Written by Kathryn Robinson. Edited by Eleanor Winn.
In the mists of my memory I recall a picture of my four-year-old self watching on the television in my living room a man sitting at a piano and singing into a microphone. That man was Sir Elton John, the piano was in Westminster Abbey and in the living room sat my family watching the funeral of Princess Diana on Saturday 6th September 1997.
What followed the performance of Candle in the Wind 1997 was a speech that would be viewed by some as apt and others as inappropriate. It was the eulogy to Princess Diana by her brother, Earl Spencer, and whether you watched it in agreement or awkwardness, it is difficult to deny the lasting effects of the speech on the legacy of Princess Diana and, more broadly, the character of the British people.
Diana’s death caused an outpouring of grief which was largely unprecedented in British life. This was perhaps best exemplified by the blanket of flowers covering the entrances to Kensington and Buckingham Palace. Because of this, the words of any person of political or personal importance or relevance would have been listened to by millions. It was crucial to get it right.
It is not my intention in this article to discuss the circumstances and speculation surrounding Princess Diana’s death or to provide judgement on controversies surrounding her private life and public image. These debates are, in many ways, as emotionally charged as they were seventeen years ago. Instead, it is my intention to examine the effects of two influential speeches given after Diana’s death.
The first speech was given on the morning after her death by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair from his constituency and it was in this speech that the term ‘People’s Princess’ was created to describe Diana. The second, Spencer’s eulogy, was given a week later at her funeral in Westminster Abbey. What is striking about these speeches was how similar they were in terms of content and significance but different in terms of purpose and motives.
Both Blair and Spencer’s speeches speak in detail about Diana’s personality and charitable activities. Blair described her as “a wonderful and warm human being” and remembered her “with the sick, the dying, the children, the needy”. Similarly, Earl Spencer referred to his sister as “the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty” and points out that without her, the world would remain ignorant about HIV sufferers for example. It is customary in a tribute to refer to certain aspects of the deceased’s personality and achievements that were particularly worthy but it is interesting that both speakers pick up on the same attributes.
Both speakers also refer to Diana’s troubled private life. Blair recognised that her life was “often sadly touched by tragedy” whilst Spencer spoke of Diana’s insecurity and her eating disorders. This suggests that both speakers wanted to portray a realistic interpretation of the person that Princess Diana was.
Another similarity is that both speeches were appreciated by people who were devastated by Diana’s death. In order to commemorate Blair’s speech, a plaque was unveiled in November 2013 on the spot where he addressed the media. The newspaper reporting on the unveiling commented that the speech was regarded by political allies and critics at the time as being his ‘finest hour’. Likewise, the end of Spencer’s speech was greeted with applause from the crowds outside Westminster Abbey which then began inside the Abbey itself, something which is usually frowned upon at funerals. These are both signs that some agreed with the sentiments expressed, although you could argue that those who had taken the trouble to come out to watch the funeral cortege and the ceremony would not be likely to disagree with what Earl Spencer was saying.
Conversely, the main difference between these two speeches is that whilst Blair’s speech was given because he wanted to show that he understood the grief of the people, Spencer was bolder. Some of his comments could be perceived as critical to the royal family, particularly when he stated that Diana had a “natural nobility” and “needed no royal title”. He also directed some of his comments to the press, describing how her “good intentions were sneered at by the media” and, crucially, calling her “the most hunted person of the modern age”. There is an ongoing debate about whether these comments were deliberately controversial or whether the media subsequently exaggerated the references to the royal family. The infuriating thing about speeches is that we will never know the speaker’s true motives behind the words that they say.
Where do we as historians go from here? I would suggest that these speeches are powerful because they had the power to shape history in a number of ways. Firstly, they had the power to influence how the public remembered Diana. Secondly, they influenced the ways in which some people grieved for Diana and reacted to her death. Finally, they had the power to elevate the speaker in popularity and allow them to claim their own part in this particular event in history, however clinical that sounds. Undoubtedly, there were and are a great deal of people who were not part of the great outpouring of grief but the fact that we now associate the death of Princess Diana with this level of emotion can in part be attributed to these two speeches.