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Princess Diana: A closer look at her childhood

From her parents' divorce to her close connection to the royals

by Gemma Strong
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It has been 20 years since Princess Diana was tragically killed in a car accident in Paris at the age of 36. As the nation comes together to mourn her anniversary on 31 August, we take a look at the early life of the People's Princess, from her childhood spent playing with the royals, to her parents' divorce, which proved to have a big impact on Prince Charles' future wife…

Diana Frances Spencer was born on 1 July, 1961 at Park House, Sandringham in Norfolk. She was the youngest daughter of the-then John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and his first wife Frances – later Earl Spencer and the Hon Mrs Shand Kydd – and had two elder sisters, Jane and Sarah, and a younger brother Charles. Her infant brother John died shortly after his birth, one year before Diana was born.

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Diana was the youngest daughter of John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and his first wife Frances

Diana and her siblings enjoyed a privileged childhood. Her father had a close connection to the British royal family; he had worked as an equerry for King George VI and a young Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen herself had been guest of honour at John and Frances' wedding at Westminster Abbey on 1 June, 1954. The Spencer family also rented out Park House on the monarch’s Sandringham estate, and Prince Andrew and Prince Edward were frequent visitors to their home, often coming over to swim in their pool. Sadly, when Diana was just six years old, her idyllic childhood came to an end; John and Frances decided to divorce, and a bitter dispute ensued, with John ultimately winning custody of the children.

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Diana's parents pictured on their wedding day in June 1954

When Diana was 14, her father became the eighth Earl Spencer, following the death of his own father, and the Spencers moved to the family seat, Althorp. The following year, in 1976, he married Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, the daughter of romantic novelist Barbara Cartland (Diana's mother Frances had married Peter Shand Kydd in May 1969).

Iconic weddings: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer

When it came to her education, Diana was tutored at home until she was nine years old, and was then sent to boarding school – first Riddlesworth Hall in Norfolk (age nine to 12), and later West Heath Public School in Kent (age 12 to 16). While she did not excel academically, failing her O-Levels, she excelled at sport, especially swimming, diving and hockey, and had a passion for ballet - but at a height of 5"10 became too tall to become professional. After leaving school at 16, she attended the Institut Alpin Videmanette, a finishing school in Switzerland, but walked away after a term. She then travelled to London, where she started work, first as a nanny and later as an assistant at the Young England Kindergarten in Knightsbridge.

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The future royal pictured on a summer holiday in 1971

Diana's close proximity to the royal family meant that she had known Prince Charles for a number of years. The Prince had initially dated Diana's older sister Sarah, but their romance hit a rough patch when Sarah publicly stated: "I am not in love with Prince Charles." Diana, however, was more empathic in her affections for the royal, and is thought to have had a picture of Charles above her bed at boarding school; she once told a classmate, "I would love to be a dancer – or Princess of Wales."

Charles is said to have taken serious interest in Diana as a bride during the summer of 1980 when she was 19 and he was 31. They spent time together as guests during a country weekend, when she watched him play polo, and their relationship developed as he invited her for a sailing weekend to Cowes aboard the royal yacht Britannia, followed by an invitation to Balmoral Castle, the Windsor family's Scottish home.

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Prince Charles and Diana announced their engagement in February 1991

The couple went on several more dates in London together, and just six months later, in February 1981, the Prince proposed and Diana accepted. Announcing their engagement to the press, Diana showcased her unusual engagement ring. The striking band was made by the Crown jewellers Garrard, but it was not unique. Instead of having one custom made, Diana chose the 18-carat sapphire ring from a catalogue, meaning anyone could buy one. That same ring was later given to Kate Middleton by Prince William upon their engagement.

Just five months later, the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer took place, on Wednesday 29 July, 1981, at St Paul's Cathedral. Theirs had been the love story of the decade. But the seemingly perfect fairy tale was not destined to have a storybook ending.

See more on Princess Diana's 20th Anniversary tributes here.

Don't miss HELLO!'s ultimate souvenir edition celebrating the Queen of Hearts, on sale now. The issue contains 148 pages of beautiful images and revealing interviews with those who knew Diana best. Her fashion, her inspirational humanitarian missions and love for the sons who now carry her flame forward – it's all there in this unmissable HELLO! special.

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