A historical look at Diana, 25 years after her death

Emma Hart, director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, offers her perspective on the history of royal celebrity, the British monarchy’s current role in public life, and how history might view Diana, Princess of Wales.

A book entitled "Diana, the People's Princess" with a photo of her face is being held by a man in a suit
A royal fan holds a book to remember the late Diana, Princess of Wales, outside Kensington Palace in London, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, at a tribute on the 20th anniversary of her death, in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. (Image: AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

August 31 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The 36-year-old Diana, boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and driver Henri Paul were killed in an automobile accident after speeding through Paris while trying to avoid paparazzi, their car crashing in a tunnel near the Seine River.

During her life she was as much a beloved icon as she was a relatable figure, “The People’s Princess,” often credited with transforming the way the British monarchy was perceived. In the years since her death, a lot has changed about the British monarchy.

As the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and a history professor in the School of Arts & Sciences, Emma Hart researches early North America and early modern Britain. Penn Today asked her about the relevance of the royal family today and how it has changed during the past quarter century. In this Q&A, Hart offers her perspective on the history of royal celebrity, the monarchy’s current role in public life, and Diana’s legacy.

What did royal celebrity look like in the years before Diana?

There is an almost 300-year history of royals being celebrities in British and American life. The popular press was already flourishing in 18th-century Britain and its American colonies, and readers were keen for news and gossip about the royal family. George III, who was on the throne during the American Revolution, was the first monarch to actively cultivate a public image.

George’s efforts made an impression in Britain and America. As historian Brendan McConville has noted, the monarch’s popularity was at a peak just before the American Revolution, with many colonists deeply loyal to him. Colonists and Britons regularly celebrated George III’s birthday with fireworks parties. Consequently, it was very difficult for Americans to turn their back on the monarch.

George’s popularity flourished throughout episodes of poor mental health towards the end of his reign, leaving him unable to fulfill his royal duties. By this time his friendly public image as ‘Farmer George’—a down-to-earth character—was well established. There are certainly Diana-like echoes in this situation, as her friendly and approachable persona stemmed in part from her openness about her own mental health struggles. In both cases, the public became endeared to their monarchs through things that made them seem more human.

In many ways, the ability to cultivate a ‘friendly’ monarchy has also been possible because the royal family have long been relatively powerless in British politics. Already, when Queen Victoria started her reign in 1819, she was largely marginalized in terms of political power. Knowing that the monarchy has been more of a figurehead and cultural icon for such a long time helps you understand why these questions of celebrity and their role in public life are so important. The British monarchy has to make itself useful in some way, and being popular with the public, while also being an ‘icon,’ is a good way to achieve that.

While it is true that other European monarchies also became more subject to public opinion from the later 1700s onwards, none has had to be as concerned as the British royal family about their popular image from such an early stage. What is more, many continental royals have been able, in the 20th century, to quietly become more ‘ordinary.’

Princess Diana, waving to the crowds, and Prince Charles in an open, horse-drawn carriage on their wedding day
Carriage carrying the Prince and Princess of Wales on its way from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Buckingham Palace after the royal wedding in London, July 29, 1981. (Image: AP Photo/File)

Why has the British monarchy and the House of Windsor continued to cultivate this type of celebrity?

Because the public supports it, and class structure is still such an important part of British life. That sense of hierarchy is important, and I think if the monarchy decided they were just going to ‘go normal’ a lot of people would object to it. They’d say that the royals have to live according to their status and they need to keep up that pomp and circumstance.

Things tend to change very slowly in Britain. The British Isles suffered through one cataclysmic civil war in the 1600s, in which they chopped off the head of Charles I. Yet, after a brief period of republican rule, they restored the monarchy. Changes in social and political hierarchy have happened at a glacial pace ever since. It took well over 100 years of campaigning for working men to get the vote. Britain is very wedded to the monarchy because it is a conservative with a small ‘c’ society. The royal family represent stability and tradition in social and class structure.

Of course, the royal family are also a great tourist attraction. The House of Windsor brings in approximately $2.7 billion a year to the British economy.

Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles pose after their engagement announcement
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer pose following the announcement of their engagement on Feb. 24, 1981. (Image: AP Photo/Ron Bell, Pool, File)

How would you say that Diana transformed the royal family?

She was more human than the rest of them. When she got married, she was young and witty and vulnerable, and the public loved her fairy tale wedding. There hadn’t been an event like that in Britain for quite a long time. Unlike many of the royal family, she was photogenic. And because she had a warm personality and she took on a lot of humanitarian campaigns, people saw her as the human face to the royal family, which had been more stiff and starchy. Sending her children to regular school and competing barefoot in the parents’ running race at the school sports day, Diana seemed more normal than any previous royal.

When the marriage to Charles went wrong, she became a focus of public sympathy. The family had to realize that they couldn't shut her out, as she had become one of their big assets. Her approach made the royal family and the queen rethink how they presented themselves.

What do you see as Diana’s legacy, and how do you think history will view Diana? 

She did force the British monarchy to move into the 21st century, so to speak, to not be such a distant and pompous institution. Both her sons married women who have played a similar role. Neither Kate nor Meghan has aristocratic ‘blue’ blood, something that would have been unthinkable for the heir to the throne’s spouse even 40 years ago.

I am not yet sure how historians will view Diana’s legacy. There's been a real turn among academic historians away from studying elite people. Most professors are much more interested in the working-class experience in late 20th-century Britain than people like Diana. However, as the amount of history written about her lifetime increases, I am certain that her legacy will become a topic of great interest, especially to historians of popular culture.

I think historians will see her as the beginning of an end of a particular model of British monarchy, and they would probably look to Diana as a symbol of how the relationship between the royal family and British culture has changed. People were questioning whether the monarchy fit into modern British life, and Diana both prompted that question and answered it. Even some among the monarchy’s supporters were ready for a more human face to the institution and for a more useful monarchy. With her support for AIDS victims and her efforts to raise awareness of the victims of land mines, Diana showed how the royal family could be a force for good.

Princess Diana speaks with people injured by landmines in Luanda, Angola.
Diana, Princess of Wales, speaks with people injured by landmines at the Neves Bendinha Orthopedic Workshop in the outskirts of Luanda, Angola on Jan. 14, 1997. (Image: AP Photo/Joao Silva, File)