After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago, London felt like a city on the verge of a revolution. Suddenly everything was up for grabs, even the monarchy itself. For a few crazy weeks, this most enduring of institutions looked as if it might actually implode under the weight of so much emotion.
For anyone there at the time, it was as electrifying as it was bewildering. The mood was febrile, angry, reckless. Flowers were piled knee-deep at the gates of the royal palaces; grown men wept openly in the streets; mild-mannered citizens inveighed against the usually blameless queen for what they believed was an inadequate response to a national crisis. Centuries of stiff-upper-lipped repression boiled over in a great howl of collective anguish.
Eventually the public regained its grip, and the monarchy — chastened and battered, but a monarchy nonetheless — endured. But as Britain on Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death with commemorations, documentaries and books, a central, if unlikely, piece of her legacy is how she reshaped the monarchy that rejected her, and how she reshaped Britain, too.
Diana in life was a loose cannon, an unpredictable wild card; in death, she had a galvanizing effect. Britain is already a very different place from Diana’s era, partly because of a younger generation less enamored with old conventions. But her death also opened a door, for better or worse, for the country to become more emotional and expressive, and more inclined to value gut feeling over expert opinion even in such matters as “Brexit,” its vote last year to leave the European Union.
Faced with a clear choice — modernize or die — the monarchy elected to modernize, led by Queen Elizabeth II but bolstered by a new generation of better-adjusted, better-prepared royals.
“The Windsors, whose most perilous moment came at Diana’s death, in fact owe their endurance to her example,” said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper. “The queen is particularly alert to learning lessons from experience, and in this case the lesson was, ‘Don’t get on the wrong side of public opinion.’”
Diana was glamorous, magnetic, photogenic, mercurial, manipulative and intuitive; media victim and media perpetrator; the Real Princess of Kensington, a reality star before such a thing existed. If she is a less-defining figure to the generation that has grown up since her death, she still is an object of fascination for the generations who were stunned when she died two decades ago, at the age of 36.
“We gossip about her as if she had just left the room,” the novelist Hilary Mantel wrote recently in The Guardian.
And so the papers are full of snippets of “news” that have somehow managed to escape public disclosure until now.
A tourist from Ohio emerges from obscurity to claim he was in the tunnel in Paris at the time of the car accident that killed Diana; her boyfriend, Dodi al-Fayed; and their driver, Henri Paul. A Diana-watcher reports that the princess, her identity muted by a voluminous head scarf, regularly visited the grave of the police protection officer whom she loved and who died in what she believed was an “establishment plot,” but was really just a motorcycle accident. Diana’s “energy healer” reveals that she has heard from Diana recently (from beyond the grave) and that, in case you were wondering, the deceased princess is pro-Brexit.
“She was interested in the referendum and suggested I vote to leave because Britain was really great before the E.U.,” the healer, Simone Simmons, told The Daily Star.
Beyond these sorts of details, which help to keep the princess in the public consciousness and to sell tabloid papers, Diana’s influence is perhaps most evident in the evolution of the royal family.
During the days after her death, known now as Diana Week, a nation that had always appreciated the monarchy’s adherence to tradition was suddenly demanding that it tear up the old rules and learn new ones, right on the spot. “Show Us You Care,” The Daily Express said in its emblematic headline, imploring a staid queen, who had never once let down her guard in public, to address the nation and lower all her flags to half-staff, even as every fiber of her deeply conservative being militated against it.
Seriously shocked by what they encountered, the royal family had no choice but to respond.
“The times were changing, and they were not keeping up with the times,” Mr. Freedland said of the royal family. “But the truth is, they did manage to modernize.”.
As an example, Mr. Freedland pointed to the queen’s brief, witty appearance in a film for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, in which she greeted the actor Daniel Craig in his guise as James Bond and then appeared to parachute with him into Olympic Stadium (the first part was real; the parachuting was done by a stuntwoman).
The new generation — namely Diana’s two sons, William and Harry, and William’s wife, Kate — has put a youthful, modern (at least by their standards) spin on what it means to be a royal person in 2017. They exude asexual wholesomeness (in the case of William and Kate) and bad-boy cheekiness (in the case of Harry), and give the appearance of working alongside, not in opposition of, public opinion.
They present as both curiously formal — Harry and William in their tailored suits; Kate in her dress-and-hat combos that make her look 20 years older; the royal children’s nanny in an amusingly old-fashioned uniform — and relatively normal, considering how not-normal their lives are.
Diana was considered disloyal and unhinged, an unguided missile, when she went on the BBC in 1995 to talk about her emotional distress. (“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”) In a sign of how much things have changed, William and Harry are marking the anniversary by speaking publicly about their mother — with royal approval.
Her death also marked a turning point in the history of Britons’ relationship to their own ids, ushering in an era in which people have new license to express themselves and feelings can weigh more heavily than reason, Mr. Freedland said.
“The reaction to her death is a preview of the Brexit landscape, in which emotion trumps expertise,” he said. “It was a shock to people — we didn’t think it was part of the British mind-set — and now, after Brexit, you can see there was something growing there, a willingness to give two fingers to the experts.” (Instead of using their middle fingers, Britons use what is known as a two-fingered salute.)
Public opinion polls suggest that nobody is particularly fond of Prince Charles, who at 68 is still waiting for his chance to become king. But they also show that the royal family, led by the seemingly indestructible 91-year-old queen, endures as a comforting unifying thread, providing a constitutional underpinning for a nation whose quirks include the fact that it has no written constitution.
“The royal family is key to our constitution,” Geordie Greig, editor of The Mail on Sunday, which publishes its share of royal-related articles, said in an email. “It provides a permanent and historical foundation going back more than 1,000 years.”
The pomp and circumstance of its spectacles — the weddings of Charles and Diana and of William and Kate; the funeral of Diana — unify the country “with a familial heartbeat that also resonates around the world,” he added.
At the very least, the royal family provides a gossipy distraction for a nation fretting about where it belongs and where it is going in this fraught era of Brexit. When is Harry going to propose to his girlfriend, Meghan Markle, and does it matter that she is American, describes herself as mixed race (and is an actress)? How disappointing is it that, at the age of 35, William has already lost much of his hair? How expensive was Kate’s sister’s very big, very fancy engagement ring?
Not everyone loves the royal family. Clearly anyone who visits Diana’s memorial fountain in Kensington Gardens is part of a self-selecting group, hardly a representative sample of public opinion. But a recent stop there showed how Diana, even after all this time, remains part of the conversation.
“I feel bad for Diana, the way they treated her,” said Kristina Landgraf, a German tourist. “She was a good person, she was kicked out of the royal family, and tried to have a personal life.”
Visitors to Buckingham Palace said that the royal family held a fascination, even for those who are not really a royal family sort of person.
“I’m more of a democracy type, and I don’t like that people rule a country because of their blood,” said Jochen Jansen, 22, also visiting from Germany. Yet he had come to the palace just the same: “I’m in London, and this is part of the culture of Great Britain,” he said.
The conversation turned, inevitably, to Brexit.
“Also the queen and her husband might be nice people,” he said. “And I do hope they’re in favor of the E.U.”
Correction: September 1, 2017
An article on Thursday about the legacy of Diana, Princess of Wales, misstated the nationality of Meghan Markle, an actress who is dating Prince Harry. She is American, not Canadian.