EESE 4/98

"Goodbye England's Rose":
Princess Diana, the Monarchy, and Englishness

Silvia Mergenthal (Konstanz)

Cover of the American paperback edition by Pocket Books
(New York: Schuster & Schuster, 1997)

Even nine months after her tragic death on August 31, 1997, public interest in Princess Diana shows little sign of waning. A random sample of newspaper and magazine articles collected over the last months yields the following insights into the comprehensiveness of this interest: Diana is cast as "the ultimate Cosmo girl" because of her "transition from shy other half to feisty, proactive, determined stateswoman and role model" and Cosmopolitan ethos: you can do anything."1 She is pitied by The Observer for posthumously having become "a muse to the world's worst verse", thus inspiring poems like the following:

Her brother's plans for a memorial car park outside the walls of the Althorp estate, site of her "lake-isle resting place",are said, again by The Observer, to have angered the neighbours, who are quoted as asking "So when is Diana's village going to get a McDonald's?"3 In the same issue of The Observer the journalist Barbara Gunnell poses the question whether, "if mourning Diana isn't your cup of tea, it is at last all right to tell those tacky jokes", and in response suggests that, while there are hundreds of Diana jokes on dedicated Diana web sites,4 it would be folly to repeat them "in a by-lined column when journalists have received hate mail for merely suggesting that may be the People's grief was a little over the top". Gunnell also hints that, under similar pressure, Tony Blair may have been forced to retract "a statement [which] condemned elements of the Diana industry for being 'tacky and inappropriate'", and to give "his full support to memorabilia". Even so, some of these memorabilia, according to yet another The Observer article, are by now widely regarded as "insult[s] to Diana's memory", among them a purple teddy bear with an embroidered white rose and a sentimental rhyme printed in its ear tag.5 By way of contrast, few newspapers withheld their approval of the Diana commemorative stamps issued in February, and even fewer resisted the tempation of describing the unprecedented public demand for these stamps as a stampede".

Even academics, traditionally somewhat reluctant to address themselves to events which enthral the general public, have responded remarkably quickly to what, for brevity's sake, can be called the Diana phenomenon. In Germany, the academic year of 1997/8 has already seen a lecture course on "Mythos Diana - von der Princess of Wales zur Queen of Hearts", which was organised by two political scientists, Sabine Berghahn and Sigrid Koch-Baumgartner of Berlin Free University; another, seminar-type, course is currently being taught in the English Department of Leipzig University, by Thomas Kühn. In Britain, The Times of April 17, 1998 informs us, "a leading academic has provoked outrage and debate castigating Diana, Princess of Wales as a childlike and self-obsessed sentimentalist with no proper understanding of her royal role".

The leading academic in question is Professor Anthony O'Hear, a philosophy lecturer at Bradford University, and his statements appear in his contribution to Faking It. The Sentimentalisation of Society, a collection of twelve essays edited by Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen and published by the Social Affairs Unit. It was O'Hear's contention (as reported by The Times) that Diana's "'obsession with her own feelings and her self-development' might have damaged the monarchy, her children and, ultimately, herself"6, which reawakened my own interest in the Diana phenomenon, and, specifically, with the nexus between Diana, her real or alleged personality, and the fate of the British monarchy.

One remarkable aspect of Diana's funeral on September 6, 1997, was the insistence on her "Englishness". She was explicitly addressed as "England's rose" and "our nation's golden child" in Elton John's Candle in the Wind; another line of the song situated her in "England's greenest hills", and the last stanza can, by implication, be read to suggest that she was also England's - now unfortunately departed - soul:

  Goodbye England's rose,
from a country lost without your soul,
who'll miss the wings of your compassion
more than you'll ever know.

The song, however, only provided the most memorable variation on the theme: It was first introduced in the Bidding by the Dean of Westminster, who stated that "in her life, Diana profoundly influenced this nation and this world", and taken up in the hymn following the Bidding, Cecil Spring-Rice's "I vow to thee, my country".8 It was further enlarged upon, not least, as it were, geographically, in the Tribute by the Earl of Spencer, who described his sister as a "truly British girl", albeit one who "transcended nationality".9 Finally, and most importantly, Diana was appropriated, or perhaps reappropriated, for the nation by the funeral service itself, and by its setting, Westminster Abbey. This act of appropriation was performed by the Royal Family as well as by the public at large: On the part of the Royal Family, the public nature of Diana's funeral accorded with the precedent established by the funeral of Queen Mary, grandmother of the present Queen and wife of George V, who, as John Pearson in The Ultimate Family. The Making of the Royal House of Windsor points out,10 was, in 1953, the first royal spouse to receive the posthumous honour of being placed on solemn public view. From this perspective, Diana's funeral can be regarded as an example of what Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have called an "invented tradition":

At the same time, however, the specific shape which Diana's funeral took was determined by pressure from below. As a result, it both claimed and disclaimed continuity with the past of the nation, and with the nation's "values and norms of behaviour". What are these values and norms which were being affirmed or rejected, or, to rephrase this, what did Diana's "Englishness" consist of?

It is relatively easy to catalogue the virtues - or vices, if one follows O'Hear - commonly associated with Diana: warmth, spontaneity, a caring attitude, and the willingness to talk about the most intimate details of her life, that is, to wear, as "Queen of Hearts", her heart on her designer sleeves. Diana was indebted for this image not only (perhaps not even primarily) to her charity work, but also to Andrew Morton's Diana. Her True Story, first published in 1992,12 and to her own 1995 BBC interview. Morton described Diana as a bulimic, whose illness and suicidal tendencies were attempts to win back her husband's love.

Morton was in no doubt as to who the villains of the Diana story were: Prince Charles, obviously, because of his continuing involvement with Camilla Parker-Bowles, and even one year after, the international rainbow press is pathetically siding with the late princess, while in Britain public opinion is steering towards a more pragmatic mood:

But even more so the monarchy itself came under attack, for the way in which it immunizes the members of the Royal Family from "reality". Morton says of the Queen and Princess Margaret:

In the interview, Diana herself spoke openly about her psychological problems, and about the Charles-Camilla relationship. She also admitted that she had condoned Morton's book by allowing close friends to speak to him, and thus, implicitly, that she saw her own life in terms of a conflict between duty and happiness, and between "real life" and royal splendid isolation. On being asked by the interviewer, Martin Bashir, what she had expected the Morton book to achieve she answered that she had been at the end of her tether, and that

It is, in a way, beside the point whether the Diana of the 1995 interview was the "real" Diana finally emerging from behind the royal mask, or whether the interview was merely a clever publicity stunt. Either way, she and Bashir were in tune with a prevailing public mood. It is equally beside the point whether this mood was created by the media, or whether the media responded to it. At any rate, while this interview was clearly a new departure in royal outspokenness, it can also be regarded as the ultimate - or penultimate, if one takes into account Diana's posthumous media career - transformation scene in a royal progress from virgin princess to wronged woman. The concept of the transformation scene is derived from Pearson's The Ultimate Family, and in particular from his Chapter 14, "A Megastar is Made". In it, he aptly describes Diana as both fitting the Windsor pattern and as "princess material for the media": As to the first, she had been brought up in proximity to the Royal Family and shared their love of animals and country life; unlike the women whom Charles had courted in the past, she was the antithesis of modern self-assertiveness and 'liberation', hence a suitable Galatea to Charles's Pygmalion. As to the second, the press loved the conjunction of royal blood and "the simplest qualities of the nicest sort of girl next door", the paradox of an aristocrat dedicated to menial tasks such as shopping, cooking, even house-cleaning, and Diana's novelettish family situation of adored father and abhorred step-mother.15 Her step-grandmother, the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland

On a somewhat higher intellectual level, Foster Provost, the editor of the Spenser Newsletter at the time of the wedding in 1981, presented Diana with an illustrated copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene (in a modernised version). In the accompanying letter he wrote:

Diana's media career in the fifteen years between the wedding and the 1995 interview can be charted by perusing some of the popular press headlines from that period.18 Generally speaking, they started out by discovering Diana's intransigence as Galatea ("Disco Diana dumps Charles", 1982), and by presenting her as a frivolous and shallow, albeit glamorous, fashion-plate, then made the most of the "Squidgy tape" and of other alleged extramarital relationships in the months preceding the offical separation in December 1992, and ended up by crediting her, especially after the 1995 interview, with what Richard Tomlinson refers to as "her own, royal identity".19 Correspondingly, Charles's public image deteriorated from that of an intelligent and sensitive man hampered by a woman unwilling, or more probably, unable, to share his wide-ranging interests, to that of a cruel and insensitive adulterer, whose prurient obsession with his mistress's personal hygiene in The Mirror's "Camillagate" (November 1992) was seen as rather more objectionable than the indiscretions of "Squidgy".20 As a result, doubts as to Charles's credibility as a future king, doubts which had first been raised prior to the separation ("Charles May Never be King", June 22, 1992; various tabloids), intensified in the period between the separation and the divorce.

In general, however, dissatisfaction with him and with the Royal Family in the annus horribilis of the Morton book, the separation, and the Windsor Castle fire, expressed itself in economic terms; thus, in a 1993 opinion poll quoted by Tom Nairn in his 1994 revised edition of The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy,21 an overwhelming majority of those questioned were against continuing financial support for the Royal Family. It was only after Diana's death that this satisfaction developed into a fully-fledged media assault not only on the members of the Royal Family, but on the monarchy as an institution.

One of the articles in The Observer September 7 memorial edition was headed "An icon for a less stuffy Britain", and in it, the journalist Martin Jacques argued that Diana had "demonstrated that public life could be different, that public institutions did not have to be aloof, male, stuffy, of another world". A week later, on September 14, The Observer printed an article entitled "Remote and stuffy royals must change", and an editorial, "Why we should seriously discuss a federal republic", on opposite pages.22 The first article, by Peter Kellner, presented the findings of an ICM poll conducted on by telephone on September 10 and 11. The poll yielded an overwhelming pro-monarchy majority of 86 per cent, as opposed to 12 per cent republicans and two per cent don't knows (statistically speaking, the fewer don't knows, the greater the interest in the question at hand). The other findings were that, while in 1981, 71 per cent of the respondents were prepared to give the Queen a mark of ten out of ten for overall performance, this percentage was now down to ten (for Charles, the figures were 58 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively). 81 per cent of the interviewees agreed to the statement that "the Royal Family should become much more informal, and less concerned with preserving their traditional ways", and 79 per cent opined that the Royals were "out of touch with ordinary people in Britain". We are, of course, back to the conflict between "real" life and royal splendid isolation, a conflict, incidentally, which was also hinted at in the Earl of Spencer's eulogy, in his case expressed in terms of the opposition between Diana's blood family, pledged "to continue the imaginative and loving way" in which she had raised her sons, and the Royal Family:

On being asked whether, upon the Queen's demise, Charles should succeed her or whether he should be passed over in favour of his son William, 53 per cent of the respondents opted for William, and only 38 per cent for Charles. These figures are especially revealing as, by the time the interviews were conducted, and indeed by the time of the funeral, the monarchy had already tried to deflate widespread criticism by unprecedented departures from protocol, among them the decision to fly the royal standard on Buckingham Palace at half-mast, the Queen's speech on September 5, with its extraordinary transitions between pluralis majestatis, collective "we", and royal I,24 and, perhaps most poignantly, her decision to await the funeral cortege outside the Palace gates. If one trusts the polls, what has since been called the Blairization of the monarchy had not (yet) gone far enough.

In spite of continuing support for the monarchy among the general public, the Observer editorial of September 14 put the case for a republic. Most of the arguments advanced in favour of a federal republic were strictly constitutional, and situated the royal crisis in the context of such issues as devolution, proportional representation, the controversy surrounding the voting rights of hereditary peers etc. However, the editorial addressed itself once again to the question of Charles's credibility as future king and established a dual link between, on the one hand, the "flaws" of the presumed heir to the Crown and the fate of the monarchy, and, on the other hand, between the monarchy and national identity. As to the first, the fact that Charles "has become a tragic, flawed figure" matters because "the person of the monarch cannot be separated from the institution; the crown is passed by blood. If its holder is flawed, so is the institution - the political fact at the heart of Shakespeare's tragedies and medieval history alike."

By implication, of course, this argument also holds true for the present encumbent, the Queen herself. However, while Charles had initially been castigated for allowing his personal feelings towards, respectively, Diana and Camilla, to interfere with his duty, he and the Royal Family were suddenly critized for not allowing their personal feelings to show, feelings, moreover, which were expected to be somehow in accordance with what the general public claimed to feel, namely grief and a sense of loss. It is because of this inability to wear their hearts on their sleeves that the members of the Royal Family were deemed to have neglected their duty, which is to maintain the second link, that is, to "command fealty" and to "sustain a cultural conception of Britishness" strong enough to hold the kingdom together, in the face of the centrifugal powers of the Scottish and Welsh referenda and of increasing regionalist tendencies within England. In this respect, the royal crisis precipitated by Diana's death differs widely from the only other major royal crisis of this century, the abdication crisis of 1936. First of all, as Richard Tomlinson has shown conclusively, the reaction of the general public in 1936 was muted, and people seemed prepared, along with newspaper editors, to protect the Royal Family's privacy.25 Secondly, and more importantly, perhaps, if Edward VIII's abdication was publicly discussed at all, it was regarded as a (rather deplorable) victory of love over duty. Hence the Duke of Windsor's rejection of this interpretation in his autobiography:

A brief glance at a royal crisis involving Queen Victoria is also instructive in this context: When Prince Albert died in 1861, she withdrew from public life for more than a decade. The public response to this withdrawal, and what is perceived to be a shirking of her duties out of excessive grief, has been termed, again by Tomlinson, "the last serious republican movement in Britain".27 Indirectly, we are indebted to her withdrawal, that is, to her temporary disuse, for one of the most persuasive accounts of the British monarchy, Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution, with its much-quoted opening statement on the subject:

To sum the argument so far: I proceeded from the observation that one of the themes of Diana's funeral was the insistence on her Englishness. I equated "Englishness" with a set of "values and norms of behaviour". The next step was to ask which values and norms of behaviour were associated with Diana, and affirmed through the "invented tradition" of her funeral, and which values were rejected. I argued that Diana was regarded as warm, spontaneous, caring, and outspoken about her feelings, and I briefly sketched the development of this public image, paying particular attention to the Morton book and the 1995 BBC interview. At the same time, the members of the Royal Family were increasingly perceived to be cold, formal, uncaring, and unable to express their feelings. I have tried to suggest, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, that this "stuffiness" suddenly seemed to make them somehow "un-English". By way of comparison, I should like to quote from a report on "Attitudes to the Monarchy: Their Structure and Development during a Ceremonial Occasion" by J. B. Blumler and others.29 The ceremonial occasion in question was the 1969 Investiture of Charles at Caernarvon Castle, and attitudes to the monarchy were studied in a before-and-after survey. Not surprisingly, royal "stuffiness" was an issue in this survey as well. When asked before the ceremony which feature of the monarchy they found least attractive, 53 per cent of the respondents mentioned formality, and 40 per cent thought, in addition, that the Queen should mix more with ordinary people. However, and to their surprise, the analysts discovered that the Investiture and the publicity surrounding it had

Accordingly, for Blumler et al. the Investiture "played the part of a ceremony, not only of rededication, but also of reconciliation";31 by contrast, Diana's funeral, as we have had occasion to note, did nothing to heal the rift. As a BBC report on "The Changing Face of the Monarchy" by BBC court correspondent Paul Reynolds put it:

Two further lines of inquiry remain to be pursued: One is the question of how the rule of three of monarchy, value system, and national identity came into being in the first place; the second is why the value system, the fulcrum on which the rule of three pivots, as it were, has changed. Why, in other words, has the "traditional stiff upper lip", that is, the undemonstrative behaviour so long seen as the epitome of Englishness, suddenly ceased to be a royal asset and become a liability?

The first question is answered in detail by two studies, by Linda Colley's Britons. Forging the Nation 1707-1837, published in 1992, and by David Cannadine's some-what earlier contribution to Hobsbawm's and Ranger's The Invention of Tradition.33 In Colley's impressive book, it is George III who is credited with transforming the monarchy in the direction indicated. According to her, the most important legacy of his reign is a new kind of royal magic and mystique, with the monarch both the focus of ceremonial occasions (which have now become authentically national events beyond political, religious, or regional affiliations), and the same as his subjects. She concludes:

Cannadine, for his part, elaborates on the importance of ceremonial occasions and takes his readers through four stages in their evolution, and hence in the development of the monarchy from 1820 onwards: 1820 to 1877, a period which, according to him, was characterised by its ineptness regarding royal ceremony, and thus a retreat from the position achieved by George III, 1877 to 1914, when the invention of ceremonial traditions was at its height, 1914 to 1953, when these traditions were adapted to fit twentieth-century needs, and 1953 to the present, with the presence of television cameras at the Coronation of Elizabeth II giving a first indication of how modern forms of communication were to influence public perceptions of the monarchy in the years to come.

For present purposes, it may, however, suffice to cite a famous example of a monarchy/value system/national identity equation in the wake of the 1953 Coronation, Edward Shils's and Michael Young's article on "The Meaning of the Coronation", first published in 1956.35 In it, Shils and Young draw on Durkheim's theory of communal ritual to describe the Coronation as an event in which certain fundamental moral standards are reaffirmed. This is particularly evident in the Benediction,

At the centre of this circle of obligation, and at the heart of the English value system, Shils and Young site devotion to the family, to one's own family and to the Royal Family, "because the values embodied in each are the same."37 Among the various refutations of this interpretation of the Coronation, Michael Billig's, based on 63 interviews conducted with East Midlands families in 1990, is perhaps the most convincing though it might of course be argued, in defence of Shils and Young, that his critique of Shils and Young does not make adequate allowance for the 37-year gap between the Coronation and the early 90s.38 Billig describes the attitudes he and his interviewers encountered again and again as a "postmodern" reversal of traditional notions of duty and moral examples: While it is, as it were, part of the royal job description to set an example of ordinary domestic morality, this setting of examples is an end in itself and does not demand the example actually be followed.39 Hence, even if the marriage of Charles and Diana were failing - and by 1990 there was evidence of that -, the show must continue, and the façade of domestic bliss must be maintained; the audience, meanwhile, is perfectly free to conduct their lives as they please.

If Billig's findings are representative, the estrangement between the Royal Family and its audience which manifested itself in the wake of Diana's death might well be an example of a "post-postmodern" rejection of hypocrisy, or else the prelude to another of those many re-alignments along the public/private scale which, under the heading of "What Are They Really Like", have characterised the dialectic of media demands on the Royal Family and media manipulation by its members in the decades since the Coronation. Other reasons for the shift in values diagnosed above can, perhaps, be found in the political realm. Thus, Blair's landslide victory only a few months previous to the events of September 1997, was partly the result of his successful self-projection as a warm, spontaneous, caring person determined to remedy the evils of "cold" Conservatism. In much the same way, the heyday of the Thatcherite regime in the late 80s saw, as Detlef von Ziegesar has shown, a spate of publications casting the Royals as anti-Thatcherite representatives of a better Britain, an image ardently fostered by the Labour opposition.40

I am aware of the fact that these attempts towards an explanation are, as yet, hardly satisfactory, largely because they do not - cannot - distinguish between cause and effect; they are primarily meant to initiate a discussion. They do seem to suggest, however, that Diana's death merely provided the catalyst for a long over-due redefinition of what it means to be English. I would contend, though, that such a re-definition has been, and is, taking place. Therefore, I should like to close by subpoenaing a witness. He is George Grey, the protagonist of Jonathan Raban's novel Foreign Land, who returns to England after a forty-year sojourn abroad, and tries to reacquaint himself with what he still regards as his home country by watching game shows on television:


1 Cosmopolitan, British Edition, Nov. 1997; editorial by Mandy Norwood.

2 The Observer, March 15, 1998.

3 The Observer, March 22, 1998.

4 Incidentally, an internet search in late April yielded seven categories and a total of 251 sites. Reference will be made to some of these in the course of this article.

5 The Observer, April 26, 1998.

6 The Times, April 17, 1998.

7 Westminster Abbey Homepage, "Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Order of Service", at:

8 ibid.

9 to be found on various websites, among them I shall not, in this article, concern myself greatly with distinctions between "Englishness" and "Britishness", except to state that I shall be using the term "British" if it proves necessary to refer to the United Kingdom as political entity, and to its institutions (such as the monarchy), and "English" when I want to refer to one of its component parts, England.

10 Pearson, John, The Ultimate Family. The Making of the Royal House of Windsor (London: Michael Joseph, 1986), p. 47.

11 Hobsbawm, Eric, "Introduction: Inventing Traditions", in: Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983, 1-14, p. 1. I shall have occasion to refer to David Cannadine's contribution to this volume, which deals with the British Monarchy, later.

12 Morton, Andrew, Diana. Her True Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

13 ibid., p. 208.


15 Pearson, pp. 267-69.

16 ibid., p. 269.

17 quoted in Waller, Gary, Edmund Spenser. A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), p 11.

18; the following quotations are from this website.

19 Tomlinson, Richard, The Inglorious Survival of British Royalty (London: Little, Brown, and Co., 1994), p. 264.

20 Obviously, the media throughout drew on gender stereotypes. To state this, however, is to raise more questions than it answers because the sudden preference for one stereotype over another still remains unaccounted for.

21 Nairn, Tom, The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy (London: Vintage, 1994; first published in 1988), "Introduction".

22 The Observer, September 14, 1998, pp. 22 and 23, respectively; just for the record, p. 22 also contains an article entitled "Diana's spirit floats over the couches of America", and subtitled "Therapists' tales".

23 see above.

24; see in particular the second paragraph: "We shall all have felt those emotions in the last few days. So what I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart" (italics mine).

25 Tomlinson, p. 85.

26 quoted ibid., p. 78; the quote is from The Duke of Windsor's autobiography, A King's Story (London: Cassell, 1951), p. 386.

27 Tomlinson, p. 150.

28 Bagehot, Walter, The English Constitution (first published in 1867; this edition published London: Watts, 1964), p. 82.

29 Blumler, J. G., J. R. Brown, A. J. Ewbank, and T. Nossiter, "Attitudes to the Monarchy: Their Structure and Development during a Ceremonial Occasion", in: Political Studies XIX, No.2 (1979), pp. 149-171.

30 ibid., p. 169.

31 ibid., p. 171.

32 59991.stm.

33 Colley, Linda, Britons. Forging the Nation 1701-1837 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), and Cannadine, David, in Hobsbawm/Ranger; there is a German translation of Cannadine's article with a lengthy new preface and conclusion taking the argument beyond 1983 and up to the publication date: Cannadine, David, Die Erfindung der britischen Monarchie 1820-1994 (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1994).

34 Colley, p. 232.

35 Shils, Edward and Michael Young, "The Meaning of Coronation", in: Shils, Edward, Center and Periphery. Essays in Macrosociology (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 135-152; first published in Sociological Review, I/2 (1956), pp. 63-82.

36 ibid., p. 142.

37 ibid., pp. 149-150.

38 Billig, Michael, Talking of the Royal Family (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

39 ibid., pp. 94-95.

40 Ziegesar, Detlef von, Großbritannien ohne Krone? (Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchgesellschaft, 1993), particularly pp. 115-116.

41 Raban, Jonathan, Foreign Land (London: Picador, 1986), p. 71.