How Princess Diana Saved Britain's Royal Family

Princess Diana
Princess Diana wearing a Jasper Conran suit during a visit to a community centre in Brixton, October 1983. Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Nothing about Princess Diana was as it should have been.

She came from the old landed aristocracy: If her brother, Earl Spencer, was able to speak so scathingly of the royal family to their faces at her funeral, it was precisely because he knew his English aristocratic pedigree was much longer than that of the German-imported Saxe-Coburg-Gotha crew.

Yet this privately-educated daughter of a belted earl somehow morphed into "the people's princess," in Tony Blair's fortuitously-worded tribute, taken to the hearts of the British people as if she were somehow one of them.

With little apparently to recommend her beyond a certain coy charm and a penchant for high-collared blouses and pearl chokers, she won the hand of the most eligible bachelor in the world, seeing off royal, titled and celebrity rivals— or so we thought.

Her wedding dress, a huge exploding meringue of taffeta and lace with a vast, over-long train, should have looked ridiculous: Instead she carried it off triumphantly and produced, until her death, the definitive iconic image of herself.

Having done her duty and produced not one but two male heirs to the throne, she was supposed to play the part of a royal, opening things and uttering a few harmless platitudes until eventually she sat beside her husband as queen. It was certainly not supposed to end as it did, with TV interviews, revelations of adultery and bulimia, divorce and a very public affair with an Egyptian playboy.

The scenes of Latin American-style public emotion at her death caught commentators by surprise: Had the British people changed? Historians and journalists speculated that the increasingly ugly public mood might signal the end of the monarchy itself.

Yet, as Stephen Frears's film The Queen demonstrated brilliantly, the British monarchy has not survived into the 21st century without knowing how to adapt to dramatic changes in public mood. The queen's return to London after the death, and the princes' walking out to meet the crowds outside Buckingham Palace and to inspect the vast mountain of floral tributes to their mother, and above all the carefully choreographed funeral, all served to re-establish the monarchy's firm hold on the British people's affections and the royal household's control over events.

Tony Blair and his press adviser Alastair Campbell controlled the immediate aftermath of Diana's death; the funeral was the point when the royal household respectfully but firmly resumed control.

The 19th-century constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot argued that a sense of magic and mystique was essential for monarchy to play its role in public life. Despite the scandals that have always dogged the British monarchy, his analysis remains true. At first Diana's death seemed to mark the ending of the fairy tale. It certainly hit the public image of Prince Charles; the public perception that Diana suffered at Charles's hands has undoubtedly resurfaced and shown itself in renewed anger aimed at him and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall—hence his sons' insistence in their recent interviews on the importance of their father's support.

Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that dramas, like Michael Dobbs's To Play the King and Mike Bartlett's King Charles III, recently shown on BBC television, regularly imagine Charles's reign ending in the failure of his plans and his own abdication. But, to the frustration of republican journalists, public criticism of the prince does not call for the end of the monarchy but merely for the line of succession to go straight to Prince William, Diana's son. People do sometimes die in fairy tales, after all, but their spirit lives on: Diana's death fits into that narrative as easily as her wedding did.

Twice in the 20th century, at the abdication in 1936 and at the death of Diana in 1997, the British monarchy seemed on the point of implosion because of the loss of a charismatic figure, popular with the public but apparently destabilizing for the monarchy itself. On each occasion the monarchy emerged from the crisis apparently more entrenched than ever.

When the queen bowed to Diana's coffin that day twenty years ago, she wasn't conceding to a higher power, she was thanking the monarchy's savior.

Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University.