Inside the Exceptionally Long Reach of Princess Diana's Short Life

Though Prince William and Prince Harry's bond has frayed in recent years, their mother Princess Diana's influence remains a driving force in both their lives.

By Natalie Finn Jul 01, 2022 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Meghan Markle Honors Princess Diana at NYC Gala

There isn't a whole lot bringing Prince William and Prince Harry together these days.

But there was no doubt that they were going to stand side-by-side to honor their mother on what would have been Princess Diana's 60th birthday last year.

"We remember her love, strength and character–qualities that made her a force for good around the world, changing countless lives for the better," the brothers said in dedicating a statue of the late Princess of Wales that resides in the Sunken Garden on the grounds of Kensington Palace, Diana's onetime home. "Every day, we wish she were still with us, and our hope is that this statue will be seen forever as a symbol of her life and her legacy."

A day later the princes were back to living on separate continents, Harry with wife Meghan Markle and their two children in California while William went about the business of being second in line to the throne. 

But the unveiling of the years-in-the-making statue was yet another poignant reminder of just how early Diana's public life began and how devastatingly young she was when she died in 1997 at the age of 36.

How Prince William and Prince Harry Have Paid Tribute to Princess Diana Over the Years

She would have been a grandmother of five, as her sons think about so often.

Perhaps she would have even remarried, to someone who made sense for her. It's hard to know what's right when you're only 19 and poised to marry the queen's eldest son. Suddenly the world needed to know everything about Lady Diana Spencer, reporters going to extraordinary lengths—such as leasing the flat across the street and climbing through the nursery school window where she was a teacher's aide—to dig up dirt.

And everything qualified as dirt.

Diana never got a chance to sort out her personal life or reestablish her grip on a narrative that had spun wildly out of her control in the years before and after her split from Prince Charles, the "People's Princess" always a plaything for a public that simultaneously adored her and dissected her for parts.

And so she didn't live to see the men William and Harry would become or the families they had. But, she remains ubiquitous in their lives and her influence on how the royal family pressed forward into the 21st century can still be felt in so many ways.

All the Actresses Who've Played Princess Diana

"She was really courageous," Nick Kent, producer of the HBO documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, told E! News in 2017. "She embraced causes before they were fashionable. So HIV/AIDS, for example, when she famously shook hands with a young man who was suffering from HIV/AIDS in London, that photograph went viral because the idea of actually having physical contact with an AIDS sufferer was considered taboo at the time."

Jayne Fincher/Getty Images

It may seem like a common thing to do now, but Diana's humanitarian outreach was considered exceptional at the time, the princess funneling every bit of compassion and acceptance she rarely directed inward toward the mission of comforting others.

"It's been good for her to champion a really difficult cause," her brother Charles, Earl Spencer, told biographer Andrew Morton back in the early 1990s, when Diana's interaction with HIV/AIDS patients was making headlines around the globe. "Anybody can do your run-of-the-mill charity work but you have to be genuinely caring and able to give a lot of yourself to take on something that other people wouldn't dream of touching."

7 Ways Princess Diana Forever Changed What it Means to Be a Royal

In 2006 Harry co-founded Sentebale, a charity that provides assistance to people affected by HIV/AIDS in the African nations of Botswana and Lesotho—the latter a country that he admittedly had never heard of until he traveled there during his gap year, its lack of visibility one of the reasons why he wanted to work there.

The prince told E! News in 2007 that his own humanitarian efforts so far were "just a chance to carry on what she left behind, really."

Elise Amendola/AP/Shutterstock

At a memorial service held that Aug. 31 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Diana's death, then-22-year-old Harry said, "William and I can separate life into two parts. There were those years when we were blessed with the physical presence beside us of both our mother and father. And then there are the 10 years since our mother's death. When she was alive we completely took for granted her unrivaled love of life, laughter, fun and folly."


The brothers also organized the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium held on her birthday that year, featuring Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Joss Stone, the England National Ballet, an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley and two dozen more acts representative of their mom's varied tastes.

"Obviously she loves her dancing and her musicals," William told E! beforehand about the event. "It's going to be different... If it works, it'll be different, if it doesn't..."

"You won't see us for a very long time," Harry quipped. Asked if we could expect to see them dancing, William insisted, "I really, really hope not."

And yet William, like his mum, loved to dance.

Princess Diana, Kate Middleton & Meghan Markle Style Comparison

"Life, laughter, fun and folly" was for sure on the agenda, Harry offered.

"She was naughty and she loved practical jokes," Diana, Our Mother director Ashley Gething told E! News, sharing what he had discovered while making the film. "I think it was just sort of that fun side of her, and that's not just something that her sons talk about. Lots of the other people that we spoke to in the film, her closest friends. It was her sense of humor, it was her laugh, her spontaneity. People used the word 'touched' a lot, that emotionally she touched them...but I think it's sort of a mixture of the laughs and the personal warmth that I think I didn't really understand about her before, but I do now."

Julian Parker/UK Press via Getty Images

Count Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who knew that shenanigans were wont to ensue when she and Diana got together, whether they were dressing up as coppers to crash Prince Andrew's stag party or taking the queen's Daimler for a joyride around the grounds of Balmoral.

"She would have just been the naughtiest, funniest and the best ever," the duchess sometimes known as Fergie said on The Meredith Vieira Show in 2015, guessing what kind of grandmother Diana would have been, "just because she loved her boys so much and she would be so proud of all of them and what they've achieved."

Sarah and Diana's relationship famously ran hot and cold, and an embarrassing misstep got Fergie crossed off of William and Kate Middleton's guest list when they married in 2011, but the mother of Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice generally insists upon emphasizing the good times.

"They really are extraordinary boys and Catherine is incredible," she also told Vieira. "I just think it is all goodness and we need to hear more about goodness and Diana would have loved that." (Harry, meanwhile, insisted that she be invited to his wedding in 2018.)

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's Wedding: Behind-the-Scenes Photos

Though her marriage to Charles quickly unraveled for various reasons not long after Harry was born in 1984, Diana's relationship with the public was just getting started. 

She envisioned the monarchy one day having "more contact with its people," and that was her raison d'être behind wanting to expose her sons to as many walks of life as possible at an early age.

"I take them round homelessness projects, I've taken William and Harry to people dying of AIDS—albeit I told them it was cancer," she told Martin Bashir on the BBC's Panorama in 1995, an interview that was shocking and controversial then for its unprecedented candor—and shocking and controversial now because the BBC recently determined that Bashir acted deceitfully in arranging the meeting that led to him booking the guest of a lifetime.

Royal experts have drawn a straight line from the Panorama interview to Diana and Charles' 1996 divorce (after four years of separation) and questionable decisions Diana made toward the end of her life due to the backlash. But some have also posited that, especially since the princess had previously aided Andrew Morton in the writing of Diana: Her True Story, which came out in 1992, it was totally possible that she would have ended up giving an in-depth interview to someone at some point if it hadn't been to Bashir.

Tim Graham/Getty Images

Because she sat down sounding ready to talk—and her revelations about what she had experienced and her approach to parenting had far-reaching positive consequences as well.

"I've taken the children to all sorts of areas where I'm not sure anyone of that age in this family has been before," she explained. "And they have a knowledge—they may never use it, but the seed is there, and I hope it will grow because knowledge is power."

She wanted William and Harry "to have an understanding of people's emotions, people's insecurities, people's distress, and people's hopes and dreams."

As it turns out, one of the princes' biggest causes is mental health awareness—something Diana, in her day, may not have been able to imagine being such an important part of their public lives.

While it remains as consequential and helpful as ever for public figures to speak up about their own struggles, when the Princess of Wales opened up about bulimia, self-harm, attempting suicide and postpartum depression in the 1990s it was downright explosive—and, perhaps unwittingly, she opened the door for the next generation of royals to pick up the conversation.

Dominic Lipinski/Pool via AP

Harry, William and Kate launched their Heads Together campaign in 2016 and Harry's disclosures about therapy and his behavioral issues that he attributes to grief that went unprocessed for years after Diana died marked another monumental chapter in the House of Windsor's ongoing evolution.

Plagued by usually very well-disguised self-doubt her whole life, Diana also credited work with a "shrink," Maurice Lipsedge, for helping her recover from her eating disorder, and for helping her realize, as she said in Morton's Diana: Her True Story, "This is me, this is me, I'm not the only person [with a problem]."

And though Diana lamented how unsympathetic her husband, his family and the media were to her very real struggles, she had no plans to relinquish her platform after her marriage to Charles effectively ended with their announced separation in 1992.

Kypros/Getty Images

"During 1991 and 1992 her thinking about her royal position changed by the month but the general trend was towards staying within rather than leaving the organization," Morton wrote in his book. "She felt impatience with the creaking machinery of monarchy rather than despair, businesslike indifference towards Prince Charles as opposed to shrinking deference and cool disregard of Camilla Parker Bowles rather than jealous rage.

"It was by no means a consistent development but her growing interest in how to control and reform the system as well as her serious commitment to use her position to do good in the world pointed to staying rather than taking flight."

Diana would joke to her friends, "The things I do for England!"

But the royal bureaucracy was real, and by the '90s she was at least used to the family's—and the media's—idiosyncrasies. 

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

In her tapes that fueled the Morton biography, she recalled wanting to attend Grace Kelly's funeral in September of 1982, having previously met the Princess of Monaco when she was first engaged and appreciating how sweet the American movie star, who retired at 26 to marry Prince Raniere, had been to her. She remembered telling Charles, "I think it's important because she was an outsider who married into a big family and I've done the same, so it would [feel] right." Ultimately she had to ask Queen Elizabeth II for permission, after which she did get to go—and she returned home to rapturous praise of her funereal poise.

"I went there, did my bit, came back and everyone was all over me like a bad rash, [saying] 'Oh, you did so well!'" Diana recalled. "I thought, 'Well, interesting.'"

Every Bombshell From Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's Explosive Interview With Oprah

Kate and Meghan can relate.

"It's so important to me to know that she's a part of this with us," Meghan, newly engaged to Harry and sporting a ring made with a center stone from Botswana and two diamonds from Diana's collection, told the BBC in November 2017. By meeting Harry's aunts and uncle on his mother's side, she added, "I'm able to, in some way, know a part of her through them and, of course, through him."

DAVID HARTLEY/Shutterstock

After being outed as Harry's girlfriend in 2016, Meghan was instantly treated to a crash course in top-to-bottom tabloid scrutiny, very reminiscent of what Diana was put through only with the addition of social media trolls and 24/7 online coverage from the beginning—although Harry at least tried to prepare the actress for just how difficult it would be before they got engaged.

Not incidentally, of course, Meghan's commitment to humanitarian causes and the work she had already done for years before he came along was obviously part of the attraction for Prince Harry when the royal, unfamiliar with the legal drama Suits, met her on a blind date in London in 2016. (And it just so happened that Meghan, along with many another American girl in the late '90s, had become utterly fascinated with Diana after watching the global spectacle of her death unfold on TV, though she later insisted that she wasn't any sort of royal expert. "Is he nice?" she recalled asking her and Harry's mutual friend before agreeing to the fix-up.)

How Meghan Markle Forever Changed the Royal Family

Harry and William's commitment to public service was going to be fostered from birth no matter what, but it was their mother's way of connecting with people that would prove to be the takeaway when it came time to fashion their own approach to public life.

"I intuitively know what my mother would like me to do and want to progress with work she couldn't complete," Harry told Newsweek in 2017.

"My mother took a huge part in showing me an ordinary life, including taking me and my brother to see homeless people," he recalled. "Thank goodness I'm not completely cut off from reality. People would be amazed by the ordinary life William and I live. I do my own shopping. Sometimes, when I come away from the meat counter in my local supermarket, I worry someone will snap me with their phone. But I am determined to have a relatively normal life, and if I am lucky enough to have children, they can have one too."

Harry paused and added, "Even if I was king, I would do my own shopping."

It's a good thing he learned what parchment paper was early on, because who knows how often Meghan sends him to the store these days, now that they're just a couple of producer-activist-philanthropists living in Montecito, Calif., with their two children, Archie Harrison and Lilibet Diana, who just arrived June 4.

Mike Forster / Daily Mail /REX/Shutterstock

For as long as she was around, Diana wanted her sons to be 1,000 percent sure that they were loved, but she also didn't want them to have any illusions about their lives—or about life, in general.

"When I grow up I want to be a policeman and look after you, Mummy," a young William is said to have told her, to which Harry quickly countered with, "Oh no, you can't. You've got to be king."

Diana explained that she had altered her approach to raising William, born second in line to the throne, "in a subtle way. People aren't aware of it, but I am. I would never rattle their cage, the monarchy, because when I think the mother-in-law has been doing it for 40 years who am I to come along and change it just like that? But through William learning what I do, and his father to a certain extent, he has got an insight into what's coming his way. He's not hidden upstairs with the governess."

In fact, Diana was subtly raising William to succeed the queen, saying, "If I was able to write my own script I'd say that I would hope that my husband would go off, go away with his lady and sort that out and leave me and the children to carry the Wales name through to the time William ascends the throne. And I'd be behind them all the way and I can do this job so much better on my own; I don't feel trapped."

Kate Middleton & Prince William's Best Moments

Barring an unforeseen event, Charles has made it clear that that's not what is going to happen. Now married to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, since 2005, the 72-year-old Prince of Wales has every intention of being king one day—and though it was originally said that Camilla wouldn't assume the title of queen, there's speculation that she's so ingrained in the royal fabric by now that she still just might.

But, just as Diana did want, William and Harry are leading unprecedented lives, in that they're traveling the world (in normal non-pandemic times); devoting time and money to the sick, to children, to veterans, to the less fortunate, to protecting wildlife; speaking frankly about issues, such as depression, anxiety and grief, that can affect any family; and, not least, distinguishing themselves as doting husbands and fathers.

And they do so much of it with their mother in mind.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

"I would like to have had her advice," William told British GQ in 2017. "I would love her to have met Catherine and to have seen the children grow up. It makes me sad that she won't, that they will never know her."

It wasn't really until 2017, when the 20th anniversary of her death prompted a slew of documentaries and retrospectives, that William and Harry started speaking more openly about that trauma.

"I am in a better place about it than I have been for a long time," William said, "where I can talk about her more openly, talk about her more honestly, and I can remember her better, and publicly talk about her better."

But at least he had someone who knew exactly what he had gone through.

Ian West/PA Wire

"Losing our mother at a young age has helped us to travel through that difficult patch together," William said of himself and Harry in 2018 at an event for the Campaign Against Living Miserably charity. "You're like-minded. You go through similar things, it's a bond and it's something you know you've tackled together and come out better for it."

William and Harry actually spent much of their adolescence geographically apart, minus a couple years overlapping at Eton starting in 1998 and bunking together during helicopter pilot training in 2009. After they formed the Royal Foundation together to manage their own charity work, onlookers got used to the brothers working together and for years they were neighbors at Kensington Palace where, along with Kate, they made for a happy trio.

So, not surprisingly, the proverbial fire alarm was sounded when Harry and Meghan first flew the coop to start their own household and then, ultimately, stepped back from the Firm altogether in 2020.

All of Meghan Markle's Final Royal Outfits

Longtime royal watchers' reactions have been mixed, with the blame for the rift that opened up between the brothers often falling on Meghan (and sometimes Harry for letting Meghan get between him and the House of Windsor), while others have applauded the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's escape from the confines of the monarchy to do their own thing.

Diana would obviously just want her boys to be happy. And she would certainly understand Harry and Meghan's need to distance themselves from the royal family, or at least from the British press that's made life hard for every branch of the family tree at some point.

She found that the scrutiny didn't abate once she and Charles broke up; in fact, it intensified, especially when it came to her romantic life—and she hardly would have been surprised that both of her sons were compelled to issue statements, a decade apart, requesting that the media do a better job respecting the women in their lives. What she might have been was wistful that no one did the same for her when she was 19 years old.

Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images

She was reportedly considering removing herself from public life, perhaps even relocating to South Africa where her brother Charles was living at the time, when, at only 36 years old, she died the most disturbingly public of deaths.

Which, naturally, was followed by one of the biggest outpourings of public grief ever to befall the historically stoic Brits, thousands of whom took to the streets to mourn and demand that the royal family do more for Diana, who had come to be known as the "People's Princess."

And though they're perfectly charming in interviews these days and know that a phalanx of photographers snapping them from all angles at an appearance is part of their jobs, William and Harry will forever have a guarded relationship with the press—more so than your average celebrity whose long-term popularity may depend on the world not knowing too much about them.

Princess Charlotte, Prince George and Prince Louis at Queen's Platinum Jubilee

Whether it was the Bashir interview that Diana later regretted or the fact that paparazzi were still taking pictures while she and Dodi Fayed lay inside the wreckage of their mangled Mercedes in Paris that night, neither prince will forget how their mother was media-handled. Like Diana, they plan to continue using their unique platform to advance their causes for as long as people care to pay attention.

But they know that their lives are also only so much fodder to sell papers.

"'It's her fault,'" Diana said, per Morton, in assessing what she thought was the general opinion of all the attention she received. "I got that from everywhere, the system and the media started to say it was my fault, I was the Marilyn Monroe of the 1980s and that I was adoring it. I've never, ever sat down and said, 'Hooray, how wonderful.' Never. Because the day I do that, we're in trouble with this set-up.

"I am performing a duty as the Princess of Wales and my time is allocated," she concluded. "And if I go somewhere else, I go somewhere else. If life changes, it changes, but at least when I finish, as I see it, my 12 to 15 years as Princess of Wales... I don't see it [lasting] any longer, funnily enough."

The Truth About Marilyn Monroe's Final Hours and More Devastating Details in The Unheard Tapes

Diana also said in the Morton tapes that she'd love to be able to go to the opera, or the movies or even just on a walk without causing a stir, but it wasn't to be. Not yet, anyway.

"But I know one day if I play the rules of life," she mused, "the game of life, I will be able to have those things I've always pined for and they will be that much more special because I will be that much older and I'll be able to appreciate them that much more.

"I don't want my friends to be hurt and think I've dropped them," Diana added, "but I haven't got time to sit and gossip. I've got things to do and time is precious."

Get the latest tea from inside the palace walls. Sign up for Royal Recap!

(Originally published July 1, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)