How Princess Diana's Death Changed Queen Elizabeth II and Britain's Royal Family

The week after Princess Diana died in September 1997, Mary Francis, then an aide to Queen Elizabeth II, returned to Buckingham Palace for the first time since the Paris car crash that had killed the young royal and devastated Britain. “I can remember just being struck by the huge banks of flowers, the huge numbers of people, and almost total silence,” she tells Newsweek. “A very,” Francis pauses, “almost threatening combination.”

If the public outpouring of emotion for the ex-wife of the Prince of Wales was alarming to a backroom functionary in the royal household, it’s hard to imagine how it must have felt to those at the center of the story: Britain’s monarch and her husband Prince Philip; Diana’s ex-husband and Britain’s probable next king Prince Charles; his and Diana’s sons, the princes William and Harry. In the days after the death, the family had been mercilessly dragged in the media for initially remaining ensconced in mostly private grief at Balmoral, their Scottish residence, rather than leading the public mourning in London.

“This was primarily a family that had been struck by a personal tragedy, especially for the grandchildren [of the queen], and so that was the first reaction,” says Francis. “But I think that the family were somewhat slow, perhaps, to recognize the need to step forward in their public role of showing leadership for the country in its grief about the death of the princess.”

Nowadays, Britain’s royal family is seen around the world as a prime example of keeping a traditional institution relevant—of communications acumen and smart branding. But in that week 20 years ago, it was possible to imagine a very different future. Five years earlier, in a speech at the end of 1992, the Queen looked back on what she called an “annus horribilis,” marked by a fire at Windsor Castle (which she mentioned explicitly), and the initial separation of Diana and her son (which she left to the audience to imagine). The intervening years had seen an unending media scrum as tabloid papers fought to publish more and more lurid details about the Prince and Princess of Wales and their separate lives and relationships. Then in 1997, Diana’s passing unleashed a daily barrage of press vitriol.

“For the previous number of years, five plus years, [the royals] had spent their time just basically burying their heads in the sand,” says George Pascoe-Watson, a senior partner at the PR and lobbying firm Portland Communications who at the time was working for Britain’s loudest and most influential tabloid, The Sun. “Princess Diana had by that time split from Prince Charles,” says Francis, “and had set up a sort of rival court in a way, doing things in a much less formal and stuffy way, as it seemed to people.” Before 1997, “there was a recognition I think in Buckingham Palace that the royal family were seen as a bit remote, a bit out of touch with modern life and that changes were needed.” But, Francis says, “[Diana’s] death was the catalyst that kind of demonstrated that this wasn’t just a theoretical exercise.”

When changes came, they were incremental, tactical, and often invisible to the outsider. There was no revolution in the heart of the palace. But a close observer would have noticed stirrings in the near-thousand-year-old institution. One of the more tangible was the creation of a new role, the Communications Secretary, filled for two years from 1998 by a PR professional on secondment from the energy company Centrica, Simon Lewis. “The idea was to have a strategic communications expert in the palace, who wasn’t just focusing on the day to day press office activity but taking a wider view,” Lewis explains to Newsweek.

In his new role, Lewis set about repairing relations with the U.K.’s abrasive and then-all powerful print media, building relationships with editors and royal correspondents. “During the run up to the death of the Princess of Wales there had clearly been some quite challenging times,” Lewis says. “There was a view that there was a Princess of Wales camp in the media and a Prince of Wales camp in the media and people took sides.” He set about maintaining good channels of communication with the likes of Piers Morgan, then in his pre-television days as an upstart young editor of the Daily Mirror, and The Sun’s editor David Yelland.

But aside from media management Lewis’s role involved striking a delicate balance: maintaining the sense of mystery and wonder that is central to the monarchy’s appeal, while also opening up the institution to bring it closer to its subjects. Lewis helped launch the first royal website and to arrange the broadcasting of ceremonies for people receiving knighthoods and other honors. One of the first was the knighthood of the singer Elton John. “I thought that was a very good example of setting some more light on the institution without going well beyond what was necessary,” Lewis says.

Francis also talks about the internal sensitivities involved in opening up the royal family. “There was this understanding that people…wanted something a little bit more informal from their head of state,” she says, “but on the other hand the Queen was intensely aware that on many occasions she was meeting people who were meeting their queen for the one and only time of their life and those people wanted to feel that it was a special occasion.”

So in subtle but important ways, the nature of the visits the queen and Prince Philip undertook began to shift. “In a very British way, nothing very explicit was said about the need for change after [Diana's] death between the members of the royal family and their advisers,” Francis explains, “but certainly my experience was that I could push a bit further in suggesting different kinds of engagements, things were agreed to that wouldn’t have been agreed to before.” Research undertaken by the palace found that the top royals were more likely to visit private than state-funded schools, for example. That began to change. And when a school visit happened, the queen might have “sat down with the children, more at their level, rather than sort of standing and watching a performance from a distance.”

Not everyone agrees with the significance this version of history gives to Diana's death. Dickie Arbiter, a royal commentator who formerly worked in various senior roles in the Palace and was one of two press secretaries on duty when the princess died, says that while the royal family has clearly had to move with the times over its history, “the institution has been evolving for 1,000 years, it constantly adapts and changes and because of Diana’s death it didn’t suddenly switch from being one thing to another.”

Of particular frustration to Arbiter was the drive to bring in outside PR advisors like Lewis, which he saw as a “knee-jerk reaction” to a non-existent problem. “I believe that we got the funeral arrangements absolutely 101 percent right,” he says, and speaks of his frustration in particular with spin doctors from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office, who assisted with the management of Diana’s death and funeral. “They were the Downing Street lot, the new kids on the block, and they thought they knew everything,” he says.

At the first planning meeting for Diana’s funeral, Arbiter recalls, the question was raised as to whether Diana’s coffin would be borne in a hearse or on a gun carriage (in the event, the latter was chosen). “One of those Downing Streets said: ‘you can’t put it on a gun carriage, that’s too militaristic,’” says Arbiter, “until it was pointed out to them that, hang on a minute, she was commander in chief of the London regiments. So she had a military connection.”

Looking at the royals today, things seem different. Princes Harry and William, while keeping media access tightly controlled, strike a more human, emotional tone in the public pronouncements they do make than their forebears did; Harry even opened up about his personal battles with mental health earlier this year, including in a Newsweek cover story. The 2012 Olympic opening ceremony is often cited as a watershed moment in royal behavior; the queen appeared in a skit featuring James Bond, pretending to parachute into the event.

For Arbiter, these changes are just a reflection of a changing world. “We are a touchy feely society, we are a celebrity society today,” he says. “You go back 40 years, we weren’t a celebrity society, we weren’t a touchy feely society. Life evolves.”

But for Francis, the seeds of the contemporary royals’ image were sown in the weeks and months following Diana’s death. “The queen had been brought up in a very formal way, and told that that was how a queen was expected to behave, and so making that transition is difficult for an elderly person, and you couldn’t expect her to go too far,” she says. But the turbulence and change of the 90s still left a mark: “The family couldn’t help observing how Diana behaved,” Francis says. “It rubbed off.”