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 of Wales, 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 Pont de l’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 Alastair Campbell for GQ magazine, 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 had been through in their lifetime, they grew up very quickly.”
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 warring parents.
As royal writer Claudia Joseph tells OK!, “Not only was William torn between his parents during their 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.”
He and Harry were on holiday at Balmoral with Prince 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 Westminster Abbey and on to the Spencer family home Althorp House in Northamptonshire, where she was buried on an island in Oval Lake.
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.
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. 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.”
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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.
As William said in the Diana, Our Mother TV special, “I think she would be proud of everything Harry and I have come through, having lost her. And that gives me positivity and strength to know that I can face anything the world can throw at me.”
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 now here! For all the latest royal news, sign up to our daily OK! newsletter.