SUPPORT OUR JOURNALISM: Please consider donating to keep our website running and free for all - thank you!

British RoyalsFeaturesHistory

Before they were royal: The life of Diana, Princess of Wales

The life of Diana, Princess of Wales was never far removed from royalty even before she married into the House of Windsor. A member of the influential Spencer family, she counted King Edward III, King Henry VII and King Charles II among her ancestors while she’d been named in honour of a distant relative who had once been mooted as a bride for George II’s son and heir, Frederick, Prince of Wales.

She even arrived in the shadow of royalty. The Honourable Diana Frances Spencer was born on July 1st, 1961 at Park House on the Sandringham Estate. She was the third daughter of John and Frances, Viscount and Viscountess Althorp, who had married at Westminster Abbey in 1954 with The Queen as a guest of honour. They had taken on the lease of Park House soon afterwards, and it was there that they had already welcomed three children – daughters, Sarah (born 1955) and Jane (born 1957) and a son, John who had died soon after birth his birth in 1960.

Baby Diana was christened on August 30th, 1961 at St Mary Magdalene Church, Sandringham at a font where several royal infants had also been baptised. One of her godmothers was Lady Mary Colman, a niece of the Queen Mother. She, like the other four sponsors, John Floyd, Alexander Gilmour, Sarah Pratt and Carol Fox were also friends of the Spencer family who were more than used to moving in royal circles.

In fact, Diana, who welcomed a baby brother, Charles, in 1964, was soon a playmate of The Queen’s younger children, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, who were a similar age to her. But the rural idyll of her Norfolk childhood was shaken in 1967 when her parents separated. Her mother’s relationship with Peter Shand Kydd caused more controversy, and a bitter divorce was finalised in 1969 with John, Viscount Althorp eventually winning full custody of his children.

By then, Diana was at school. Her early education had taken place at home, under the supervision of her governess, Gertrude Allen, before she followed in her sisters’ footsteps with stints at two Norfolk schools – Silfield, where she was a day pupil, and Riddlesworth Hall, near Thetford where she boarded. In 1973 she became a pupil at West Heath Girls’ School in Kent where she did well at music, dancing and swimming although academic subjects were less successful – Diana failed her O Levels twice.

However, bigger changes were happening outside the school gates. In 1975 her father became Earl Spencer, and the family moved from Park House to the Althorp Estate in Northamptonshire. Now Lady Diana Spencer, she had little time to get used to her new home before her father remarried. His wedding in 1976 to Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, was the start of a relationship that Diana found difficult. Meanwhile, her mother had married Peter Shand Kydd, and they were spending increasing amounts of time in Scotland.

Like many girls in her social circle, Diana left school before taking A Levels and instead headed to finishing college – in her case, Institut Alpin Videmanette in Rougemont, Switzerland, where she spent a term at the start of 1978. But it was to be a difficult year for Diana. Earl Spencer suffered a severe stroke, coming close to death, and spent several months in hospital recovering.

Diana’s life now moved to London where she first lived in a flat owned by her mother before moving to an apartment in Coleherne Court which was bought for her on her 18th birthday. Having spent months trying different jobs, including dance instructing for children and even cleaning for her sister, Diana found work as a teacher’s assistant at the Young England School in Pimlico. It would be her final job before royal life beckoned.

Diana took up the post in 1979, and the following year, she found herself as a guest at a country house party also attended by the Prince of Wales. The two had met before but this encounter, in 1980, marked the beginning of the relationship that would lead to marriage. Charles began to court Lady Diana Spencer with trips to Cowes and Balmoral as well as dates in London. Soon, the street outside Coleherne Court was world famous as the press photographers, who would become such a big part of Diana’s life, tried to catch a snap of the woman tipped as a future Princess of Wales.

The links between the Spencers and the Windsors were already well established – Diana’s mother had lived in Park House herself as a child as her family were close to the royals. Diana’s maternal grandmother, Ruth, Lady Fermoy, was a good friend of the Queen Mother, and the prospect of this royal wedding was popular with both sets of relations. The engagement announcement came on February 24th, several weeks after Charles had proposed, and Diana appeared before the cameras as a royal bride in waiting just hours later.

Diana not long after her engagement was announced. Alberto Botella/CC/Flickr

Her life outside royalty formally came to an end on July 29th, 1981 when she married Prince Charles at St Paul’s Cathedral in the most famous wedding of the 20th century. The new Princess of Wales began a role that would make her the most photographed woman in the world and far removed from the life on the fringes of regality that belonged to Diana before she was royal.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.