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Diana statue and the tension between the public and private British monarchy

 Princes William and Harry stand in front of a statue to their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.
Brothers: Princes William and Harry reunited for the dedication of the statue to their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. Dominic Lipinski/Pool via Reuters

One statue went up, another came down. As the sons of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, came together at Kensington Palace last week for the unveiling of the statue they had commissioned to commemorate their mother’s 60th birthday, a crowd in Canada gathered to overturn a statue of their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Canadian protest was against post-colonial ties with Britain, after the recent discovery of the bones of children who died in schools dedicated to the eradication of indigenous language and culture, the last of which closed as late as the 1990s. The Diana statue unveiling, by contrast, was a private affair, with only Spencer family members present.

But nothing about Diana has been private since her name was first linked to Prince Charles’ back in 1980. No sooner was the statue revealed than the fans started arriving, some old enough to remember their own encounters with the princess, others who knew her only as a memory.

They surely didn’t come to admire the aesthetics – the statue has been described as “kitsch” and “an awkward, lifeless shrine”. People were there to reflect on Diana herself, “a powerful woman”, “a beautiful person”, “a wonderful mother”, as the interviewees for Sky News described her, one of them inevitably quoting Diana’s description of herself as, “the queen of people’s hearts”.

It is 40 years since her wedding and 24 since her death, yet still she attracts both crowds and headlines. Why?

Woman of many roles

Part of the reason lies in the ever-changing narrative that is woven around her. First the fairy tale romance, then the popular princess, the lonely victim, the wronged wife (or the media-savvy manipulator if you prefer – alternative narratives were always available). And finally the martyred saint – an image given a new lease of life by the recent revelations about the way she was tricked into her famous 1995 BBC Panorama interview by the journalist Martin Bashir.

Read more: Diana statue: What it reveals about the challenges of sculpting famous people

But the real significance of her memory cult lies in her relationship with that other royal woman, whom she learned to call “mama” and whose statue was toppled even as Diana’s was unveiled: Elizabeth II. At Diana’s funeral, the Queen did something whose full significance might not have been apparent to the millions who witnessed it: she bowed her head to a subject.

Monarchs do not bow to their subjects – even dead ones. To do so is to erase the very basis of monarchy, the “divinity that doth hedge a king”, as Shakespeare put it. It might almost have seemed a form of abdication, except that the Queen was not really bowing to Diana herself, but to what she had become – a powerful focus of public faith, evoking the sort of emotional outburst usually associated with evangelical rallies.

Symbols of power

With monarchy, symbols are everything: they are about authority and power or they are nothing, which, of course, is why overturning royal statues can be so satisfying. In her statue, Diana is shown surrounded by children, in a pose strangely reminiscent of the pre-marriage photos of her as a nursery assistant. There are no crowns or tiaras, no cloaks, not even a handbag.

It is a symbol of empathy, of feeling and of love. It’s hard to imagine this Madonna-like statue being overturned (though, on aesthetic grounds alone, some might think that a good idea). Nevertheless, even among the admirers, there were occasional notes of concern. As one visitor put it, instead of three anonymous children around her, it would have been nice to see her sons there.

Statue of Diana, Princess of Wales with three unidentified children at Highgrove, the Spencer family seat.
Sightseers get a first look at the statue of Diana, Princess of Wales. Guy Bell/Alamy Live News

Diana’s posthumous impact on the monarchy has been huge, but the legacy she leaves lies in the strained relations between her sons. Those who see Diana primarily as a victim will inevitably be drawn to Harry, the troubled prince who finally found happiness in an unexpected marriage, but one which led to his separation from the royal family.

Those who see Diana primarily as one who, in her own way, sought to serve others will see those characteristics in William, duty-bound and a fiercely loyal member of the royal family. Their mother’s statue brought them together but not for long: Harry jetted back to the US the following day.

Diana wanted to be loved – and being loved can certainly come with the crown, but public affection can be fickle, as the Queen knows only too well – and it is certainly not what monarchy is there for.

Monarchs’ statues can be toppled and their photos taken down from university common room walls. This comes with the territory and is – perhaps perversely – a sign that the symbolism of monarchy still matters.

Diana’s cult, as carried on by Harry and Meghan, will doubtless continue to rule in people’s hearts. But monarchy, as represented by William and his family, will still rule in their heads – even at the cost of the occasional toppled statue.

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