Remembering a Princess: a personal recollection with a Regency parallel

Princess Diana on a royal visit to Bristol, 1987
(Photo by Rick, CC BY 2.0)

Every once in a while a momentous event occurs that’s bigger than life, and causes time to seemingly stop for a moment. Later you’ll ask others, “Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard that ...?”

For some in the Boomer generation, it’s “Do you remember where you were when Kennedy was assassinated?” For Millennials, it could be when the Twin Towers fell. As for me, I remember the night twenty years ago when I heard the news that Princess Diana had died.

On that August night I was camping with family and friends in the Oregon coastal woods, enjoying Labor Day Weekend and our last summer holiday before the school year started. It was late in the evening, and the campfire had burned down to few glowing embers. After helping to clean up the residue left by the S'mores, a gooey marshmallow, graham cracker and melted chocolate treat that's mandatory camping fare in our family, I followed the trail through the darkness to the dank and badly-lit communal bathroom, toothbrush and washcloth in hand.

That’s when someone at one of the sinks said that Diana had been seriously injured in a car accident in Paris. I could scarcely believe it – surely the collision wasn’t too bad, and the Princess would be all right. After all, she was a young, healthy woman. But before I could fully absorb the news that she’d been in a car accident, I heard she’d died.

I was truly stunned, unable to take it in at first. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how close I felt to a woman I’d never met, a princess who lived half a world away in circumstances so dissimilar to mine we were almost a different species.

Diana radiant in her wedding dress with its 25-foot train,
designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel

I recall sitting in the parents section during my boys’ swimming lessons or soccer practices, reading the current magazines that allowed me to track Diana’s life through articles and photos. In her interviews she spoke with disarming candor about her family and personal problems, like her struggle with bulimia. I saw her reach out to people with AIDS and others who suffered stigmatizing diseases in an effort to ease their isolation. I felt bad for her when her marital woes were exposed, and happy to see her bounce back from her break-up with Charles with her dignity intact.

After her well-publicized divorce, which provided endless fodder for news outlets around the world and resulted in her losing her official title of Princess of Wales, Diana didn’t go into hiding. I admired that, and how she fearlessly used her celebrity status to draw attention to global humanitarian issues. Who could forget the images of Diana walking through an active land mine field in Angola in January 1997, or her chatting easily with a group of amputees at an Angolan orthopedic center?  

To me, Diana wasn’t just a distant celebrity. I felt a connection to her, and I know I wasn’t the only one who did. She wasn’t perfect, but who is? She was relatable, as a mother, as a woman, and as a human being. That was her gift, and for the most part, she used it to make the world a better place.

So, when I heard she’d died so unexpectedly, the world seemed to stop, just for moment, like it does sometimes when events like these occur. And when the world started up again, as it must, the universe seemed to me to be a bit older and sadder, as though a spark had been extinguished and couldn’t be relit.

Georgiana Cavendish,
Duchess of Devonshire

Oddly enough, there’s a Diana-like figure in our Regency world, and what’s even more of a coincidence is that Diana’s doppelganger is her own distant ancestor, Lady Georgiana Spencer, who became the Duchess of Devonshire when she married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1774.

Georgiana was born at Althorp House, the Spencer family seat in Northamptonshire where Diana spent part of her childhood and is now buried. On her 17th birthday, Georgiana married the 25-year-old Cavendish, who was considered quite a catch and one of the most eligible bachelors among the ton in English society. 

But Georgiana's marriage was a lonely and unhappy one; her husband was cold to her and he didn’t let the fact that he had a wife interfere with his extra-marital affairs.

Georgiana compensated for her unhappiness by diving headlong into a rather scandalous social life, and she developed a serious gambling addiction which landed her deeply in debt. But she was also an author and trendsetter, a young and beautiful woman who devoted herself to political causes and used her growing celebrity to become an ardent supporter of the progressive Whig party. 

Georgiana was famous in her time and beyond, so much so that in 2008 a movie was made about her starring  starring Keira Knightley (which I mention in this post.) Like Diana did two centuries later, Georgiana became a fashion icon, with her clothing and hairstyles written about and copied. She was also an author of several books (prose and poetry), known for her interest in science, and loved for her many acts of kindness and generosity.

When Georgiana died in 1806, thousands of people mourned outside her London home, in an uncanny parallel to the huge crowd that gathered to lay flowers (more than a million bouquets) outside of Kensington Palace when Diana died.

Althorp House
Photo by Andrew Walker

There was clearly something special about these two Spencer women. Though they weren’t particularly lucky in love or in life, they had a notable impact on the world in which they lived.

So, when I think of Princess Diana tomorrow on August 31, the 20th anniversary of her death, I'll remember how she inspired me when I was a young mother. I'll wish she could see her boys now, and how they’ve assumed their public roles in the world with empathy and grace. And as a grandmother myself, I'll be sad that Diana never met her grandchildren, whom I'm sure she would've adored. From my perspective, that's perhaps the cruelest loss of all.

I hope Diana can rest in peace now after leading such a tumultuous life. Short as her time on earth may have been, she certainly won’t be forgotten, especially by me. Her place in history is assured. 

Do you remember where you were when you heard Diana died? Please share your recollections in the comments below.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Peterloo Massacre - August 16, 1819

Satiric 1819 cartoon depicting the Peterloo Massacre by George Cruikshank.
The soldiers are saying:  "Down with 'em! Chop em down my brave boys:
give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us
-- & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you'll have to pay
 so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!"

Democracy can be a messy business. In the United States, we cannot forget the colonial revolt of 1765-1783 that forged our nation, or any of the political convulsions in the 240 years since that have further defined and refined our democracy, including our Civil War in 1861-1865, the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote, or the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), to name but a few.

And in the United Kingdom, an incident that occurred during the Regency era has come to be regarded as a pivotal moment in the evolution of British democracy.

Here’s what happened: On August 16, 1819, about a dozen or so people were killed and hundreds more were wounded when soldiers and others (including the 15th King’s Hussars) charged into a crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester, England. 

According to contemporary accounts, the crowd was a peaceful assembly; about 60,000 people had come to hear orator Henry Hunt and other speakers discuss the need for parliamentary reform, specifically about who can vote in parliamentary elections. 

At that time, less than two percent of the population was allowed to vote. And economically, times were bad, especially for rural Britain. People were feeling the effects of the first Corn Law, passed by Parliament in 1815, which taxed imported grain to keep domestic prices high. This law benefited large landowners (the only ones who could elect members of Parliament) but caused food prices for the general populace to rise, making even a loaf of bread an unaffordable luxury for many.

A colored etching of the Peterloo Massacre,
also by George Cruikshank, published
by Richard Carlile in October 1819

The size of the crowd undoubtedly made the local magistrates nervous, and trouble began when the local yeomanry (consisting of about 600 Hussars stationed nearby, hundreds of infantrymen, about 800 men from the Cheshire cavalry, and a special constabulary force) were instructed to arrest the speakers. 

The crowd reacted with panic. In response, the magistrates ordered their forces to charge. The Hussars drew their sabers. Others in the yeomanry used whatever weapons they had at hand.

Accounts vary, but anywhere from 10-20 people died as a result of the melee, either at the scene or in the days and months that followed due to injuries. In addition, an estimated 500-700 others were wounded. Victims included women and children. Among the recorded causes of death were saber cuts, musket shots, trampling (by horses or people), being crushed, beaten or stabbed with bayonets.

The event was dubbed the Peterloo Massacre as an ironic nod to the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which was still fresh in people’s memories. Also, the 15th King’s Hussars were among the soldiers who fought at Waterloo, making the mocking allusion especially appropriate for them.

Journalists who'd witnessed the carnage were arrested and others who tried to write about what they’d seen were jailed. Organizers of the event, along with the speakers, were charged with high treason, a charge that was later dropped. After an official inquiry, the Prince Regent commended the soldiers and yeomen involved in the attack on the unarmed crowd and absolved them of any misconduct.

Then, a couple of months later, a shaken Parliament passed a series of laws aimed at suppressing political unrest. (Protests had erupted up all over Northern England in the wake of Peterloo.) The Six Acts included measures to restrict public meetings like the one at St. Peter’s Fields, punish publishers of radical newspapers and grant power to local magistrates to search private houses without warrants.

Plaque commemorating Peterloo in Manchester

However, no measure could prevent the Peterloo Massacre from becoming a watershed moment in British history. The repercussions of what occurred on that August day eventually led to the Reform Act of 1832, which made the British electoral system more inclusive. For the first time shopkeepers, small landowners and tenant farmers (as long as they were male, of course) got to vote for their members of Parliament.

And, as a result of what happened that day, a blow was struck for the free press, too.  In response to Peterloo, John Edward Taylor, a local businessman, was inspired to help start a newspaper, The Manchester Guardian. (That paper still publishes today as The Guardian.)

Though almost 200 years ago have passed, the deadly melee at St. Peter’s Fields isn’t forgotten. There’s a plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre in the center of Manchester. A 2006 survey by The Guardian showed that people still consider the event one of the most significant moments in British history. 
Shelley, painted by Alfred Clint  in 1819

And those who haven’t heard the story will soon be able to see it on the big screen. Peterloo, the movie, is currently filming in Lincolnshire and is due for release in 2018. The director is Mike Leigh, known for other historical films including Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake.

The attack on citizens of Manchester sparked contemporary outrage, too. Here are a few verses of a poem that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1819 protesting the massacre, titled The Masque of Anarchy. Although Shelley submitted his work for publication, his poem wasn’t published until 1832, the year of the Reform Act. 

Is that a coincidence? I think not.

Here are a few verses (you can see the whole poem here):

"Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.

Let the charged artillery drive
Till the dead air seems alive
With the clash of clanging wheels,
And the tramp of horses' heels.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few."

That there’s strength in numbers – or as Shelley put it, “ye are many, they are few” is something all defenders of democracy need to keep in mind. 

Sources for this post include A Masque of Anarchy and The Peterloo Massacre, from The Age of George III on A Web of English History, last modified January 2016.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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