I still remember what I did on that sad day. It was the 31st of August 1997. Our son was just a baby in Great Britain. I brought him downstairs in the morning, strapped him to his seat and switched the television on. The pictures were beamed live on BBC TV News from Paris, Diana, Princess of Wales had died in hospital, at the age of 36, following a car crash, in a tunnel. The Alma tunnel lies beneath the Pont d’Alma (Alma bridge) in Paris, France. It was such a shock, Diana, (Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair had described her as the ‘People’s Princess’), was no more. She had thrown herself into her work with several charities, following the much publicized divorce with Prince Charles. She had a special place in the hearts of the British people. They called her a style icon, a caring and compassionate human being, someone who could easily connect with ordinary people.
The death of a Princess, shocked not only Great Britain but people across the world. She was so well known and loved by so many. The people of Great Britain found it difficult to comprehend that Diana was no more. On the day she died, Christian Leaders in Great Britain released messages and prayers to the British media – here is the message from Lord Carey who was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1997. Even Christian leaders were all stunned by the death of Diana. The Christian Post published an article that Princess Diana had deeper Christian Faith than people believed – this was according to a special ‘Songs of Praise’ TV Special on BBC Television in Great Britain.
“I think she had a stronger faith than people give her credit for,” said Mike Whitlam, former director-general of the British Red Cross, according to The Telegraph newspaper. “She wanted to put love where there was hatred, and make a huge difference to people’s lives so that they could live a better life. When you talk to people about making the world a better place, there are not many people who think it’s doable. She did.”
At the time I was an educator as well as a writer and I received a press invitation to follow the funeral proceedings from the Church House in Westminster. The Church House is the home of the headquarters of the Church of England, occupying the south end of Dean’s Yard, next to Westminster Abbey in London. I remember getting up very early and making my way to Westminster tube station. I thought I was early but when I left the tube station, all I could see were a sea of faces. The area surrounding Westminster Abbey was packed with people behind the barriers – even at the time of the morning. Security was tight. There were hushed tones on the streets of London, people waited patiently for several hours for the procession to pass by them. Some people had camped over night.
The day before the funeral, my wife and I went to Kensington Palace and laid flowers by the main gate. The place was awash with flowers, tributes, scarves, flags, photographs. It was as if the whole nation was grieving. The London Underground was heaving with people, making their way to Kensington Palace, to remember this very special Princess. I got caught up in the moment. Church House was packed with the international media. I guess representatives of every single network from around the world were in that room. All the American networks were there. At one briefing I found myself seated next to the UK Channel 4 Television News anchor, Jon Snow (the longest serving news presenter at Channel 4), and we got talking about Diana. Everyone in the room was talking about her. She lived a life in pictures and words. The funeral was beamed onto a huge screen in Church House.
A poignant moment was when Elton John sang ‘Candle in the Wind,’ at the service in Westminster Abbey next door. He had changed the words, in order to pay a moving tribute to Princess Diana at one point he sang ‘now you belong to heaven.’ He also sang that she flew on ‘the wings of compassion.’ The well known lyricist, Bernie Taupin had written new words to the song and added a title: ‘Goodbye England’s Rose.’ The Guinness Book of Records said that the song “Candle in the Wind 1997” is the second highest selling single of all time (behind Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” from 1942) and is the highest-selling single since charts began in the 1950s. It became the best selling single in UK Chart history.
Here Charles Spencer, recounts losing his sister, Princess Diana, at the Westminster Abbey service. He spoke movingly about his sister in his eulogy: “Without your God-given sensitivity we would be immersed in greater ignorance at the anguish of AIDS and H.I.V. sufferers, the plight of the homeless, the isolation of lepers, the random destruction of landmines. ” Charles Spencer spoke of her compassion: “Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. “
I remember coming out of the Church House and going past the back entrance of Westminster Abbey after the funeral service. Elton John’s Rolls Royce was parked by the back entrance – Elton John and George Michael were standing by the car, they looked shocked and were speaking in hushed voices about Diana.
People were wailing outside Westminster Abbey, many were overcome with emotion. I did feel a sense of sadness that Great Britain had lost someone who reached out in compassion to the vulnerable, the socially excluded and the down trodden. I wrote a tribute to her and mentioned the word ‘downtrodden,’ in a letter published in the Daily Mail in London, before her funeral service. I felt she genuinely had a heart for the downtrodden and really wanted to lift them up. This was compassionate leadership in action. Diana had said she had come to serve the outcasts, the marginalized, those who had no hope.
She may have been born into a world of privilege and class but I do believe that Diana, Princess of Wales had a compassionate heart. I remember in the 1980s when HIV/Aids was always in the news. There was a real stigma attached to Aids, fueled by the media. In the 1980s I flew down to Sri Lanka on holiday. While I was in Colombo, I heard that an old school friend who had lived in France for a while in the 1980s had contracted Aids and had returned to Sri Lanka, to spend his last few months at home. I wanted to see him – I telephoned him at his home in Colombo and spoke to him several times. But my friends urged me not to visit his home. They said all kinds of things to me – they said it was contagious. I felt a sadness that I heeded their advice and didn’t visit my friend before he passed away. It was misguided advice. When I returned back to Great Britain, I read the newspaper report of Princess Diana visiting the hospital beds of AIDs patients, holding their hands and speaking to them with compassion.
I saw this photograph in 1987 in the United Kingdom. Here was Princess Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient without wearing gloves. In April 1987, the Princess opened the UK’s first purpose built HIV/Aids unit that exclusively cared for patients infected with the virus, at London Middlesex Hospital. In front of the international media, Diana shook the hand of a man suffering with the illness. She publicly challenged the notion that HIV/Aids was passed from person to person by touch.
Earl Spencer had mentioned the fact that when Diana visited Nepal she went into a leper clinic and there again she challenged people’s ideas and fears about lepers – that they were ‘untouchables.’ Here is a picture of Diana touching lepers in Nepal, the Princess was Patron of the Leprosy Mission and visited Leprosy clinics in India, Nepal, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. When you examine the photograph below, you can see the genuine compassion here, I think this photograph speaks volumes:
People have also highlighted her work with the victims of landmines. She visited danger zones where the Halo Trust were involved in de-mining ,including Angola.
A year after Princess Diana’s death I was involved with some Public Relations and Marketing work with the Sri Lankan test (cricket) team who had arrived in London to play just one test match with the England team at the Oval Cricket Grounds. The players got talking about Princess Diana during conversations at the hotel. I said I would try to contact Earl Spencer, her brother who lived on the Althrop Estate, the family seat. Now Charles Spencer was a huge cricket fan. I believe he played cricket at Eton and Oxford. Charles Spencer is a Patron of the Northamptonshire Cricket Club in the United Kingdom. He was also an on-air correspondent with NBC News in the United States of America, from 1986 to 1995, working for the network’s morning programme, Today, and NBC Nightly News.
I was pleasantly surprised when I contacted his office at Althrop Manor – Earl Spencer extended a warm invitation for the cricketers to visit Althorp – they were the first ever international test cricket team to be invited to Althrop Manor, to pay their respects at Diana’s Memorial. The team bus made it’s way to Althrop Park. We were invited into Althrop Manor by Earl Spencer’s Private Secretary and afterwards we made our way to Princess Diana’s grave, situated in the grounds. Her grave is on an island in the middle of a lake known as the Round Oval, which is located within the Althorp Park garden.
I just thanked God for her short life and for her service to others and said a prayer as we stood on the other side of the island. Princess Diana changed the way people treated and viewed those who had HIV/Aids, her work with the Leprosy Mission – which is an international Christian charity and the work she undertook with the Centrepoint charity in London so impacted on the lives of people. It was a very poignant moment for all of us. There is also a memorial to Diana within the grounds of Althrop Park.
In the photograph above, Arjuna Ranatunga, Captain of the Sri Lanka cricket test team and family make their way to the grave of Diana, Princess of Wales at Althrop, in 1998. The test team signed a cricket bat for Charles Spencer and also presented a book of poems on Princess Diana. And so we said goodbye to England’s Rose.
I think it is great that the sons of Prince Charles and Lady Diana – Prince William and Prince Harry have inherited that spirit of compassion and her legacy of love and kindness. They are showing Compassionate Leadership in the work they have thrown themselves into – in the UK and abroad. The first charity that Prince William decided to support in 2005 was Centrepoint which was a charity reaching out to homeless people in Great Britain. When they were children, Princess Diana used to take them to meet homeless people at Centrepoint when she was Patron of the charity. Prince Harry is well known for creating the Invictus Games in which wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans take part in sports including wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, and indoor rowing. The games were named after Invictus, in Latin the word means “unconquered” or “undefeated”, the event was inspired by the Warrior Games held in the United States of America. Long may their work aimed at helping and supporting the vulnerable continue.
Photographs of Diana, Princess of Wales courtesy of Wikipedia, Huffington Post. Photographs of Prince William, Prince Harry and Westminster Abbey, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Film Clips of Elton John at the funeral service of Diana Princess of Wales and Charles Spencer, Christian Leaders on the death of the Princess, courtesy of youtube.
Some information courtesy of Wikipedia.
All photographs of Diana’s grave and Althrop Memorial copyright of © Ivan Corea 2019
The Christian Post article on Diana and her Christian faith: https://www.christianpost.com/news/princess-diana-had-deeper-christian-faith-than-people-believed-new-tv-special.html
If you are ever in Great Britain and you are planning to visit Althorp Estate – although visitors are not allowed on the island – here is the link: https://spencerofalthorp.com/visit/