What Princess Diana’s Relationship with Queen Elizabeth Was Really Like
Ever since Princess Diana made her on-screen debut at the start of last season, The Crown has fleshed out her relationship with Queen Elizabeth II in some intriguing ways. In season 4, after returning from the emotional rollercoaster that was her Australian tour with Charles, Diana is at her wits’ end and requests an audience with the queen. She opens up about her marital problems with Charles and explains how he resents her for eclipsing him in the press. Far from offering any comfort, the queen is coldly unreceptive, asking Diana: “Is it possible that there’s a part of you that’s enjoying your own success a little too much?” She also seems utterly horrified when Diana hugs her, a moment of physical affection that speaks to the princess’s deep loneliness.
In season 5, Diana is long past the point of trying to squeeze any affection out of the Windsors. Instead, she wages “all-out war” on the firm, via a series of unprecedented press engagements that begin with a tell-all book, and culminate with her infamous 1995 interview on the BBC series Panorama—all of which changes the dynamic of her fraught relationship with the Queen.
So how accurate is the depiction of the queen and Diana’s relationship in The Crown? Read on for the more complicated truth.
Diana’s relationship with the queen was initially friendly.
Although she’s sometimes described as a “commoner” and an outsider, Lady Diana Spencer was in fact no stranger to the royal family. The Spencers were an upper-class family with longstanding ties to the royals—Diana’s grandmothers were both ladies-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother—so Diana and her sisters grew up in the same circles as Charles and his siblings. Diana had already met the queen before she began dating her son, and royal biographer Ingrid Seward wrote in 2001 that as the couple’s relationship blossomed, the queen “never directly addressed the question of his marriage, but by nod and nuance, she made it clear she approved of Diana.” The monarch also seemed to grossly overestimate Diana’s ability to adjust to royal life. In a letter written shortly after the couple’s engagement announcement, the queen notes, “I trust that Diana will find living here less of a burden than is expected.” Instead, the soon-to-be princess struggled with bulimia and loneliness in the months leading up to her wedding.
According to Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, Diana’s relationship with the queen was friendly—at least in comparison to her relationship with the Queen Mother, who kept her at arm’s length. “However,” Morton writes, “it was governed by the fact that she was married to her older son and a future Monarch. In the early days, Diana was quite simply terrified of her mother-in-law. She kept the formal obsequies—dropping a deep curtsy each time they met—but otherwise kept her distance.”
The queen entrusted Diana with representing her at royal events very early.
In 1982, shortly after Charles and Diana were married, Grace Kelly—aka Grace, Princess of Monaco—died. Diana had encountered Grace at a gala the previous year and the two had bonded, so she went to Charles and asked if it would be possible for her to represent the queen at Grace’s funeral.
According to Morton, both Charles and palace staff told her it was unlikely she would be allowed to go. “I went to her private secretary, who was then Philip Moore, who said that he didn’t think it would be possible because I’d only been in the job three or four months,” Diana recalled to Morton. “I went to the queen and I said, ‘You know, I’d like to do this,’ and she said ‘I don’t see why not. If you want to do this, you can.’”
Though Diana was still new to her royal role and just 21 years old at the time, the queen was right to trust her. It was her first solo overseas trip as a representative of the royal family, and she won praise for her “dignified manner at the highly charged and at times mawkish funeral service,” per Morton.
How did the Queen react to Charles and Diana’s split?
As the pressures of her high profile and troubled marriage began to get to Diana, she felt “extremely isolated” by the royal family, who “continuously misunderstood” her, according to a letter she wrote to her friend Dudley Poplak in 1991.
Although there’s no reports of a scene quite as brutal as the one The Crown depicts, Seward writes that Diana would appear unannounced at the palace as her marriage crumbled:
At first, the Queen took a tolerant view of these unscheduled visits. “Diana was usually in a lot better mood when she left than she was when she arrived,” one of the Queen’s staff recalled.
In time, though, Elizabeth came to dread the meetings. After one session a footman said, “The Princess cried three times in a half an hour while she was waiting to see you.” The Queen replied, “I had her for an hour—and she cried nonstop.”
In a transcript of her interview with Morton, Diana recalled a conversation in which the Queen “indicated to [her] that the reason why our marriage had gone downhill was because Prince Charles was having such a difficult time with my bulimia.” In that moment, Diana explained, she realized the royal family saw her bulimia as the cause of her problems with Charles, rather than a symptom of them.
But the queen wasn’t wholly unsupportive. Just like Prince Philip, she did offer support to Diana in the wake of the split. “She [found] one perhaps rather unlikely ally at the palace in the queen,” Morton wrote, “whose understanding and helpful attitude did much to encourage Diana to soldier on.”
Did Diana really warn the queen about her Panorama interview?
One of the most anticipated episodes of season 5 focuses on Diana’s extraordinary interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir, during which she spoke openly about her separation from Prince Charles, her treatment by the royal family, and her private struggles with mental illness. During this Panorama appearance she infamously said, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” referencing Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
In The Crown‘s depiction, Diana gives the queen a heads up that the Panorama interview is coming before it airs, giving her a chance to prepare. This seems to be a completely fictional incident; there’s no evidence from any historical accounts that Diana actually warned the queen about her interview.
Did the queen learn anything from Diana?
According to Morton, the queen took at least one significant lesson from her relationship with Diana. Accurately or not, the public perception was that she didn’t make much of an effort to welcome her new daughter-in-law to the family. “One of the many ironies of [the queen’s] life is that Diana’s impact on the royal family is measured by how much more accommodating the house of Windsor is now to newcomers,” Morton wrote in the 2017 anniversary edition of his biography. “It is noticeable that the queen frequently joined Prince William’s bride Catherine Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, in the early days of her Royal career. Certainly lessons have been learned—but at a price.”
What role did the queen play in Charles and Diana’s divorce?
In the series, Queen Elizabeth is initially resistant to the idea of Charles and Diana divorcing. While it’s not clear exactly how the timeline played out in real life, we do know that in December of 1995, the queen wrote to both Charles and Diana urging them to divorce.
These letters came just weeks after the Panorama interview, and seemed to represent the queen reaching the end of her tether, after an increasingly ugly back-and-forth between the couple had severely impacted the public’s view of the monarchy. In the letters, according to the Washington Post, the queen “expressed her ire over the undignified conduct and worried about how the couple’s public bickering would traumatize their sons, William, 13, and Harry, 11.”
During her Panorama interview, Diana claimed that she didn’t want a divorce, but also didn’t suggest that she planned to fight Charles if he did. “I await my husband’s decision of which way we are all going to go,” she told Bashir.
“After considering the present situation the Queen wrote to both the prince and princess earlier this week and gave them her view, supported by the Duke of Edinburgh, that an early divorce is desirable,” a palace spokesman said at the time, per the BBC. “The Prince of Wales also takes this view and has made this known to the Princess of Wales since the letter. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will continue to do all they can to help and support the Prince and Princess of Wales, and most particularly their children, in this difficult period.”
Emma Dibdin is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who writes about culture, mental health, and true crime. She loves owls, hates cilantro, and can find the queer subtext in literally anything.