Twenty years later: Dawna Friesen reflects on Princess Diana’s legacy
Twenty years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it’s remarkable how powerful the Diana effect remains.
From the grave, she continues to eclipse her ex-husband in both star power and sympathy. I am not a fan of anniversaries, and I’m weary of the countless Diana documentaries and biographies that keep trading on her name. I wonder at what point will she truly be laid to rest, and her boys are allowed to quietly mark their mother’s passing in peace?
I realize the answer is never.
READ MORE: Why can’t we let Princess Diana go?
Full disclosure here: I was gripped by Diana’s death at the time. I remember where I was when it happened (working as a reporter in CTV’s Parliamentary bureau) and not quite believing it at first.
In the weeks that followed, it became the only story that mattered. When my office wouldn’t send me to cover it, I asked for time off and booked a ticket to London. I wanted to witness the spectacle of it all. I felt compelled to be there. And I was not only deeply moved by the astonishing outpouring of grief, I became caught up in it.
It was impossible not to be struck by the throngs of people who lined the streets that day. A nation’s private anguish was on public display. Many were openly weeping as if Diana had been their dearest friend.
No other modern royal has had that impact on a nation, especially a country that prides itself on fortitude in the face of adversity. Anger toward the royal family was palpable. There was a real feeling they’d driven her from the fold and now that she’d died so tragically, few could believe how heartless and cold the Queen appeared to be.
I’m sure there were stiff upper lips elsewhere in the country that day, but when her horse-drawn funeral cortege clip-clopped down London’s streets from St. James’s Palace to Westminster Abbey, millions of British lips were trembling.
Nestled in a wreath on top of her coffin was that handwritten note — ‘Mummy’ — that reminded us all she was more than a princess.
I found myself that morning standing along the Mall at Marlborough Road, near St. James’s Palace. There had been intense speculation about whether Diana’s boys would appear and walk behind her coffin. When they did emerge from the Palace, the silence was deafening. I never imagined that a massive crowd could be so quiet, save for some sounds of people openly weeping and the clip-clop of horses hooves. The boys looked shell-shocked and almost robot-like.
It was heartbreaking. And I admit I lost my journalistic composure and cried. It seemed in that moment that these were two lost boys, forced to mourn their mother in public in front of hordes of people claiming her as their princess.
Funerals are intended to be about honouring the dead. But at Diana’s, her brother also made sure to take a swipe at the royal family she had married into and where she found herself so utterly adrift and alone.
“I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned,” Earl Spencer said.
The entire service was broadcast through speakers along the procession route and on large screens in the royal parks. And when Earl Spencer finished his tribute, the crowds erupted in applause, applause that moved like a wave along the streets and right through the open doors of Westminster Abbey. It was a remarkable moment. William and Harry are said to have applauded too. The Queen and other senior royals did not.
Funerals are meant to mark a passing, and an ending. Hers marked a sea of change. Things were never the same for the monarchy after her death.
I went on to live and work in London and found myself doing countless stories about her — from the conspiracy theories about her death, including the painstaking inquest, to the comparisons to Camilla, and the constant fascination with every move William and Harry made.
I remember standing in front of the gates of Kensington Palace on the 10th anniversary of her death thinking surely the interest is going to fade away now. It still hasn’t. In fact, her sparkle may even be brighter not only because she died so young but because time is slowly erasing her flaws and we’re left with a woman who still inhabits a mystical realm and who — after her death — re-shaped the monarchy that rejected her.
As her brother, Earl Spencer, said in his eulogy, “She needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”
Her boys — supported by their grandmother, the Queen — are making it clear they’ll lead a much more modern life within the confines of the palace, which was in danger of fading into obscurity. Prince Harry said this week, while viewing a memorial garden to his mother, “We try to follow her example in being ourselves and listening.”
In a documentary last month, Prince William said, “We won’t be doing this again. We won’t speak openly or publicly about her again…”
They may not need to.
Twenty years after her death, it’s clear Diana’s story has entered the realm of myth and all they need to do is quietly carry on her legacy.
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