It was a Sunday evening in 1980 when Lady Diana Spencer burst into the flat she shared with three friends after a weekend away and announced that she’d met a chap.
“Oh my God, I met this guy at the weekend but I have to call him Your Highness,” Diana, then 19, told her flatmates Virginia Pitman, Carolyn Pride and Annie Bolton.
And so began the romance that would transform the pretty teenager into one of the most famous women in the world.
On the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, some of those who were close to her when she first met Prince Charles have opened up about the early days of the romance, revealing that she told them everything that was going on, but swore them to secrecy.
Charles and Diana had first met when she was 16 and Charles, then 29, was courting her elder sister Lady Sarah Spencer. When Charles stayed at the Spencer family home Althorp for a pheasant shoot, Diana was given the job of showing him the grand picture gallery.
When she returned to boarding school days later, her head teacher Penny Walker recalls her proclaiming, “I met him!” The excited teen had pictures of the Prince of Wales pinned up in her cubicle and seemed “completely besotted”, recalls Penny.
But it wasn’t until the meeting three years later, at the home of one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, that romance sparked.
Diana told her friends that she and Charles had sat next to each other on a hay bale, talking about the tragic death of his beloved uncle Lord Mountbatten, who had been killed by an IRA bomb the previous year. By the end of the evening, Diana was sitting on Charles’ knee.
“Diana was very keen on the prince,” recalls Virginia (now 57). “She thought he was marvellous. He was obviously older and wiser, and she was young and enthusiastic, very vivacious and chatty. From what I could see and what she told me, she went in there a little bit like a tornado.”
As the new relationship with Charles gathered steam, Diana was initially able to carry on with life as normal. As well as working at a kindergarten three days a week, she spent two days as a nanny and cleaned her sister Sarah’s flat in her spare time.
The flat in Coleherne Court, where Diana was living with her friends (who paid her $35 a week in rent), had been bought for her by her mother, Frances. When she was outed as the prince’s latest love interest, it was besieged by the media, who camped outside waiting for a glimpse of the teenager who’d captured the prince’s heart.
The situation was stressful whenever Diana ventured outside, but inside the young women could let their hair down and share the excitement over her famous beau.
“When I think of her today, I think of her laugh – it was a naughty laugh, a booming, wonderful laugh,” says Virginia.
In February 1981, seven months after the encounter on the hay bale, Charles proposed to Diana at Windsor Castle. She raced back to Coleherne Court and announced, “Guess what?”
Her flatmates shared her joy – there were hugs all round and a bottle of Champagne was opened.
“We were all very excited. It was quite other-worldly,” remembers Virginia.
They had to keep quiet until the official announcement was made three weeks later. The night before, Diana packed up her belongings and was driven by a police bodyguard to her new temporary home, Clarence House.
Nobody from the royal family was there to greet her, including the Queen Mother, who lived there. Instead, she found a friendly note on her bed from Charles’ friend Camilla Parker Bowles inviting her to lunch.
After a brief stay at Clarence House, Diana moved across the road to Buckingham Palace, where she was given her own suite of rooms.
“She liked to invite us around there sometimes,” says Virginia.
“We were there when her wedding veil arrived. We were taking it in turns trying it on and imagining what was coming. It was surreal, wandering around her bedroom in the palace wearing the veil.”
Charles seemed to understand the major role Diana’s pals played in her life.
“He sent us a huge bouquet to thank us for our support,” says Virginia.
At the time, the whole situation felt like a fairytale and Diana’s friends were thrilled for her. They weren’t to know that their vivacious friend with the booming laugh would not get the “happily ever after” outcome they were all hoping for.
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