Andrew Morton, biographer of the Princess of Wales, reveals why Princess Margaret burned correspondence between Diana and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
On the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, I joined commentators Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters to describe the historic day for their American network, ABC. Perched high above Westminster Abbey on scaffolding erected specially for the big event, we had a bird’s eye view of the drama unfolding below.
As the funeral cortège approached Buckingham Palace where the Queen and the rest of the Royal family had gathered, I whispered to Jennings: “Watch Princess Margaret.” As Diana’s bedecked coffin passed the royal party, the Queen and other members of the family bowed their heads in respect. Princess Margaret remained upright and upstanding, looking like she would rather be somewhere else.
It was a moment that somehow symbolised not only the estrangement between two former royal neighbours, but the genuine distance that existed between Diana and the Royal family. So the confirmation in the weighty 1,059-page official biography of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, by William Shawcross that the Queen’s younger sister deliberately burnt correspondence between her mother and Diana comes as little surprise.
This was no bonfire of the inanities, the routine thank-you notes and other confetti of royal life, but intimate and private letters that could have, it is assumed, damaged the Queen Mother and the Royal family. “No doubt Princess Margaret felt that she was protecting her mother and other members of the family,” says Shawcross as he discussed his 5lb doorstopper. “It was understandable, although regrettable from a historical point of view.”
But let’s weigh the evidence more carefully. Her actions took place in 1993, months after the formal separation between the Prince and Princess and the publication of my book, Diana, Her True Story, which first revealed Diana’s unhappiness inside the Royal family. At that time, Margaret’s relations with the occupant of apartment eight and nine Kensington Palace were cool but still cordial. After the Wales’s separation, she wrote to Prince Charles and informed him that she was going to continue the association with his estranged wife.
They occasionally went to the theatre together and sometimes travelled to royal engagements in the same car. She even derived a frisson of vicarious enjoyment watching the Princess’s clumsy antics when she smuggled a male friend into the backdoor of her apartment after releasing him from the car boot where he had been hiding. While Princess Margaret was irritated that her courtyard space was being used by Diana’s car, her displeasure did not stop her peering round the double doors she kept open to try to identify Diana’s secret visitor.
For her part, Diana spoke fondly of the occupant of 1A Clock Court. “I’ve always adored Margo, as I call her,” she said in one of the half dozen or so tape-recorded interviews she gave for my “unofficial official” biography. “I love her to bits and she’s been wonderful to me from day one.”
So while Shawcross and others may surmise that Princess Margaret was protecting her mother – which may well be the case – she could also, at that time, have been mindful of Diana’s future embarrassment. She was, after all, expected to outlive them all.
The ice only truly entered her soul after Diana made her infamous appearance on the BBC flagship programme, Panorama, in November 1995, when she admitted her own adultery and skewered Prince Charles with the silky sentence: “There were three of us in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
From that day on, Princess Margaret wanted nothing more to do with her, sending Diana what she later described as a “wounding and excoriating” letter regarding her behaviour. In her eyes, she had exceeded the bounds of propriety in agreeing to talk so publicly about her marriage. While she and the rest of the Royal family had chosen, as is their wont, to turn a blind eye to Diana’s suspected, but unproven, collaboration with my book, her candid TV interview was seen as both shocking and unforgivable.
Princess Margaret turned against her “neighbour from hell” so vehemently that she would flip over the cover of any magazine in her apartment that featured Diana on the front. There was no thaw even in death, the Princess apparently arguing that Diana should not be allowed to lie in the royal chapel or have a royal funeral. Hence her flint-eyed response to Diana’s funeral cortège.
So what do the ashes of those lost Diana letters to the Queen Mother contain? As reckless as Diana was, she always reined in her remarks concerning the Queen and the Queen Mother. It is ironic that during the television interview that proved to be her royal nemesis, only her response concerning the Queen Mother was cut from the hour-long chat. She would not be drawn into answering Martin Bashir’s questions about the Queen Mother’s role in orchestrating the marriage and the help, or lack of it, she gave when Diana first entered the Royal family. Hesitant about attacking, however obliquely, the supreme national treasure, Diana was opaque, merely saying that the Queen Mother had been “very busy and did not have much time to help”.
Early on in her royal career she saw which way the wind was blowing from Clarence House, then the Queen Mother’s London home. The dreams that she may have cherished, consciously or unconsciously, of the Queen Mother being some kind of maternal guardian, guiding, nurturing and nourishing her, were soon dashed. Shortly before her wedding, she spoke to the Queen Mother about her suspicions concerning Camilla Parker Bowles. The elderly Windsor matriarch suggested that she should not be such a “silly girl”, effectively telling her to do her duty. Far from feeling that she could confide in the Queen Mother, Diana was always wary. “I don’t really trust her,” she once remarked.
Her attitude was perhaps unsurprising. There was, as they say, previous. The Queen Mother’s long-time companion and lady-in-waiting was Lady Ruth Fermoy, Diana’s maternal grandmother, who testified in court against her own daughter Frances Shand Kydd in the rancorous custody battle with Earl Spencer. By siding with Norfolk aristocracy rather than her own flesh and blood, she changed Diana’s life forever as the judge gave the Earl charge of his four children. History repeated itself at the time of Charles and Diana’s separation, this time her grandmother siding with the Crown rather than the Spencer family.
A courtier to her elegant, piano-playing fingertips, Lady Ruth Fermoy personified, in the words of Diana’s private secretary, “an attitude which was anathema to the Princess”. As Diana told me: “My mother and grandmother never got on. They clashed violently. My grandmother tried to lacerate me in any way she could. She feeds the Royal family with hideous comment about my mother running and leaving the children. Mummy’s come across very badly because Grandmother has done a real hatchet job.”
During her marriage, Diana came to see Clarence House as the source of all negative comment about herself and her mother, much of it emanating from her own grandmother. Before her wedding, Lady Fermoy had warned Diana about the dangers of marrying into the Royal family – advice Diana later realised was given not for her own sake, but because Lady Fermoy did not consider her an appropriate match for the future King.
When the marriage turned sour, it was her implacable opinion that her granddaughter should stay with Prince Charles in order to spare the Royal family the embarrassment of a marital scandal. In this view, as in others, Lady Fermoy and the Queen Mother were in lockstep. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, commented: “Ruth was very distressed about Diana’s behaviour. She was totally and wholly a Charles person, because she’s seen him grow up, loved him like all the women at court do, and regarded Diana as an actress, a schemer.”
At the same time, the Queen Mother, unfavourably predisposed to Diana and her mother, exercised an enormous influence over the Prince of Wales; it was a mutual adoration society from which Diana was effectively excluded.“The Queen Mother drives a wedge between Diana and the others,” noted a friend. “As a result, she makes every excuse to avoid her.”
Diana did, though, confront the Royal family through correspondence, as they all did and do, during the hectic if increasingly isolated time following her separation in 1992. Among her correspondents was the Duke of Edinburgh whose now-infamous letters at first enraged and later soothed her, the Prince cheerfully admitting his failings as a “marriage counsellor”. There is a kind of benign perplexity in his notes, a sense that he and the rest of the Royal family just didn’t get her, never would, but were willing to meet her half-way. Certainly for an emotional, needy young woman, life in a family whose instinctive response to personal matters is silence or an averted gaze – “ostriching” as they themselves call it – was difficult.
She saw herself as an outsider; they saw her as a problem, the phrase “cracked vessel” used to describe her personality. As the Queen’s cousin Lady Kennard admitted in an officially sanctioned BBC documentary: “The Queen, or anybody else, would never quite understand what Princess Diana was about. She was very damaged – her background and her childhood – and it is very difficult to know.”
While the Queen Mother placed “your devoir, your duty” above all else, leading a life based on obligation, discretion and a decent gin and Dubonnet, Diana was of the school that placed the pursuit of happiness first. Unlike previous generations, she was not prepared to sacrifice her life on the altar of monarchy. On the day of the funeral, this divide was characterised as the “trembling lower lip” versus “the stiff upper lip”, an acknowledgement of this emotional sea change.
So would the letters from Diana to the Queen Mother have in some way touched upon this philosophical divide? Hmmm, I doubt it. Let me take a contrary view. Given the task of preserving her mother’s intellectual estate, Princess Margaret was enough of a scholar to appreciate the historical importance of such an exchange, touching as it does on the nature and values of monarchy. At a time when she still had a modicum of sympathy for Diana, I suspect that she ordered the letters burnt because they dealt with incidents and people outside the purview of royal history, in fact, the Spencer family.
Any exchange about her separation, her feelings about the Queen Mother and Prince Charles would inevitably have involved reference to her grandmother, Lady Fermoy. The Queen Mother and Lady Fermoy were entwined in her mind and probably in any letters. It is perhaps telling that this correspondence was destroyed in 1993, the year that Lady Fermoy died. Shortly before she passed away, Princess Diana visited her and finally made her peace.
Tragically, she did not live long enough to make peace with herself.
Source : Daily Telegraph