It’s July 29th, 1981 in London, England.
20-year-old Diana Spencer rides in a horse-drawn carriage with her elderly father. Her face is covered with a veil, and she holds a bouquet of white orchids and gardenias. Today is her wedding day.
But this is no ordinary wedding. Thousands of onlookers cheer and wave as her carriage stops in front of the steps of St. Paul's cathedral. Diana gets out and begins walking toward the church, her dress's 25-foot-long train trailing behind her. As she nears the top, she turns to wave at the crowd, smiling shyly behind her veil.
Inside, trumpets and organs announce her arrival. Thousands of guests are packed inside the church, including the full Royal family, prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and Nancy Reagan, wife of the President of the United States. Diana begins to walk down the aisle with her father at her side. Waiting for her near the altar is her soon-to-be husband, 32-year-old Prince Charles. He stands solemnly, dressed in his full Royal Navy Commander uniform.
At the altar, the couple begins their wedding vows. Charles repeats his vows in a confident voice. Diana squeaks hers quickly and quietly, clearly a little nervous. Absent from the vows is a traditional promise that Diana will obey Charles, which the couple requested to be taken out before the ceremony. Once their vows are complete, the couple receives a blessing from the Archbishop of Canterbury and then leave the cathedral together.
The crowd gathered outside cheers and waves small Union Jacks as Charles and Diana’s carriage moves through the streets of London to Buckingham Palace.
By the late 1980s, there’s talk that the British monarchy is an old institution that serves no purpose. But the wedding of Diana and Charles captures the attention of the media and the public. In addition to the 500 thousand onlookers present at the wedding, more than 750 million people watch the broadcast of the wedding around the world.
Soon, the press will write reports calling the day a “fairytale wedding.” It’s the start of a frenzy of media interest and public popularity for Diana. She will become one of the most influential members of the monarchy. And the Royal Family will see a rise in their popularity alongside Diana's. But away from the eye of the public, cracks will soon form in the young couple’s relationship. And the fairytale will come to its tragic end just 16 years later, on August 31st, 1997.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is August 31st, 1997: Lady Diana Dies in a Car Crash.
Act One: Princess of the People
It’s April 1987, about 6 years after the fairytale wedding.
Diana is standing in front of a crowded conference room, giving a speech about the importance of de-stigmatizing the autoimmune disease AIDS.
The royal couple has already had an eventful marriage. Diana birthed two boys, William and Harry, whom she loves deeply. And her focus on motherhood is unconventional in the royal family. Diana organizes her schedule around her children and picks them up from school herself. But their father hasn’t been so involved. The tabloids often still feature happy updates on the couple’s life. But after Harry’s birth, Charles has grown increasingly cold toward his wife. Diana has been struggling with post-partum depression and bulimia, and Charles' attention has turned elsewhere. Diana suspects he’s having an affair.
But today, Diana is not thinking about her marital problems. She’s in London Middlesex Hospital for an important medical event; the opening of the first ward for AIDS patients in the UK. And although AIDS isn’t in the royal family’s charity portfolio, Diana gives her speech with genuine concern and compassion.
As Diana finishes speaking, it’s clear that she is no longer the shy 20-year-old that she was at her wedding. She is 26 now, and the mother of two children, the eldest of which is next in line for the throne after Charles. Public speaking is still new to her, but she does well, and the crowd claps for her enthusiastically.
As she steps down from the podium, photographers swarm her. In the past few years, Diana has become a new fashion icon, and today, there's a ride of camera clicks and flashes capturing her modern blue dress and matching shoes. But her most important fashion choice is something that she’s not wearing: gloves.
In 1987, HIV and AIDS are on the rise. It has been seven years since AIDS was recognized by the medical community, but many patients are not getting the care they need. Part of the problem is stigma. Due to the disease’s prevalence among gay men, some newspapers have called it “The Gay Plague”, and homophobic attacks have risen. Although it’s known in the 80s that the virus spreads through bodily fluids, hysteria, and misinformation has caused many people to fear even touching someone infected with HIV.
So Diana’s choice not to wear gloves is significant, and it does not go unnoticed. Soon, a plaque is unveiled to mark the opening of the ward. And then cameras record as Diana intentionally shakes hands with doctors and nurses that have been working closely with AIDS patients.
But Diana notices something missing in the ward. As they walk from room to room, all the hospital beds are empty. She turns and asks one of the doctors about the patients. The doctor tells her that due to the stigma, none of the patients wanted to be in photos or videos of the ward. They fear that being recognized could lead to them being attacked.
Hearing this, Diana asks to be taken privately to meet those who are being treated. After all, they are who the ward is for. So with no press present, Diana talks with some of the HIV-positive patients. She asks them about what they are experiencing and listens attentively to their answers. After talking for a while, she asks if any of them would be willing to help her with something. Her mission is to help de-stigmatize AIDS, and she has an idea.
A few minutes later, a sole photographer is led into the room. Diana sits across from one of the patients, a middle-aged man. He is dying, and perhaps because of this, he agrees to have his picture taken with Diana. He only requests that his face is not shown. The photographer agrees and frames Diana in an over-the-shoulder shot of the sick patient. Then, Diana does something that shocks the world. She reaches out, and, with a smile on her face, shakes the patient’s hand.
The photo showing Diana touching a man dying of AIDS is published all over the world. She is one of the first public figures to show compassion for those afflicted by this disease, and this is only the beginning of her lifelong commitment to helping de-stigmatize the virus.
But in addition to bringing public awareness to AIDS, Diana also commits herself to many other charitable causes, including helping people with leprosy, becoming president of an organization to help vulnerable children, and publicly campaigning against the use of landmines in armed conflicts. Some will describe her as one of the most influential figures in philanthropy in the 20th century.
And Diana finds purpose in her work with charities and in being a loving mother. But she continues to struggle with her failing marriage. And soon, Diana’s suspicions about her husband’s affair will come to head; with disastrous consequences.
Act Two: The Confrontation
It’s early February 1989, two years after Diana’s visit to the AIDS ward.
Diana and Charles sit tensely in a chauffeured car, on their way to a birthday party.
The party is for Annabelle Elliot, the sister of Camilla Parker-Bowles. Camilla is a highly-educated woman from an upper-class family that often spends time with nobility. Charles and Camilla dated briefly when they were younger, but Charles had to leave for service in the military. When he got back, Camilla was married. But they rekindled their friendship, and soon the two were having an affair. Charles told Diana when they were engaged that everything between him and Camilla was in the past, but for the last several years, he’s been seeing Camilla again, and being unfaithful to Diana.
Diana knows about the affair. It’s been years since Charles has given her the love and attention she craves, and she’s begun a romance with an unmarried man named James Hewitt. But she still has hope. If Charles would stop seeing Camilla, she feels that their marriage could be salvaged.
And Charles knows that Diana is aware of his affair, and he doesn’t understand why she would want to come to a party that Camilla will attend. But Diana refuses to answer his questions in the car. Annoyed, he gives up and they walk into the party in silence.
At dinner, Diana eats little. After the plates are cleared, Charles excuses himself and leaves the lavish dining room. Many of the guests remain at the table to continue their conversations, but as Diana scans the room, she notices that Camilla’s chair is also empty. Diana’s stomach twists.
She goes into the kitchen to find Ken Wharfe, a detective assigned to protect Diana. He often travels with her, and they are close friends. Diana asks Ken if he knows where Charles is. And Ken can tell by Diana’s tone that she is upset, so he walks with her through the house until they find Charles. He is sitting in a basement room, used as a playroom for children. He is in deep conversation with Camilla, and another man, a friend of Charles.
Ken can sense the tension in the air and doesn’t want to be involved. So he leaves the room as Diana goes and sits next to Charles. Charles’ friend glances at her and offers that they might be more comfortable upstairs. Charles and Camilla quickly agree, and they all stand.
But as they turn to leave the basement room, Diana tells Camilla that she’d love to have a word with her, if possible. Charles pauses on the stairs and looks back, but keeps his face composed. Camilla agrees to talk, and soon it’s just her and Diana. They sit in chairs facing each other, children’s toys scattered on the floor around their feet.
Diana is usually intimidated by Camilla, who is 15 years older than Diana. But today, Diana is determined to confront her husband’s mistress. She tells Camilla that she knows about the affair; that she isn’t an idiot and that she doesn’t want to be treated like one.
But if Diana was expecting an apology, Camilla doesn’t offer one. Instead, she tells Diana, “you have men in love with you all over the world, you have a beautiful family and two beautiful children, what more do you want?”
Diana shoots back “I want my husband.”
But Diana’s anger quickly turns to tears. Someone comes down the stairs to investigate the raised voices and finds Diana apologizing to Camilla, telling her that she is sorry for being in the way of her and Charles but insisting that she doesn’t want to be treated like a fool.
On the way home, Diana will vent her pent-up pain and grief to Charles, but her husband will sit silently, refusing to look at her. His continued love for Camilla and the lack of love toward Diana will doom their relationship. Soon, Diana tells those close to her that she considers the marriage finished. And over the next few years, Diana and Charles will spend less and less time together. In 1992, they will separate, and then in 1996, they will officially divorce. Diana will begin looking for a love she never received in her marriage. But her romance with one man will tragically set the scene for her death just one year later.
Act Three: The Tragic End
It’s August 30th, 1997, in Paris, France; in the world-renowned Ritz Hotel.
Diana is eating dinner with Dodi Al-Fayed, the son of the wealthy Egyptian businessman who owns the Parisian Ritz. Dodi has a reputation for spending his time partying with beautiful women. But this summer, he’s been giving Diana his undivided attention, and she has enjoyed the time she has spent with him.
Today, she and Dodi have been doing their best to avoid the paparazzi, who often follow them on motorbikes through the streets of Paris. Dodi is frustrated and changes their dinner reservation to his father’s hotel to avoid the cameras.
But as they eat at the Ritz, a bodyguard approaches and tells Dodi that the paparazzi has amassed in front of the hotel anyway. Dodi comes up with a plan to escape. He and Diana arrived here in a Range Rover with tinted windows. Dodi tells a bodyguard to pull the car out front of the hotel and keep it running. But in the back of the hotel, he tells him to pull up a separate vehicle - a Mercedes Benz - that the couple will use to make a run for it.
After dinner, Dodi and Diana jump into the back seat of the Mercedez. The bodyguard climbs in the front passenger seat and nods to the driver who, unbeknownst to any of them, has been drinking.
Dodi tells the driver to get the couple back to their apartment as quickly as possible. And as their car speeds off, a small group of photographers sees them and alerts the larger group still waiting at the front of the hotel. The paparazzi start their motorbikes and chase the car through the streets of Paris.
The Mercedes’ driver picks up speed in order to outrun the bikes. Eventually, he manages to shake them. But he’s going almost 100 miles per hour. Racing through the streets of Paris, he clips the bumper of another vehicle as he changes lanes. Then, he overcorrects and turns the wheel too sharply to the left. As they approach the mouth of a tunnel, the Mercedes hits a bump and skids out of control before smashing at high speed into a concrete pillar.
Dodi and the driver die immediately. The bodyguard in the passenger seat is wounded. Diana is alive, but only barely.
Within a minute, the paparazzi catch up to the scene. Two of them call for help, but the rest simply take picture after picture of the wrecked car and its bleeding passengers.
Diana is still alive when the ambulance eventually arrives, but her injuries are severe… and eventually mortal. The news of Diana’s death will start a public wave of mourning in Britain and around the world. People will leave thousands of flowers outside her home at Kensington Palace, and memorial services will be held for her in cities all over the globe.
But in many ways, she will live on. Her two sons, William and Harry, will attribute their strong moral character to her success as a mother. Her legacy as a fashion icon will become legendary and lasting. And her work with charities will set a new example for the royal family, and for celebrities and public figures, in every nation.
There is no doubt that Lady Diana's legacy lives on today, decades after her tragic death on August 31st, 1997.
Next onHistory Daily.September 1st, 1807. Former US Vice-President Aaron Burr is acquitted of treason, after plotting to start a new, rival American empire.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser