Stung by charges that the royal family was unmoved by the enormous public response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Buckingham Palace announced Thursday that Queen Elizabeth would go to London from her estate in Scotland today and make a television address to the nation on the eve of Saturday’s funeral.
“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,” the queen’s press secretary, Geoffrey Crawford, said in a statement which was as unexpected as it was rare. He read it outside St. James’s Palace, where the body of Diana, who died at 36 in a car crash in Paris early Sunday, is lying.
“The princess was a much-loved national figure, but she was also a mother whose sons miss her deeply,” the palace statement continued. “Prince William and Prince Harry themselves want to be with their father and grandparents at this time in the quiet haven of Balmoral. Their grandmother, the queen, is helping the princes to come to terms with their loss.”
The statement on Thursday came as a surprise since the royal family generally does not respond to criticism, and it was striking for its confessional and defensive tone.
A queen making a speech other than the ceremonial Christmas greeting or the reading before the opening session of each Parliament of the government’s legislative goals is a great departure from tradition. She has only done it once before in her 45-year reign, addressing the nation on the Persian Gulf War on Feb. 24, 1991.
Since Diana’s death, the royal family has issued only two brief communiques. In neither did it mention the princess, a point noted by people critical of the family for having kept its feelings in check and remained in Scotland while there was such an outpouring of grief this week in London.
The memory of Diana’s complaints of ill treatment by the royal family have dominated the feelings of the thousands of mourners who have been lining up to sign condolence books and covering with bouquets the lawn outside her home at Kensington Palace and outside her current resting place.
In a television interview in 1995, Diana said the family was always chilly to her and made her feel worthless. On her divorce from Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, a year ago, the palace took away the title of Her Royal Highness that had made her a member of the inner family.
Anger at the family’s perceived aloofness from the astonishing wave of sorrow that has engulfed Britain has been rising, and on Thursday it burst forth in headlines chastising the queen for not having come to London or sent a representative.
“Your People Are Suffering. Speak to Us Ma’am,” The Mirror said on a front page showing pictures of people sobbing on either side of a cameo image of the queen. The Sun, which has the largest circulation in Britain, said: “Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?,” a reference to her absence from London at a time of national sorrow. The Express banner headline, over a picture of the queen, said, “Show Us You Care.”
The feelings of antagonism against the royal family have been fueled by the startlingly emotional response that the British have had to the death of the princess.
Their view of her as someone who struggled against a cold and castigating family has emerged in the inscriptions in the books of remembrance and the messages with the massed floral tributes and conversations along the lines that have thrown people together for hours at a time with the subject of Diana the principal talking point.
While no one could recall the family issuing the kind of reactive statement it did on Thursday, no one could recall public opinion turning on the queen as ferociously as it has in recent days. The Palace has appeared bewildered and has sought advice from Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose youthful new government is more at ease with the nontraditional Britain that has shown up in force in London.
Blair and Prince Charles had a 15-minute telephone conversation on Wednesday evening, and, though details of the talk were kept private, the prime minister later said it was “unfair” to take the royal family to task.
A Downing Street spokesman said on Thursday that three members of the government he did not identify took part in the decision to have the queen make her television broadcast.
The Palace made other decisive moves on Thursday to head off further alienation from the public. For the first time, members of the family appeared at the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, where Diana’s body lies before a private altar.
Dressed in blazers and black ties, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, younger brothers of Charles, paid their respects to Diana and then mingled with the crowds of mourners outside waiting in line to put their messages in one of the 43 books of condolence that have been set up in a corridor off the chapel.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COMING SUNDAY Princess Diana’s legacy is as complex as her life was: her kindhearted acts, her glamour and her two sons, one destined to be the king of England. Watch for our special commemorative section - “Queen of Hearts” - coming Sunday in The Spokesman-Review.