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Princess Diana’s death: 8 days in 1997 that shook Britain and the world

A permanent memorial to Diana, princess of Wales, and Dodi al-Fayed is pictured in the Harrods store in London in 2006.

Princess Diana’s death in a car crash on Aug. 31, 1997, left Britain reeling and the rest of world glued to the news of the royal tragedy.

For the eight days between her death and her funeral, the story of Diana’s death dominated The Washington Post’s front pages as correspondents filed article after article about a nation in mourning and the royal family’s highly scrutinized reaction to the tragedy.

What follows are excerpts of Post reports from those eight days, which together capture the turmoil that Diana’s death wrought in Britain.

Aug. 31, 1997: The crash

From “Princess Diana, Boyfriend Are Killed in Paris; Car Crashes With Photographers in Pursuit”
By Anne Swardson and Charles Trueheart

Diana, 36, often described as the most famous woman in the world, suffered grave head injuries in the crash and succumbed around 4 a.m. Paris time (10 p.m. EDT), according to officials at the hospital where she was taken. It was a sudden and tragic ending to a life that was part fairy tale and part soap opera and that had captivated millions for nearly two decades.

Diana’s life ended the same way she spent nearly all of her adulthood: pursued by aggressive paparazzi, in this case on speeding motorcycles chasing a car carrying her and Fayed away from a dinner at the Hotel Ritz. Police arrested five photographers and launched a criminal investigation. France Info radio said at least some of the photographers took pictures before help arrived — and that one of the photographers was beaten at the scene by horrified witnesses.

Sept. 1, 1997: Mourning begins

From “At the Palace Gates, Flowers and Tears — and Anger at the Press”
By Christine Spolar

Quiet sobs could be heard among the mourners at Kensington Palace, which had been Diana’s residence, and at Buckingham Palace, who came to build memorials, flower by flower, to the princess whose fabled marriage never lived up to her dreams or the royal family’s demands. …

Sanchia Franks, a 38-year-old homemaker, awoke this morning to the startling news of Diana’s death. She turned on the television and watched all morning before deciding to drive to Kensington Gate.

“We all wanted to know about our princess, of course,” she said. “And I think if you’re in her position, you expect the press. But not this. Not this.”

From “From Sheltered Life To Palace Life, To a Life of Her Own”
By Eugene Robinson

The last public chapter in Diana’s saga was her romance with Dodi Fayed, the son of an Egyptian-born tycoon who owns the London department store, Harrods. It was her first romantic affair since her divorce a year ago from Prince Charles (Philip Arthur), 48, heir to the British throne. Pictures of Diana and Fayed together on his father’s yacht — and word apparently from Diana herself that she had “found love” with Fayed and was “besotted” — created a sensation in Britain.

One reason for the intense interest, perhaps, was that these two bookend loves of Diana’s adult life could hardly have been more different. Charles is stiff, perhaps a bit dour, with his defining characteristic being the intense sense of duty he feels toward his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, the rest of his family and the nation he one day will rule as king. Fayed, by contrast, is the quintessential playboy, with his yachting vacations, his private jet, his tolerant and ultra-rich father, Mohamed Fayed, and his long string of gossip-column items linking him with beautiful women, among them Britt Ekland and Brooke Shields.

Sept. 2, 1997: ‘Unique funeral’ planned

From “‘A Unique Funeral for a Unique Person’; Service for Diana to Blend Regal Pomp With Features Reflecting Her Varied Life”
By Dan Balz

Palace officials described the service, which will be held at Westminster Abbey, as “a unique funeral for a unique person.” The arrangement appeared devised to accommodate Diana’s complex social position as the divorced wife of the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, as well as her popularity among Britons and around the world.

The services will include an elaborate, hour-long procession that will accompany Diana’s coffin from St. James’s Palace to Westminster Abbey, the 13th-century Gothic edifice in which the main service, involving 2,000 mourners, will be held. Later that day, she will be interred in her family’s chapel at St. Mary the Virgin Church in the village of Brington, about 70 miles north of London.

From “In Tabloid Press, Quiet Grief for Its Biggest Star; One Royal Watcher Sighs: ‘I Am Crying as I Write This'”
By Eugene Robinson

Britain’s raucous tabloid newspapers were uncharacteristically quiet today, as reports that pursuing photographers might have contributed to Princess Diana’s death led to talk of tough new privacy laws, curbs on electronic eavesdropping and other strictures on the press.

Usually blustery and bellicose, many tabloids opted for lyrical, subdued language this morning. The Sun dawned with “Good Night Sweet Princess” across its front page. By evening, the Standard was describing the plans for “A Unique Funeral for a Unique Person.” Its coverage included, however, a tearful James Hewitt, who had kissed and told in a book about his affair with Diana, gushing about how he “loved her and missed her terribly.”

The Mirror displayed a luminous Diana surrounded by a black border and the headline: “1961-1997.” The Express wrote about “The Saddest Homecoming,” with a color photo of a somber honor guard hoisting her coffin high.

Sept. 3, 1997: Probe points to paparazzi

From “Charles ‘Is to Blame for All of This’; Grieving Londoners Fault Ex-Husband’s Behavior as a Catalyst for Royal Tragedy”
By Christine Spolar and Dan Balz

Not even tragedy has raised Prince Charles in the esteem of his countrymen.

The cool, remote Prince of Wales may be weeping over the death of his former wife, Princess Diana, if tabloid tales are true, but the British public appears to be oddly unmoved by his sorrow.

Charles, whose dour demeanor, eccentric enthusiasms and affair with a married woman have long made him the loser to Diana in the competition for public affection, has said nothing publicly and issued no statement since Diana was killed in an auto accident with companion Dodi Fayed and a driver early Sunday. But, according to press accounts, he is suffering deeply.

He has been roaming the moors of Scotland, contemplating his sorrow over the loss of his ex-wife, said the Daily Mail. Red-eyed and sleepless, he is totally distraught, said the Sun.

But many media commentators urged the heir to the throne today to heed his former wife’s example, loosen up and reach out to his subjects in the same open-hearted way she did — or risk his future and that of the House of Windsor.

From “Diana’s Boys; A Mourning Nation Worries About the Princes’ Future”
By Roxanne Roberts

The British public, on the other hand, can’t stop crying. In the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of grief following the death of Diana, the only public sympathy expressed for the royal family is for her sons: William, 15, and Harry, who turns 13 in less than two weeks. In a life full of melodrama and disappointment, the two boys were a constant source of joy to Diana. She embraced motherhood with a passion, and lavished on her sons all the love missing from her own childhood: unrestrained affection, attention and guidance, a spirit of play.

Royal aides at Balmoral have been ordered to hide all newspapers announcing the deadly accident in Paris. The papers are full of stories about the effect of her death on her children. Grief experts all agree that the loss of their mother at such impressionable ages will change them profoundly and might haunt them for the rest of their lives. Pundits and the public have expressed fear that the contrast between the stiff-upper-lip tradition of the monarchy and their mother’s spontaneous, emotionally open style could have a devastating effect on the boys, particularly at this time. The public silence from the royal family about Diana’s death has only reinforced concerns about William and Harry. Wednesday’s edition of the Sun is reporting that William has insisted that he and his brother be allowed to walk behind the gun carriage bearing their mother’s coffin to Westminster Abbey.

Sept. 4, 1997: An indifferent royal family?

From “Can the Royals Survive Diana? British Monarchy Faces Crisis in Image, Relevance, Respect”
By Eugene Robinson

Evidence of the dilemma faced by Britain’s royal family after Princess Diana’s death has been visible this week for all to see: a bare flagpole above Buckingham Palace.

Throughout the nation, flags are at half-staff in Diana’s honor. But since Queen Elizabeth II and her family are at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, on their annual summer holiday, no flag is being flown at Buckingham Palace. That is simply protocol, a palace spokeswoman said. This explanation, though, has drawn unusually sharp criticism bordering on open attack — and cast into relief the royal family’s profound image problem.

“[The] House of Windsor seems a cold, compassion-free zone where duty and protocol push human emotions into a dark corner,” groused the Sun, Britain’s largest-selling tabloid newspaper and a telling barometer of public opinion. “Where are the words and gestures to reassure us that the Royal Family are capable of caring like ordinary people do? Or more important, in the way Diana so openly did?”

The British royals, their standing eroded by scandal and growing public apathy, now face a comparison that leaves them wanting: Why can’t they be more like Diana was? More broadly, they face a question they seem reluctant to address: Can such a grand, lofty, tradition-bound monarchy long survive in a rapidly changing Britain?

From “Britain’s Traditional Reserve Erodes in a Torrent of Emotion”
By Dan Balz

The British, particularly the upper classes, have never been known to wear their emotions on their sleeves. This was captured most memorably many years ago when Queen Elizabeth returned from a foreign trip and walked past a waiting Prince Charles, then a small boy, without giving him so much as a hug.

But Diana was the antithesis of all that, a woman known for her warmth and caring and touching. She was regularly seen on television hugging sick children, comforting AIDS victims and reaching out to the poor.

With her death, British people across the social spectrum have responded in kind, with tears that are spilled openly and without the slightest sense of embarrassment. Strangers are massing in lines and sharing their grief together, huddling in the cold at night and comforting one another as they wait to pay respects to Diana. British reserve has completely given way outside London’s palaces this week. Oprah Winfrey would feel very much at home here right now.

Sept. 5, 1997: A royal response

From “Queen Orders Flag At Half-Staff at Palace; British Royal Family Responds to Criticism”
By Dan Balz

Queen Elizabeth II today ordered the Union Jack to be flown at half-staff over Buckingham Palace on Saturday for the first time and scheduled a televised statement to the nation on Friday. These steps represented an unprecedented response to criticism that the royal family has been indifferent to the outpouring of grief over the death of Princess Diana. …

“Show Us You Care,” shouted a headline in the Express this morning. “Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?” cried the Sun. The Mirror ran large pictures of two grief-stricken mourners weeping, with an inset photo of the queen at the bottom of the page. “Your People Are Suffering,” said the headline. “Speak To Us, Ma’am.”

In response, the queen’s press secretary went before television cameras in London to read a statement that the family “have been hurt by suggestions that they are indifferent to the country’s sorrow” over Diana’s death. All week, mourners in the long lines around St. James’s Palace, Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace have complained publicly about the family.

From “Exits of ‘Iron Lady,’ ‘Velvet Princess’ End an Era; With Thatcher and Diana Gone From the British Stage, Left Behind Is a Legacy and a Cue for Change”
By Dan Balz

For much of the past 20 years, two charismatic women — Diana and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher — defined the face of Britain for much of the world. The “Iron Lady” and the velvet princess had little in common — one a politician, the other a regal celebrity — and performed on different stages. Now that both are off the stage, it is clear not only how profoundly each affected the Britain that prepares for the 21st century but also how much is left to be done.

It will fall to others — most notably Prime Minister Tony Blair — to chart the country’s future course, but the events of 1997 suggest that the British people are, in the analysis of writer Martin Jacques, pushing for political and cultural change to go along with the economic transformation delivered by Thatcher.

Sept. 6, 1997: The queen speaks

From “In Rare Address, Queen Laments Britain’s Loss; Royalty Mixes With Mourners Keeping Vigil Before Funeral”
By Dan Balz

Queen Elizabeth II paid personal tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, tonight as an “exceptional and gifted human being” whose death had been a “devastating loss” to millions of people. She also urged the country to use Saturday’s funeral services for Diana to show off a Britain “united in grief and respect.”

In a rare live television address, the British monarch said she spoke “from the heart” as both “your queen and a grandmother.” She sought to reassure the country that she and other members of the royal family were not insensitive to the enormous outpouring of emotion that has marked the aftermath of Diana’s death.

From “Ritz Hotel Tape Shows Diana Before Crash”
By Anne Swardson

On the last day of their lives, Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were hounded and pursued by photographers across Paris, from the time their plane landed in mid-afternoon until their deaths nine hours later, according to accounts provided today by Fayed’s spokesman and the Ritz Hotel here.

Mohamed Fayed, Dodi’s father and the Ritz’s owner, released a hotel security videotape and Ritz officials offered an oral chronology of Diana and Fayed’s last hours, contending that their deaths in the crash of a speeding Mercedes-Benz were caused not by the recklessness of a drunk driver employed by the Ritz, but by the paparazzi who pursued them.

In a London news conference, the Fayed family spokesman also pictured Diana and Fayed as deeply in love and committed to each other after a summer of romance. He confirmed that Fayed had given Diana a $200,000 diamond solitaire ring hours before she died, and said gifts from Diana to Fayed had been found among his effects.

Sept. 7, 1997: The funeral

From “Sorrowful Farewell to the ‘People’s Princess’; Diana’s Brother Remembers Her In Blunt, Bitter Funeral Tribute”
By Dan Balz

In precedent-shattering ceremonies that were at once sorrowful and uplifting, Diana, Princess of Wales, was remembered today as a woman of “natural nobility” whose life of compassion and style transcended sometimes abusive press coverage and even the royal family itself. Later she was laid to rest on her family’s estate, concluding one of the most extraordinary weeks in the modern history of Britain.

Diana’s flag-draped coffin, resplendent in the summer sun and topped with three wreaths — one carrying the simple notation “Mummy” — was carried this morning from the gates of Kensington Palace through the streets of central London in a silent, solemn 105-minute procession to the doors of Westminster Abbey, the historic burial place of British monarchs.

The ceremonies brought out one of the largest crowds in London since the end of World War II. More than a million people filled the streets, squares and parks to watch the procession and the funeral, which was beamed onto two gigantic screens in Hyde Park.

Just past its midpoint, the cortege was joined by Diana’s two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, along with their father, Prince Charles, Diana’s former husband and heir to the British throne; their grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh; and their uncle and Diana’s brother, the Earl Spencer. With heads bowed, they accompanied the coffin to the abbey.

There Spencer delivered a barbed and biting tribute to the late princess, who died in an automobile accident in Paris last Sunday. Spencer castigated the media and warned the royal family that Diana’s family will make sure her two sons continue to be raised with the openness and spirit she wanted.

From “Public Life, Public Grief; Live Television Coverage Unites the World in a Good Cry”
By Tom Shales

If the whole world was watching, then the whole world was probably weeping, too. The globally televised funeral of Princess Diana could well rank as the most widely seen event in history — proving perhaps that nothing unites the world quite so effectively as grief. …

One might have wondered as one watched, and watched, and watched, what alien beings from other worlds might have thought of the spectacle if they were watching, too. They might find it bizarre and outlandish. Or they might understand that someone much loved on her home planet had died and this is the way we global villagers convene, via television and satellite hookups, to demonstrate grief and affection.

It is impressive, and encouraging, that so many millions could stop and watch and listen in honor and memory of someone most of them had never met. Certainly it’s one of the finer purposes to which the much-maligned and much-abused medium of television could ever be put.

This article has been updated to correct the description of the crash that killed Diana.

Read more: 

Diana and the media: She used them, and they used her. Until the day she died.

Diana’s final hours: Dodi’s yacht, a Ritz suite, a diamond ring and relentless photographers

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