Death of Diana, Princess of Wales

On 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales (Mother to Princes William and Harry) passed unexpectedly as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris, France. This tragic event and the loss of one of the world’s most famous personalities would change not only the face of, but the actions of the Monarchy itself for years to come.

On Saturday 30 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, left Sardinia on a private jet and arrived in Paris with Dodi Fayed, the son of Mohamed al-Fayed. They had stopped there en route to London, having spent the preceding nine days together on board Mohamed al-Fayed’s yacht Jonikal on the French and Italian Riviera. They had intended to stay overnight. Mohamed al-Fayed was and is the owner of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. He also owned an apartment in Rue Arsène Houssaye, a short distance from the hotel, just off the Avenue des Champs Elysées.

Henri Paul, the deputy head of security at the Ritz Hotel, had been instructed to drive the hired black 1994 Mercedes-Benz S280 in order to elude the paparazzi; a decoy vehicle left the Ritz first from the main entrance on Place Vendôme, attracting a throng of photographers. Diana and Fayed then departed from the hotel’s rear entrance rue Cambon at around 12:20 am (Sun 31 Aug 1997 00:20 +0200, local time), heading for the apartment in Rue Arsène Houssaye. They were the rear passengers, Trevor Rees-Jones, a member of the Fayed family’s personal protection team, was in the (right) front passenger seat.

After leaving the rue Cambon and crossing the Place de la Concorde they drove along Cours la Reine and Cours Albert 1er (the embankment road along the right bank of the River Seine) into the Place de l’Alma underpass. At around 12:23 am at the entrance to the tunnel Paul lost control; the car swerved to the left of the two-lane carriageway before colliding head-on with the 13th pillar supporting the roof at an estimated speed of 105 km/h (65 mph). It then spun and hit the stone wall of the tunnel backwards, finally coming to a stop. The impact caused substantial damage, particularly to the front half of the vehicle. There was (and still is) no guard rail between the pillars to prevent this. Diana, Princess of Wales, her friend, Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the Mercedes-Benz W140, Henri Paul, were pronounced dead at the scene; the bodyguard of Diana and Dodi, Trevor Rees-Jones, was the only survivor. At around 14:00, Diana’s former husband, His Royal Highness, Charles, Prince of Wales, and her two older sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes, arrived in Paris; they left with her body 90 minutes later bound for England.

Although the media blamed the paparazzi following the car, an 18-month French judicial investigation found that the crash was caused by Paul, who lost control of the car at high speed while drunk. Paul was the head of security at the Hôtel Ritz and had earlier goaded the paparazzi waiting outside the hotel. His inebriation may have been exacerbated by anti-depressants and traces of a tranquillising anti-psychotic in his body. The investigation concluded that the photographers were not near the Mercedes when it crashed. An inquest headed by Lord Justice Scott Baker into the deaths of Diana and Dodi began at the Royal Courts of Justice, London, on 2 October 2007, a continuation of the inquest that began in 2004. On 7 April 2008, the jury concluded that Diana and Dodi were the victims of an “unlawful killing” by the “grossly negligent” chauffeur Henri Paul and the drivers of the following vehicles. Additional factors were “the impairment of the judgement of the driver of the Mercedes through alcohol” and “the death of the deceased was caused or contributed to by the fact that the deceased was not wearing a seat-belt, the fact that the Mercedes struck the pillar in the Alma Tunnel rather than colliding with something else”.

Funeral

Diana’s death was met with extraordinary public expressions of grief, and her funeral at Westminster Abbey on 6 September drew an estimated 3 million mourners and onlookers in London, and worldwide television coverage watched by 2.5 billion people. It was aired to 200 countries in 44 languages. Singer Elton John performed a new version of his song “Candle In The Wind” at the service.

Members of the public were invited to sign a book of condolence at St James Palace. Throughout the night, members of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and the Salvation Army provided support for people queuing along the Mall. More than one million bouquets were left at her London home, Kensington Palace, while at her family’s estate of Althorp the public was asked to stop bringing flowers as the volume of people and flowers in the surrounding roads was said to be causing a threat to public safety.

By 10 September, the pile of flowers outside Kensington Gardens was 5 feet (1.5m) deep in places and the bottom layer had started to compost. The people were quiet, queuing patiently to sign the book and leave their gifts. There were a few minor incidents. Fabio Piras, a Sardinian tourist, was given a one-week prison sentence on 10 September for having taken a teddy bear from the pile. When the sentence was later reduced to a £100 fine, Piras was punched in the face by a member of the public when he left the court. The next day two women, a 54-year-old secondary school teacher and a 50-year-old communications technician, were each given a 28-day prison sentence for having taken 11 teddy bears and a number of flowers from the pile outside the palace. This was reduced to a fine of £200 each after they had spent two nights in prison.

Some criticised the reaction to Diana’s death at the time as being “hysterical” and “irrational”. As early as 1998 philosopher Anthony O’Hear identified the mourning as a defining point in the “sentimentalisation of Britain”, a media-fuelled phenomenon where image and reality become blurred. These criticisms that were repeated on the 10th anniversary, when journalist Jonathan Freedland expressed the opinion that “It has become an embarrassing memory, like a mawkish, self-pitying teenage entry in a diary,… we cringe to think about it.” In 2010, Theodore Dalrymple wrote “sentimentality, both spontaneous and generated by the exaggerated attention of the media, that was necessary to turn the death of the princess into an event of such magnitude thus served a political purpose, one that was inherently dishonest in a way that parallels the dishonesty that lies behind much sentimentality itself”.

Some cultural analysts disagreed. Sociologist Deborah Steinberg pointed out that many Britons associated Diana not with the Royal Family but with social change and a more liberal society: “I don’t think it was hysteria, the loss of a public figure can be a touchstone for other issues.”

The Royal Family

The reaction of the Queen and the Royal Family to Diana’s death caused resentment and outcry from the public. The Queen, Prince Philip and other members of the Royal family were at the summer residence of Her Majesty, Balmoral Castle, and the initial decision not to return to London or to mourn more publicly was much criticised at the time. Their rigid adherence to protocol, and their concern to care for Diana’s two grieving sons, was interpreted by some as a lack of compassion and respect to the deceased Princess.

In particular, the refusal of Buckingham Palace to fly the Royal Standard at half-mast provoked angry headlines in newspapers. Over eager editors without proper understanding or education on Royal symbols such as the Royal Standard created headlines such as”Where is our Queen? Where is her Flag?” asked The Sun. The Palace’s stance was one of royal protocol: no flag could fly over Buckingham Palace, as the Royal Standard is only flown when the Queen is in residence, and the Queen was then in Scotland. The Royal Standard never flies at half-mast as it is the Sovereign’s flag and there is never an interregnum or vacancy in the monarchy, as the new Monarch immediately succeeds his or her predecessor. Rightfully so, the Royal Standard did not fly at half mast and will never do so as long as there is a Monarchy within the United Kingdom.

As a compromise, the Union Flag was flown at half-mast as the Queen left for Westminster Abbey on the day of the funeral. This set a precedent, and Buckingham Palace has subsequently flown the Union Flag when the Queen is not in residence. The Queen, who returned to London with members of the Royal family from Balmoral, agreed to a television broadcast to the nation. This was an historic moment in time which showed the resilience and continuity of the Monarchy, despite a moment in time to which logic was overruled by public emotion and grief. On the day of Diana’s funeral procession, the Royal family emerged from not only the Palace, but the front gates to pay respects and watch Diana’s coffin pass by. In her own tribute to Diana, Her Majesty bowed her head to the Princess as the funeral cortege made its way past Buckingham Palace and on to Althorp House.

Watch the Queen’s Tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales below:

Public reactions

Over a million people lined the four-mile (6 km) route from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey. Outside the Abbey and in Hyde Park crowds watched and listened to proceedings on giant outdoor screens and huge speakers as guests filed in, including representatives of the many charities of which Diana was patron. Notable attendants included Hillary Rodham Clinton; Bernadette Chirac, wife of the French President, Jacques Chirac; and other celebrities, including Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and Diana’s good friends singers George Michael and Elton John – the latter performed a rewritten version of his song “Candle in the Wind” that was dedicated to her. The service was televised live around the world.

Protocol was disregarded when the guests applauded the speech by Diana’s younger brother Earl Spencer, who strongly criticised the press and indirectly criticised the Royal Family for their treatment of her. The funeral is estimated to have been watched by 31.5 million viewers in Britain. Precise calculation of the worldwide audience is not possible, but estimated at around 2.5 billion. After the end of the ceremony, the coffin was driven to Althorp in a Daimler hearse. Mourners cast flowers at the funeral procession for almost the entire length of its journey and vehicles even stopped on the opposite carriageway of the M1 motorway as the cars passed. In a private ceremony, Diana was buried on an island in the middle of a lake. In her casket, she wore a black Catherine Walker dress and is clutching a rosary in her hands. The rosary had been a gift from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a confidante of Diana, who had died the day before her funeral. A visitors’ centre is open during summer months, with an exhibition about her and a walk around the lake. All profits are donated to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

Subsequent Events

In the years after her death, interest in the life of Diana has remained high. As a temporary memorial, the public co-opted the Flamme de la Liberté (Flame of Liberty), a monument near the Alma tunnel related to the French donation of the Statue of Liberty to the United States. The messages of condolence have since been removed and its use as a Diana memorial has discontinued, though visitors still leave messages in her memory. A permanent memorial, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, was opened by the Queen in Hyde Park in London on 6 July 2004.

Diana was ranked third in the 2002 Great Britons poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the British public, after Sir Winston Churchill (1st) (her cousin), and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (2nd), just above Charles Darwin (4th), William Shakespeare (5th), and Isaac Newton (6th). That same year, another British poll named Diana’s death as the most important event in the country’s last 100 years. Historian Nick Barrett criticised this outcome as being “a pretty shocking result”.