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'Electrifying moment when monarchy was imprisoned and powerless before eyes of the watching world'

The incendiary speech by Earl Spencer at the funeral of his sister, Diana, brought prolonged applause from the watching throngs and left the royal family squirming

By Ed Curran

It was two decades ago but it seems like yesterday - the morning I had a ringside seat at a turning point In the history of the British Monarchy.

The Washington Post described a seat inside Westminster Abbey at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, as the hottest ticket on Earth.

Watching, as I did, many of the 1,900 guests filing into the abbey around me, it was as if Madame Tussaud's waxworks had come to life. Presidents and prime ministers, political and religious leaders, film and television icons, the kings and queens of Europe and the entire British royal family - there they sat, reduced to sadness and tears.

Diana's was a state funeral like no other. The invited guests were an eclectic mixture of celebrities she had known, charities she had helped, close personal friends, global leaders whose countries she had visited, the British establishment, the Spencer family and the House of Windsor.

Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath, James Callaghan and John Major were there. Tony Blair read from Corinthians. Among his listeners, Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, the King of Spain, the Queen of Jordan and a host of Diana's celebrity friends. Cliff Richard, Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, Richard Branston, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, David Frost, Tom Cruise ... everywhere I looked, were famous faces in tears.

The former husbands of Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal, the late Lord Snowdon and Captain Mark Phillips, sat to my right. The comedian Ruby Wax sitting behind me cried throughout the ceremony.

The guest list for state funerals is governed by protocol. However, the suddenness of Diana's death, her global fame but also her fractured relationship with the royal family, turned protocol on its head and the world witnessed a unique gathering.

Looking back today, my abiding image is of Diana's two sons, William and Harry, arriving and taking their seats by the catafalque upon which their mother's coffin rested. All around me the great and the good were biting their lips, as I was, trying to hold back the emotion of the moment, while many famous faces openly shed tears.

As one of the few guests from Northern Ireland - David Trimble was another - my sadness was conditioned by the fact that I had seen the same terrible tragedy so many times throughout our Troubles. Children, bereft and innocent, walking behind a hearse, inconsolable at the loss of their father or mother, taken from them by a gun or a bomb.

The expression on the young faces of William, a future king, and of his brother Harry, was no different, the suffering within them just the same, their loss no more or less than that of so many sons and daughters here whose loved ones were victims of violence. It was that which stirred my emotions that September morning,

I still have my 15-page copy of Diana's funeral service, its cover embossed with the words, 'Dieu Defend Le Droit' - God Defend Right - listing the music, the hymns, prayers and readings and the names of those who participated.

The previous evening I had witnessed the extraordinary scenes of hundreds of thousands of people silently expressing their sympathy with flowers and candles in the darkness around Kensington Palace. The scent of cut flowers was overwhelming. A lone light shone through one window of the Palace signifying the room where Diana's body lay in preparation for the funeral procession on Saturday, September 6, 1997.

With millions expected on the streets, I decided to be at Westminster Abbey when the doors opened at 9.30am. Entering by the Poet's Corner door I found myself a position only a few rows behind and on the other side of the aisle from where the Queen and the royals were to be positioned on their gold-gilt seats. Directly facing me was the catafalque upon which the remains of Diana would rest. Looking beyond I could see the assembled ranks of the Spencer family.

As the abbey began to fill, the lesser royals arrived as did heads of state seated in the rows in front of me. The abbey's great tenor bell began to toll once a minute. The organ played Mendelssohn, Bach, Dvorak and Elgar. Then we stood as the Spencer family, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh along with the Queen Mother took their seats. The national anthem was sung while the cortege entered through the west door.

As the cortege came into view, the footsteps of the Welsh Guards pall-bearers echoed throughout the Abbey. The guardsmen in their red tunics peeled off into a vestibule behind me, each one breathing heavily from the exertion of shouldering Diana's lead-lined coffin.

I could see the distraught face of Charles Prince of Wales, his shoulders slightly slumped, his two sons beside him, overshadowed by the wreath-laden coffin of their mother on the catafalque.

The Abbey's congregation sang: "I vow to thee, my country" then Diana's two sisters gave the readings.

Her sister Jane read:

"Time is too slow for those who wait,

too swift for those who fear,

too long for those who grieve,

too short for those who rejoice,

but for those who love, time is eternity."

Prime Minister Tony Blair, read from Corinthians 13 - "For now we see through a glass darkly."

Out of sight beyond the choir stalls, from the heart of the abbey, Elton John sang his revised version of Candle in the Wind - "Goodbye England's Rose". The tears around me flowed ever more freely.

I watched Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, climb the few steps into the pulpit, overlooking the Queen and her family, and listened with astonishment at his blistering rebuke of the media's treatment of his sister and of the royal upbringing of her sons. I remember thinking the tension in the Abbey had become so unbearable as his words rang out, that something had to give. Then from somewhere beyond the abbey's walls came the faint sound of clapping in the distance, growing louder and louder until a wave of applause worked its way up through the abbey to where I sat.

I thought as I looked over the heads of the royal family towards Spencer in the pulpit that the Queen and her family seemed trapped without warning in their seats, unable to respond. Millions and millions were peering into this goldfish bowl through their televisions. We who were in there were witnessing an unprecedented and electrifying moment when the British Monarchy was imprisoned and powerless before the eyes of the world.

From my ringside seat, it appeared as if the dynasty of the House of Windsor was not only on the ropes but in danger of being counted out.

Diana's death took the monarchy to a precipice but it did not fall over. Instead, the Queen has led the recovery over the past two decades. No matter that her son and heir looked a haunted man at the funeral, Charles, too, has weathered the storm over his personal life, even if the British public remains divided over his suitability to be King.

The relationship between Queen and country is strong. She enjoys widespread public respect and admiration for her unswerving devotion to her duties. Politicians need her to provide continuity in an ever-changing world and to demonstrate community leadership which no prime minister is capable of doing.

The monarchy is dependent on the politicians to fund and preserve its position. For her part, the Queen has displayed a sure-footed moderating influence, tiptoeing through deep political and cultural divisions, even with regard to the minefield of Anglo-Irish relations.

In contrast, Charles has built a long reputation for challenging decision-makers, over issues ranging from architecture to the environment. In his book, 'The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor', the English writer, AN Wilson argued that this tendency for Charles to be his own man is one of three reasons he is unfit to be king. Another was his personal behaviour during his marriage to Diana, a third that he is unsuitable to be head of the Anglican Church and defender of its faith.

Life, of course, has moved on for Charles, now married to Camilla, in a multi-cultural Britain where other faiths outnumber the fast-declining parishioners of the Church of England. To this day, Charles remains the ultimate 'nearly man', trained and groomed for a job, which he has yet to get although he is now 68 years old.

No one who sat in Westminster Abbey at Diana's funeral, could have forecast the survival of the monarchy and its position today. The Queen by her good health and longevity has guaranteed its present if not its future.

As for Diana, Princess of Wales, the media seems as fascinated as ever by her life and times. In the words of Elton John's song: "Your candle's burned out long before, your legend never will". On reflection, the pomp and ceremony of her funeral, the gathering of famous faces, the presence of royalty - all pale in significance alongside one abiding image. That is of Diana's two young sons, bowing before their mother's coffin, their faces etched with the terrible sense of loss which sudden tragedy and death can bring to anyone, irrespective of class or creed, fame or wealth.

That loss has been revisited in the documentaries and other media coverage of the past month, recalling Diana's life and death. In the recent comments of her sons, William and Harry, now grown men, it is clearly engrained in their minds and destined to remain with them for the rest of the lives.

  • Ed Curran, then editor of the Belfast Telegraph, was among was a small number of UK Press and broadcasting editors invited to attend the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales. He joined 1,900 guests inside Westminster Abbey while two billion people looked on from around the world

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