Every time I return to my village, deep in northern Italy, the shop assistant in the local community supermarket talks to me about Prince Harry as if he were a close relative. “Yes, he is a bit wild,” she says every time. “But I do love his sincerity.”
Italians read everything to do with the royal family voraciously. When I trained at the main Italian news agency, Ansa, in Fleet Street, a lot of the work was scouring the British tabloids for every little tidbit on the royals. Italians love talking and are open about themselves, and the Windsors provide an unending, interesting conversation.
Before I came to live in Britain, 25 years ago, I watched the wedding of Diana, Princess of Wales, with my friends. I was an adolescent and dreamt, like her, of marrying my prince. She was then a character from a fairytale become real.
My point of view has completely changed now. It always amazes me, in my royal reporting for Italian magazines, how the Windsors are first of all an institution and only secondly global stars. Italians don’t know this and don’t appreciate this institutional dimension. They struggle to believe that the Queen works very hard, reading official documents for hours a day, and is far from a lazy aristocrat who doesn’t do much.
I have now developed a deep respect and admiration for the Queen, and look up to her as a model of morality and devotion to religious and family values. I also appreciate how difficult the job of a monarch must be and how it requires hard work, humility and a sense of vocation.
It seems to me that God has chosen the monarchy as an institution to give Britain identity and vision. Nowhere is this more evident than in the effect that Diana had. As if by divine providence, she accelerated the transformation of the monarchy, which was badly needed. Her death also brought back to the country a religious sensibility and practices which had been lost, like the cult of the dead.
In some respects Diana is a secular saint who was able to tap into people’s lives and connect to their deepest pain. She had a positive effect on the monarchy despite – or even because of – her fractious relationship with Charles and the royal family.
Today the royals are more human and in touch with ordinary people. Prince William dotes on his children in a very Diana-like way and Prince Harry has talked openly about his difficulties in coping with grief, his need for therapy and his desire to modernise the role of the royal family. This is a long way from the stiff upper lip approach which the Queen grew up with, which prioritised duty and keeping the emotions in check above all else.
It is interesting to note how Diana fits into a long tradition of “the royal touch”, which had been lost. In his biography of the Queen, Ben Pimlott recalls how this idea that kings and queens could help people to recover, by laying their hands on them, dates back to Edward the Confessor and lasted from the 11th to the 18th century, embodied in special rituals by which ordinary people would seek a miraculous cure. Pimlott writes that “in linking herself physically with sufferers from horrifying and unsightly ailments the Princess was unwittingly associating herself with a very ancient belief”. Aids sufferers, lepers, people maimed by mines and outcasts in general looked to Diana as a way to recover from their conditions, unconsciously believing that her royal status conferred a kind of healing power.
The author Luciano Regolo explores Diana’s spirituality in his book The Last Secret of Lady Diana: The mystery of the relationship between the most loved princess and Mother Teresa, published by St Paul’s in July.
Regolo explains that Diana’s charitable side, her tuning in to the needs of the disadvantaged and the disabled from a very early age, sprang from her religious sensibility. “Diana was attracted to Mother Teresa and changed by the relationship with her. She was looking for meaning in her life, but felt divided between a religious and a darker side,” he writes.
Personally, I don’t believe that Diana would have eventually converted to Catholicism, as Regolo hints in the book. Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, parish priest of St Patrick’s, Soho, who knew both Diana and Teresa, describes the princess as “flawed” and lacking the religious upbringing which might have shown her the way to God.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, on learning of her friend’s tragic end, that Diana had died at the right time. To me, this means two things.
First, that the desperate loneliness, which started in her childhood with her parents’ divorce and which she had tried to satisfy with her marriage to Charles and then with a string of affairs, had finally been filled by God’s unending love.
Second, that Providence had chosen Diana as a means to transform an institution which is rooted in God and keeps a country together. And if she couldn’t accomplish her mission to change the monarchy when alive she certainly did through her death.
Silvia Guzzetti is a freelance journalist
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.