By Tahiat Mahboob  

On August 31, 1997, when Britain woke up to the tragic news of Princess Diana’s death, Prince Charles worried about how events would unfold in the days to follow.

“He knew instantly that this was going to be a terrible thing. He would be blamed. That they would be blamed for the death of Diana,” recounts Tina Brown in the new documentary Diana: Seven Days That Shook the World. Brown is the author of the biography, The Diana Chronicles.

Princess Diana had set herself apart from the monarchy with her ability to relate to ordinary people. She was the people’s princess. When news of her death broke, a tidal wave of grief swept through the nation. Grief turned to anger at the press, as details emerged about how the paparazzi were chasing her car when it crashed. But that anger soon found a new target: the royal family.

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Diana: Seven Days That Shook the World
People’s Princess: How A Nation Mourned Diana’s Death

At the time of the accident, the Queen and Princes Philip, Charles, William, and Harry were at Balmoral in the Scottish countryside. They released a brief statement saying, “The Queen and the Prince of Wales are deeply shocked and distressed by this terrible news.” But it wasn’t enough to appease a nation in mourning. While the Queen prioritized the well-being of her two young grandchildren at Balmoral, back in England, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the royal family’s continued silence.

From the moment they heard the news, Prince Charles and his mother had been at odds about how to handle the situation. As the nation’s anger grew, Charles found an ally in Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair implored Prince Charles to speak to his mother about her approach to the tragedy. Under extreme pressure from the media, her people, her government, and her son, the Queen finally gave in.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth look at the flowersThe Duke of Edinburgh (L) and Queen Elizabeth view the thousands of flowers and tributes left outside Kensington Palace in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales on September 5, 1997. (John Stillwell/AFP/Getty Images)

“It finally became clear to her out of self-preservation, for which she is known, that this was something bigger and more important than her own personal feelings,” recounts Brown. What followed was an unprecedented climb down by an institution that had always resisted change.

Here are four instances in which the royal family broke with tradition and protocol after Princess Diana’s death:

1. Flying the Union Jack at Buckingham Palace: Every major building in London was flying the Union Jack at half mast after Princess Diana’s death. The one exception was Buckingham Palace. Traditionally used to fly the Royal Standard when the monarch is in residence, the palace flagstaff had never flown the Union Jack. It remained bare per royal protocol while the Queen was in Balmoral. This was a point of contention for the public and 42,000 people called The Sun demanding that the royal family do away with the protocol. Their request did not go unanswered.  For the first time in history, on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, the Union Jack was raised over Buckingham Palace and then lowered to half mast.

2. A royal flight for a non-royal: When news of Princess Diana’s death reached the royals, Prince Charles decided that he would fly to France to retrieve her body. He wanted to take the royal flight to Paris. But the Queen wouldn’t agree to it. Princess Diana was not a Royal Highness after her divorce. The Queen had stripped her of the HRH title. Keenly aware of the public scrutiny the royal family was under, the Prince persisted until his mother finally let him take the royal flight.

3. Draping the Royal Standard: Another noticeable break in protocol came after Prince Charles arrived in Paris. He asked that Princess Diana’s coffin be draped in the Royal Standard, a flag reserved for the monarch and the royal family.  This protocol would be broken again a few days later when Princess Diana’s coffin made its way to Westminster Abbey for the funeral and then to Althorp. It was draped in the Royal Standard once more.

4. A royal funeral for a non-royal: Stunned by the levels of public grief, the Royals, and the Spencers, Princess Diana’s family, decided that it would have to be a royal funeral. Thus six days after her death, even though she was no longer a Royal Highness, Princess Diana’s funeral was held with all the pomp and ceremony of a royal.

Breaking away from tradition and protocol to honour Princess Diana worked. But the royal family went a step further to reconnect with their grieving nation. Here are five ways in which they made a public effort to heal the rift.

1. Explaining their actions: In a break with protocol, the Queen asked her Press Officer Geoffrey Crawford to appear on television to make a statement. “The Queen has asked me to say that the royal family have been hurt by suggestions that they are indifferent to the country’s sorrow at the tragic death of the Princess of Wales,” he said. Crawford proceeded to explain why they were yet to be seen in public: "The Princess was a much loved national figure, but she was also a mother whose sons miss her deeply. Prince William and Prince Harry themselves want to be with their father and grandparents at this time in the quiet haven of Balmoral."

2. Gauging the public mood: To gauge the public reaction, Princes Andrew and Edward were asked to walk amongst the crowds at the Mall. It was the first royal public appearance in four days. It had its intended result. People swarmed around the princes for a chance to speak to them about their sister-in-law.

3. Grieving in public: Following Princes Andrew and Edward’s appearance in London, the Queen and Princes Philip, Charles, William and Harry finally stepped outside the gates of Balmoral to look at the tributes that had been laid to Princess Diana. It was the first time the world saw them in public, as a family united in grief. They decided to leave Balmoral a day earlier than planned to go to London and join in the public mourning.

4. Speaking directly to the people: After three days of calls from the public to show that she cared, the Queen relented. She appeared on television to deliver her first live address in half a century. It was a sincere address that paid tribute to Princess Diana and touched upon all the qualities that endeared the late princess to the public. And by bowing to public pressure, the Queen finally helped heal the rift between Crown and country.

5. Paying her respects: On the day of the funeral when the cortege made its way to Westminster Abbey, it went past Buckingham Palace. The Queen and the royal family, came out of the palace to stand at the west gate — a first in royal history. Then the world witnessed a small but significant moment. As Princess Diana’s coffin passed, the Queen bowed out of respect. It was a small gesture but yet another break in royal tradition.