That Eulogy, 20 Years Later

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Last week I referenced Earl Spencer’s eulogy of his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales, and I think it’s a significant enough speech that it bears a closer look today, the 20th anniversary of its address and the Princess’s funeral. For those unfamiliar with it, at first blush it may seem fairly innocuous, albeit a fitting and lovely tribute, but there’s actually quite a bit going on here when you pull it apart.

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It also needs to be put in context. The Earl is the youngest of the Spencer siblings and the only male, fairly key when titles and land pass through men and not women. He and Diana were close in their youths, bonded as the only children living at home during their parents’ divorce. Once Diana married into the Royal Family they remained friendly, but certainly saw less of each other. By the time of Diana’s separation, the Earl was living in South Africa with his wife, Victoria, and their four children. Famously, there was a falling out between the siblings when Diana requested to live in a house on the family estate of Althorp and the Earl – nervous about what effect the media attention and intrusion would have on his family – refused.

By the time of Diana’s death in August 1997, the relationship had still not been wholly repaired and the Earl was actually in the  middle of his own divorce. An interesting tidbit that emerged from the most recent BBC documentary – in which the Earl participated alongside his sister, Lady Sarah – was that he only made a statement to the media prior to the funeral because his neighbors complained about the amount of reporters encroaching. He took it as an opportunity to state that the media had “blood on their hands.”

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Charles, Diana and Harry at the wedding of the Earl and his first wife (William is cut off)

Seven days after Diana’s death, the Earl walked alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, Prince William and Prince Harry behind her coffin as it was transported down the Mall to Westminster Abbey. Given Diana’s divorced status and her son’s ages, the Earl had the responsibility of delivering the eulogy.

Here’s what he said:

“I stand before you today the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock.

“We are all united not only in our desire to pay our respects to Diana but rather in our need to do so. For such was her extraordinary appeal that the tens of millions of people taking part in this service all over the world via television and radio who never actually met her, feel that they too lost someone close to them in the early hours of Sunday morning. It is a more remarkable tribute to Diana than I can ever hope to offer her today.”

This is a fairly straightforward nod to the past week in London which had seen an onslaught of public grief and mourning that had taken everyone by surprise by its sheer intensity. It acknowledges the last several days’ media narrative which saw heightened criticism of the British Royal Family, forcing the Windsors to trek from Balmoral to London and for the Queen to give a live address to the nation – all unprecedented, all fraught with tension.

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The late Earl Spencer with his four children – Diana is on the far right

“Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”

“A very British girl” is an important phrase, as is the Earl’s wording that she was “classless.” He is making the point that a woman from an old English aristocratic family was in fact globally accessible and beloved. The real kicker however is the last line – that in the last year she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic. This is alluding to Diana’s divorce a year before, during which she was stripped of her HRH, a fact by which she was displeased. This is generally seen as criticism of the BRF and it is – it’s essentially saying that even when you tried to humble her, you couldn’t slow her down. But that, combined with the underlining of her British heritage, makes an altogether more nationalist case.

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“Today is our chance to say thank you for the way you brightened our lives, even though God granted you but half a life. We will all feel cheated always that you were taken from us so young and yet we must learn to be grateful that you came along at all. Only now that you are gone do we truly appreciate what we are now without and we want you to know that life without you is very, very difficult.

“We have all despaired at our loss over the past week and only the strength of the message you gave us through your years of giving has afforded us the strength to move forward.

“There is a temptation to rush to canonise your memory, there is no need to do so. You stand tall enough as a human being of unique qualities not to need to be seen as a saint. Indeed to sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being, your wonderfully mischievous sense of humour with a laugh that bent you double.

“Your joy for life transmitted where ever you took your smile and the sparkle in those unforgettable eyes. Your boundless energy which you could barely contain.

“But your greatest gift was your intuition and it was a gift you used wisely. This is what underpinned all your other wonderful attributes and if we look to analyse what it was about you that had such a wide appeal we find it in your instinctive feel for what was really important in all our lives.

“Without your God-given sensitivity we would be immersed in greater ignorance at the anguish of Aids and HIV sufferers, the plight of the homeless, the isolation of lepers, the random destruction of landmines.”

Now, all of this is the most traditional part of the eulogy – the rundown of her work. But consider that it comes after a subtle rebuke of the BRF for taking away her title. The point has already been made that Diana flew solo, independent of the aura of royalty. From there the Earl pivots to the meat of her work, painting the allusion that she did it without the BRF’s backing, almost in spite of them.

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The siblings spotted in London

“Diana explained to me once that it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected.

“And here we come to another truth about her. For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom.

“The world sensed this part of her character and cherished her for her vulnerability whilst admiring her for her honesty.”

This is a very subtle middle finger at Charles, painting a portrait of a famously beloved woman made to suffer. Here, she is the victim and Charles the unspoken villain. The use of “honesty” can be viewed as an indirect reference to her 1995 Panorama interview calling out Charles’s infidelity, or her participation in the 1992 Andrew Morton book detailing the marriage’s unhappiness.

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“The last time I saw Diana was on July 1, her birthday in London, when typically she was not taking time to celebrate her special day with friends but was guest of honour at a special charity fundraising evening. She sparkled of course, but I would rather cherish the days I spent with her in March when she came to visit me and my children in our home in South Africa. I am proud of the fact apart from when she was on display meeting President Mandela we managed to contrive to stop the ever-present paparazzi from getting a single picture of her – that meant a lot to her.”

Here we pivot to blaming the press.

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The Earl and his two remaining sisters, Sarah and Jane, years after the funeral

“These were days I will always treasure. It was as if we had been transported back to our childhood when we spent such an enormous amount of time together – the two youngest in the family.

“Fundamentally she had not changed at all from the big sister who mothered me as a baby, fought with me at school and endured those long train journeys between our parents’ homes with me at weekends.

“It is a tribute to her level-headedness and strength that despite the most bizarre-like life imaginable after her childhood, she remained intact, true to herself.

“There is no doubt that she was looking for a new direction in her life at this time. She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling.

“My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this – a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.

And here we get to the heart of a very skilled attack on the media. They hunted; they are morally corrupt; and they are responsible for her death and her unhappiness. It’s a line of thought very much shared with the RF at the time, and one expressed by William and Harry when they discuss the nature of the paparazzi and press in the 1990s. One way to look at it is the Earl saying what he was in a better position to say – having the freedom to comment on a situation that didn’t personally affect him in the way it affected the Windsors.

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“She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate and I do this here Diana on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair.

The warning shot that William and Harry were not to be exposed to the same level of intrusion. This threw down a gauntlet that very much informed how the press behaved during the rest of the boys’ adolescence and school days. It would be the Windsors, particularly Charles, who enforced the rules, but this statement can be seen as a shot across the bow, drawing the public on to “their” side as to the necessity of privacy.

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“And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned.

“We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role but we, like you, recognise the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead. I know you would have expected nothing less from us.

Each and every time I hear or read this passage I wince. “Blood family” – you can’t get much more British than that. This is the more aggressive telling off of the Windsors and Charles, as though they couldn’t be trusted to carry out Diana’s love or nurturing of her children. But the use of “blood family” here after expressing that Diana was a “very British girl” actually casually alludes to the sense that the Spencers were more British than the Windsors. And that is a rather beautiful piece of class commentary, drawing up the ghosts of George I and Queen Anne’s government with only the whisper of a threat. I mean, from a rhetorical standpoint, it’s quite impressive. But God help us all when the members of a royal family sound more democratic than their subjects.

And on a more current level, it underscores the belief that Diana “did royalty” better than her in-laws. That neither Charles nor the Queen could equip William and Harry with the ability to carry out their roles with humanity. That neither knew how to shape a person, only a robot of duty.

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“William and Harry, we all cared desperately for you today. We are all chewed up with the sadness at the loss of a woman who was not even our mother. How great your suffering is, we cannot even imagine.

“I would like to end by thanking God for the small mercies he has shown us at this dreadful time. For taking Diana at her most beautiful and radiant and when she had joy in her private life. Above all we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds.”

Oh, and then there’s this, in case no one in the Abbey was uncomfortable before.

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When the Earl finished his address, the crowds watching the funeral on screens outside stood up and started clapping and cheering. The applause swept into the Abbey, down the pews and nave to the altar. No one in the BRF joined in, save William and Harry.

Over the summer, the Earl revealed that he heard through the grapevine the Queen’s response to the speech was that he had every right to say whatever he wanted – she was his sister. My guess is Charles might feel differently.

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As for the promises laid out in this speech, there’s little indication that William and Harry have a particularly close relationship with their uncle or their Spencer cousins. On particularly notable events, like William’s wedding, the Earl and his children are invited and present. But as for the Earl representing a parent-like figure in the men’s lives – not so much.

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William with his Spencer aunts, Sarah and Jane

Is that a commentary or rebuke of the Spencers? Maybe, but I’d guess the two aren’t necessarily linked. After that speech there was little chance of Charles facilitating much interaction with the Earl, but it’s important to remember he and Diana were divorced at the time of her death. Also, Charles had a better relationship with her sisters than with her brother – Lady Jane’s husband was in fact the Queen’s private secretary for a number of years. And given that the Earl had been a remote figure in the boys’ lives prior to Diana’s death thanks to his residency in South Africa, under what circumstances would a close connection develop later?

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The Spencers at William and Kate’s 2011 wedding

That’s a very long way of saying, the relationship appears to be limited but that is likely due to circumstances not personal feeling. There seems to be a similar situation going on with regards to both men’s relationship with the extended Windsor family, which perhaps helps to explain William’s focus on his wife and children, or Harry’s expressed desire to settle down.

Whatever the case is, 20 years ago today a very firm line was drawn in the sand and that eulogy (written in about 90 minutes during a bout of insomnia) is one of the most memorable in history.

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