The rules and regulations that govern the British Royal Family are both ancient and complicated. It’s rare, in fact, to have someone come along who wants to break them. But after a lifetime of seeing how the pressures of being a scrutinized member of the monarchy affected his mother, Prince William was more than willing to adjust years of Royal tradition to try and bring some comfort to a loved one. How old was he at the time? A mere 14 years old.
Lady Diana Spencer was born into privilege as the daughter of a viscount, but that didn’t bring her happiness. Her childhood was marred by the bitter divorce of her parents, and by the neglect which followed. She spent her youth feeling unwanted, so it’s no surprise that when a prince took an interest, she reciprocated.
Diana met Prince Charles through her older sister, Lady Sarah, who had dated the young Royal first. Charles was very taken with Diana, and the pair began to court. Things grew ever more serious until he proposed to her in the early months of 1981. At that point, the Royal Family approved.
Early on there were signs that Prince Charles and Lady Diana weren’t exactly head over heels for each other. When the pair were interviewed after their engagement announcement, they were asked if they were really in love. “Of course,” Diana responded quickly. But Charles had a different answer: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
Really, the wedding should have never gone ahead. Many interviews and biographies published later mention that neither Diana nor Charles wanted to do it, both of them fearing or knowing that they’d made a terrible mistake in getting engaged. But the media circus was huge, the wedding merchandise was flying off the shelves and they had no choice. On July 29, 1981, they were wed.
The wedding ceremony was billed as something “fairy tale,” but the average spectator had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. It was worse than anyone could have guessed. Not only were Charles and Diana incompatible, but there was also a third person involved. Diana would, for the rest of her marriage, be competing with Camilla Parker Bowles, the woman her husband actually loved.
Diana loathed her love rival, who had known Charles for longer than she had and was obviously the woman he ought to have married. Diana reportedly nicknamed her “the Rottweiler,” while Camilla apparently called Diana “that ridiculous creature.” In a 1995 interview conducted by the BBC, Diana famously told the world that “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
By December of that year, the Queen had had enough of her son’s failed marriage. In fact, she sent letters to Charles and Diana, suggesting they divorce. What had begun as a fairy tale had turned into a piece of serious drama. By July 1996, agreements had been reached. It was all over.
Little good had come out of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, but she had gained one enormous boon. Her sons. Prince William and Prince Harry were the lights of Diana’s life, and she devoted a lot of time into ensuring they had normal childhoods. She refused to use a nanny and instead took the young boys to school by herself as often as she could.
And in the low months following her divorce – a divorce that naturally came with constant press intrusion – it was Diana’s sons who brought her comfort. A particularly bad moment for her came when she was stripped of her royal title. She had previously been known as “Her Royal Highness,” but Charles determined that after the divorce, Diana would not be allowed to use it again.
Taking Diana’s title away from her was somewhat of a low blow. According to British Royal tradition, without the title of Highness, Diana should, technically, have to curtsy to her own sons and Charles on formal occasions. Even the Queen thought that removing Diana’s title was going too far, but Charles would, reportedly, have it no other way.
It was at this point that William made his promise to his mother. Seeing how utterly downcast Diana was about the cold, painful end to her disastrous marriage, he ran to her and hugged her from behind. Then, referring to the title she had lost, he announced, “Don’t worry, Mummy. I will give it back to you one day when I am King.”
This sweet yet sad interaction between them was detailed in a biography written by Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s former butler and one of her closest confidantes. In his book A Royal Duty, published in 2003, he detailed what became of Diana in the weeks following her divorce. To this day, Burrell is considered one of the people who most likely knew the Princess best.
As King, William would have been well within his rights to grant Diana her royal title back. But, sadly, that dream of his was destroyed on August 31, 1997. On that day, Diana, her then-boyfriend Dodi Fayed and their driver were killed in a car crash at Pont de l’Alma road tunnel, Paris. The whole world grieved on hearing the news, but no one more so than her sons.
And, among the painful aftermath of Diana’s death, there was some brief talk about restoring her Royal title posthumously. But in the end, it never happened. “Buckingham Palace consulted the family on Saturday afternoon and says the Spencers’ firm view was that the Princess herself would not have wanted any change to the style and title she had at the time of her death,” the BBC reported in 1997.
Princes William and Harry were kept largely safe at home as tensions surrounding Diana’s death rose and rose. Many years later, they would speak about the terrible impact those events had on them. In April 2017 Prince Harry revealed in an interview with The Telegraph that he “shut down all his emotions” after losing his mother and sought counseling. William, too, missed her terribly as he grew up.
But when William met Kate Middleton at university, a new and happier chapter of his life started. Kate and William dated for a long time – much longer than Charles and Diana had – and eventually, in 2010, the pair announced their engagement. And William had a special gift for Kate to mark the beginning of their life together.
William gave Kate the engagement ring that his father had used to propose to his mother. And his post-engagement interview was very different to that of Charles. Speaking to ITV News, William explained he had given Kate the ring because “it was my way of making sure Mother didn’t miss out on today.”
And, after the marriage, Diana remained a strong presence in the lives of William and Kate. There was speculation that the couple might name their daughter after her, and the speculation was more or less correct. In May 2015, Kate Middleton (now, of course, with her own royal title, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) gave birth to a girl. Fourth in line to the throne, they named her Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.
It was the perfect way for William to honor the woman he had loved so dearly and the best possible way to fulfill his promise to his mother after her death. “[This is a] way of making sure Diana’s legacy lives on,” Diana’s friend Simone Simmons commented to Vanity Fair in 2015. “When Diana was alive, William promised her when he was King [that] Diana would have her HRH restored.” She concluded, “This is his way of doing it.”