Monday, October 1, 2007

Why the Brits Loved Princess Di

While living in the UK back in 2002, we requested and received invitations to attend the Order of the Garter Ceremony on the grounds of Windsor Castle. The invitations came along with a small map. A key indicated where we were to watch the ceremony. The day dawned unusually warm. We drove to the town of Windsor early and hustled Michael along. At almost thirteen years old, he wasn’t thrilled about “seeing history.” He’d had a full year of such parental nonsense, thank you.

We took our spot in line and presented passports and invitation to security. Windsor sits on a hill, majestically overlooking the town of the same name. Thick stone walls circle the castle and its outlying buildings, including the famous St. George’s Chapel where the induction was to be held. We spectators were accorded spots along the route winding from the castle to the chapel. Once inside the grounds we quickly found the small island of grass that corresponded to the number on our map.

And I do mean “small island of grass.” We were located on a berm, a grassy knoll, a small divider in a sea of pavement. There was no seating and no shade. No shelter from the summer heat. And we had dutifully—as suggested--arrived hours early.

The sun beat down on us. Our little spot filled up with more spectators. Soon we were cheek to jowl with hundreds of others “banished” to our tiny patch. There was barely enough room to move. The Brits came well-prepared. They brought folding chairs and coolers of champagne. We (David, Michael and I) didn’t know to do that…and we were parched and miserable. I did my usual survey of ladies restrooms and I’ll grant HRH this: She has the classiest Port-a-Potties in the world. A huge trailer with white siding and gold trim was parked on the grounds just for this purpose. The inside was lavish, and the taps were gold. It changed forever my expectations of Johnnies on the Spot!

Michael was restless, hot and miserable. We were all getting sunburned. We were squished against other people. Finally, he slumped down onto the grass and immersed himself in his Game Boy. So much for introducing him to living history!

I was especially interested in this ceremony because family lore has it that one of my ancestors was a Knight of the Gartner. That explains the blue garter on the family coat of arms. I had grown up being told the story of “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Ponce” by my maternal grandmother. In fact, during our first tour of Windsor, a docent asked if anyone knew the motto of the Knights of the Garter. I popped out with “Honi Soit…” and his jaw dropped. He said that in fifty-plus years of working at the castle he’d never had a visitor who knew the motto, much less an American!
The Queen's guests began to arrive to take their places inside the chapel. They were foreign heads of state, royalty from all over the world, and relatives of the monarchy. All left their cars and carriages and turned to wave to the crowd, to give us a chance to snap a photo.

Our closely-packed group serged forward again and again, never stepping beyond the roped stanchions that corralled us, but lurching as close to the dignitaries as possible so we could see. By then, we were a pretty smelly, tired, dusty and stinky lot.
After we’d been sitting in the heat for more than two hours, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie stepped out of a new Mercedes limo. Unlike the guests before them, neither Andrew nor Sophie turned to face the crowd. Indeed, they didn’t even acknowledge our presence. Attendants helped them out of the car on the side close to the chapel. With their backs to us, they chatted to each other and greeted the others at the chapel door. Without so much as a backward glance they walked into the cool of the church; they ignored all of us.

“And that,” said the Brit standing at my elbow, “is why we loved Princess Di. Look at him. Hasn’t worked a day in his life. Never has a worry or a care. All he has to do to make us lot happy is to wave—and does he? No. Can’t be bothered. Diana would have walked over and shook hands. She would have smiled and waved and been happy to see us. That’s why we loved her.”

Suddenly, I understood. The rigid class system in the UK is such that commoners can never challenge the accident of their birth. They can never become royalty. The regular “guy” is forever relegated to the small, green patch of grass. He is always on the outside, gazing in at the pomp, circumstance and privilege. All he asks for is a tip of the hat, a wave of the hand, a nod to acknowledge that but for a switch of infants in the crib, that HRH could have been the poor sod out on the grass, sweltering in the heat, and hoping for a good line-of-sight to gawk at the rich and famous.

For more about the Order of the Garter go to

The scrapbook page pictured is one I made from my photos of the day. Unfortunately, because I'm so short and the crowd was so dense, I didn't get many good shots...but it still was a memorable event...for many reasons.


Camille Minichino said...

camWonderfully put, Joanna. I'm sad all over again, thinking of her and her boys' loss.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

You know, Camille, I hadn't realized how different she was from the others until that moment. Isn't it something how someone can make a casual remark and your whole way of looking at a situation will shift?

Monica Ferris said...

I spent two years in England, July 1966 - July 1968, when the Beatles were in full early bloom. The English class system is fun from a distance, and when we imagine we are part of it we tend to think of ourselves at the upper end, or perhaps marrying into the upper end. But rigid is right -- and what's interesting is how they really do think of themselves as belonging to their class, that those above are their "betters." And each class has its privileges and responsibilities. The angry woman in your story was not angry because the prince and his wife were of higher rank than her, but because they didn't even acknowledge her presence. Princess Di went further than necessary, but notice in old films of the queen's official appearances: even in a gilded carriage pulled by six matched gray horses, she smiles and waves to the watchers lining the road. The watchers (who used to be called "subjects") have the privilege of watching her, and she has the duty to acknowledge and appear grateful for their turning out.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Yes, Monica, you are exactly right. It wasn't the was that they were invisible. And the Brit who said, "That's why we loved Diana," was actually a man. Also, as I understand it Diana was the first royal to initiate touching "commoners." You aren't supposed to touch anyone royal. In fact, they say the Queen carries that handbag in front of her so she won't be expected to extend her hand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories, Joanna. We were living in Germany when Diana married and watched live coverage for just HOURS. I will never forget where I was when I learned she was gone - one of those moments that remains etched in memory. I saw her once - in a closed car - the light was on - I wondered why, until I realized it was so people on the street, like me, could see her.


Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Wow, wasn't that thoughtful? I mean, I'd have never thought to put on the inside light...but she knew what she was about, didn't she? And by all accounts, everyone I met who had been in contact with her sons said they were the most down-to-earth, pleasant boys imaginable. Which is saying something--it's hard to raise a child in a life of privilege and yet have him be a good person.