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’.
Very soon after Diana’s death, the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and William and Harry went to church as usual on the Balmoral estate.
The vicar was instructed not to mention Diana in the service, prompting the charge that it was probably the only church in the country that did not mention the Princess by name in its prayers.
It was as if she was being airbrushed from history. There is even a suggestion that 12-year-old Prince Harry said to Charles during the service: ‘Are you sure Mummy is dead?’
The sheer intensity of the public response to Diana’s death, at the age of 36, took Buckingham Palace aback. As did anger among MPs and the public who felt the royals were aloof and uncaring.
The hostility was inflamed by the fact that Buckingham Palace’s flagpole had stood bare — in stark contrast to the way flags on all other official buildings had been lowered, and to the mass of flowers at the Palace gates.