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With her child-like enthusiasm and ready smile, Prince Charles’s new girlfriend was just the type of house-guest to appeal to the queen. The year was 1980. And there was no doubt that Lady Diana Spencer had just passed the Balmoral test with flying colours.
The whole family liked the 19-year-old Diana and, to his mother’s evident relief, her eldest son seemed finally to have picked himself a winner. And who could blame her for thinking so?
What’s largely been forgotten is that the queen was one of her most caring supporters.
For the past year, Charles had been spending more and more time with Camilla, the wife of Guards officer Andrew Parker Bowles, and the affair had even reached the ears of the queen.
“Ma’am,” a senior courtier had informed her, “the Prince of Wales is having an affair with the wife of a brother officer, and the regiment don’t like it.”
In April 1980, Charles had taken Camilla with him to Zimbabwe, where he was due to represent his mother at the country’s independence ceremony. Ostensibly, Camilla was flying over to see her husband.
At a formal dinner in Harare, the couple flirted ostentatiously while her husband stoically looked the other way.
Little wonder, then, that Charles’s parents were relieved to welcome Diana to the fold. It helped, too, that she’d known the royal family since childhood, when her father, Earl Spencer, rented a 10-bedroom farmhouse on the Sandringham estate.
Ever vigilant, the queen was determined to protect her potential daughter-in-law from the overwhelming press interest.
Characteristically, the queen said nothing to Charles directly, but she did speak to Philip, who wrote their eldest son a carefully considered letter. Media pressure was creating an intolerable situation, said Philip, which meant that Charles must come to a rapid decision. Either he must offer Diana his hand, or he must break off the relationship to avoid compromising her reputation.
“Read it!” Charles would furiously exclaim to friends in later years, whipping the letter out of his breast pocket. “It was his attempt to say that he was forced into the marriage,” recalled one who saw the note.
On the wedding day itself, in July 1981, Her Majesty was as giddy as everyone else. That evening, she watched the wedding all over again on large-screen televisions set up in Claridge’s.
Dry martini in hand, she studied her own image intently, pointing delightedly whenever the cameras caught one of her famous glum faces. It was noted how she beamed with pleasure whenever images of her new daughter-in-law appeared.
Three weeks later, she welcomed Charles and Diana back from their ocean-going honeymoon with similar gusto.
But it was soon apparent that something was amiss. At midday, the queen would appear in the hall to take the women guests to lunch with the men on the grouse moors. It went without saying that no one should be a minute late.
“So there we’d all be waiting in the hall,” recalled a guest, “making polite conversation – and no Diana. So the queen would send off a footman, and he’d come back looking embarrassed. ‘Sorry, Ma’am, the Princess of Wales will not be joining the party for lunch.’”
The queen would go very silent. Friends saw the danger signs: the pursed lips, the extra-quick blink of the eyes. In the monarch’s view, staying in your room at lunchtime was something you did only if you were ill – or rather odd.
“The queen’s thoughts,” said a friend, “was that Diana was a ‘new girl’ who was finding things very difficult to get used to.”
It was rather more complicated than that, for in the year since she made her first successful appearance at Balmoral, Diana had made the astonishing discovery that her husband’s deepest emotions were committed to another woman.
That autumn in Scotland, Diana would be smiling one moment then breaking helplessly into tears the next, and her new mother-in-law tried to help her.
Pondering on what had happened to the jolly girl who’d been “game for anything” one year earlier, Elizabeth referred the problem to experts.
By the end of September 1981, Diana met with leading Harley Street psychiatrists – and having done what she could to help Diana with her private demons, the queen summoned the editors of Fleet Street and asked them to give her more space.
“She’s not like the rest of us,” said the queen. “She’s very young.” Happily, the birth of Prince William on June 21, 1982, produced a certain calm.
The queen arrived the next day to congratulate her daughter-in-law and inspect the new arrival. “Thank goodness,” she said, “he hasn’t got ears like his father.”
After Harry was born in September 1984, several friends identified this surprisingly early date as the moment when the couple stopped “making the effort” with each other.
By 1987, both were having affairs. Charles was back with Camilla and Diana had turned to a series of lovers, from her cockney detective, Barry Mannakee, to Major James Hewitt and a car salesman, James Gilbey, who liked to call her “Squidgy”.
When the princess delivered her side of the troubled marriage into the public domain, by using a go-between to provide tape-recorded answers to questions posed by Andrew Morton, a young tabloid journalist, the queen was surprisingly sympathetic.
Without any real knowledge of how Morton had got his story, and with no doubt that she and the family were victims of the most monstrous betrayal, the queen and Philip held back from accusing Diana.
Even before Morton’s book was published, the queen and her husband had met Charles and Diana for an informal attempt at family therapy.
“Can you tell us what’s the matter, Diana?” asked Philip, at which his daughter-in-law collapsed in tears.
“Well, Charles,” said the queen rather desperately, turning to her son. “Can you explain to us?”
“What?” replied the prince. “And read it all in the newspapers tomorrow? No thank you.”
In December 1992, the then Prime Minister John Major announced that the Prince and Princess of Wales had decided to separate. It was the queen’s fervent hope that this legal separation would stop the couple feuding – but the rivalry ran too deep.
In a TV documentary made the following year by Jonathan Dimbleby, the prince confessed to his own adultery – with the sting coming for his mother in the biography that Dimbleby published with Charles’s approval, painstakingly listing his grievances against his parents and actually stigmatising the queen as a bad mother.
Diana’s own riposte to Charles came on November 20, 1995, when more than 23 million viewers watched the princess nervously, but deftly, answer the questions of Martin Bashir, a young reporter.
“There were three of us in this marriage,” was her edgy skewering of the Camilla situation.
The queen was not impressed. And she acted, at last.
On December 20, 1995, a uniformed courier from Windsor Castle delivered a personal letter from the queen to her daughter-in-law.
The queen explained that she had been discussing the “sad and complicated situation” with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister, who were both in agreement, and she was now expressing her own personal wish that Charles and Diana should formally and finally divorce “in the best interests of the country”.
She ended the note with an affectionate scribble, “Love from Mama”, but her message brooked no argument. The dream marriage formally came to an end the following August. They could all now make a fresh start.
But just one year and three days later, the British ambassador in Paris rang Balmoral around 1am. The embassy was receiving police reports, he said, of a serious car crash that involved the Princess of Wales. The news of Diana’s death came through from Paris just before 4am, and the queen’s first reaction was to think of her grandsons.
“We must get the radios out of their rooms,” she said to Charles. “Looking after the boys” became her top priority in the difficult days that lay ahead.
Meanwhile, the queen’s muted response to Princess Di’s death was rousing criticism. Compounding the queen’s absence was the lack of any flag flying at half-mast above Buckingham Palace as a sign of royal mourning.
But both the queen and her husband had a deep mistrust of making concessions to the popular concerns of the moment, particularly when voiced by the tabloids.
But by the end of the third day after Diana’s death the queen’s advisers were unanimous. There must be a compromise.
By the next morning – Thursday, September 4, the fourth day after Diana’s death – Her Majesty showed another side. The Balmoral pastor was told to arrange a service that very evening at which the name of Diana would be mentioned.
Afterwards, the royal family would get out of their cars to inspect the flowers that had been laid at the castle gates, and the next day the entire family would fly down early to London so they could talk to people outside the London palaces.
In addition, Her Majesty would be making an eve-of-funeral broadcast to the nation.
The turn-around was incredible: in just 45 minutes, the queen had backtracked, adapted and totally reinvented her role in Diana’s ending.
“I, for one,” she said in her live broadcast, “believe that there are lessons to be drawn from (Diana’s) life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.”
She proved as good as her word.
l From A Brief Life of the Queen by Robert Lacey, published by Duckworth on January 31.