The quiet courage of Princess Diana’s father: How an ailing Earl John Spencer was determined to walk his daughter down the aisle with stiff, wavering, but determined steps on ‘proudest day of his life’
- Diana’s younger brother has revealed how ‘proud’ his father was of his daughter
- He had important roles throughout his life but was known to millions as ‘Di’s dad’
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He held many important roles throughout his life, including as an equerry – a senior adviser and attendant – to George VI and, later, Queen Elizabeth.
Yet to millions of royal fans around the world, Edward John Spencer was known simply as ‘Di’s dad’.
And for all his many achievements, it was the sight of the 8th Earl bravely walking his youngest daughter down the aisle at St Paul’s Cathedral that will remain the lasting memory.
Just three years earlier the Earl had suffered a stroke that left him unsteady on his feet.
John Spencer, the 8th Earl Spencer, held a number of important roles, including as equerry to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. But to millions of royal fans around the world he was simply ‘Di’s dad’. Pictured: Earl Spencer walking Princess Diana down the aisle in 1981
Unsteady on his feet, some feared he would be unable to walk the full distance down the aisle
A portrait of a handsome John Spencer in his younger days. He died in 1992
However, nothing would prevent him playing the part of proud father on July 29 1981, the day Lady Diana Spencer married The Prince of Wales – despite some of those watching questioning whether the frail 57-year-old would even make the walk up the aisle.
It took three-and-a-half minutes to cover the 625ft to the front row. It struck a chord with the millions watching.
Reflecting on the moment, Daily Mail journalist Richard Kay later wrote: ‘If Prince Charles had found the perfect bride in young Diana Spencer, then the country had found in her father’s shuffling gait and almost fey delivery a rich, warm figure unlike any stereotyped aristocrat.’
His son Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer would write in a similar vein, describing his father’s ‘bravery’ and the ‘global admiration, when he walked my sister Diana down the aisle of St Paul’s in 1981 with stiff, wavering, but determined steps’.
In her memoir, Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words, the Princess of Wales admitted her father had become a different person after his stroke, saying: ‘He was one person before and he was certainly a different person after.’
Diana’s father was thrown into the spotlight the day the couple announced their engagement in 1981.
The Earl joined the Royal Family and delighted crowds outside Buckingham Palace while Diana and Charles posed for their engagement photos.
Photos were also taken of him on the happy occasion, wearing a red carnation in the buttonhole of a navy shirt.
Prince Charles had rung the Earl asking for his permission to marry his daughter.
Earl Spencer explained at the time: ‘The Prince: “Can I marry your daughter? I have asked her and very surprisingly, she said.”
‘I told him “well done” and I was delighted for the two of them.’
Queen Elizabeth and Earl Spencer wave to the crowds as they leave St Paul’s Cathedral
Earl Spencer, Queen Elizabeth, Diana and Charles appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following the wedding. The Earl, a private man, once said: ‘I sometimes wish she’d found an ordinary chap, so they could come and live…with me’
The Earl and second wife Raine joined the Royal Family outside Buckingham Palace while Diana and Charles posed for engagement photos.
Being Diana’s father was something the earl was ‘immensely proud of’ his only son explained years later.
Writing in the Daily Mail Charles said: ‘In the public’s mind, my father was a very likeable bit-part player in the Royal Family soap opera – ‘Di’s dad!’ as he would joke, self-deprecatingly.
‘He first came into people’s consciousness as the immensely proud, softly spoken man who was found mingling outside Buckingham Palace with the crowds on the day his youngest daughter’s engagement was announced.
‘Certainly that approachability was a hallmark of my father. He loved people, and I never heard him talk down to anyone. I remember how he would speak to my school friends, asking them about plans for everything from their summer holidays to their future careers.
‘He never laughed at them if they said they were going to be an astronaut, cowboy, or prime minister. If he saw them a year, or several years, later he would remember what they had said to him and stun them by asking questions that proved the point.’
Despite the big role he played in the royal wedding, and indeed Diana’s life, experts at the time said the Earl was essentially a private man.
He once said of Diana’s marriage: ‘I sometimes wish she’d found an ordinary chap, so they could come and live here with me.’
When his father died in 1992, Charles inherited the family seat of Althorp in Northamptonshire, where he now lives with his third wife, Karen, and their daughter Lady Charlotte Diana.
Reflecting on his father’s life, the Earl paid tribute to his father’s ‘gentle’, kind nature, whose ‘hallmark’ personality trait was his ‘approachability’.
John Spencer was an extremely accomplished man by the time of his death but one role of which he was ‘immensely proud’ was being the father of Diana.
Born in January 1924, he was a distant descendant of Henry VII.
As with many members of Britain’s elite, he went to Eton, like his grandsons, before heading to Sandhurst.
From here, he worked through the ranks of the British Army serving as a captain in the Royal Scots Greys from 1944 to 1945 and then as an aide to the Governor of South Australia from 1947 to 1950.
As a young man in his 20s, he was made an equerry to King George VI, and then to Queen Elizabeth from 1952 to 1954.
He later married Diana’s mother Frances Ruth Roche in 1954, aged 30, going on to have five children together.
Lady Sarah, now 67, and Lady Jane, 66, were the oldest of the children, followed by a boy, The Honourable John Spencer who tragically died just ten hours after he was born.
John was buried at Sandringham, as at the time the family lived at Park House on the estate.
They went on to have Diana, as well as their youngest child and only son, Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, 58.
John and Frances divorced in 1969, when Diana was just eight years old. In June 1975 he became a peer in the house of Lords.
Princess Diana with her father in Northamptonshire in July 1983
Earl Spencer in 1954 with children Lady Sarah, Charles (now Earl), Lady Jane and Lady Diana
John Spencer, the eighth earl, was descended from Henry VII. The Spencers already had a close and long-standing association with the Royal Family before Diana’s marriage to Charles
After his divorce from Diana’s mother, Earl Spencer married Raine in 1976. Diana and her sisters are said to have learned about it in the newspapers. Pictured: John and Raine Spencer attending the wedding of 1989 Charles Spencer to Victoria Lockwood in the village of Great Brighton
Following his stroke in 1978, John Spencer spent significant periods in hospital.
In 1992, after contracting pneumonia and suffering from a heart attack he died in hospital from a hemorrhage.
The family estate and title were handed down to his son Charles, 9th Earl Spencer.
Charles reflected: ‘Thinking my father would soon be released – we had chatted on the telephone the night before, and he thought he would be out ‘in a day or two’ – I was sitting in Althorp’s dower house when the telephone rang.
‘‘You’d better come quickly,’ the nurse said. I arrived to find my father had died suddenly and, very sadly, alone, taken away by a devastating brain haemorrhage.’
At the time Princess Diana had been skiing in Lech with her family.
She had visited her father in hospital days earlier, to reassure herself that he was okay to be left alone while she went a day, but much to her distress he died while she was away.
Reflecting on the moment in her book, Harry: Conversations with the Prince, Angela Levin: ‘Diana contacted the hospital every day.
‘She was told her father was doing well and happily monitoring England’s progress in the cricket World Cup.
‘Three days into the holiday Diana was in an excellent mood, even laughingly offering reporters piggyback rides down the mountain.’
But then she received a call from home, which led to abruptly tell the photographers to go away, informing them she had only just learned of her father’s death.
Despite their close relationship, Diana and her father also had difficulties, revealed when Chanel 4 released video tapes of coaching lessons she had received from voice coach Peter Settelen between September 1992 and December 1993 at Kensington Palace.
In the course of the sessions, the Princess had opened up emotionally, claiming, for example, that her parents ‘never said they loved’ her.
The tapes, broadcast in 2017, also revealed that her father never told her of his plans to marry Raine, Lady Dartmouth – leaving her and her sister, Sarah, to see it first in a newspaper.
‘Sarah rang me up and said, “Have you seen the newspapers?” Explaining the moment she confronted her father, she said: ‘We were so angry, but Sarah said, “Right, Dutch” – my nickname was Dutch – “You go in and sort him out”.
The argument broke out between father and daughter, leading Diana to slap him across the face, before adding ‘that’s from all of us for hurting us’.
Charles meanwhile produced what he hopes will be another lasting memory of his father – in the shape of a portrait,
Before his death, Charles had tried to get his father a personal Christmas present in 1991 – a year before he died – by commissioning a painting.
For many years, there was no picture of the 8th Earl Spencer amid his predecessors, only two small photos, one of him as a boy and one of him as a 21-year-old.
Sadly, the commission never got underway before his death – one of his son’s ‘eternal regrets’.
But following a dinner one evening, screenwriter Julian Fellowes, creator of Downtown Abbey, suggested Charles get in touch with artist Paul Brason, who was known for being skilled at posthumous portraits.
Charles Spencer at the National Portrait Gallery with a painting of his father, John Spencer, that he had commissioned posthumously. The portrait now hangs at Althorp, the family estate
It was finally unveiled in 2016.
Charles said: ‘I was thrilled to see the setting was Althorp’s Library, and that the artist had included in the background small portraits of my mother and of my eldest sister, Sarah.
‘It connects my father with his family, and his favourite room in the house.
‘My father is – appropriately – in jacket and tie, but he hated dressing smartly, so there is a healthy sign of crumpled rebellion in his clothing.
‘I recently hung this hugely successful portrait of my father centre-stage, above the main staircase at Althorp, surrounded by some of his closest relations. ‘I felt relief, gratitude and real happiness that I had finally honoured my promise of 25 years ago.’
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