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How the Passage of Time Softened the Fury Over Diana’s Death

LONDON – The noise rippled through the crowds gathered at Buckingham Palace to mark Queen Elizabeth’s death – a rustle of telephones, a sudden cheer, a burst of applause. “I just saw her!” a woman exclaimed excitedly as a dark car rushed by, possibly with some royal or royal adjoining passengers.

“Camilla!”

How different from a quarter of a century ago. Camilla, then vilified as the woman who wrecked a royal wedding and destroyed a modern fairy tale, is now Britain’s queen consort, her image buoyed by a country’s softening of judgments and the sheer passing of the time.

“I think she will support Charles as Philip supported the Queen,” said a benefactor in the crowd, 52-year-old Diane Pett, speaking of Elizabeth’s late husband and the new King Charles. “Who are we to judge?”

As thousands of people gather in palaces in England and Scotland to mark the (until now) seamless transition from one monarch to another, it’s hard not to be transported back to 1997, another national inflection point. That was when Diana, the 36-year-old Princess of Wales and ex-wife of Charles, was killed in a car accident, and London erupted into a collective howl of fear and indignation.

It felt bewildered, bewildering, a break with the natural order of things. There was a dangerous crackle in the air, an anger at the royal family for what was seen as a callous treatment of Diana in life and a gross misjudgment of the depth of grief at her death.

Prince Charles, accused (along with Camilla, then his girlfriend) of contributing to Diana’s accident, feared he would be booed or even attacked by the mob as he and other male members of the royal family briefly walked Diana’s footsteps. coffin followed in London. Emotions were so high that there was talk that the monarchy itself was on the brink of collapse.

But not anymore. As Britain settles in to await the Queen’s funeral on Monday, those days gone by seem almost forgotten.

For now, there is an atmosphere of quiet agreement, if not about the long-term future of the monarchy, then about the importance of the moment. There is respect for the queen’s long reign and even a kind of appreciation for the baroque rituals – reading proclamations, signing documents, swearing oaths, sounding trumpets, the courtiers’ costumes with their be-furred and be – feathered hats – that have been dusted for the occasion.

Perhaps the setting of 1000 years makes sense after all?

“The monarchy is an apolitical symbol of national unity and of Britain’s long history and deep stability,” said Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times.

Mr Rachman, whose parents emigrated to England from South Africa, noted that every royal coronation has taken place at Westminster Abbey since 1066. “I think something like that is a source of pride and comfort for people,” he said in an interview. “perhaps especially those of us whose parents came here from much more turbulent countries.”

But after Diana’s sudden, violent death in Paris in 1997, Britain was plagued by turbulence, uncertainty and emerging republicanism. Then, as now, crowds flocked to royal palaces and covered the grounds with flowers. Then, as now, there was wall-to-wall coverage of a royal death and endless TV chatter about royal funeral arrangements. The grief was different for the sudden death of a young woman than for the sad but expected death of an elderly monarch.

“It was like living in a revolutionary time,” said novelist and political commentator Robert Harris. “I’ve never known such an atmosphere in London. It was borderline hysteria, as if there were going to be a coup. Nobody knew what could happen.”

Harris wrote for The Mail on Sunday about Diana’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. He was not far from Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, whose… exciting funeral address included a caustic attack on the decision to strip Diana of her “royal highness” designation and made a sharp distinction between the family she married and her “blood family.” (That he came from an old noble family, much older than the Queen’s, and that the Queen was his godmother, added to the insult and gave his comments the feeling of a brewing mutiny.)

“There was a pause after he finished talking,” recalled Mr Harris. “Then there was this curious sound, like rain drumming on the roof, and it became apparent that it was the distant sound of applause from all the people gathered outside” – looking at a giant screen near the abbey. In the end, the applause went through the church, although the Queen and the senior royals did not participate.

“It felt like if we had lived in Shakespeare’s time, the Spencer troops would have moved up to London and there would have been a Spencer regency with the two princes,” said Mr Harris, speaking of Diana’s sons and Charles, Prince Harry and William.

It was virtually the only time in her long reign that the Queen set aside tradition and bowed to the will of the people. Prompted by Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister and alarmed by what he saw as a crisis of royal legitimacy, Elizabeth returned to London from Scotland and delivered a televised speech the night before the funeral acknowledging the people’s bewilderment and pain. That helped defuse some of the urgency of the emotions.

Later Events – Charles’s Marriage to Camilla and Camilla’s gradual acceptance by the queen; the transition to adulthood of William and Harry; Elizabeth’s general imperturbability; the outburst of goodwill after her death – seems to have done the rest.

In an era of troubled democracies around the world, when a violent mob nearly derailed the peaceful transfer of power in Washington in 2021, it was fascinating to watch the instruments of the monarchy play to their ancient rhythms.

“No American will ever experience that kind of solace, that very human kind of patriotism in his own life over the decades and then in the centuries before that,” Andrew Sullivan, a Briton who has lived in the United States for many years, wrote recently. “Growing up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts from the distant past, but deeply connected to the present through the persistence of the monarchy and the nation’s millennial survival as a sovereign state. “

When the new king took his oath on Saturday, the seven remaining British Prime Ministers – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the current holder of the job – gathered politely along with Keir Starmer. leader of the opposition Labor party. (It doesn’t matter that some of them hate each other and that, like the political writer Adam Bienkov tweetedJohnson stood “with people he has variously likened to a suicide bomber called ‘girly’, compared to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, said he should be tried in The Hague” and accused Jimmy Savile of the crimes. the infamous pedophile.)

All the elaborate choreography helped to cover up some awkward moments. Charles prepared to sign a statement as part of his joining, gestured angrily to an assistant to remove some items from the desk, then showed a tooth-bearing grimace when he next noticed strange pens cluttering the space (the pens were quickly wiped out).

It also put a temporary band-aid on the festering family tensions when Prince William and his wife, Catherine, were unexpectedly joined by Charles’ other son, Harry, and his wife Meghan, in a 40-minute journey. walkabout outside Windsor Castle on Saturday. Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have been pretty much persona non grata in Britain, at least in the popular imagination, ever since they moved to California and criticized the royal family from across the Atlantic. But the two couples shook hands with the star-stricken citizens and inspected bouquets of flowers left at the gates.

At another flower inspection at another royal palace, Prince Andrew, the second of Queen Elizabeth’s three sons, briefly emerged from his disgraced nearly-erased family and walked amicably alongside his siblings.

While standing in Green Park near Buckingham Palace recently, with bouquets of flowers everywhere, Janet Ratcliffe, 75, said that after the nastiness of the Diana era, she had come to believe that the monarchy could thrive under Charles, and even Camilla. .

“People were very sad and it was very traumatic,” she said of Diana’s death. She mentioned Camilla, who by now had driven past (or hadn’t driven past) in the possibly royal car. She said that, as far as she could tell, Charles had grown into his new role.

“I thought Camilla was the bad guy,” she said, “but I’ve come to realize it’s more complicated than that. They care about each other and they can do good for the country.”