Book excerpt: Diana: Story of a Princess


With a light knock on the door, Lady Diana Spencer came into the office. She looked first at her feet, then towards the royal official who was now standing before her. It was obvious she had been crying. Would he mind if she asked him a delicate question? Of course not.

She hesitated for a moment and then asked whether he knew someone called Camilla Parker Bowles. He said yes immediately. He knew her as a friend of Prince Charles who was married to in officer in the Household Cavalry. He had met her several times; all the senior staff had.

Then Diana said in a quiet but serious voice that she had just asked the Prince of Wales whether he was in love with Camilla Parker Bowles. He had not said no. As the tears returned, but still looking him full in the face, she asked another question: 'What am I going to do?' The courtier had no idea what to say. In his years of royal service, no one had ever spoken to him like this. He wasn't alone. Within hours one of his closest colleagues, another senior member of the royal household, was asked exactly the same question.

The wedding was only ten days away. What were they all going to do? After urgent consultations in a corridor, the courtiers suggested to Diana that she should talk it over with Camilla face to face. One of them arranged a lunch at her favourite restaurant. It was called Ménage-à-trois.

So we had lunch. Very tricky indeed. She said: 'You are not going to hunt are you?' I said: 'On what?' She said: 'Horse. You are not going to hunt when you go and live at Highgrove are you?' I said: 'No.' She said: 'I just wanted to know.'
Inside Buckingham Palace they awaited the outcome apprehensively. When Diana came back she said 'It was brilliant. We all understand each other.' One of the courtiers told us:

We all heaved a sigh of relief. I do think Camilla and Charles backed off in the early years. But an atmosphere soon developed. Some of us put it down to Diana being spoilt. I put it down to different backgrounds.

Diana Spencer's background was different to Prince Charles's, but not that different. She was born into one of the grandest families in England, a family that for two hundred years had been intimate with the court and its slowly ossifying traditions.

'The Lord Chamberlain ventures most respectfully to hope that the heart-stirring though silent sympathy of the vast crowds of Your Majesty's subjects may have somehow helped Your Majesty in his crushing sorrow,' wrote Diana's great-grandfather to George V. Edward VII had just died and Earl Spencer was looking forward to arranging the new King's coronation. He made urgent notes regarding the forthcoming ceremonials: 'Queen's robes -- Are they safeguarded from moth in the Tower?'

Diana's grandfather was the first of his family for several generations not to take a place at court. But this was chiefly owing to his devotion to a more urgent duty: to preserve his own decaying heritage. In 1922, as a young officer in the Life Guards, Albert Edward John, 7th Earl Spencer, inherited the palace and estates of Althorp in Northamptonshire and the urban palazzo called Spencer House in St James's Place, overlooking Green Park. Both were packed with priceless fittings, furniture and paintings, all of which needed care and restoration.

There were debts, mortgages, death duties and the buildings were in disrepair. He raised £300,000 by selling six masterpieces Reynolds, Gainsborough, van Dyck and Frans Hals to the United States. This solved the immediate problem. During the war 'Jack', as the seventh earl was known, emptied Spencer to save its fabulous contents from Hitler's bombers, and he rowded more evidence of the affluence of his ancestors between the fading silk wall hangings of his country home. As time went by Althorp became increasingly museum-like. In 1957 he opened it to the public, the condition for receiving government grants to save the fabric of the house from dry rot and deathwatch beetle. But even though Jack Spencer was preoccupied with the conservation of one of the largest fortunes made in the days when Britannia truly ruled the trade routes, his wife, Lady Cynthia, kept up tradition. In 1936 she was made a Woman of the Bedchamber and she later became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth II. She was still a courtier when her granddaughter Diana was born.

Diana's first home, Park House, is in the grounds of Sandringham House, the Royal Family's country seat in Norfolk. To Prince Charles, Diana was the girl next door -- the youngest of three Spencer sisters, along with Sarah and Jane, who were all spoken of from the nursery as possible brides for Britain's three young princes.

This priviliged proximity to the royal home was owed to Diana's maternal grandparents. In the 1930s Diana's grandfather, the Irish-American Maurice Roche, Lord Fermoy, had settled in King's Lynn and had befriended the shy, stammering Duke of York, later King George VI. Fermoy's wife, Ruth, was even closer to the Duchess, later Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother). When the Fermoys had children, the King and Queen invited them to take the lease of Park House. Later it passed to their daughter, Frances Roche, Diana's mother.

Diana's father, Johnny Spencer, Viscount Althorp, was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. As an officer in the Royal Scots Greys, he fought in Normandy after D-day. After the war he became equerry to King George VI, and after the King's death in February 195z he was appointed equerry to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. He met the bright and lively Frances Roche on a visit to Sandringham. After her coming-out ball in April 1953 the twenty-nine-year-old Johnny and the seventeen-year-old Frances began an intense love affair.

After their engagement Johnny accompanied the Queen on her coronation tour of Australia while the bride's family arranged the wedding. With both bride and groom so closely connected to the Windsors, it was natural that there should be a royal presence at the ceremony on 1 June 1954. It took place at Westminster Abbey, a rare privilege. Seventeen hundred people were invited to the service, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and six other members of the Royal Family. The Daily Mail called it the wedding of the year. Through a tunnel formed by the raised swords of the Scots Greys, the bride and groom left the abbey for a reception at St James's Palace.

Johnny and Frances's first daughter Sarah was born within a year. But, like generations of the great county families before them, what the Spencers really wanted was a son and heir. Jane, their second daughter, was born in 1957. The third child was a son, John, but he died within ten hours of his birth on 12 January 1960. The event was shattering for both parents, and rather than bringing them together it did the opposite. Johnny Spencer could not conceal his disappointment. Frances has confirmed that she was sent by her family (in which she included mother-in-law Cynthia Spencer and her mother Ruth) to be seen by specialist obstetricians in the belief that there must be something wrong with her.

When Frances became pregnant again (after a miscarriage that she kept secret) there can be little doubt that both parents were hoping for a boy. At each successive confinement Jack Spencer had built bonfires at Althorp to celebrate the birth of an heir. But the result was Diana. She later told her biographer Andrew Morton that she had felt unwanted from a very early age because her parents so clearly wanted her to be him. Frances says that this was an idea implanted in the adult Diana by therapists. And since an heir, Charles Spencer, was finally born on 20 May 1964, when Diana was still only three, she had little time to develop such an understanding of her parents' secret feelings of disappointment when she was young.

Charles Spencer's birth did not cure the tension at Park House. Johnny and his wife had drifted apart. Perhaps, having finally produced a son, Frances felt that she had discharged her responsibilities and could look to her own happiness. Still young and financially independent, she began to spend more time in London.

In 1966 Frances met Peter Shand Kydd over dinner. The heir to a thriving wallpaper business, he was adventurous, Bohemian and bright. The Althorps and the Shand Kydds met frequently, culminating in a joint skiing holiday. But the attraction between Frances and Peter was at the heart of the friendship between the families. Eventually Peter left his wife and met Frances secretly during her visits to London. She told Johnny about the affair in September 1967, and he agreed to a trial separation. She found a flat in Cadogan Place. In October, Diana, Charles and their nanny went to join their mother in London. Sarah and Jane were by now away at boarding school. Frances had found places for Diana at a local school and Charles at a kindergarten. Their father visited at weekends. It's likely that the children did not know of their parents' separation. The family was united at Park House in Norfolk for Christmas 1967, but then Johnny refused to allow the children to return to London with their mother and she left alone.

On 10 April 1968 Janet Shand Kydd sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of his adultery with Frances Spencer. In September 1968 Frances went to court with her plea for custody of her children. Lady Fermoy gave evidence against her daughter and she lost. A generous view of Lady Fermoy's behaviour is that she felt the children would be better off in Norfolk. A less generous view is that she set a high value on the Spencer connection and was appalled that her daughter had run off with a tradesman. On 12 December Frances sued for divorce. Johnny cross-petitioned, citing her already proven adultery. He won his case and received custody of the children.

Lady Fermoy is one of the minor villains of the Diana story: tough, ambitious, inflexible and steeped in the culture of another era. But since she followed her friend the Queen Mother's policy of remaining 'utterly oyster' and never defended herself on the record, she has made an easy target. The majority of royal writers assume that she exerted a malign influence, and she is damned in most accounts.

It's easy to create caricatures -- Diana modern, classless, open and emotional, the world of her grandmother snobbish, secretive, repressed and sinister; Diana's childhood ruined by the same deadening forces that she would later confront from inside the heart of the establishment.

Except that it wasn't. Certainly there was a nasty divorce, which strained relationships between Frances and her mother for many years, but Diana knew nothing about what had been said in court. And she was to see plenty of both parents, who went out of their way to be civilised about access and not to drag her into their private recriminations.

The divorce was made absolute on 2 May 1969. A month later Frances and Peter Shand Kydd were married. At first they divided their time between Buckinghamshire and Cadogan Place, but soon they bought a house in Itchenor on the West Sussex coast.

In practical terms the custody arrangements did not deprive Frances of visits from her children, and she phoned them every day. The elder girls were free to spend their time where they wished. Sarah chose mostly to go to Park House in Norfolk and Jane to be in London with her mother. Some weekends Diana and Charles Spencer shuffled between London and Norfolk, and holidays were divided equally between the two parents.

Robert Spencer -- Johnny's cousin and close friend -- maintains that the atmosphere was not particularly unhappy:

Well, of course, any divorce is bound to affect children. But I don't think it affected Johnny and Frances Althorp's children or any less than any others. After all, they were not particularly short of cash and they had two loving parents ... They were fortunate in that they had two happy homes, and despite the parents being divorced as far as I can remember they were as happy as could be expected.
Against this it might be argued that the children were materially spoiled and, though not starved of parental affection, were perhaps given it in unpredictable doses. Diana always tended to have a dramatic side which may have been nurtured by many tearful partings and the sympathy she felt for each parent as she left to be with the other.

July 1971. Mary Clarke turned right off the Diss road and into the tree-lined avenue that led to Riddlesworth Hall. The twenty-one-year-old nanny had started at Park House in February, looking after Charles Spencer. Her other charge, nine-year-old Diana, was in her second term boarding at Riddlesworth, a prep school about an hour's drive from Sandringham, and Mary had still not met her. Now the Easter holidays had started, and Viscount Althorp had sent Mary off alone to collect Diana and bring her home. She was distinctly nervous because other staff had already told her some alarming stories about the way the children could behave:

Childish escapades such as going into the nanny or an pair's room and throwing all her clothes out of the window on to the roof, because the house is built in such a way that there's different levels of roof. And then poor old Smith would have to get up and get them down. Or else locking one of them in the toilets.
Mary didn't think she would enjoy this sort of treatment. But perhaps the older staff were just trying to tease her. She had had a wonderful time so far looking after Charles, so she had set off for Riddlesworth Hall with an open mind, hoping for the best.

I arrived at Riddlesworth and it was a typical end-of-term scenario really -- little girls standing round in their uniforms, surrounded by trunks and all their bits and pieces and in Diana's case her guinea-pig in its cage as well. And I walked towards her, because obviously I'd seen pictures of her so I knew who to took out for. And I saw this little girl walking towards me, a real English rose with her eyes downcast, and blushing furiously. And she was very polite and shook my hand and then we were able to lose ourselves in all the fuss of loading up the car.

On the way home Mary asked Diana about her school. She said what she liked best was swimming. By the time Mary got back to Park House she was reassured, and felt she had struck up some kind of understanding. She had already spent six weeks alone with Charles and was worried that Diana might feel like an outsider, something she did everything possible to avoid. Diana's room was all ready for her. As they got nearer to Park House, Diana was getting more and more excited to be home again. She asked Mary, 'How are the Smiths? And how is Mrs Petrie?' They arrived in a jumble of trunks, cages, hockey sticks and tennis rackets, and Diana went dashing off to reacquaint herself with her brother and father and all the staff at the house, as well as all the animals.

Park House is a ten-bedroom yellow-brick Victorian pile, surrounded by wide lawns and trees and close to the church that divides it from Sandringham House. It's a holiday home for old people now. To reach it you drive through the royal estate up an avenue lined with trees, then branch off on to a gravel drive with lawns on one side and the house facing you.

There, Viscount Althorp led the life of a country gentleman, with gun dogs curled up by the fire and piles of Country Life and the Field on the coffee table. Diana grew up surrounded by cats and dogs, and the precious guinea-pigs that she used to show in late July in the local flower show's 'fur and feathers' tent. She had a fierce ginger cat called Marmalade, and her bed was covered with a variety of furry toy animals. She grew nervous of horses after a fall from a pony, but she went riding with Mary Clarke in order to be with Sarah. She admired her vivacious elder sister very much. She was a healthy child who loved her food and hated wearing dresses. She liked to be outside in muddy leans climbing trees and making dens and going for long walks with the dogs. Even as a child she had a practical side and helped Mary Clarke with housework in the nursery, which it was the nanny's responsibility to keep tidy. Housework was not Mary Clarke's strong point so when, as he did now and again, Johnny Spencer came to run a finger along a picture frame, Diana always ensured she was there before him, dusting down the pictures and tidying things up.

When the weather looked good, Mary Clarke would plan an excursion to nearby Brancaster beach, where the Spencers had an old wooden beach hut. They would get the cook to pack up a big picnic basket and they would fill the Land Rover with dogs and children -- Diana, Charles and their friends. Other local families had huts there, and sometimes the excursions would involve several nannies and all their children. It was a thrill for everyone. The first excursion to Brancaster in the spring was always a big event. Since the previous autumn the winter winds would have reshaped the sand dunes and blown them all over the huts. All the way there, the children would be guessing w many steps to the hut would have been covered and how much digging would have to be done to excavate them.

At the beginning of the track to the beach huts Diana would shout, 'Let the dogs out! Let the dogs out' And they would all rush along, having a race to see who had arrived at the beach out first. As soon as we got there Diana would rush out to get water for the dogs to drink. We'd be trying to scrape away at the steps of the beach hut, seeing which of us had won the competition to see how many steps would be covered by the winter winds. And when we got to the hut and unloaded the eep, Diana would be rushing around setting everything up, getting the water on so that we could all have a drink, and rushing off to the sea. Diana was always trying to do about a hundred things all together, just to get everyone settled in and organised. She did like everything to be totally organised. And then they would rush down -- the beach huts were built in the dunes -- so you ran down from the dunes on to the beach and they would have competitions to see who could take off from the top, and jump the farthest down on to the beach. Some of them used to roll the whole way down on to the beach.
They were really happy, carefree times down at the beach because you were free to roam anywhere. The sea was safe when the tide was in. And if the tide was out it would leave pools of water to swim in and huge expanses of sand. They could wander round collecting shells too.

I would tell them stories. We'd find the conch-type shells and hold them to our ears and see who could hear the sea the loudest. Diana, of course, always heard the sea the loudest.

And I would tell them stories of different places, of different seas. Diana loved to live in an imaginary world where everything was happy. She always wanted everything to be happy. And we were very happy down at Brancaster.

But the children did not need to go to the seaside to play. The house was big and full of toys and the wrought-iron banisters were perfect for sliding down. There was a grand piano in the music room at the back of the house from which the windows looked out over the climbing frame to the lawn, and beyond hat the fenced hard tennis court. Behind the tennis court, up against the park fence, was a swimming pool with two diving boards and a slide. On baking summer days, Park House was very popular with the children who lived near by on the Sandingham estate, girls like Alexandra Lloyd, daughter of the Queen's land agent, and Penelope Ashton, the vicar's daughter, and even with the Royal Family. Although Diana and Charles only visited Sandringham House by invitation, Princes Andrew and Edward frequently dropped by unannounced at Park House. Mary Clarke used to watch Diana play with them.

Diana knew she was a very good swimmer and she used to take every opportunity to show off. She used to love nothing more than when we had crowds of people round the pool. Much against her father's wishes -- and she knew she wasn't really allowed to do this -- she'd run to the top of the slide and stand there poised -- and she was beautiful and slim -- and shout to everyone, 'Look at me! Look at me!' knowing that her father wouldn't reprimand her in front of everyone else, and execute this beautiful dive into the pool.

They took it out of context! This is the most common complaint about journalists. An incident, a memory, one portion of a half remembered conversation lifted out of the jumble and contradiction of real experience and used to make a telling point in a television programme or a book. 'Look at me! Look at me!' -- who hasn't shouted that at the top of a diving board? But childhood stories like this have been used to build up a picture of the young Diana as an attention-seeker, a prima donna in the making.

Diana was thirty when she told Andrew Morton that she had a very unhappy childhood. By then she was fluent in the language of psychotherapy, and the rooting of later troubles in childhood trauma. She herself is the sole source of the received impression that her early life was lonely and sad. But Diana didn't tell the story straight. She took herself out of context, exaggerating for effect when constructing a story of her early life that made her out to be more unusual and disturbed than she actually was.

There were, no doubt, unhappy moments as the children were shuffled between parents, but most remember Diana as a cheerful, tree-climbing tomboy: a bit overindulged, a bit lackadaisical at schoolwork, but otherwise unremarkable. A nice upper-class little English girl with good manners, neat handwriting and a deep affection for guinea-pigs; a girl who got excited about picnics on the beach and standing on a diving board. Like thousands of others, destined to move smoothly from boarding school to finishing school, a secretarial course, maybe some cooking and a stint in a ski chalet, and then marriage to a well-bred young man from a good county family.

Diana loved to read romantic novels and Barbara Cartland was her favourite author. Nanny Mary Clarke thought she had a very simple vision of the future:

What Diana really wanted to do when she grew up was very simple, it was a dream shared by many little girls, to marry someone who really loved her and who she really loved and to have lots of children. Diana had in mind anything from four to six children and just to have a normal happy life. It was immaterial to her who the person that she married was, the important factor was that he should really love her and she love him because otherwise the marriage would end in divorce.

She wanted to be a ballet dancer, but at twelve years old Diana was already five foot nine and far too tall. Lady Fermoy had been a concert pianist and her sister Sarah was also a talented musician, but though she played a lot at home, Diana was not as good.

In 1973 Diana changed schools, following her sisters to West Heath, a small private boarding school for about 120 girls in Sevenoaks in Kent, surrounded by charming countryside and set in its own beautiful grounds. Its fees were very high, its facilities were magnificent, and its goals were not primarily academic.

During her first term at West Heath, Diana was, by her own admission, something of a bully. At least one of her smaller contemporaries claims to have suffered at her hands. In her second term she was treated to some of her own medicine, being picked on by some older girls, and then she settled down into boisterous popularity as the leader of a small gang in her class of about fifteen.

Diana was daring -- she mounted nocturnal raids on the school kitchens and enjoyed midnight swims. The headmistress almost expelled her for wandering about the school after lights-out. Her teachers soon discovered that she had difficulty concentrating for any length of time. Penny Walker, Diana's music teacher, felt that this was due to a number of factors, one being troubles at home:

Her mind, you often felt, was elsewhere. Her sisters were fairly good academically. Sarah was a brilliant pianist. Jane wasn't far behind. So she had a lot to live up to. She also came late to the school, which is always a disadvantage. Friendships are already formed, everybody knows the staff already. They've already started on their course of work. So she had that to cope with as well.
Occasionally in repose her face would look sad, but I wouldn't have said that she was a sad person. She was always full of fun and very, very lively and always doing things. She wasn't moping around or anything like that. I think she was quite happy at West Heath.

The Shand Kydds bought a romantic hill farm on the Isle of Seil near Oban on the west coast of Scotland. Diana had a poster of Seil over her bed at West Heath and took friends there in the holidays, spending her time playing with lobster pots on the beach. She still saw Princes Andrew and Edward regularly in Norfolk. Diana's sisters had it in mind that she might make a suitable bride for Prince Andrew and she did, for a while, correspond with him at school. Their teasing ambition for her in this direction is one of many explanations that have been produced for her nickname 'Duch', short for Duchess. Her brother Charles denies this version, saying that they named her Duchess after the elegant leading feline in Walt Disney's cartoon The Aristocats.

Aristocat was certainly appropriate for the Spencers. About three hundred and fifty years before her birth, the family bought their peerage for £3,000 in hard cash from the impoverished James I. The first Lord Spencer's introduction to the House of Lords infuriated another member so much that he interrupted Spencer's speech on the conduct of affairs previous reigns, saying with heavy sarcasm: 'When these things were doing the noble Lord's ancestors were keeping sheep!'

But measured in ready cash, that newly ennobled Spencer soon became the richest man in the land. Having founded their wealth on wool, his family captured the London meat contracts and grew richer. With enough gold to fund dynastic ambltions, they acquired a genealogy from the College of Heralds that traced their line through the Despensers to the retinue of William the Conqueror. It was not until 1901 that their right to the Despenser coat of arms was declared a fraud and their pedigree exposed as near-total fabrication. But by then they had been playing a leading role in the affairs of Great Britain for a good century more than the present Royal Family.

Indeed, the Spencers had helped place the Royal Family on the throne. It was another Spencer who, in 1693, brokered the deal by which William III received the support of the noble families that had fought on the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War. Spencer, described as 'the most subtil working villain on the face of the earth', hosted a conference at Althorp, a conference of 'Great Men'. There, King William accepted the principles of limited monarchy. When his successor Queen Anne died in 1714 without producing the requisite Protestant heir, the Spencers were among the same great families who imported the Elector of Hanover from Germany to be King George I.

The new German royals found themselves in a country famed for removing inconvenient monarchs, with a parliament that regarded itself as sovereign and a haughty aristocracy that could match them for wealth. For three generations they spent as much time as possible in Hanover. Admittedly, through the long reign of Victoria, the people became less boisterously critical of their imported royals. But a Spencer, in particular, was always liable to remember that meeting at Althorp in 1693 where aristocracy and royalty had met eye to eye.

Copyright © 2001 by Tim Clayton & Phil Craig and Brook Lapping Productions

Tim Clayton and Phil Craig are the authors of the bestselling book Finest Hour, based on a BBC1/PBS documentary series about 1940.