Although her life was cut tragically short, Princess Diana managed to become one of the most popular British royals during her short time married to Prince Charles. Even after the pair divorced - and even after she passed - Diana remained "the People's Princess". Her sons Princes William and Harry have tried their best to further her legacy as a kind, generous, and altogether remarkable woman.
But what about Diana's life before she wed royalty? What did she get up to when she was Lady Diana Spencer, and not HRH The Princess of Wales? Diana's childhood years are often neglected by those who prefer to discuss her later achievements, the terrible circumstances under which she passed, and the public love for her that remains present to this day. However, her early life also presents a fascinating - if at times heartbreaking - picture. She may not have been born a princess, but Diana's childhood certainly helped to mold her into one.
Thanks to information from Diana's family, former nannies, and close friends, we now know a lot about her formative years. Here are just some of the many facts about her childhood that deserve to be given a lot more notice.
18 Diana Grew Up In The Splendour Of The Nobility
While young Diana Spencer wasn't born into the same royal class as her future husband Prince Charles, she was by no means a "commoner" either. According to Harper's Bazaar, Diana was born into a noble family that could trace its aristocratic roots back for no less than five centuries! According to Time, she actually had more royal blood than Charles himself thanks to her illustrious ancestors.
Diana was descended from no less than three of the mistresses of the Stuart King Charles II, while another ancestor had an illegitimate child with King James II. The Spencers also had links to the first American President, George Washington, and a more recent Commander-In-Chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Famous Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was a fairly close cousin, while many of Diana's relatives also served the royal family as ladies-in-waiting or courtiers. All in all, her background suggests that she was always destined for great things!
When Diana was born, however, she was not yet classed as a "Lady". As Good Housekeeping notes, at the time of Diana's birth, her father had not inherited the Earldom of Spencer. He was Viscount Althorp until his own father passed away in 1975. Still, being the daughter of a Viscount wasn't exactly a shabby way to enter the world either!
17 However, She Came From A Broken Home
Although Diana was born into considerable privilege, she didn't always have a happy childhood. In fact, the somewhat acrimonious divorce of her parents caused a time of deep sadness when she was still a young girl. According to Harper's Bazaar, her parents - John and Frances - ended their marriage after the latter left John for another man. It was a sad ending to a marriage that had once had so much promise - even Queen Elizabeth II had attended the former couple's nuptials.
However, John and Frances' relationship was simply not meant to be. After Frances left, Diana's once quiet childhood descended into chaos and turmoil.
According to The Washington Post, divorce proceedings between John and Frances were finalized in 1969. The sensational nature of their split led to a lot of invasive tabloid coverage of the former couple's lives - and those of their children. While Frances went on to marry her former lover, Peter Shand-Kydd, she was deprived of the opportunity to live with her children. John received custody of his three daughters and young son. A dark cloud had been cast over the future Princess' childhood due to the estrangement of her parents, and it was to affect her deeply as her life continued.
16 Her Parents Were Disappointed To Have Another Daughter
While the majority of parents would be thrilled to have a new baby regardless of whether it's a boy or girl, things were a bit more complex for John and Frances Spencer when Diana was born in 1961. The title which John was due to inherit had to be passed down the male line, meaning the couple had to have a son to further their legacy.
As 'Good Housekeeping' reports, the couple already had two daughters when Diana was born, and desperately wanted their male heir to arrive.
This was only compounded by the fact that shortly before Diana's birth, the couple lost a baby son, named John, to an infection.
Of course, we all know that Diana was not the son that the Spencers hoped for. While they did eventually have the boy that they desired - Diana's younger brother Charles - the knowledge that her gender had been a "disappointment" affected Diana for many years. According to The Daily Telegraph, her parents were so forlorn after Diana's birth that it took them a week to name her, and longer than usual to register her birth. The young girl was left feeling like a "nuisance" to her family, a feeling that only became stronger when her parents divorced.
15 Diana Had Many Nannies - And Would Later Become One Herself
As is often the case with rich or aristocratic families, Diana spent much of her early childhood being cared for by nannies and governesses. Luckily, some of these women spoke extensively to CNN about their experience with the young girl, meaning we have a lot of information about this period of her life!
One woman, Inge Crane, became an au pair for the Spencer family when Diana was just three years old. She describes Diana's childhood as being surprisingly "ordinary" considering the noble family from which she came. This statement is corroborated by Mary Clarke, a nanny who joined the household when Diana was 9 - around the time when her parents divorced. While Crane describes the young girl as a happy and "loveable" child, Clarke remembers Diana as being more somber and downcast when the two first met. It's clear that in the immediate aftermath of her parents' divorce, Diana's emotional well-being was understandably somewhat dented.
Diana's experiences with her nannies served her well later in life - especially when she turned a hand to the profession herself! According to the LA Times, in the early 1980s, Diana worked as a nanny for an American woman living in London. Mary Robertson claims that she initially had no idea who Diana actually was, and only realized that she was Lady Spencer when she spotted a deposit slip sporting her real identity. She has nothing but fond memories of Diana, who apparently did her job incredibly well.
14 She Actually Lived On The Queen's Sandringham Estate
Although Diana wasn't born into royalty, she had close connections to the House of Windsor pretty much from the day of her birth. In her earliest years, the young princess-to-be actually lived on the Queen's Sandringham Estate! According to Time, the Spencers rented Park House, a not insignificant property in Norfolk, England. The house had the only heated swimming pool in the local area, meaning many neighbors came to use its facilities! This included the Queen's children, particularly Princes Andrew and Edward.
Time notes that Diana could have also met Charles at this early stage in her life, but nobody can quite remember if it happened or not.
According to The Daily Telegraph, Park House was a pretty idyllic place for the young Diana to spend her childhood years. It was situated incredibly close to both the stunning scenery of the Norfolk coast and the Queen's spectacular Sandringham residence. Diana was actually born in the house itself, and according to the home's official website, her family resided there until 1974. These days, Park House is a hotel that caters specifically for the needs of disabled people and their carers. It's a house with a remarkable history, and a bright future ahead of it!
13 Diana Wasn't Pleased When Her Father Remarried
In 1976, seven years after his divorce from Diana's mother, Earl John Spencer remarried. According to The Washington Post, his new wife, Raine Legge, was the daughter of a prestigious romance novelist, Dame Barbara Cartland. While Spencer and Legge were very happy together, Diana - a girl of 15 at the time of the marriage - had mixed feelings about her new stepmother.
According to Royal Central, Diana and her sisters quickly assigned their new stepmother the somewhat unflattering nickname "Acid Raine" - something the press would later copy.
The children would sing the nursery rhyme "rain, rain, go away" in Raine's presence, and generally taunted and mocked her.
For her part, Raine would apparently try to deliberately isolate the children from their father, not even letting them visit him when he suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 1978.
However, things between Raine and Diana really reached a head in the 1980s. After Raine sold many Spencer family heirlooms to pay for a restoration of her home, Diana and her siblings really began to loathe her. Shockingly, in 1989 Diana visibly pushed her stepmother down the stairs at a public function following a public row. This wasn't the end of their relationship, though: Royal Central concludes this sorry tale by noting that the two women actually reconciled shortly before Diana's 1997 passing. Talk about a rollercoaster of emotions!
12 She Was Charitable And Kind From A Young Age
One of the things that most endeared Princess Diana to the British public was her kind and charitable personality. She made it her mission to help others in whatever way possible - even if it broke Royal protocol. For example, CNN recalls an incident in which Diana shook hands with an HIV sufferer in 1987, at a time when many people believed that the disease was transmitted through touch. Her compassion for others never faltered, even when her personal life was in turmoil.
According to the New York Times, in his eulogy given at his sister's 1997 funeral, Charles Spencer described Diana as "the very essence of compassion."
Based on the testimony of those who knew her, it seems that this is a quality that the future princess developed early on in life. According to those who knew Diana as a child, this loving and generous spirit was present in her even when she was a young girl. Speaking to CNN, her former nanny Mary Clarke described her as a child full of "impartial love". Despite her own high-class upbringing, Diana showed equal kindness to other children from every social class. She treated everyone as an equal, and saw those around her as individuals - negative stereotypes and snobbery simply didn't register with her. This is one of the factors that truly made her the People's Princess.
11 Diana Was Shy But Had A Mischievous Side
Another quality that Diana possessed even in childhood was her shyness. As Vogue notes, the princess-to-be actually earned the nickname "Shy Di" from the press when she first dated Prince Charles due to her habit of keeping her head down while talking to others! While Dickie Arbiter, former press secretary to the Queen, claims that this "shyness" was exaggerated, those who knew Diana as a child believe that it was present at least to some degree.
Speaking to CNN, Diana's former nannies admitted that she could at times be withdrawn and quiet. The New York Times claims that she would even go as far as to refuse to take part in her school theatre productions unless she was given a non-speaking part.
While other girls her age were out socializing, Diana was teaching younger children or embarking on her brief career as a nanny.
However, Diana also reportedly had a more mischievous and boisterous side. Not only is this seen in her dealings with her stepmother Raine, it's also been directly confirmed by her nannies! Mary Clarke told CNN that before she started her job as Diana's nanny, she heard rumors that the young girl had terrorized previous occupants of the job. Nobody seemed to last long in the position, and one poor woman ended up being locked in a bathroom by her young charge! While Diana could be reserved, she certainly wasn't short of personality.
10 She Was Creative And Athletic
Even when Diana was a child, it was clear that she was going to mature into a young woman with many talents. She showed an aptitude for both sporting and artistic endeavors, impressing those around her with her commitment to numerous hobbies. Diana's first nanny, Inge Crane, told CNN that her young charge was a bit of a tomboy - she would climb trees, spend hours playing in her family's gardens, and enjoy outdoor games like croquet. Harpers Bazaar notes that young Diana was a keen swimmer, and would wear her swimming badges with pride even while at home.
Once Diana started school, her creative talents also began to shine through. According to the official website of the Royal Household, Diana was a particularly gifted musician, especially when it came to playing the piano.
The Independent reports that this musical streak ran in Diana's family, on both her mother and her father's sides. When she became the Princess of Wales, Diana went on to very publically showcase her abilities, memorably sitting and performing a brief snippet of a Rachmaninov piano piece while on a Royal Tour of Australia in 1988. She later did the same for the children living in an orphanage in Prague in 1991. Here, Diana's compassion and kindness met with her creative abilities.
9 She Attended Boarding School - Much To Her Own Despair
Like many children born into the aristocracy, Diana found herself being educated in a private boarding school for most of her childhood. According to Harper's Bazaar and Time, she began her education at Riddlesworth Hall in Norfolk before progressing to West Heath in Kent. When Diana first had to leave home to attend school, she was reportedly very unhappy about the situation: The Daily Mail claims that she told her father, "if you love me, you won't leave me here." Being separated from her family for such long periods of time seemed impossible for the young girl to bear.
As the years went by, Diana never really warmed to traditional schooling. According to Business Insider, she failed her O-Levels - the final exams in the British school system at the time - no less than twice. However, she reportedly didn't mind, knowing that she was destined for great things no matter what grades she got. As it happens, she was right!
A shared hatred of their school years was one of the things that Diana and her future husband, Prince Charles, had in common. According to Vanity Fair, the future king deeply disliked his time at Gordonstoun, the severe Scottish boarding school that his father Prince Philip had also attended. Charles was ruthlessly bullied and struggled to fit in for most of his school years. While Diana's schooling experience wasn't quite so rotten, this was still some common ground between her and her prince.
8 Aged 9, She Had Strong Views On Love And Marriage
While many children have vague aspirations regarding finding love in the future, Diana had very specific views on this matter from a very young age. This was largely due to the experience of her parents' divorce - understandably, this hugely changed her view on finding everlasting happiness.
According to Mary Clarke, her parents' separation had a "resounding effect" on young Diana. The former nanny told CNN that when she first met the future princess, divorce proceedings were well underway, and Diana was pretty distraught. Despite being just 9 years old at the time, she told Clarke in the pair's very first conversation that
"I will never marry unless I'm in love because if you're not in love, you're going to get divorced." It was a pretty wise statement for a young child to make!
However, it's also tinged with sadness thanks to our benefit of hindsight. Diana also told Clarke that "I never intend to get divorced". Sadly, as we now know, events in Diana's later life led to this actually coming to pass, despite the Princess' childhood aspirations. According to Bustle, Diana admitted in an interview following her own divorce that she'd been reluctant to separate from Prince Charles due to her own upbringing in a broken home. However, she eventually realized that it was the best option for everyone involved, and her marriage ended.
7 Her Crush On Prince Charles Started When She Was Just 13
While most people remember Prince Charles and Princess Diana's relationship as a heartbreaking and ultimately irretrievably broken situation, there was a time when the young couple seemed to be blissfully in love. On Diana's part, at least, the relationship had been something she'd wished for since her early teens! According to CNN, Diana's crush on the prince - who was 12 years older than her - began when she was just 13. She even had posters of him hung up in her boarding school dormitory!
Initially, Charles seemed to be romantically interested in a different member of the Spencer family: Diana's elder sister, Sarah! Sarah - now Lady Sarah McCorquodale - had a brief fling with Charles in 1977, according to Town and Country Magazine.
However, things never got serious, and Sarah didn't mind when her younger sister pursued Charles instead. In fact, it was reportedly Sarah who officially introduced the future couple!
Of course, we all know that 13-year-old Diana's dreams came true in 1981 when she married the prince she'd admired for almost a decade. Not many people can say that they actually ended up with their teenage celebrity crush - even if the union did not ultimately last.
6 She Had A Love Of Animals - Especially Horses
Even as a child, Diana's legendary compassion didn't just extend to people. She also had a well-known love of animals of all kinds. According to Time, one of her strongest bonds was with her Shetland pony. As Business Insider reports, in 1974 she was pictured next to the beloved beast, Souflee, as she spent time with her mother in Scotland. The Daily Mirror reports that Diana learned to ride horses aged just 3, and adored these animals from then on. This affinity for Shetland ponies doesn't seem to have been passed on to her children, however - back in February, the Express reported that poor Prince Harry had been bitten by one of the animals while visiting Stirling Castle in Scotland!
Another of Diana's favorite pets was her guinea pig, Peanuts. According to The Mirror, Diana was so upset at the thought of leaving Peanuts behind when she left for her first boarding school that the guinea pig actually ended up coming with her! She also owned numerous rabbits and a cat named Marmalade, although these animals remained at home during the school terms. Diana went on to become the head of Pets' Corner at Riddlesworth Hall and became known there for her love and affection for the animals under her care.
5 She Aspired To Become A Famous Dancer
Another of Diana's interests stemming from her childhood was her love of dance. According to Good Housekeeping, her specific passion was ballet - and she was pretty darn good at it! In fact, Woman's Day claims that Diana actually wanted to pursue dance as a career, but couldn't after she grew too tall to be a professional ballerina. Even so, she supported the world of dance for the rest of her life, especially the English National Ballet.
While Diana's childhood ambition to be a dancer eventually made way for the reality of her life as a Princess, she reportedly never lost her enjoyment of performing on a stage - even when she was a member of the Royal Family.
In 2017, professional dancer Wayne Sleep spoke to the Guardian newspaper about his experiences with Diana in the early 1980s. Apparently, the Princess approached him at his studio and asked him to be her dance partner! What an honor that must have been. The two performed together in secret for some time, until photos of them on-stage were leaked to the press in 1995, ten years after the dance captured in the pictures actually took place.
According to Sleep, Diana loved the "freedom" that she felt while dancing. She also enjoyed the fact that the practice sessions were kept a secret from Prince Charles - perhaps a sign of the trouble that was to come in their marriage.
4 As A Teen, Diana Had A Legendary Appetite
It's well known that Princess Diana's relationship with food was very complex during her adult years. As The Independent reports, following the birth of Prince William the new mother dieted to an extreme extent in order to lose the baby weight that she had gained. Likewise, at various points in her life, she suffered from not eating enough. Diana herself reportedly claimed that she developed these issues due to the stress of Prince Charles having an affair while she was pregnant with Prince William. Whatever the case, Diana's issues with food haunted her for most of her adult life.
As a child, though, the picture was very different for Diana. There were no indications that she would later develop these issues: instead, Diana was known for having a healthy appetite and a general love of food. Speaking to the LA Times, Diana's former employer, Mary Robertson, reported that the princess-to-be always ate well while undertaking her duties as a nanny. Robertson even states that Diana once picked all of the beef out of a stew that her boss had been saving as leftovers! It's clear that the stress of being a Royal changed all of this, though, and food struggles quickly became Diana's coping mechanism.
3 She Was Afraid Of The Dark
Being afraid of the dark is a common fear for children - and even some adults - to possess. We all know that phobias and fears don't discriminate and that anyone can develop them - even future princesses. In Diana's case, it was the dark that became her major childhood fear.
According to 'Mom.me', Diana's aversion to darkness was so severe that she had to sleep with a light on until the age of 10. As an adult, the woman herself confessed that the fear was extreme to the point of "obsession".
When Diana grew older and her fear of the dark had melted away, she became known for being especially brave. As an adult, this was evident in the way she dealt with the press, the public, and major causes that she wished to support. As Woman's Own notes, a clear example of this was her work to tackle the issue of landmines in Angola. Diana visited the country herself to witness the destruction that such mines can cause, despite the clear risk to her own life. Her son, Prince Harry, has continued her work and hopes to further his mother's legacy by eradicating landmines across the globe by 2025. They both clearly come from an astoundingly fearless family!
2 Diana's Father Taught Her To Always Write Thank-You Notes
Due to her often unhappy and tumultuous upbringing, Diana had a varying relationship with her father, John Spencer. As previously noted, she was aghast by the Earl's choice of second wife, Raine, and felt that her stepmother tried to drive a wedge between father and daughter. Likewise, The Independent claims that Diana herself confessed that her parents never actually told her that they loved her as a child. If this is true, it's no wonder that relations between father and daughter were sometimes strained. Still, Earl Spencer was present to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding to Charles and often spoke very highly of her.
Whatever the true extent of Diana's closeness to her father, it's clear that at least some of Earl Spencer's advice and parenting rubbed off on his youngest daughter. One thing that Diana definitely picked up from her father was the importance of writing thank you notes after receiving a gift! According to Mom.me, the Earl forced his children to write notes of gratitude throughout their early years. This habit stuck with Diana, who, according to Refinery29, wrote 24,000 of these letters following Prince William's birth to thank people for the gifts that they had sent! It must have been a time-consuming task, but it was one that the Princess was determined to complete - all thanks to her upbringing.
1 When Her Childhood Ended, She Was Given A London Residence
In the UK, a teenager's 18th birthday is an important one. It's when they receive the legal status of an adult! Becoming a bona fide grown-up is seen as something to celebrate, even if most adults wish that they could be a care-free youth again. Anyway, Diana's 18th birthday was no exception to this. In fact, due to her wealthy background, she actually got a much more impressive gift than most British teens can hope for when they reach this important milestone!
According to the Washington Post, when Diana returned from a short stint at a finishing school in Switzerland towards the end of her teenage years, her parents gifted her an entire apartment!
Situated in South Kensington, London, the abode was in a fashionable area and was far too large for the future Princess to occupy alone. She shared her new home with three friends and got a quiet job at a local kindergarten school.
Here Diana remained until the early 1980s when her marriage to Prince Charles took place. It was one of the last places in which Diana enjoyed true independence, before her life in the public eye began. She soon exchanged living in a flat with her friends with the splendor and grandeur of living in Royal abodes!
References: Time; Good Housekeeping; Harper's Bazaar; The Washington Post; The Daily Telegraph; LA Times; CNN; Time; The Daily Telegraph; Park House Hotel; Royal Central; The New York Times; Vogue; The New York Times; The Independent; The Royal Household Official Site; The Daily Mail; Business Insider; Vanity Fair; Bustle; Town And Country Magazine; The Daily Mirror; Business Insider; The Express; Woman's Day; The Guardian; The Independent; Mom.me; Woman's Own; Refinery29; The Independent;
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