20 Years After Her Death, Princess Diana Lives on as Queen of Hearts

Princess Diana in October 1983. Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

It has been 20 years today since the death of Princess Diana, the woman who came close to being Queen of England but in the end became “Queen of Hearts.” She was a future king’s teenage girlfriend who became a princess and thorn in the side of the British establishment.

Her informal attitude and willingness to take on unpopular causes defines the future of the British Royal Family. Her legacy lives on through her children.

The marriage of Diana Spencer and HRH Prince Charles was presented as a match made in heaven, and it was ideal—on paper. If your definition of perfection is a dynastic wedding between two old and very rich British families, they were the perfect couple.

It was a definition of perfection that the Royal Family, media and public bought into completely.

It came against the backdrop of a country ruled by a Queen who had watched the abdication of her uncle kill her father. Her father had been forced onto the throne in 1937, just two years before World War II, a war Britain looked set to lose. That abdication happened because King Edward VIII’s choice of wife was unacceptable to the British establishment. The trauma of it still defines The Queen’s psyche.

There has only been one Queen consort since the abdication: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later known as the Queen Mother.

Like Diana, she was quintessentially British, being the daughter of an Earl. As daughters of Earls, they were at the top of society but not as sheltered as Royalty. They had the experience of “ordinary” people—an ideal combination for any future Queen consort.

When he got engaged to Diana in 1981, Charles was asked if he was in love. He responded, “Whatever in love means.” It was clear Diana believed in the marriage, but Charles was less sure.

In the end, they were more committed to serving the country than each other. Both admitted to affairs, and to be charitable to Charles, at least he only had one. Diana was not so restrained.

But 20 years on, her legacy is stronger than ever.

The reason is simple: She brought an informality to Royal parenting that the modern princes have learned from. They certainly love their father, but they are not stiff and aloof like he is.

Can you imagine Prince Charles taking an HIV test for the cameras as Harry did, or heaving a sigh of relief that he managed to properly fit the baby seat into the car before he drove himself and his newborn son home for the first time?

It is also hard to imagine Charles taking his sons to McDonald’s as children, but Diana did it. She also took them to see Jurassic Park at the cinema, and they attended Eton College because sending boys to the school was a Spencer family tradition.

In recent years, both princes, joined by Kate, have talked openly about the mental health challenges of losing a parent. This feels like the legacy of Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir in which she said the establishment hated her for “leading with the heart, not the head.”

Her attitude was alien to the “stiff upper lip” strategy that the older Royals are famous for. The Queen is now 91-years-old, and Charles is 68. When she dies, he will either be too old to make much of an impact or be dead himself. Either way, the whip hand of the Monarchy will be held by Prince William.

William will take old days of The Queen to a new period. He will be heavily influenced by Diana’s style, her interest in real life, and her desire for the Royals to be more than just the British first family.

It will be her sons that forever make her the Queen of Hearts, because like every parent, she can only be truly immortalized by the actions of the next generation.

20 Years After Her Death, Princess Diana Lives on as Queen of Hearts