The Haunting of the House of Winsor

How princess diana's death will affect the future of the british monarchy.

Published September 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I met Princess Diana only twice, and only once to speak to. On the first occasion, November 1985 in Washington, she was on her stupendously successful tour of the United States and had come to open the "Treasure Houses of Britain" exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. In the course of this fiesta of snobbery and Georgetown Anglophilia, it was noticed by some that her husband never let her speak. And after I was presented to her at a little reception for the press at the British Embassy, I came home and told my wife "Anorexia Nervosa." Thin, nervous, unhappy, we didn't know the half of it in those days.

On the second occasion, at a Vanity Fair charity event in London several years later, things were more relaxed. Nobody even pretended that her marriage was anything more than fiction. This time we had a brief burble, and I said to her, "We republicans must stick together." She laughed fetchingly. Chaps pressed in, some demanding hotly to know what I meant by such impertinence, but I replied accurately enough that she had done far more to undo the House of Windsor than I, in a lifetime of anti-monarchy pamphleteering, had ever managed.

In the aftermath of her untimely death, which has thrown up a smog of irrelevant questions, -- like, did the media do it? -- we will soon be facing the only essential one: Will she be, posthumously, as much a destabilizer of the House of Windsor as she was when she was living?

There are two facts which, for some reason, elude most of those who have been bombarded by the tabloid fall-out of Charles' and Diana's divorce. The first is that Diana, for all that she retained her title of "Princess," was not a member of the British royal family. The second is that her two sons, William and Henry, belong to the House of Windsor and are its legal property. This macabre arrangement, which derives from English monarchical law, is part of the otherwise deluxe divorce settlement to which Princess Diana agreed last year.

Because Prince Charles is rather dim and unpopular, and because he may be too moth-eaten when his mother dies, and because he may prefer private bliss with Camilla Parker-Bowles to the public pressures of the throne anyway, it has been proposed in some palace circles that the succession "skip" a generation and pass to Prince William. Hence the fanatical insistence on keeping the boys "in the family." Law or no law, Princess Diana's influence would probably have been strong enough to dissuade the boy from signing away his life in this way. But now, he and his brother will more or less become wards of an increasingly unpopular royal court. The X factor here is public opinion, which may acquiesce in the Windsors' absorption of the princes or may indignantly demand that they be allowed the freedom that their mother wanted for them.

Until the divorce, there were signs that a factional divide was developing between what was called "The Prince's Party" and "The Princess' Party." Like the Wars of the Roses, this had significance rather greater than the purely symbolic. Unlike the Wars of the Roses, it involved a good deal of strategic leaking to the press -- which is why it is stupid to blame Princess Diana's death on the publicity-hounds she and the other royals used so often as messengers. Following her death, there will be those who will recall even more vividly that it was the House of Windsor that drove Diana out, that deplored her work with AIDS victims and resented her popularity with the masses. It will be noticed by others that the most charismatic member of the royal circle, and the only one who had the knack of inspiring affection and enthusiasm, died as an embittered ex-member of that circle. The Queen's last action in the matter was to have Diana's name stricken from the list of those family members who the Church of England were supposed to remember in their prayers.

The picture will sharpen in the next few days. Tony Blair and the Labor government wanted a full-dress state funeral. The royal family wanted something a little less. The Queen is in a cleft stick here. If she looks disapproving and minimal, she will seem mean-spirited. But if she participates in a massive ceremony of mourning, she will look like a hypocrite. The same goes for her son and heir. But then he was in a cleft stick to begin with. Prince Charles' father virtually ordered him to marry a simple and easily-managed girl, do it swiftly, and provide a couple of male successors in double quick time. That was the trouble in the first place. They picked the wrong girl, and now she's going to haunt them forever.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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