As his mother’s coffin lay on a gun carriage, draped in the Royal Standard and white lilies, a teenage Prince William bowed his head in deep mourning. But while he could easily have broken down during the funeral for the late Princess Diana, the 15-year-old held back the tears, giving younger brother Harry extra strength to cope with such a heartbreaking ordeal.
Diana’s tragic death on 31 August 1997 stunned the entire world, and united Britain in a period of national mourning. She was just 36 when she and partner Dodi Al- Fayed, 42, and their driver Henry Paul, 41, died in a car crash in the Alma tunnel in Paris.
Her funeral was held a week later on 6 September, and William recalled in an interview 20 years later: “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But if I had been in floods of tears the entire way round how would that have looked?” Speaking to GQ, he added: “I am a very private person, and it was not easy. There was a lot of noise, a lot of crying, a lot of wailing, people were throwing stuff, people were fainting.”
Diana’s death marked the end of childhood for both William and Harry, who was just 12 at the time. As her former butler Paul Burrell, 63, once said: “In many ways they were adults before they should have been. Because of the trauma they have been through in their lifetime, they grew up very quickly.”
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The pressure on them was already intense before they lost their mother, as they had been struggling with life in the spotlight, and were also caught between two warring parents. As royal writer Claudia Joseph tells OK!: “Not only was William torn between his parents during their long-protracted divorce, but he then lost his mother as a teenager and had to grieve in public. He may have had a privileged background, but he had a very tough childhood.”
The marital rift between Prince Charles and Diana is said to have begun soon after Harry was born in September 1984, although the couple didn’t formally separate until 1992. The boys became used to splitting their time between Highgrove in Gloucestershire with Charles and Kensington Palace with Diana, and both parents tried to protect their sons from the spiraling animosity. However, as ex-butler Paul claimed in Channel 5 documentary Diana: A Mother’s Love in 2020: “It was very difficult for William and Harry to have to listen to their parents’ disintegrating marriage in public. It must have been a nightmare for them.”
While both boys found the break-up unsettling, royal biographer Robert Jobson believes that William took it more personally. “This was a difficult time for William and Harry, who were both aware that there was severe tension between their parents. William became concerned that he might be responsible for his mother’s unhappiness.” In his new book William at 40: The Making of a Modern Monarch, Robert adds: “When she locked herself in the bathroom to cry uncontrollably, he tried to help by pushing tissues under the bathroom door.”
Controversy around the collapse of the royal marriage heightened with the 1992 publication of Andrew Morton’s tell-all, Diana: Her True Story. The book painted a picture of a loveless marriage, alleged Charles’ infidelity, and recounted the Princess’s struggles with bulimia, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
When the marriage finally ended in 1996, William stepped up his support for Diana. “He once told her he wanted to be a policeman so that he could protect her,” says Robert. “When the divorce was finalized and it emerged that the Princess would be stripped of her royal title, it was William who threw his arms around her and exclaimed, ‘Don’t worry, mummy. I’ll give it back to you one day, when I’m king.”
Though bitterly affected by the split, nothing could have prepared William for the devastation which ripped through the family the following year. He and Harry were on holiday at Balmoral with Charles when they learned of Diana’s death, in a 4am phone call. “It’s like an earthquake has just run through the house and through your life and everything,” William said of that fateful call in ITV documentary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy.
Though the pair had spoken to her the evening before when she rang from Paris, the call was brief – which has caused the brothers profound regret ever since. “I think Harry and I were just in a desperate rush to say goodbye. You know, ‘See you later’ and we’re going to go off,” William added in the 2017 documentary. “If I’d known now what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have been so blasé about it. That phone call sticks in my mind quite, quite heavily.”
William and Harry chose not to make an official statement, and took refuge at Balmoral – where the Queen ensured they remained as oblivious as possible to the outside world. “Our grandmother deliberately removed the newspapers, and things like that, so there was nothing in the house at all. So we didn’t know what was going on,” William said in BBC documentary, Diana – 7 Days, which also screened in 2017.
Within hours of her death, a sea of flowers emerged outside the gates of Kensington Palace. A riot of color saw tens of thousands of bouquets laid out, highlighting the nation’s affection for the ‘People’s Princess’. Diana’s funeral the following week remains one of the most watched TV events in history, with an estimated 2.5 billion worldwide viewing it or listening in.
Meanwhile, a million people packed the streets of London to follow the route of her coffin from Kensington Palace to the Spencer family home in Althorp in Northamptonshire, where she was buried on an island in the middle of Oval Lake. Fittingly for a notorious style icon, the Princess was laid to rest wearing a black cocktail dress designed by Catherine Walker.
The haunting images of William and Harry walking alongside Prince Charles, Prince Philip and Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, 58, at the funeral remain etched in British memories. William revealed in Diana – 7 Days he kept his head down and “hid behind my fringe” to get through it, but he was initially reluctant to take part. “At first William flatly refused,” royal author Ingrid Seward has claimed. “Charles pleaded with him and said that it would be utterly wrong of him not to accompany them.”
Writing in her book, My Husband And I: The Inside Story of the Royal Marriage, Ingrid added: “Prince Philip weighed into the argument and eventually William agreed to take part — but only on the condition that his grandfather walked beside him.”
Although Diana and Philip’s relationship had been tempestuous over the years, Ingrid stressed: “William wanted his grandfather at his side in what was certain to prove the most harrowing public engagement the young man had to endure.”
But suggesting the magnitude of what they both faced, Harry later told Newsweek: “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. I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today.”
Life without their mother hit both boys’ mental health hard, and William spokes of their struggles in ITV’s Diana, Our Mother. “Slowly, you try and rebuild your life, and you try and understand what’s happened, and I kept saying to myself that, you know, my mother would not want me to be upset,” he explained. “She’d not want me to be down.
She’d not want me to be like this. I kept myself busy as well—which is good and bad sometimes – but allows you to kind of get through that initial shock phase.” In his 2017 interview with GQ, William went on to describe the loss as “a pain like no other pain. I don’t think it ever fully heals.”
Movingly, he also said he wished he could have done more to shield his mother. “I feel very sad and I still feel very angry that we were not old enough to be able to do more to protect her, not wise enough to step in and do something that could have made things better for her.”
Although his sorrow lingers on, William has suggested that such suffering has strengthened his character. In an emotional speech as he met survivors of the 2019 mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, he said: “What I’ve realised is grief can change your outlook. You don’t ever forget the shock, the sadness and the pain. But I do not believe that grief changes who you are. Grief, if you let it, will reveal who you are. It can reveal depths that you did not know you had.”
His heartache also spurred him on to get involved in several mental health initiatives, including Heads Together, which first launched as a conversation collaboration between the Cambridges and Harry in 2016, aiming to tackle stigma and change the around mental health.
By using his personal anguish as a springboard in this way, the impact of Diana’s death has shaped the man William is today. As Robert Jobson says: “He has learned to cope with his grief and to channel his energy into charitable causes, such as homelessness, which were important to the Princess.”
Michelle Thole, co-host of the podcast, Keeping Up with the Windsors, agrees, saying: “Extreme tragedies can make or break you. William has utilised his pain in a very positive way and his various initiatives show that connection with his mother. Diana always knew William had a life of service ahead of him, and I think she’d be extremely proud of what he’s done with his platform and his privilege.”
Thankfully, it seems William recognises this too, and he summed it up best of all in the Diana, Our Mother TV special. “I think she would be proud of everything Harry and I have come through, having lost her,” he said. “And that gives me positivity and strength to know that I can face anything the world can throw at me.”
Robert Jobson – William at 40: The Making of a Modern Monarch, published by Ad Lib. Subscribe to the Keeping Up with the Windsors podcast on Apple, Spotify or Google. Claudia Joseph, William and Kate’s Britain; www.claudiajoseph.co.uk/
Article taken from OK!’s royal special William At 40. Pick up at your local newsagent for just £5.99 or you can purchase the special edition magazine online nowhere!