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Diana's Death Closes Chapter in Royal History

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 1, 1997

LONDON, Aug. 31 The journey by Prince Charles to Paris today to retrieve the body of his former wife, Princess Diana, symbolized a sharp turn in the long-running soap opera that Britain's royal family has played out in recent years. Suddenly, everything turned sad and serious.
Britain's royal family
(The Washington Post)

Over the past decade, the royal family has experienced affairs and divorces, absorbed the humiliation of salacious accounts of its members' personal lives in the press and witnessed open warfare between the prince and princess as their unhappy marriage unraveled in public.

Fed by the insatiable appetite of the British press, the public feasted on the tragicomic details of the lives of Charles and Diana, as well as on the antics of Charles's brother Prince Andrew and his former wife, Sarah Ferguson. It was such a staple here that when Queen Elizabeth turned 70 last year, the stories marking that milestone focused as much on the problems within the family as on the accomplishments of her four decades on the throne.

The stories took their toll on the image of the monarchy. Earlier this month, a newspaper poll found that fewer than 50 percent of people questioned said the country would be worse off without a royal family reflecting a sharp decline over the past three years.

The poll seemed to confirm what some experts had been saying for some time: that the monarchy had become less consequential to people in Britain, and as a result they cared less about how the royal family acted. For many here, the monarchy's embarrassments were seen as just plain fun.

But all that ended, tragically and unexpectedly, in a tunnel in Paris when Diana was killed in a high-speed crash that also claimed the life of her companion, Dodi Fayed. Whatever the next chapter in the history of the royal family brings, it is unlikely that it will be anything like the relative frivolity of the past several years.

Today the family joined the rest of the country in mourning Diana's death. Charles and the queen were vacationing at Balmoral in Scotland when they received the news of the accident in the middle of the night. Charles, the heir to the throne, then told his and Diana's sons, Prince William, 15, who is next in the line of succession, and Prince Harry, 12, that their mother was dead.

This morning, Buckingham Palace issued a statement that said, "The Prince of Wales is spending this morning with the princes at Balmoral."

The royal family later appeared briefly in public to attend church at Balmoral. The boys appeared somber and grief-stricken when they entered the church, according to reports from the scene.

By mid-afternoon, Charles, accompanied by Diana's two sisters, was en route to Paris, to pick up the body of his former wife in what must have been one of the most difficult and unimaginable trips of his life.

Some analysts said the death of Diana could further damage the image of the royal family, at least in the short run. "Diana's death will make the royal family less popular because it's a very spectacular way to [die] and it raises issues about why she didn't have [more] security," said Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics. "That will contribute to the view that Diana was treated badly and will reflect badly on the monarchy."

That view was also given by Judy Russell, one of the many mourners who gathered outside Kensington Palace, where the princess resided. Expressing great concern for the welfare of the sons of Diana and Charles, she said she expected Diana's death would make things "much more difficult" for Charles and the queen. "Frankly, people feel she was hounded out," Russell said.

However, John Barnes of the London School of Economics, said that without the conflict between Diana and the royal family the family may find relief from criticism. "She undoubtedly had the bulk of public sympathy," he said. "There was a sense that while she was on stage, there was potential for continuing damage to the royal family."

Barnes also said Diana's death may cause the media to back away from its intensive coverage of the family's every foible, "in which case the royal family will be less besieged and therefore in a more comfortable situation."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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