How Prince William Honours Diana's Legacy
Princes William and Harry will mark the 60th birthday of their mother Princess Diana next week by unveiling a statue, yet for Diana's eldest son, stepping out from her shadow has been his greatest way of honouring her legacy.
JUNE 26th, 2021
here are many photographs of Princess Diana with her sons Princes William and Harry. Some are by professional photographers, others were captured by members of the Royal Family, and many were the product of the paparazzi. Whilst some are more iconic than others, there is one photograph which is mostly overlooked, and yet has a poignancy unlike any other.
Walking down Kensington High Street in 1997, a fifteen year old Prince William, then already taller than his mother, stares at the ground smiling into his hand. His mother Princess Diana is beside him looking at her son with motherly warmth and affection, mirroring her eldest son’s smile. It is an image of a mother and son sharing an intimate private moment together, and whilst it was captured by the dreaded paparazzi, it is hard to ignore the relaxed candour between the two of them, the ease of being in each other’s company.
Unfortunately, like so many of the images Diana shares with her “boys”, the tragedy is that we all know the eventual inevitability of her fate. In the case of this touching photograph with William, it would catastrophically become the final image of mother and son taken in public. Four weeks after their trip to Kensington High Street was captured, Diana would be killed in a car accident in Paris - an event which would shock the world and change her son’s lives forever.
In recent years, both William and Harry have been much more open around the trauma of their beloved mother’s death. In 2017, both featured in a documentary where they discussed in detail the effects of her accident twenty years prior. Before the documentary aired, in a press preview William announced that the programme would be the first, last and only time both he and Harry would discuss their mother’s death in such minute detail. Whilst William has stayed true to that vow, Harry has trekked down another path.
In his recent documentary The Me You Can’t See, Harry replayed his mother’s death, funeral and the lasting impact of the consequential grief on his mental health. For William, he has and remains resolutely silent on the personal trauma of those historic seven days. These differing approaches have led to somewhat of an unfair comparison between the brothers, and in some cases effectively eradicated Diana’s eldest son from the history books. It is an attitude which hasn’t gone unnoticed, including by William himself.
“Diana was my mother too,” he was rumoured to have told friends after the airing of the documentary and resulting conversations around Harry walking behind his mother’s coffin. And although some - specifically those critical of Prince William - would like to believe that Harry’s openness makes him more of Diana’s son, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Both share the qualities Diana possessed and was celebrated for, yet with William he has, for the most part, actively tried to step out from his mother’s long and iconic shadow.
Perhaps this could account for the reason why the Duke of Cambridge has always seemed to have a healthy, more nuanced approach to his mother’s death and the traumas of her life. There is no denying the closeness between Diana and her eldest - if not for the poignant image taken on Kensington High Street - Diana herself always noted how much she relied on Prince William. “He has a mature head on his shoulders. He’s a deep thinker and an old soul,” she once told her close friend Lucia Flecha de Lima. “He’s the only man in my life I can trust.”
Diana affectionately used differing nicknames for her sons. For Prince Harry, she named him “Good King Harry” due to believing he was more of a “Windsor” and better at taking orders. Interestingly, when asked whether that meant William was a “Spencer” (Diana’s side of the family) she responded: “No, William’s a "Diana"”.
Prince William had more than one nickname, including Wombat and D.D.G (for Drop Dead Gorgeous), yet it was his nickname around his teenage years which highlighted that deep level of trust Diana placed in her son - “soulmate.”
For some close to the Princess, labelling your son with such an intimate title left them uneasy. A small collection of her close friends believed that Diana was too reliant on the young Prince, burdening him with complaints and issues which were too “mature” for a teenager. But the Princess insisted on telling William everything about her life.
“I want him to hear it from me, so then he knows the truth,” was Diana’s explanation.
Whilst friends and courtiers had their concerns, William didn’t. If anything, he preferred to hear any gossip from his mother - after all, trust between mother and son went both ways.
The honesty between Diana and William provided an insight into the Princess’ life for her son which not many (if any) had ever seen. It enabled Prince William to understand the complexities of his mother’s personality and analyse the mistakes that she ultimately made. It also allowed him to learn from her successes; how to connect with people on a personal and emotional level.
This closeness forged an evolution in Diana’s relationship with Prince William, he became much more than just her eldest son, but friend, confidant and counselor. He was her reliable source of comfort, someone who would never lie to her, and, irrespective of whether she wanted to hear it or not, an honest sounding board. He was also a pragmatist and forging new ideas for the Princess’s life.
In 1997, Diana had decided to change her fashion style, believing that she had outgrown her more younger “princess dresses”. She was beginning a new chapter in her life after her divorce from Prince Charles and some of her old dresses held too many painful memories. Unsure on what to do with them, and initially choosing to place them into storage, it was Prince William who suggested she auction them off for charity - the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and the AIDS Crisis Trust.
Debbie Frank, a close friend of the Princess elaborated: "The idea of auctioning the dresses came from William. She told me so herself and she was so proud of him for coming up with that idea."
The success of the auction once again highlighted the unique relationship between them both, although that relationship would tragically be severed later that year in an underpass in Paris.
Fast forward twenty-four-years and Prince William (now the Duke of Cambridge) is married and has a family of his own. Movingly, next year he will turn forty, a landmark birthday his mother never celebrated. And whilst this highlights the longevity of Diana’s absence from both her son’s lives, it also has provided us time to see the man Prince William has become.
Statesmanlike, duty bound and regal in his approach, the Duke of Cambridge has become a royal force to be reckoned with. Yet, walking hand in hand beside these sovereign qualities is the personal and emotive tones of his mother. Significantly, William has actively found a way of balancing both the influence of the Royal Family and his mother in a harmonious concoction which works, and works well. He has strived for elements of privacy without much complaint, whilst understanding that the public want to see and hear from him and his growing family. He has diligently and stoically faced crisis with the Royal mask of “keep calm and carry on”, yet at times been fearless in firing back if needed. He has achieved the modern ideas of Monarchy his mother always hoped for, whilst maintaining that illusive and unique magic that the Queen has consistently inspired. William has successfully combined the best of both royal worlds with remarkable ease.
He has achieved this by taking a simple step away from the long shadow of his mother. What William has always understood is that there can never be another Diana, Princess of Wales. Her presence was special - a royal and cultural enigma which cannot be revived. It is impossible to live up to her legacy, to rekindle the magic she generated. This understanding is why William hasn’t been dogged by the traumas of the past; why the tragedy of his mother’s death is no longer the dominant force in how he remembers her. The Duke of Cambridge has come to realise that the greatest way to honour his mother is to generate his own brand of royal magic, to infuse it with the lessons Diana instilled along the way, but to ultimately be his own person.
In doing so, he has not just honoured the historic and iconic Diana, Princess of Wales’ in a more vivid way than he could have ever hoped, but more so his mother who walked beside him down Kensington High Street, smiling as they went.
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