The Truth About Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana’s Relationship

The unexpected story of how two powerful women tried to make their fairy tale come true.

MARTIN CLEAVER/AP/ShutterstockThis article was originally written in 2001 by Ingrid Seward and appeared in the August 2001 issue of Reader’s Digest.*

THE TRAGIC NEWS that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in a Paris car crash came to us in August, four years ago. As Americans watched her funeral pageant at Westminster Abbey, it was easy to think of her only as a princess, someone completely unlike the rest of us.

But within the royal family Diana was an all-too human relative. She doted on her sons, William and Harry. She loved and fought with Prince Charles, her estranged husband. And she had a complicated relationship with the Queen, her mother-in-law, alternately viewing her as a substitute mom and a meddling old woman who was out to get her. In The Queen and Di, British author Ingrid Seward, who has covered the royal family for 18 years, draws on knowledge from her own sources to show how Diana and the Queen were close to being each other ‘s salvation. When the Princess held a sick orphan or wore a stunning gown, she warmed the otherwise cold and at times even weird public image of the royal family. The Queen, meanwhile, offered Diana a chance to find the home life she had been missing—Diana’s own mother had left home, and a broken marriage, when Diana was only six. But the Princess’s psychological problems, and the Queen’s rigid sense of protocol and propriety, ultimately undermined their relationship.

In her new book, Seward recounts the morning of August 31, when the Queen and Prince Charles heard about Diana’s accident. The Princess and her lover, Dodi Fayed, were trying to escape a crowd of paparazzi when their driver lost control in an underpass. Almost immediately, the news flashed to Balmoral, the Queen’s country home in Scotland.

The Queen was awakened in the early hours of the morning. Pulling on her old-fashioned dressing gown, she went into the corridor where she met Prince Charles. The news from Paris was that Dodi Fayed was dead, but Diana had survived. Soon the whole castle stirred from its slumber. Charles took incoming calls. The Queen ordered tea, which was brought from the kitchen and then ignored.

James Gray/Daily Mail/ShutterstockTheir first concern was to discover how badly injured Diana was. Initially they were told that she had walked away from the accident virtually unscathed. Then another call came through. “Sir, I am very sorry to have to tell you that I’ve just had the Ambassador on the phone. The Princess died a short time ago.”

Charles’s composure collapsed, and the tears the public never saw began to flow. The Queen was equally stunned. While others in the royal family had long since given up on Diana, Elizabeth had retained some affection for her daughter-in-law, and still sympathized with her. She recognized Diana’s potential—and saw her death as a terrible waste. The connection between the Queen’s and Diana dates back to when the princess’ grandmother worked for the Queen. This connection is one of the 9 secrets about Princess Diana no one knew about until after her death.

In the outpouring of grief from Diana’s supporters, the royal family found itself caught in a startling rip of public rancor. Crowds surged through the streets of London mourning the Princess, and the Palace was blamed for treating her heartlessly. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Queen Elizabeth had to ask: What do they want me to do?

I once asked Diana whether her marriage had been arranged, and she told me with some irritation: “It was Charles and I who decided on the marriage. Not the Queen. Us. No one else.”

That was true—no one ordered Charles to propose or Diana to accept. Without the Queen’s approval, though, no proposal would have been made.

As their romance acquired mo­mentum, almost everyone urged Charles to press forward. The Queen herself never directly addressed the question of his marriage, but by nod and nuance, she made it clear she ap­proved of Diana. The Prince, how­ever, was confused. ”I’m terrified sometimes of making a promise and then perhaps living to regret it,” he said.

The question; when it came, was a question in itself. “If I were to ask, what do you think you might say?” Charles inquired. Giggling, Diana replied, “Yeah, OK.” Charles then ran out of the room to telephone his mother with the news.

The engagement was announced on February 24, 1981, and Diana soon moved into rooms at Buckingham Palace. Since Diana had been born into privilege, the Queen believed her future daughter-in-law knew what was expected of her. As she wrote to a friend in March 1981, “I trust that Diana will find living here less of a burden than is expected.”

ShutterstockIn fact, Diana had no notion of what to expect—and from the beginning, she found royal life an extraordinary burden. She swam most mornings in the Palace pool, immersed herself in wedding plans, and took dance and exercise classes. The rest of the time she simply sat around, bored and increasingly irritable.

Pent-up and lonely, Diana began making herself ill, the first signs of bulimia. Several times a day she visited the kitchen, filling a bowl with Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and fruit, adding sugar and drenching it all in cream. Afterward, she would go to the bathroom and make herself sick.

Her moods became ever more unpredictable, and Charles drew much of her fire. Why, she asked, was he not spending more time with her? It was explained that the Prince had a schedule of engagements arranged months before. That did little to pacify her.

The Queen chose to overlook Diana’s behavior in these early months, concluding that she needed time to settle in. Nearly everyone, from the Queen to the staff who looked after Diana, attributed her behavior to a bad case of “nerves.”

Left to struggle through, Diana did so, barely. After one particularly difficult stretch in June 1981, when the Prince was traveling, she bolted. Following a party to celebrate Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday, she got into her car at 5:30 a.m. and drove from London to her family home, over an hour away. She told her father, John Spencer, that she was calling off the engagement. He listened as Diana poured out her heart, then advised her that it was probably just the pressure. Once she was married, said her father, things would get easier. One of the fascinating facts you probably didn’t know about Diana and Prince Charles is that Diana wasn’t his first choice, either. Feelings aside, by Sunday night Diana was back in Buckingham Palace, acting as if nothing had happened.

Pull quote

Most brides revel in the first weeks of marriage. Instead, during her honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean, Diana became violently ill with bulimia. After 15 exhausting days, which were punctuated by tremendous fights, the newlyweds arrived back at Balmoral. The Prince summoned a doctor, the first of many who would try to help. “All the analysts and psychiatrists you could ever dream of came plodding in to sort me out,” Diana recalled.

In medical terms, some feel that Diana suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. Symptoms include fear of abandonment, a tendency toward histrionic behavior, a need for adoration, and mood swings. Bulimia can be another manifestation.

The Queen was understanding of Diana’s difficulties, especially after it was made clear just how unwell her daughter-in-law was. For all her reserve, Elizabeth seemed to have a natural empathy with Diana. And for a time Diana saw the Queen’s support as a source of enormous com­fort. “I have the best mother-in-law in the world,” she once told me.

But the Queen’s indulgence could not bridge the gulf between Diana and Charles. Diana was an exuberant city girl barely into her 20s, with zero experience in romance. Charles was a contemplative self-described “countryman,” with several significant love affairs behind him.

The Queen hoped that the birth of Prince William, in 1982, and Harry, two years later, would ease the tensions and give Charles and Diana reasons to grow together. Instead, the pressures on the couple increased. Diana’s emotional difficulties grew worse, and in short order, the marriage began to curdle.

As it did, Diana began calling at Buckingham Palace seeking guidance from her mother-in-law. At first, the Queen took a tolerant view of these unscheduled visits. “Diana was usually in a lot better mood when she left than she was when she arrived,” one of the Queen’s staff recalled.

In time, though, Elizabeth came to dread the meetings. After one session a footman said, “The Princess cried three times in a half an hour while she was waiting to see you.” The Queen replied, “I had her for an hour—and she cried nonstop.”

Diana went in search of comfort wherever she could find it, and by 1986 had formed a close relationship with Capt. James Hewitt of the Queen’s Household Cavalry. Charles also resumed a relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, a married woman who many believed was the love of his life. That’s just part of the true story of what happened between Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

John Gomez/ShutterstockQueen Elizabeth was advised of these unhappy developments. She had once likened Diana to a “nervy racehorse” who needed careful handling, not harsh discipline. Despite the evidence, she convinced herself that if Diana were given the independence she claimed she needed, her self-assurance would grow and she would settle down.

Instead, what came next was the June 1992 publication of Andrew Morton’s book Diana, Her True Story. The scandalizing bestseller cast Charles in the worst light and painted a picture of a royal family so cold and self-absorbed that it was incapable of responding to the plight of a young woman who should have been at its very heart.

Although she was not quoted directly, it was clear Diana collaborated on the book. The Queen was stunned. She was well aware how unhappy her daughter-in-law was, but never imagined Diana would air dirty linen in such a way. In most families, this behavior would have meant the immediate end of the marriage. lnstead, the Queen ordered a six-month cooling-off period. Charles agreed. So did Diana. For all her grievances, the Princess realized what life would be like if she were cast out of the royal family altogether.

Pull quote

Through all of this, Diana presented a captivating image of beauty and compassion. The gossip magazines might print acres of stories about arguments and illicit affairs, but Diana carried on with her appointments, and the public never stopped adoring her. She also had a genuine sympathy for the ill and troubled. In a royal family desperately in need of a humane face, she was the only one who could kneel to comfort a sick child and look as if she meant it.

As much as anyone, Elizabeth saw the good that Diana could do for the monarchy. Yet as the Princess increasingly went her own way—for instance, when she gave a TV interview and questioned whether Charles had the moral character to be king—she became more and more of a liability. Charles and Diana had separated late in 1992; they were divorced in August 1996. And barely a year later, she was dead.

In the end, Diana was the one person the Queen never learned to handle. She reacted badly to criticism—any rebuke by the Queen was taken as an instance of the family ganging up on her. Neither patience nor the silent, steely-eyed displeasure Elizabeth had learned to deploy with such withering effect made any impression on Diana. Yet by doing nothing, and by allowing Diana to disregard the constraints of convention that keep the monarchy in place, the Queen unwittingly allowed the Princess to run out of control. If you didn’t know that, then you’ll also be surprised by these fascinating facts—and a few scandals!—about Queen Elizabeth.

From the perspective of today, marrying into the House of Windsor is certainly no fairy tale; Charles, Princess Anne, and Prince Andrew have all gone through divorce. Looking back on the litter of her children’s broken marriages, the Queen would come to wonder if she had failed in her duty as a mother. Or, as she once asked of a lady-in-waiting, “Where did we go wrong?”

*Adapted from “The Queen and Di: The Untold Story.” Copyright 2000 by Ingrid Seward. Published at $25.95 by Arcade Publishing, Inc., 141 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest