Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash

Princess Diana, former wife of Great Britain’s Prince Charles, was fatally injured when the car she was riding in crashed as the driver attempted to outrun pursuing press photographers. Her sudden death brought about a remarkable public outpouring of grief.

Summary of Event

On July 29, 1981, Lady Diana Spencer, who had celebrated her twentieth birthday less than a month earlier, married Charles, Prince of Wales and heir presumptive to the British throne, in a lavish ceremony at Saint Paul’s Cathedral that was televised and viewed by an estimated 750 million people around the world. From then on, she was known formally as Diana, Princess of Wales, and informally as Princess Diana. Diana, Princess of Wales
[p]Diana, Princess of Wales;death
[kw]Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash (Aug. 31, 1997)
[kw]Diana Dies in a Car Crash, Princess (Aug. 31, 1997)
[kw]Car Crash, Princess Diana Dies in a (Aug. 31, 1997)
Diana, Princess of Wales
[p]Diana, Princess of Wales;death
[g]Europe;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[09780]
[g]France;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[09780]
[c]Crime and scandal;Aug. 31, 1997: Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash[09780]
Charles, Prince of Wales
Elizabeth II
Blair, Tony
Fayed, Mohamed al-
Fayed, Dodi al-

On July 21, 1982, Diana gave birth to Prince William, and two years later, on September 15, 1984, to Prince Harry. The princes are second and third in the line of succession to the British throne, respectively, after their father, Prince Charles.

Diana, having discovered that Charles was engaged in an extramarital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, Parker Bowles, Camilla and suffering from the constant and extreme lack of privacy associated with her status as the glamorous wife of the heir to Britain’s throne, spoke publicly about her marriage problems. On August 28, 1996, Diana and Charles divorced. Queen Elizabeth II reluctantly ruled that Diana could retain her titles, including that of Princess of Wales, but that she could no longer be referred to as Her Royal Highness.

The coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, is carried inside London’s Westminster Abbey on September 6, 1997.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the year following her divorce, Diana immersed herself in humanitarian causes and was often in the public eye. She was constantly pursued by hordes of press photographers, or paparazzi, who could make hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling pictures of the princess to the local and international media. Diana found refuge from such pressures aboard the private yachts where she spent much of her last summer, first cruising the Mediterranean with Rosa Monckton and a crew of three aboard the Della Grazia, then aboard business mogul Mohamed al-Fayed’s 195-foot yacht, Jonikal, with its crew of sixteen. With her on the Jonikal was Fayed’s playboy son, Dodi al-Fayed. Dodi had planned to marry model Kelly Fisher on August 9, 1997, but Diana and Dodi apparently fell in love.

When the cruise ended, the pair flew from southern France to Paris. Pursued by paparazzi, they were driven away from Le Bourget Airport at such a high speed that Diana warned that someone might get hurt. The couple’s driver, Philippe Dourneau, finally evaded the paparazzi and drove Dodi and Diana to Villa Windsor, the former home of Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, a property now owned by Mohamed al-Fayed.

After forty minutes at Villa Windsor, the couple continued to the Ritz, where Diana occupied the Imperial Suite. Dodi had purchased a $205,000 diamond ring, which he intended to give to Diana later in the evening at his ten-room apartment on the rue Arsène-Houssaye. They now retired to that apartment, where Diana dressed for dinner at Chez Benoît. They left Dodi’s apartment at 9:30. They intended to return and spend the night there, and Dodi was expected to propose marriage to Diana at that time.

The flood of paparazzi that awaited them at Chez Benoît discouraged the pair from dining there, so they retreated to the Ritz for dinner. When the stares of other diners unnerved them, they decided to head to Diana’s suite for a private meal. Making every effort to avoid the waiting paparazzi, Diana and Dodi left the Ritz through a back entrance, but some photographers were already there.

At precisely 12:20 on the morning of August 31, 1997, the couple left the Ritz in a black Mercedes driven by Henri Paul, Paul, Henri who was later determined to have been intoxicated. Trevor Rees-Jones, Rees-Jones, Trevor Dodi’s longtime bodyguard, occupied the front passenger seat.

The Mercedes, pursued by photographers in automobiles and on motorcycles, set off hurriedly. Paul stopped for a traffic light, but, presumably at Dodi’s urging, he then shot through it, heading for Dodi’s apartment. It has been estimated that when the car emerged from the first of two tunnels, its speed was eighty miles per hour. It then entered the Alma Tunnel, going so fast that one witness described the Mercedes as almost flying. At this point, Rees-Jones reportedly buckled his seat belt.

The car, now exceeding one hundred miles per hour, crashed into the tunnel’s thirteenth pillar. The hood crumpled, and Henri Paul and Dodi perished almost instantly. Rees-Jones was badly injured, his face virtually torn away and his tongue severed. Diana, thrown forward, lay on the car’s floor, semiconscious and moaning. It took six minutes for an ambulance to arrive, whereupon Diana was given emergency treatment by paramedics for forty minutes before being transported to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital for immediate surgery. Bleeding internally, she could not be saved and was declared dead at four o’clock in the morning.


Diana’s death marked a turning point for Great Britain’s royals, who had already incurred the public’s disdain for the aloofness they displayed toward the British people. Queen Elizabeth was wakened from sleep and informed of Diana’s death. She was said to have wanted a small, private funeral for Diana on the grounds that she was not a royal by blood. She also reportedly did not want Charles to travel to Paris. Charles apparently persuaded the queen that there would be a public outcry if he did not make that trip. The queen relented, granting Charles permission to fly to France in a royal plane. He arrived there at five in the evening, and, accompanied by Diana’s two sisters, went immediately to Pitié-Salpêtrière.

By contrast, Mohamed al-Fayed, who was informed at about one o’clock on the morning of August 31 of Dodi’s death, flew to Paris immediately in his private jet, arriving there before Diana’s death at four. He arranged for Dodi’s body to be flown to England, along with Dodi and Diana’s personal effects.

The queen initially refused to allow the flag at Balmoral, her residence at the time, to be flown at half-mast. (The flag over Buckingham Palace flies only when the reigning monarch is in residence. When Elizabeth returned to London for Diana’s funeral, she had apparently instructed that the flag over Buckingham Palace fly at full mast. She also declined to make a formal statement immediately after Diana’s death.)

A public that loved Diana greatly would not permit her funeral to be the private event that the queen had envisioned. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the streets outside Kensington Palace, Diana’s London residence. Thousands of bouquets amassed outside the gates of both Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace in the days that followed Diana’s death. Conspiracy theories were expressed that labeled Diana’s death an assassination, and as late as December, 2006, a survey in Britain concluded that one-third of those interviewed still believed such theories.

Tony Blair, who had become British prime minister shortly before Diana’s death, convinced Queen Elizabeth to make herself more visible to the mourners, and to eulogize Diana publicly. Mourners who had assembled in public gave many signs expressing their displeasure with the queen—and with the royals in general. Yielding to public pressure, Elizabeth finally delivered a statement praising Diana, and stating that her priority at the time of her death had been to comfort her grieving grandsons. Many would argue that Diana’s death and its aftermath served to soften the public demeanor of Britain’s queen, who now seems more likely to register her concern for the public than was the case before the princess was killed. Diana, Princess of Wales
[p]Diana, Princess of Wales;death

Further Reading

  • Andersen, Christopher. The Day Diana Died. New York: William Morrow, 1998. Provides a detailed account of the events leading up to and following Diana’s death.
  • King, Jon, and John Beveridge. Princess Diana: The Hidden Evidence. New York: S. P. I. Books, 2002. Presents material suggesting that Diana’s death was not accidental but an assassination linked to a complex international conspiracy.
  • Simmons, Simone, with Ingrid Seward. Diana: The Last Word. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. An account by a clairvoyant who worked closely with Diana during the last five years of her life.
  • Smith, Sally Bedell. Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess. New York: Times Books, 1999. Detailed work discusses Diana’s life as Princess of Wales and paints Diana as insecure and lonely.

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