Those taking a trip to Kensington Gardens earlier this week may have noticed the latest change to the perfectly maintained palace grounds. Positioned overlooking the pond in the temporarily closed Sunken Garden, a large but discreet dark green box blended in with the surrounding foliage. Inside was what was set to become one of the most talked about tributes worldwide - a statue to honour the late Princess Diana.
Today, Princes William and Harry make a rare joint public appearance at what Kensington Palace describe as a “small event” to unveil the statue they first commissioned in 2017 as a permanent memorial to their mother. When they coined the idea they were brothers in arms, working and living side by side and supporting each other through the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. Now, Harry has flown in from California to briefly put on a united front amidst a deep-rooted and well-documented fallout. But, while the brothers may not agree on much right now, their feelings about their mother is one thing they continue to share. And as they unveil this definitive tribute to Diana, we are reminded of a legacy that is not just set in stone but lives and breathes today as William and Harry carry on her memory.
“This clearly is something that means a huge amount to her sons and for that reason it takes on a deeply personal significance”, Managing Editor of Majesty Magazine, Joe Little tells The Independent about the statue. “Clearly they wanted it to be in the place that she lived for so long and where they grew up”, Indeed, the memorial at Kensington Palace - where Diana resided following her marriage in 1981 until her death in 1997 - cements the location as her eternal home and is a reminder of just how powerful her star continues to be. “Although Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, really, to many people it is Diana’s home”, Little said.
The Princess’s sudden and tragic death at the age of just 36 at the height of her fame has no doubt contributed significantly to the potency with which she is still remembered. However, from early on Diana captivated a global audience, and it is arguably through becoming the biggest star in the U.S that her status as a global icon was immortalised. “Millions of Americans across the country loved her and followed her story”, Journalist Simon Perry, who is People Magazine’s Chief Foreign Correspondent and has written about the royal family for more than 20 years, tells The Independent. “She still is People Magazine’s biggest cover star in terms of number of covers, 24 years after her death.”
First nicknamed “Shy Di” through her seemingly unassuming demeanour, within just a few years it was clear that Diana was in fact a formidable force for transforming how the monarchy was perceived globally. “She was the perfect image of a princess. But then she cut across what ordinary Americans think of royalty; as being perhaps aloof and distant, this family that were high-status but maybe hard to relate to. And suddenly you had a woman who was hands on and seemingly more approachable”, says Perry. “When she went to an AIDS ward in Harlem for example, politicians weren’t even going there. And here was a princess going and talking to people who were stricken with this relatively new disease. And that had an impact right across the world.”
From challenging how people treated HIV and AIDS patients to campaigning to ban landmines, Diana once famously described her philosophy as: “Anywhere I see suffering, that is where I want to be, doing what I can.” She took her sons to homeless shelters as children, and in 2005 William chose to step into her former role by making homeless charity Centrepoint his first royal patronage.
In 2019, Harry quite literally followed in his mother’s footsteps as he walked through the same Angolan minefield that she had visited to call for a ban on landmines just months before her death. Prince Harry set up charity Sentebale in Diana’s memory to help children affected by HIV and AIDS in Lesotho, and William’s long-standing association with the Royal Marsden Hospital is a continuation of Diana’s involvement. “The load has been divided between them so that they can carry on with the work that meant so much to her”, says Little.
Diana has also influenced her son’s lives and work in other ways. From their determination to push back on media intrusion into their privacy after seeing her pursued by photographers, to their decision to focus on mental health and, particularly in Harry’s case, display an openness about their personal experiences so many years after she voiced her own struggles.
Yet as they stand side by side, together but not united, today is also a reminder that the brothers at times evoke Diana’s memory in individual ways. “I just wish that we would all learn from the past”, Harry told Oprah in March when asked about whether there were “hints of jealousy” from within the monarchy about how popular Meghan was during their 2018 South Pacific tour. “The first time that the family got to see how incredible she is at the job. And that brought back memories”, Harry said, as Oprah referenced the well-trodden narrative of Prince Charles resenting Diana’s popularity.
It was no surprise that comparisons were drawn between Diana’s landmark 1995 Panorama interview and the Sussexes’ 2021 Oprah revelations. The Prince has also emphasised parallels between their decision to walk away and his mother’s exit from the royal fold: “I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for her, going through this process by herself, all those years ago.”
Perhaps nothing underlined William and Harry’s diverging perspectives more blatantly than the separate statements they issued following the investigation into Diana’s BBC Panorama interview. Harry wrote of how a culture of “unethical practices” that ultimately took her life are “still widespread today”. William’s condemnation was equally as strong, but aimed specifically at those involved in the Panorama interview and cover-up, with a mention of the importance of a free press and a credit to journalism for uncovering the wrongdoing.
There is only one statue that will be unveiled today. Despite their differences, this is William and Harry presenting their shared and definitive version of how they want their mother to be seen and remembered. In the next few years, millions of people will likely traipse through Diana’s former home to look at this depiction of the woman so many felt a connection with. At the same time, her legacy will continue to be shaped by the two men who really did know her best.
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