Inside Queen Elizabeth II's Complicated Relationship With Princess Diana

Queen Elizabeth II didn't dislike Princess Diana. What she couldn't stand was the royal family's image being dragged through the mud as Prince Charles and his wife played he said, she said in public.

By Natalie Finn Sep 08, 2022 11:51 PMTags
Watch: Queen Elizabeth II Dead at 96: Relive Her Extraordinary Royal Life

So much of Queen Elizabeth II's life revolved around duty, loyalty and tradition, the choices she made were hardly ever dictated by her feelings in the moment, but by history.

The most notable exception to that rule may have been her own marriage, Prince Philip having hardly been the ideal suitor on paper as far as her family was concerned. But, Elizabeth loved him.

And when it came to ensuring that the monarchy had a bountiful future, the expected outcome for her eldest son, King Charles III, was marriage.

That is, marriage to the right person, the queen—her own head-over-heels love match aside—having seen up close how consequential the wrong choice of mate could be to the entire family. Her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated after less than a year on the throne so he could wed twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, resulting in Elizabeth's father becoming King George VI and rerouting the line of succession in his eldest daughter's direction.

And considering how Elizabeth, who died Sept. 8 at the age of 96 after a 70-year reign, nudged her younger sister, Princess Margaret, away from her preferred love, their father's unhappily married equerry Peter Townsend, the old-fashioned bias against divorce didn't peter out with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's generation.

Queen Elizabeth II Celebrated Across the World as Mourners Pay Tribute

Lady Diana Spencer wasn't divorced. She wasn't much of anything yet, only 16 years old when Charles—approaching 30 and under pressure to sort out his personal life—first noticed her while he was casually dating her older sister Sarah.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

In taped interviews that made up the meat of Andrew Morton's supposedly unauthorized 1991 biography Diana: Her True Story (reissued as Her True Story in Her Own Words after her death), Diana recalled her first impression of Charles when she saw him at Althorp, her family's Northampton estate, in 1977: "God, what a sad man." 

Both of her grandmothers had served as ladies-in-waiting to Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Diana's father, John Spencer, was a viscount, so the family was British nobility and their social circle always included members of the royal family. Charles' much younger brothers, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, were among Diana's childhood playmates—and she felt terrible for them as well.

"Look at the life they have, how awful," she often thought, per Morton. Moreover, her sister Jane ended up marrying Robert Fellowes, then assistant private secretary to the queen, in 1978. (He assumed the top private secretary job in 1990.)

As for the queen, Diana had "known her since I was tiny so it was no big deal" being around her, she recalled. At least up until July 1980 when, after reuniting with Charles at the home of a mutual friend, the prince "leapt on me practically." He ended up proposing marriage on Feb. 6, 1981, after roughly seven months of sporadic dates.

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Diana infamously insisted later on that she received little guidance from anyone at Buckingham Palace—not Charles, not his family, not their staff—as to what was expected of her once she got engaged, and she said the queen's office provided no help whatsoever at taming the press mob that had become obsessed with the future Princess of Wales overnight.

But in the Morton book and her infamous 1995 interview with Martin Bashir on the BBC's Panorama, Diana placed the onus for her suffering on Charles: Early on in their marriage, she thought it fairly obvious that a little more attention from her husband would do the trick, but the Prince of Wales' true affections were directed elsewhere.

In even her most rueful moments, however, it sounded as though Diana never expected that much more from her in-laws—and she never directed her ire expressly at the queen, even while recalling feeling so alone while struggling with bulimia, severe morning sickness and postpartum depression.

When she threw herself down the stairs at Sandringham while pregnant with Prince William, "the Queen comes out absolutely horrified, shaking—she was so frightened," Diana shared in the Morton tapes. Charles, she continued, "went out riding and when he came back, you know, it was just dismissal, total dismissal."

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

In a 2016 foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of his book, Morton wrote that Diana said "the queen" in the tapes but, when looking over the manuscript before it was first published in June 1992, "she altered the text and inserted the Queen Mother's name, presumably out of deference to the Sovereign."

In fact, though Diana had critical words for the royal institution—"I do think that there are a few things that could change," she told Bashir—she always spoke respectfully of the queen.

"I admire her," Diana said. "I long to get inside her mind and talk to her, and I will. I've always said to her: 'I'll never let you down but I cannot say the same for your son.' She took it quite well. She does relax with me."

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

From the beginning, the queen was supportive of Diana's instincts when it came to forging connections, such as when she asked the monarch's permission to represent the family at the 1982 funeral for Princess Grace of Monaco, the erstwhile Grace Kelly having been very kind to her when a newly engaged Diana first met the former movie star. Charles had predicted his mother would say no, but the queen told Diana, "I don't see why not, if you want to do this you can." 

Diana also insisted there was never any argument (as rumored) with the queen over whether to take then-8-month-old Prince William with her and Charles on their tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1983. "We never even asked her," she said, "we just did it."

Diana did, however, feel hopelessly misunderstood when the queen "indicated" to her that she understood the princess' bulimia to be a cause of her marital discord rather than a symptom.

Royal Family Greets Mourners After Queen Elizabeth's Death

By 1991, when she was spilling the beans to Morton, Diana said she got on "very well" with the queen and Philip, "but I don't go out of my way to go and have tea with them."

And the queen didn't not care for Diana.

More than anything, the most resolute, stoic person in the United Kingdom was tired of the glut of headlines about her son's marriage, enough so that she almost welcomed Charles and Diana's separation. Their split was officially announced by Prime Minister John Major to the House of Commons on Dec. 9, 1992, a fitting capper to the queen's storied annus horribilis. 

William and Prince Harry's parents may have gone on like that forever, or at least until their kids were much older, if not for Diana's November 1995 Panorama interview, in which she lamented her "crowded" marriage of three: Charles, herself and Camilla Parker Bowles (whose divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles had been finalized that March, a fairly direct result of Charles' televised admission of his and Camilla's affair in June 1994).

Behind the Scenes of Queen Elizabeth II's Funeral

Barely a month after the Panorama interview, the queen wrote to Charles and Diana that it was time to divorce. They reached a settlement in July 1996 and the possibility of happily ever after finally seemed to be on the table.

But ultimately there wasn't much of a chance for anyone involved to truly settle into this new normal.

Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. Five days later—an interminable amount of time to those waiting for a public reaction from their queen—the monarch paid tribute to William and Harry's mother in a televised address from Buckingham Palace.

"We have all been trying in our different ways to cope," the queen said. "It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings—disbelief, incomprehension, anger and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart."

Diana "was an exceptional and gifted human being," she continued. "In good times and bad, she never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness. I admired and respected her—for her energy and commitment to others, and especially for her devotion to her two boys...No one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her."

That days-in-the-making speech lasted a few minutes. But the queen spoke volumes on Sept. 6 without saying a thing: As Diana's funeral cortege passed by on the way to Westminster Abbey, the monarch bowed her head, a gesture of respect more powerful than any words.

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