The Queen and Diana
Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, were more alike than you may realise: They both gave their lives to public service, they were strong in their own ways, and both were devoted to their families and subjects alike. But Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana were also very different. The Queen is silent and traditional; Diana was modern and outspoken.
Lady Diana Spencer, an aristocrat with many links to the royal family tree, married the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, in July 1981. They had two sons, Princes William and Harry, who are Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren. After several publicly tumultuous years in their marriage, Charles and Diana divorced in 1996, and Princess Diana died the following year.
What was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana really like, though? Much of the information that’s been used to form the narrative is a bit lopsided. “There’s a fundamental asymmetry in what we know about this relationship,” says Arianne Chernock, an associate professor of history at Boston University focusing on modern British history and the monarchy. “Diana perhaps told too much – she disclosed quite a bit about her life and her private feelings and emotions to the press. The Queen throughout her reign has had a very different, much more careful, choreographed approach. And so we don’t know what the Queen thought of the relationship. In a way, Diana gets to narrate the story for us.” And although much hearsay has been written about how the two royals felt about each other, this is what we know from the women themselves about their complicated relationship.
When did Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana meet?
The Queen had known Diana Spencer – or at least known of her – for most of the younger woman’s life. “The Spencers were a prominent family with close royal ties,” Chernock says. Diana’s father was an equerry, or personal attendant, to the Queen’s father, King George VI, and then to the Queen herself; her grandmother was a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth’s mother. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip attended Diana’s parents’ wedding, and the Queen is the godmother of Diana’s younger brother, Charles.
Princess Diana was born and spent her childhood at Park House, on the grounds of the royal estate in Sandringham, Norfolk. The royal family’s official website notes that, as neighbours, the families had known each other for many years. “In fact, Diana’s older sister [Lady Sarah] briefly dated Prince Charles before he met Diana,” Chernock says.
As her royal biography notes, Diana first encountered Prince Charles in 1977. He’d been invited to the Spencer estate at Althorp, where the family had moved after Diana’s father became Earl Spencer in 1975.
When they began dating, a marriage between Charles and Diana was hardly a given. So when was Diana introduced to the Queen as a potential partner for Charles? “The most sustained early interaction with the royal family came when she was invited to [royal Scottish country estate] Balmoral,” Chernock says. Viewers of Netflix’s The Crown will remember the 1980 meeting as the infamous “Balmoral test.”
The Queen thought Diana quite suitable for Charles. “She was very much a hit with the royal family – they really warmed to her,” Chernock says. “Diana worked very, very hard to ingratiate herself and to model what she thought being a princess would entail, and she did it very successfully.”
But this success would later come to backfire on Diana. “In retrospect, many would argue that she was not her authentic self during that visit, so she was more performing a role that she aspired to as opposed to being herself,” Chernock says. “She was working very hard to fit in. She was a city girl, and she pretended to love the country. She went out shooting. She did all of the things that she was supposed to do but that she actually did not enjoy.”
What was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana like?
At first, everything went smoothly between the Queen and Diana. “We do know that both she and Philip thought that Diana, based on that experience in Scotland, was very acceptable,” Chernock says. “They encouraged this union.”
Although they were not exactly close, the Queen approved of Charles’s choice – or rather, she approved of the woman she believed Diana to be. If she hadn’t given her stamp of approval, the relationship wouldn’t have moved forward. “The Queen has never left a recorded impression,” Chernock says. “She’s very tight-lipped. So we don’t know. We can’t access her diaries or her private thoughts. We can look at her actions and her behaviours; those are the clues we have.”
As for Diana, she may have started to get the sense that she bit off more than she could chew. “I think after her initial romance in Scotland, she began to realise just how tricky the royal family would be and how ill-prepared she was to really be a full-fledged member of the family,” Chernock says.