LONDON — It may be an exaggeration to say that Princess Diana saved the monarchy. But it’s still fair to say the wildly popular “people’s princess” did buy the royal family some time.
Twenty years after the death of Diana, hundreds of people made a pilgrimage on a sun-kissed Thursday to the gates of Kensington Palace, her former home, to pay tribute to the woman who many say helped to modernize the fusty Windsors.
Royal fans — a few dressed head-to-toe in Union Jack clothing — placed flowers, cards and candles outside of the gates of the palace, creating a makeshift shrine to the late Princess of Wales.
“We deeply miss and love you dearly, Grandma Diana,” read one message signed by a fan from Australia.
Tributes also rolled in on social media. Elton John, who sang “Candle in The Wind” at Diana's funeral, posted a picture on Instagram of the two of them, adding the caption: "20 years ago today, the world lost an angel. RIP.”
Diana died in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, after the car she was riding in crashed while trying to speed away from paparazzi. The driver of the car, who also died in the crash, was found to have had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. The princess was 36 years old. Her jarring death triggered an outpouring of emotion in Britain that, up until that time, was very un-British.
In her short life, she rattled the emotionally reserved monarchy. She shook the hands of AIDS patients. She spilled the beans on her soap opera marriage and talked to the press about her battle with bulimia. She pursued — and was pursued by — the celebrity-obsessed media. She was one of the most famous people in the world, and the British public loved her. They still do.
“She’s still the people’s princess,” ran a front-page headline in the Sun on Thursday.
One of Diana’s lasting legacies, many said at Thursday’s palace gathering, was helping to reinvent the royal family.
“Diana paved the way for Kate, really,” said Margaret Tyler, 73, referring to Diana's daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge. Tyler said she comes to Kensington Palace every year to pay her respects to Diana. “In the old days if you married into the royal family and you were a girl, you didn’t see your parents at Christmas. … You automatically spent it with the royal family. Now William and Kate take turns. Her family one year, the royal family the next year, so it’s little things like that.”
Chris Imafidon, an educator in his 50s who was sitting on a chair outside the palace, noted: “Today we have an anachronistic royal family on Twitter because she broke down the wall separating the masses from the monarchy. We have royals who tweet! Not like Trump, of course, but they tweet about profound things that can inspire the community,” he said.
He said that when Princes William and Harry stopped at the palace to inspect the tributes to their mother on Wednesday during a pouring rain, they held their own umbrellas aloft and accepted flowers from the crowd instead of asking their minders to do it for them.
“Diana’s not here, but her principles are there in her two sons,” Imafidon said.
That scene had echoes of one 20 years ago, when 15-year-old William and 12-year-old Harry paused outside of the same gates and gazed out at the sea of flowers.
This time the atmosphere outside the palace was poignant but not heartbreaking.
On Thursday, Maggie Boulton, 73, said that Diana had a “common touch” and mixed easily with “ordinary people.” By contrast, she said, Prince Charles “doesn’t know how to show emotion. When he tries to be personal, it comes across as awkward.”
The princess seemed approachable, Boulton said: “She took her kids to McDonald's, they stood in the queue. It meant a lot to see her mix with ordinary people like us. We will always have a bit of her here with her boys.”