Princes William and Harry have revealed how the Queen and Prince Charles sought to shield them for as long as possible from the hysteria that swept Britain 20 years ago after the death of their mother, Diana.
In a BBC documentary due to be broadcast on Sunday, they recall how they were kept away from public view on the Queen’s Balmoral estate, knowing nothing of the extraordinary response throughout the country.
“At the time, you know, my grandmother wanted to protect her two grandsons, and my father as well. Our grandmother deliberately removed the newspapers, and things like that, so there was nothing in the house at all. So we didn’t know what was going on,” William tells the makers of Diana, 7 Days.
The second in line to the throne says he was thankful for “the privacy to mourn, to collect our thoughts, and to just have that space away from everybody”.
The period of seclusion in Scotland, while members of the public placed an avalanche of flowers outside Diana’s Kensington Palace home and beneath the bare flagpole at Buckingham Palace, led at the time to a wave of public criticism of the royal family.
The documentary, by the award-winning film-maker Henry Singer, charts the tumultuous week between Diana’s death in a Paris car crash and her Westminster Abbey funeral through interviews with politicians, family and friends.
William and Harry speak of the effect of their mother’s death on their father, and appear to confirm that he broke the news to them. “One of the hardest things for a parent to have to do is tell your children that your other parent has died. How you deal with that, I don’t know,” says Harry. “But he was there for us. He was the one out of two left. And he tried to do his best and to make sure that we were protected and looked after. But he was going through the same grieving process as well.”
In a series of high-profile interviews in the run-up to the 20th anniversary on 31 August, the brothers have spoken candidly about their grief, but until now have not spoken of their father’s role.
They also reveal their struggle to balance public expectation with private grief. When the Queen, bowing to public pressure, returned early to London from Balmoral, the shocked and bewildered young princes, then 15 and 12, found themselves performing a walkabout in a weeping crowd, being grabbed by strangers with tear-soaked hands thrusting flowers at them.
Deciding when the time was right to put on their “prince hat” and “game face” and be seen to mourn in public had been “a very hard decision for my grandmother to make”, says William. “She felt very torn between being the grandmother to William and Harry, and her Queen role. And I think she – everyone – was surprised and taken aback by the scale of what happened and the nature of how quickly it all happened.”
Deciding whether Diana’s sons should walk behind her coffin was also difficult. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” says William. It was a collective family decision. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” he adds, saying he put his head down and “hid behind my fringe”. “It was a very long and lonely walk.”
Harry says: “I think it was a group decision. But before I knew it I found myself with a suit on, with a black tie and white shirt, and I was part of it. Generally, I don’t have an opinion on whether that was right or wrong. I’m glad I was part of it. Looking back on it now, I’m very glad I was part of it.”
His comments contrast with an interview he gave to Newsweek in June in which he said “no child should have to do that under any circumstance”.
In the documentary the brothers recall the silence of much of the walk, but also the wails of people in the crowd. William admits he could not then understand why strangers who did not know his mother “wanted to cry as loud as they did”. Now, looking back, he understands better the influence his mother had had.
Both parents had taught them about duty and responsibility, says William, “but I have to say when it becomes that personal as walking behind your mother’s funeral cortege, it goes to another level of duty”. He felt his mother was “walking beside us to get us through”.
As headlines complained about the Queen’s supposed lack of public emotion over Diana’s death, Tony Blair, then prime minister, and his communications chief, Alastair Campbell, sensed tensions rising. The Queen announced the union flag would fly at half-mast over Buckingham Palace for the funeral, and she and the Duke of Edinburgh met the grieving public at the palace. “You felt the tension lifting, you felt it straight away,” says Campbell of the walkabout.
Blair believed the palace needed to make an extraordinary gesture to appease a public increasingly hostile towards the royals. There was the risk “that the country’s sense of loss turned to a sense of anger and grievance, and then turned against the monarchy”. The Queen, he says, “was obviously very sad about Diana, she was concerned about the monarchy itself”.
He adds: “They needed to see her vulnerable as a person, and not simply vulnerable as a monarch.” Her unprecedented live broadcast in which she paid tribute to Diana, speaking as a queen “and a grandmother”, was crucial. She had needed to “bring the nation behind her”.
“These were modern times. We were approaching the 21st century, and for the people of the country, including particularly the younger generations coming up, the old deference towards the monarchy wasn’t enough, and in some cases wasn’t there. So this respect had to be renewed in a new way,” Blair says.
“I think by the end of that week we had come to almost a new settlement, if you like, between monarchy and people.” The Queen had shown that the royal family had the capacity to “adapt and adjust”.
• Diana, 7 Days will air on BBC1 from 7.30pm on Sunday 27 August.