All through the week the flood rose around the three London palaces. The people gathering and shuffling in queues and weeping and talking grew from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, until by the eve of the funeral they totalled millions.

Nobody planned this, nobody invited this, nobody remotely expected anything like this. The flood carried with it a burden of flowers which rose higher and higher around the palace walls, covered acres of lawn or pavement and wove itself up the locked gates until their iron bars were hidden by a screen of blossom. Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana had lived, got most flowers. Next came St James's Palace, where the dead princess lay in her coffin. Buckingham Palace received least.

As a nation, we have lost our most precious crown jewel. I am privileged to witness the birth of a saint.

The crowds did not just mourn. They wrote. "Dear Diana, Dear Dodi, love you, miss you." But many letters were more elaborate, expressing tender but also difficult thoughts. The crowds reading the messages discussed these thoughts in low voices.

What was really being said last week? These myriads of scraps of paper were very seldom explicit, as a Chinese wall newspaper is explicit. "We are the people of England /Who have never spoken yet." Now they have spoken - but in a great indistinct wail which is not easy to understand.

Diana, as children we often have our favourite toy taken away for not treating it properly, in order to learn our lesson. I know I've learned my lesson. So when are you coming back?

Some commentators think that the whole public outpouring of feeling was mawkish, manipulated and trivial. I do not. The sponta-neous appearance of great crowds on the street is always important in any country, and especially in a society as controlled as Britain. The people around the palaces last week felt that they were reacting against manipulation, rather than responding to it. They claimed that their "Queen of Hearts", their "people's princess", had been systematically presented as an airheaded playgirl in backless Versace by journalists who had - as the crowds continued firmly to believe - finally hounded her to death. They could bear this no longer.

But the myth-making and self-deception in this is glaring. Until last Sunday morning, millions of those who now worship her regarded Diana as an ambitious, contradictory person whose hard work for charities had a dismaying connection to her lust for publicity and a starry lifestyle. The committed pro-Diana camp was big, but a minority. Where, then, did this upwelling of love and grief come from?

The key words last week were: "I never thought I would feel like this." One scribbled message stands for thousands in the same tone: "We never knew you loved us so much. You never knew we loved you so much." People were astonished by their own emotions. Rightly - because until a week ago they did not have them.

For the last time, the Princess is being used as a mirror in which ordinary people fancy that they can see themselves. There is an orgy of self-reproach. We, as a nation or a society, should have been better and kinder. While she was on earth we did not listen to the gospel of unselfish love Diana preached...

For many years a pent-up sense of moral failure has been accumulating in England. (I say England, because the reaction elsewhere in the United Kingdom has been simpler and more temperate. And one of the political omens in the scene around the palaces is that the Union Jack is hardly anywhere; it is the flag of St George which the crowds fix to the gates or spread across the railings.) The English have grown to feel bad about themselves. And, like most guilty people, they are angry with those who led them into temptation.

You were a true gift to humanity that we all, most inadvertently, played a part in abusing.

Overflows of contrition are not new in England. People who think the English stiff forget the religious revivals of the early Industrial Revolution. As the certainties of rural morality were thrown into the furnace of the new manufacturing cities, tens of thousands assembled to weep and repent and seek grace.

This particular wave of unease has been building up for many years. It underlay the death and funeral of John Smith in 1994. Then, too, people suddenly discovered that they had lost a treasure they had not fully appreciated while he was alive - an honest, generous, spontaneous man who put to shame the cult of greed and those who had grown to accept it. It was not nearly so vast an affair. John Smith was male, and did not release the torrent of grief-stricken identification by women - far the greater part of the London crowds last week - with the "misunderstood and rejected" princess of sorrows. But the pang of remorse, the longing to be worthy of a lost leader, were already there.

Then came 1 May 1997. There was no breast-beating that election night. But people were staggered at the violence of their own joy. They had not expected to feel cleaner and better, after electing an outfit as calculating as New Labour. All the same, they did. Tony Blair's appeal to moral unease, his constant suggestion that the decent, caring values of the people were being repressed, was a winner.

They don't deserve a nation as good as this!

A group of elderly women, standing among the flowers, was discussing the Royal Family. Mildly, even easily, they were expressing ideas unspeakable for generations. It was not Diana whom They did not deserve, though the women probably thought that too. It was England itself.

Outside St James's Palace I met a historian who knows Poland. We remembered John Paul II's first visit there as Pope in 1979, the year before the Solidarity revolution. Then, too, there had been flowers, vast crowds wondering at their own temerity, a sense of rulers losing the confidence to rule. My friend said: "I think this may mean the end of the monarchy - and probably of the United Kingdom as well."

This seemed over the top. The crowds did not come into the street to overthrow the Queen; most were instinctive royalists. And yet the flood was eating into the foundations of the monarchy, a little deeper each day that the royals remained silent at Balmoral.

When he spoke about "the people's princess" last Sunday morning Mr Blair was uncannily right about what the public mood would be. But he was also playing with matches in a shed full of dried-up parchments. The British monarchy has decayed to the point at which it has no energy of its own. It now exists entirely by public consent, and if that consent is removed, down it comes. If Diana were a living "people's princess" set up against an "unpopular" monarchy, there would be no contest. If the Queen and her heir are really judged not to deserve their subjects, then the republic begins. This weekend brings a superficial reconciliation between Palace and pavement. But the damage done to the monarchy's roots in public respect - that cannot be repaired.

The greatest disease in the world today is people feeling unloved" (Diana). Thank you Di for loving the broken even in your brokenness.

Shelley, Byron, even Rousseau would have understood another aspect of last week. Diana was being worshipped as a redeemer, but she was also being canonised as a full-blooded heroine of the Romantic. For those who wrote the cards and letters, she embodied the right to follow the law of the heart, to be spontaneous, to love without counting the consequences, to throw aside convention, to run out into the world and embrace its unhappy inhabitants as brothers and sisters.

And what was on the other side? Repressed emotions, crabbed age, protocol which crushes the young and eager heart, a court fenced off from the "real world", an Establishment that cares only for money and privilege and ignores the poor and sick...

This is shameless myth-making. Whatever the tensions in Diana's life, they cannot be reduced to a War of the Palaces - dark, cruel Buckingham against shining, frail Kensington. But this is how the message-writers want to see it. The English feel that they have been through some very bad times, worse than their rulers realise. They have been unloved by those rulers, and in turn lost the knack of loving others. Now, through the intercession of St Diana, they want to become their better selves again.