Princess Diana—who married into British royalty, only to later be divorced from it—devoted herself to charitable causes and became a global icon before dying in a car accident in Paris in 1997. When she married Prince Charles in 1981, Lady Diana Spencer became the first Englishwoman to marry an heir to the throne in more than 300 years. Although their wedding was watched by millions worldwide, and their marriage produced two sons—both potential heirs to the throne—it is for her untimely death that Diana is perhaps best remembered.
Lady Diana Spencer: From Teacher to Princess
Diana was born on July 1, 1961, to Edward John Spencer and his wife Frances. At the time of her birth, in Britain’s peerage system, her father held the title of Viscount Althorp. Her parents were divorced in 1969, when she was eight, and her father won sole custody.
In 1975, when Diana was 14, her father inherited the title of Earl from his own father, who passed away that year. The title has been awarded since 1765, as the Spencers have been wealthy landowners in England for centuries.
Her family rented Park House, an estate owned by Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles’ mother. During Diana’s time as a child on the estate, she may have played with Charles’ younger brothers, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. (Charles was 13 years older than Diana.)
Although she lost touch with him as a result of spending much of her youth attending prestigious boarding schools, Diana became re-acquainted with Prince Charles after moving to London to live and work in 1978. In the capital, she initially worked as a nanny before taking a job as a kindergarten teacher at the Young England School.
The courtship of Charles and Diana lasted several years before they were married at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on July 29, 1981. With the wedding, Diana was granted the title of Princess of Wales, as Charles’ official royal title is the Prince of Wales.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana had two sons—Prince William in 1982 and Prince Henry (Harry) in 1984. Their marriage, however, was an unhappy one marked by extramarital affairs. In 1992, they announced their separation, and they divorced officially in 1996.
Princess Diana’s Humanitarian Causes
Diana, who had developed an interest in music and fashion as a child, quickly became a global icon of popular culture as she developed relationships with a number of entertainment personalities, including singers George Michael and Elton John.
She was also admired because she used her fame to raise public awareness—and charitable funds—for issues that mattered to her. As a former teacher, she was a lifelong advocate for children and supported efforts to abolish the use of land mines.
She also advocated for AIDS-related causes (she was the guest of honor at the opening of the United Kingdom’s first dedicated HIV/AIDS unit in 1987), and she is credited with helping to change the public’s perception of those who suffer from the disease.
She famously shook the hands of a patient with AIDS, in front of the media, without wearing gloves, dispelling the notion that the disease is transmitted via touch.
After her divorce from Prince Charles was finalized, Diana’s relationship with Egyptian filmmaker Dodi Al-Fayed, the son of a billionaire and former owner of London’s iconic Harrod’s department store and the city’s soccer team Fulham F.C. Dodi is perhaps best known as the producer of the film Chariots of Fire.
The couple’s relationship quickly became the subject of tabloid fodder, and they were routinely harassed by the paparazzi wherever they went.
Death of Princess Diana
On the evening of August 31, 1997, Diana and Al-Fayed were dining privately in the Imperial Suite at Paris’ famous Ritz Hotel. They had planned to have a quiet, romantic meal at the hotel’s restaurant—Al-Fayed had reportedly purchased a ring for Diana earlier in the day—but they had to leave after 10 minutes because they were being disturbed by the press and other patrons.
At 11:30 that night, as they left the hotel to return to Al-Fayed’s Paris apartment, they were hounded by paparazzi, despite the fact that significant security precautions had been taken, including the use of a decoy vehicle, which left from the front of the hotel.
Diana and Al-Fayed left the hotel using a rear entrance, with French driver Henri Paul and one of the Princess’ bodyguards, Trevor Rees-Jones.
Driving a Mercedes S-280 limousine, Paul took Rees-Jones, Diana and Al-Fayed on a high-speed trip through the boulevards and narrow streets of central Paris. Investigators later estimated that the car may have been traveling in excess of 60 miles per hour.
At 12:19 a.m., the Mercedes carrying the couple, Paul and Rees-Jones, crashed into the 13th pillar of the Pont d’Alma Bridge, which traverses the River Seine. They were less than two miles from the Ritz Hotel.
Al-Fayed and Paul died at the scene. Diana was taken to Paris’ La Pitie Salpetriere Hospital, but several hours later, at 4 a.m., she died as a result of injuries she sustained in the crash, including a severed pulmonary vein. She was 36 years old.
The bodyguard, Rees-Jones, survived, despite suffering significant injuries. He recovered and returned to England, where he works in a family business and has published a book on his experiences with Diana.
Princess Diana’s Funeral
The death of Princess Diana was immediately followed by an unprecedented outpouring of grief from all over the world.
Her funeral was held in London, five days after her death. An estimated one million people lined the funeral route from her London home in Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, where her funeral was held.
Diana is buried on a small island surrounded by a lake at Althorp, her family’s ancestral estate in Northamptonshire, England.
Investigating Princess Diana’s Death
Initially, the incident had been blamed on their French chauffeur, Henri Paul, who may have been exceeding the speed limit to avoid tabloid photographers.
A subsequent inquest on the crash performed by the British police, and released in 2006, ruled Diana’s death a “tragic accident.” The inquest found that Paul had been drunk at the time of the accident, and that his condition may have been worsened by prescription anti-depressants he was taking at the time.
In fact, tests of Paul’s blood following the crash revealed that his alcohol levels were more than three times the legal limit in France for drunk driving. Investigators believe this caused him to lose control of the Mercedes.
The inquest jury ruled that both Paul and the paparazzi chasing Diana and Al-Fayed were responsible for the crash due to “gross negligence.” The deaths of Diana and Al-Fayed were also ruled “unlawful killings”—the court equivalent of manslaughter.
In addition, the jury ruled that the couple might have survived the crash had they been wearing seatbelts.
No one was charged in the deaths of Diana and Al-Fayed, as Paul was himself killed. Several members of the paparazzi were questioned immediately after the accident, but were released.
In addition to her accomplishments on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS while she was alive, she is fondly remembered as a patron of the United Kingdom’s National AIDS Trust, an advocacy organization for people with the disease and their families. Many of the organization’s initiatives are named in her honor.
Diana is also credited, by at least one biographer, with effectively modernizing the royal family in their relations with the British public.
Generally reserved, the royal family, and in particular Queen Elizabeth, have arguably been more engaged with the public since Diana’s passing, visiting with victims of terrorist attacks in London, for example.
Her sons William and Harry have also credited their late mother with shaping their own charitable efforts, which include HIV/AIDS and wildlife conservation work in Africa, among other initiatives.
Diana, Princess of Wales. The Home of the Royal Family.
A Family History. Spencer of Althorp.
How Princess Diana changed attitudes to Aids. BBC News.
Diana death a ‘tragic accident.’ BBC News.
Princess Diana’s Life and Legacy. ABC News.