossible.”

His words echoed Diana's own documented fear of 'dark forces' working against her within the palace. 

Yet since her death, the public has expected more openness from the senior royals, complaining vociferously when the Queen did not return quickly enough from Balmoral to publicly mourn the princess, and more recently, expressing horror at the footage of William and Harry as bereaved children forced to walk behind her coffin. 

On the day after what would have been the 60th birthday of Princess Diana, people gather to pay their respects, and to lay flowers, pictures and messages at a memorial to her at the gates of Kensington Palace on 2nd July 2021 in London, United Kingdom. Diana, Princess of Wales became known as the Peoples Princess following her tragic death, and now as in 1997, many royalists, and mourners came to her royal residence in remembrance and respect. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
On what would have been her 60th birthday this years, royalists gathered at Kensington Palace. (In Pictures via Getty Images)

Charles has expressed an intention to open up palaces to the public when he accedes the throne, while this summer, Buckingham Palace's gardens were opened for the first time.

Diana's approach to family has also resonated. 

The Duchess of Cambridge is hugely popular with the public, but makes it very clear that family time matters too, and the days of separating new mothers from their babies on royal tours is gone – perhaps as a direct result of Diana's refusal to leave William behind on the famous Australian tour of 1983.

Harry and Meghan, of course, speak out about whatever's on their mind, with Meghan telling ITN's Tom Bradby how hard she found the adjustment to royal life, and Harry openly revealing the couple's mental health struggles.

A new clip of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who�s pregnant with their second child after Archie, during their bombshell tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey after quitting their Royal Job, shows Meghan, Duchess of Sussex finally feeling free and ready to talk about being blocked from having her voice by royal aides. The clip aired on CBS This Morning ahead of premiere on US network on Sunday night. (Photo by DPPA/Sipa USA)
Harry and Meghan have been very open about their struggles. (DPPA/Sipa USA)

Read more: Princess diana remembered by her family and fans 24 years after her death

Diana, who made no secret of her sessions with therapist Susie Orbach, was the turning point for this royal generation's therapy-speak and openness. She also showed love and warmth in a way that previous royals had not been willing to do, hugging and touching both members of the public and her own children.

So while her humanitarian work remains her official legacy, her unofficial one may have changed the future of the House of Windsor forever. 

By teaching her children to speak their minds, and follow their hearts, she ensured that royalty will no longer be a closed book, but a story that everyone can access.

Watch: Looking back at Princess Diana's influence on the HIV/AIDS battle

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting