Wednesday marks 25 years since Princess Diana’s death thrust not only the British royal family but the entire world into shock and mourning. Diana was 36 years old at the time and was a famous celebrity who advocated for AIDS patients as well as landmine removal in developing nations.
She was also one of the English-speaking world’s most well-known women, who millions had watched evolve from a shy 20-year-old wife of the older Prince Charles into a global figure whose legacy spurred major changes to the traditional royal family.
Here are the details of Diana’s death and her legacy.
What did Aug. 31 look like?
The “People’s Princess” was killed in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. The incident raised scrutiny over the tabloid press’ coverage of her as well as conspiracy theories around the circumstances of her death.
Diana’s boyfriend at the time, Egyptian-born Dodi Fayed, and driver Henri Paul also died in the crash, which occurred as they tried to evade a group of paparazzi on motorcycles, having left the Ritz Paris to go to Dodi’s apartment. The vehicle was traveling at speeds exceeding 60 MPH, but the limit is 30 MPH. It eventually crashed into a wall on the highway.
The point at which the Paris car crash that killed Diana Princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayed resulted in a fatal accident is captured by a cameraman. In their honor, many flowers were laid.
Jacques Demarthon—AFP via Getty Images
According to witnesses, some other paparazzi were critical of taking photos instead of helping in the immediate aftermath.
Although many initially blamed the paparazzi, a French judge in 1999 cleared them. Prosecutors later revealed that the driver, Paul, had a blood alcohol level three times above the country’s legal limit. An extensive 2006 Scotland Yard investigation determined the crash was a “tragic accident.” But in April 2008, a British jury ruled that the driver and paparazzi were both to blame for grossly negligent driving.
That hasn’t stopped wider scrutiny of the press’ role in hounding Diana and her family. They were drawn to Diana’s bold and colorful fashion sense, but they also loved her disregard for royal traditions.
Diana’s close family members have maintained their strong criticism of the paparazzi. Her brother, Charles Spencer, described his sister as “the most hunted person of the modern age”—referring to the press constantly trailing her.
Continue reading: TIME’s Original 1997 Special Report on Princess Diana’s Death
Fayed’s father, Mohamed al-Fayed, had previously claimed that Diana was pregnant with his son’s child but that has since been disproven by a forensic inquiry. He has also criticized what he says was the royal family’s disapproval of Diana and Dodi’s relationship, citing Dodi’s heritage and Muslim faith.
Diana had publicly discussed her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles, to the Palace’s disapproval, admitting in a bombshell interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir in 1995 that both had extramarital affairs. “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” she said, referring to Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Charles later married Parker Bowles, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip neither being present.
In 1996, Diana and Prince Charles were officially divorcing.
The Royal Family’s response
Queen Elizabeth II’s first public address came five days after Diana’s death. “I want to pay tribute to Diana myself. She was an exceptional and gifted human being,” she said in a speech broadcast to the nation. “In good times and bad, she never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness.”
Some British citizens were not happy with the delayed acknowledgment. Mary Francis, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth, said Newsweek in a 2017 interview that she believed the family was “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.”
Continue reading: The 5 Biggest Takeaways From HBO’s New Diana Documentary, The Princess
In recent years, Prince Harry, one of Diana’s two sons, has spoken more openly about his grief. “I was so angry with what happened to her—and the fact that there was no justice at all. That was it. The same people that chased her into the tunnel photographed her dying on the backseat of that car,” he said in the 2021 Apple TV+ documentary The Me You Can’t See.
Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, told British media in 2017 that he had been lied to by palace courtiers about the two princes, then 12 and 15, wanting to walk behind their mother’s coffin at the internationally televised funeral. It was a “bizarre and cruel thing,” he said, explaining that he had pushed for the duo not to have to do so. He called the procession “the most horrifying half an hour of my life.”
Prince Harry has previously expressed his dismay at having to walk behind his mother during the funeral procession. “My mother had just died and I had to walk a long way behind her coffin surrounded by thousands of people watching me while millions more did on television,” he told NewsweekIn a 2017 interview. “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today.” He later, reflecting on the occasion, said that he was “very glad” to have been part of the day.
(L to R.) Prince Harry, Prince William and Earl Spencer walk past Westminster Abbey as part of the service that Diana, Princess of Wales received on September 6, 1997. Many thousands of people gathered in Central London to witness the funeral procession.
Jeff J. Mitchell—AFP via Getty Images
Diana and paparazzi’s relationship
The British paparazzi earned a reputation for closely following Diana’s every move; she was one of the most photographed people in the world and snapshots of her could sell for lucrative prices—hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece.
Mirror Group Newspapers published photos of Diana working out at the gym and sued Diana in 1993. She also spoke openly about her disdain of being endlessly pursued by paparazzi; once, yelling out to a photographer who took a picture of her leaving a movie theater in 1993: “you make my life hell.”
Continue reading: The Princess and the Paparazzi: How Diana’s Death Changed the British Media
At a speech in December 1993, Diana said that she knew starting a public life would entail media attention but she didn’t realize just how much of her private life would be scrutinized, too. “I was not aware of how overwhelming that attention would become. Nor the extent to which it would affect both my public duties and my personal life, in a manner that’s been hard to bear,” she said.
A 1997 Gallup poll found that 43% of Brits thought photographers were “extremely” responsible for the accident that led to Diana’s death, compared to 33% who assigned the same level of blame to the driver.
A more recent 2018 YouGov poll found that Princess Diana is Britain’s most mourned public figure, a sign of her lasting legacy a quarter of a century after her death.
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