The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II
Few in Britain will forget the events of the week following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales—from the early Sunday morning bulletins of her accident to her lake isle interment at Althorp the next Saturday, after a cross-country funeral procession to rival that of Eleanor of Castile (1290). The court being stricken dumb, it fell to our foreign secretary, Robin Cook, to announce the news of the car crash from Beijing. That was the first anomaly in a week that blended atavism with novelty, a week that at times seemed to presage revolution of a sort.
“She was the People’s Princess,” said Tony Blair, coining a phrase which proved the slogan of the hour. I asked one of Blair’s ministers who had thought it up. He suggested perhaps Alistair Campbell, Blair’s ingenious press secretary. I see now that Ben Pimlott uses it about the Queen when she was Heiress Presumptive in 1947: “Since it was an egalitarian, democratic era, much ingenuity was exercised in presenting her as a people’s princess.” We Britons are an ingenious lot. By calling Diana the People’s Princess, Blair seemed to earn the right to lead the people in their grief.
That grief had a fair percentage of anger in the alloy, as I found on the Monday when crossing St. James’s Square. A woman carrying a bunch of flowers asked me the way to Buckingham Palace and, in an attempt at a little gallantry, I began to retrace my steps in order to point her in the right direction. But I could see she wanted none of it and she soon shook me off. She was extremely agitated, perhaps furious. She hadn’t asked to be shown the way. All she needed was the briefest of instructions. She looked like a Mothers’ Union stalwart, a pillar of some small community, a terror when she gave you a piece of her mind. I wanted her to give me a piece of her mind, so I could see what it contained.
At that stage, we were still under the misapprehension that Diana’s accident had been caused by the paparazzi. That she had been “literally hounded to death” was the premise of the week’s grief and of its anger, which only after a few days began to turn against the court, or to include it in its scope. But if you were a Mothers’ Union stalwart—that is to say a defender of traditional family values, a devotee of the monarchy and the Church of England—you would have at least two reasons to be particularly shocked by the Queen. Two years ago, when Diana gave her famous television interview in which she cast doubt on the idea that Charles would ever become king, the Queen wrote separately to Charles and Diana urging them to seek an early divorce. Many Anglicans believe that the head of the Church, the Defender of the Faith, should never have done that …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.