What Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana’s Relationship Was Like
The royal women have been portrayed as having a frosty relationship, but how did Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana really feel about each other? Here's what we know.
Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, were more alike than you may realize: They both gave their lives to public service, they were strong in their own ways, and both were devoted to their families and subjects alike. But Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana were also very different. The Queen is silent and traditional; Diana was modern and outspoken.
Lady Diana Spencer, an aristocrat with many links to the royal family tree, married the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, in July 1981. They had two sons, Princes William and Harry, who are Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren. After several publicly tumultuous years in their marriage, Charles and Diana divorced in 1996, and Princess Diana died the following year.
What was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana really like, though? Much of the information that’s been used to form the narrative is a bit lopsided. “There’s a fundamental asymmetry in what we know about this relationship,” says Arianne Chernock, an associate professor of history at Boston University focusing on modern British history and the monarchy. “Diana perhaps told too much—she disclosed quite a bit about her life and her private feelings and emotions to the press. The Queen throughout her reign has had a very different, much more careful, choreographed approach. And so we don’t know what the Queen thought of the relationship. In a way, Diana gets to narrate the story for us.” And although much hearsay has been written about how the two royals felt about each other, this is what we know from the women themselves about their complicated relationship.
When did Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana meet?
Fox Photos/Getty Images
The Queen had known Diana Spencer—or at least known of her—for most of the younger woman’s life. “The Spencers were a prominent family with close royal ties,” Chernock says. Diana’s father was an equerry, or personal attendant, to the Queen’s father, King George VI, and then to the Queen herself; her grandmother was a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth’s mother. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip attended Diana’s parents’ wedding, and the Queen is the godmother of Diana’s younger brother, Charles.
Princess Diana was born and spent her childhood at Park House, on the grounds of the royal estate in Sandringham, Norfolk. The royal family’s official website notes that, as neighbors, the families had known each other for many years. “In fact, Diana’s older sister [Lady Sarah] briefly dated Prince Charles before he met Diana,” Chernock says.
As her royal biography notes, Diana first encountered Prince Charles in 1977. He’d been invited to the Spencer estate at Althorp, where the family had moved after Diana’s father became Earl Spencer in 1975.
When they began dating, a marriage between Charles and Diana was hardly a given. So when was Diana introduced to the Queen as a potential partner for Charles? “The most sustained early interaction with the royal family came when she was invited to [royal Scottish country estate] Balmoral,” Chernock says. Viewers of Netflix’s The Crown will remember the 1980 meeting as the infamous “Balmoral test.”
The Queen thought Diana quite suitable for Charles. “She was very much a hit with the royal family—they really warmed to her,” Chernock says. “Diana worked very, very hard to ingratiate herself and to model what she thought being a princess would entail, and she did it very successfully.”
But this success would later come to backfire on Diana. “In retrospect, many would argue that she was not her authentic self during that visit, so she was more performing a role that she aspired to as opposed to being herself,” Chernock says. “She was working very hard to fit in. She was a city girl, and she pretended to love the country. She went out shooting. She did all of the things that she was supposed to do but that she actually did not enjoy.”
What was the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana like?
Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images
At first, everything went smoothly between the Queen and Diana. “We do know that both she and Philip thought that Diana, based on that experience in Scotland, was very acceptable,” Chernock says. “They encouraged this union.”
Although they were not exactly close, the Queen approved of Charles’s choice—or rather, she approved of the woman she believed Diana to be. If she hadn’t given her stamp of approval, the relationship wouldn’t have moved forward. “The Queen has never left a recorded impression,” Chernock says. “She’s very tight-lipped. So we don’t know. We can’t access her diaries or her private thoughts. We can look at her actions and her behaviors; those are the clues we have.”
As for Diana, she may have started to get the sense that she bit off more than she could chew. “I think after her initial romance in Scotland, she began to realize just how tricky the royal family would be and how ill-prepared she was to really be a full-fledged member of the family,” Chernock says.
How did Queen Elizabeth feel about Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles?
Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images
The Queen had a sense that Diana could handle royal life, and not just because of her success at Balmoral. Additional proof came, ironically, in the way Diana was able to weather the storm of press and photographers who soon descended upon her, according to a 1981 Time magazine article announcing her engagement. The Queen had begun pressing Charles to propose, due in part to all the media attention, giving him an ultimatum to marry Diana by the summer of 1981 or not at all. “The idea of this romance going on for another year is intolerable to everyone concerned,” the Queen said, according to Time. And when the public announcement happened, Elizabeth was “beaming.”
But things would take a darker turn for Diana as she moved into the royal apartments at Buckingham Palace in preparation for the wedding. “Diana was wanting more guidance and felt that the Queen could have offered that to her,” Chernock says. “So it’s a fishbowl kind of experience, very few people on the inside, and I think Diana did describe her experience as a profoundly lonely one and wished that especially women in the royal family had been more accessible, more available to her.”
The Queen, though, might have seen things differently. “She may think she was very accessible—she may think she did what she could, given her role and given her commitments and constraints,” Chernock says. “Again, Diana gets to tell the story about the Queen.”
We do have a glimpse of the Queen’s feelings on the matter. According to royal expert Ingrid Seward’s 2002 book The Queen & Di, in March 1981, Elizabeth wrote a letter to a friend in which she said, “I trust that Diana will find living here less of a burden than is expected.”
Of course, that’s not what happened—at least from Diana’s point of view. “She described the royal family as cold, heartless, and unfeeling; unsympathetic,” Chernock says. “I don’t think she was ever singling out the Queen specifically, but certainly that was how she framed her encounters with the family, the firm.” (The firm is an informal title for the institution of the monarchy, of which the Queen is the head.)
What happened between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana after the wedding?
Wally McNamee/Getty Images
After Charles and Diana’s wedding on July 29, 1981, the Queen began to entrust Diana with royal responsibilities, showing that she had confidence in the new Princess’s ability to carry out her official duties. Diana’s first solo task was to represent the royal family at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco, which the Queen allowed her to take on even though Charles didn’t think it was a good idea. According to Andrew Morton’s 1992 book, Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, the Princess recalled, “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.'”
The success at that event led to many more, and even the Queen could see that the Princess had a way with people that could buoy the monarchy’s popularity. “She was an asset, to a point, until she stole the show,” Chernock says. “Part of the challenge, though, for the Queen and especially for Charles, was that Diana, she shined so brightly that she really—not necessary intentionally—eclipsed those around her.”
Diana’s star power affected Charles the most when they toured, but it impacted Elizabeth as well. “There was a bit of, I suspect, tension there because she’s the Queen,” Chernock says. “There was a complicated little dance they probably had to play with each other.”
How did the women’s relationship change as the royal marriage declined?
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Prince Charles and Princess Diana were mismatched from the start, and with their marriage crumbling, the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana was also headed for the rocks.
In tapes from 1993, which were made public in 2004 and rereleased with the 2017 documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words that aired in the United Kingdom, the Princess said she was not given the support she needed when she went “sobbing” to ask the Queen for help with the marriage. “So I went to the top lady and said, ‘I don’t know what I should do,'” Diana said. “She said, ‘I don’t know what you should do.’ And that was it. That was ‘help.'”
According to Seward in The Queen & Di, although Elizabeth was initially sympathetic to Diana, eventually the stoic monarch felt that the emotional Princess was simply too much to handle. “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.'”
Unsatisfied, that’s when Diana turned to the press; specifically, the Morton book in 1992 (although Diana’s participation was kept a secret until after her death) and Diana’s 1995 BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir (who recently apologized for using deceitful tactics to get the interview). The royals, including the Queen, “thought she talked too much—they did not see that as in keeping with royal protocol; how much she disclosed,” Chernock says.
Although Elizabeth was “stunned” that Diana revealed so much publicly, according to Seward, she had to keep quiet and couldn’t respond in turn with her own feelings. Elizabeth’s silence on the matter didn’t help her cause, however. “The Queen’s interior or inner life is often a mystery, which works well for her on some occasions and less so on others because it can lead to this more unsympathetic portrayal of her becoming the dominant one; when we really don’t know what was going on,” Chernock says.
How did Queen Elizabeth feel about Charles and Diana’s separation and divorce?
Tim Graham/Getty Images
As you’ve no doubt guessed, Queen Elizabeth wasn’t thrilled that the royal marriage was dissolving. “I think we can assume, based on many related conversations others had, that [the Queen] did not want a separation; that this was seen as dangerous to the throne, not in keeping with this moral platform the family tries to uphold or project,” says Chernock. “So I think they certainly felt this was unfortunate.”
Princess Diana and Prince Charles separated in 1992, but as their separation dragged on for several years, Elizabeth thought it was time to put a formal end to things. In 1995, Buckingham Palace released a statement to the press: “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. The Prince of Wales also takes this view and has made this known to the Princess of Wales. 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.”
The Queen’s thinking on the topic of divorce had evolved over time—after all, it was her uncle’s inability to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson that caused him to abdicate the throne to his brother. And then there was her lack of support for her sister, Margaret, who had wished to marry divorcé Peter Townsend in the 1950s.
“When you look back at Queen Elizabeth’s strong reaction to her sister Margaret’s desire to marry a divorcé and her opposition to Margaret’s marriage to Townsend, we can see the Queen has certainly evolved in her thinking, and I suspect she has come to prioritize the happiness of her family members over time,” Chernock says, pointing to the fact that other royals have divorced and Prince Harry has married divorcée Meghan Markle. “I think she has become much less rigid in her approach to thinking about marriage and the royal family, and [in] recognizing that the royal family serves its constituents most effectively when its members are fulfilled emotionally as well as in other capacities.”
Charles and Diana divorced in 1996.
How did Queen Elizabeth react to Princess Diana’s death?
Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images
Perhaps the lowest point for the Queen throughout her 70-year-reign was after Diana was killed in the car crash, just one year after her divorce from Prince Charles. Instead of immediately rushing back to London from Balmoral to comfort her people, Elizabeth chose to stay in Scotland to attend to her grieving grandchildren, William and Harry, who had just lost their mother. The fact that Elizabeth remained in seclusion angered her subjects and fueled conspiracy theories about Diana’s death.
“I think in private she probably was a much more supportive anchor for that family in their period of turmoil than she’s given credit for,” Chernock says. “This is just what I surmise, but how telling is it that Meghan and Harry named their daughter [Lilibet] after the Queen? Clearly, there’s a really strong bond and love there, and she must have been a support to Harry during that really difficult period around his mother’s death.”
Prince William echoed this in the BBC documentary, Diana, 7 Days. “At the time, you know, my grandmother wanted to protect her two grandsons, and my father as well,” he said, recalling being grateful to have had “the privacy to mourn, to collect our thoughts, and to just have that space away from everybody.” William also said that Elizabeth “felt very torn between being a grandmother to William and Harry and her Queen role.”
A letter from Elizabeth to one of her aides recently resurfaced, revealing the Queen’s personal feelings about Diana’s passing. “It was indeed dreadfully sad, and she is a huge loss to the country. But the public reaction to her death and the service in the Abbey seem to have united people around the world in a rather inspiring way. William and Harry have been so brave, and I am very proud of them,” the Queen wrote. “I think your letter was one of the first I opened—emotions are still so mixed up, but we have all been through a very bad experience!”
A week after her death and the night before Diana’s funeral, the Queen came back to Buckingham Palace and made a rare live television speech about the Princess; a landmark moment for her reign. Her broadcast, though, was “much at the urging of Tony Blair, prime minister at the time,” Chernock says. “I think she was counseled, but she was receptive to it, and saw that that was the wise move, and she relented.”
How did Princess Diana impact Queen Elizabeth and the monarchy?
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Diana’s death was a turning point for the monarchy—and for Queen Elizabeth herself, who subsequently developed a renewed connection with her people. “These are all lessons learned from the challenges of managing ‘the Diana affair’ and the fallout from that,” Chernock says. “I think it was a very challenging moment for the crown but also indicative of the crown’s resilience that they, and the Queen specifically, were able to weather that and gain new levels of popularity in the years after, when many were predicting the end of monarchy in the late 1990s.”
The Queen herself has changed as well, at least a bit. She’s “trying to inject a little bit more spontaneity, a little bit more emotion, a little bit more connection into her delivery,” Chernock says. “She has a very different style from Diana—and I don’t think anyone would want her to be Diana—but she’s become more willing to bring some of her own personality into public.”
In addition, “I think she has developed a much finer appreciation for messaging, for showing that she’s emotionally connected to her people and in touch, and trying to incorporate some informality, even though scripted, into her role,” Chernock says.
Case in point: the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, in which the Queen performed in a James Bond skit. “That has Diana written all over it,” Chernock says.
While her famous British “keep calm and carry on” attitude has helped the country withstand recent challenges—namely, a global pandemic—the Queen has also learned to adapt, even growing the royal family’s presence on social media. “I think the whole royal family, including Queen Elizabeth, took a lesson from Diana’s formula that works,” Chernock says. “The royal family is always trying to balance tradition and innovation in a way that makes sense. In large part, I think this has to do with Diana and the fact that she was able to show that informality works.”
Ironically, if things had gone differently, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana could have become a powerhouse team, working toward the same goals with their very different approaches. “I think that’s part of the tragedy of it—there are so many places where they could have worked together,” Chernock says. “There could have been convergence, and that never materialized.”
As the Queen approaches her Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne, she continues to face new challenges. But stronger with the lessons learned from Diana, she’s as popular as ever. “There have always been scandals in the family—challenges to overcome—and part of their success is their staying power, that they just continue to persist,” Chernock says. “And so, in her oldest age, the Queen has earned unprecedented respect for her commitment to staying the course.”
- Arianne Chernock, associate professor of history at Boston University
- The Royal Family official website: “Diana, Princess of Wales”
- Time: “Prince Charles Picks a Bride”
- The Queen & Di: The Untold Story, Ingrid Seward, 2002
- Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, Andrew Morton, 1992
- The Guardian: “Diana tapes reveal Queen’s reply to sobbing plea over loveless marriage”
- The New York Times: “Queen Urges Prince Charles and Diana to Divorce Soon”
- Diana, 7 Days, BBC documentary, 2017
- ABC News: “Letter from Queen Elizabeth about Princess Diana’s death comes to light”