The broadcast remains one of the defining moments of the Queen’s 65-year reign. Dressed in black at Buckingham Palace the evening before Princess Diana’s funeral, she addressed the nation live, declaring: ‘No one who ever knew Diana will ever forget her.’
She was speaking, she said, both as a monarch and a grandmother. ‘She [Diana] was an exceptional and gifted human being,’ said the Queen. ‘In good times and bad, she never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness.
‘I admired and respected her — for her energy and commitment to others, and especially for her devotion to her two boys. This week at Balmoral, we have all been trying to help William and Harry come to terms with the devastating loss that they and the rest of us have suffered.’
That last sentence was seen as a riposte to critics who argued that the royals had badly misread the public mood by staying hidden on their Scottish estate while the focus of the nation’s grief was in London at Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace, where tens of thousands of people laid floral tributes.
New Labour government officials, who it’s said persuaded the Queen to make the broadcast, had vetted her script. But what were the private thoughts of Her Majesty that week — the most dramatic and poignant days of her reign?
Now, a letter from the Queen to one of her most trusted confidantes — Lady (Henriette) Abel Smith, a lady-in-waiting — has just been unearthed. It was written six days after Diana’s funeral and, for the first time, sheds a fascinating light on what she calls the Royal Family’s ‘emotions’.
The Queen, Prince Charles and William and Harry stayed on at Balmoral, where they had been the previous week when the news of Diana’s death was broken to them.
The content of the letter, in reply to one of condolence from Lady Abel Smith, is mostly typed.
‘Thank you so much for your letter about Diana’s tragic death,’ it reads.
‘It was indeed dreadfully sad, and she is a huge loss to the country. But the public reaction to her death, and the service in the Abbey, seem to have united people round the world in a rather inspiring way. William and Harry have been so brave and I am very proud of them.’
Fascinatingly, the Queen adds a personal postscript in her own handwriting: ‘I think your letter was one of the first I opened — emotions are still so mixed up but we have all been through a very bad experience!’
Private letters from the Queen very rarely surface in public. Lady Abel Smith was a lady-in-waiting from 1949 until 1987, and her letter, a copy of which was passed to the Mail, is now in private hands having been auctioned after her death, aged 90, in 2005.
Royal commentators believe it reflects both the royals’ horror over Diana’s death and the effect on William and Harry, and the Queen’s bewilderment at the public turmoil over the Royal Family’s seemingly distant response.
Dr David Starkey, the eminent historian who has written many books on the monarchy, insists the remarks must be viewed in context. ‘It is important to remember that, like most of her generation, the Queen is emotionally very reserved,’ he says.
He explains that, at the time, she was accused — wrongly, in his view — of ‘not showing enough compassion’.