Diana's first home, Park House, is in the grounds of Sandringham House, the Royal Family's country seat in Norfolk. To Prince Charles, Diana was the girl next door -- the youngest of three Spencer sisters, along with Sarah and Jane, who were all spoken of from the nursery as possible brides for Britain's three young princes.
This priviliged proximity to the royal home was owed to Diana's maternal grandparents. In the 1930s Diana's grandfather, the Irish-American Maurice Roche, Lord Fermoy, had settled in King's Lynn and had befriended the shy, stammering Duke of York, later King George VI. Fermoy's wife, Ruth, was even closer to the Duchess, later Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother). When the Fermoys had children, the King and Queen invited them to take the lease of Park House. Later it passed to their daughter, Frances Roche, Diana's mother.
Diana's father, Johnny Spencer, Viscount Althorp, was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. As an officer in the Royal Scots Greys, he fought in Normandy after D-day. After the war he became equerry to King George VI, and after the King's death in February 195z he was appointed equerry to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. He met the bright and lively Frances Roche on a visit to Sandringham. After her coming-out ball in April 1953 the twenty-nine-year-old Johnny and the seventeen-year-old Frances began an intense love affair.
After their engagement Johnny accompanied the Queen on her coronation tour of Australia while the bride's family arranged the wedding. With both bride and groom so closely connected to the Windsors, it was natural that there should be a royal presence at the ceremony on 1 June 1954. It took place at Westminster Abbey, a rare privilege. Seventeen hundred people were invited to the service, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and six other members of the Royal Family. The Daily Mail called it the wedding of the year. Through a tunnel formed by the raised swords of the Scots Greys, the bride and groom left the abbey for a reception at St James's Palace.
Johnny and Frances's first daughter Sarah was born within a year. But, like generations of the great county families before them, what the Spencers really wanted was a son and heir. Jane, their second daughter, was born in 1957. The third child was a son, John, but he died within ten hours of his birth on 12 January 1960. The event was shattering for both parents, and rather than bringing them together it did the opposite. Johnny Spencer could not conceal his disappointment. Frances has confirmed that she was sent by her family (in which she included mother-in-law Cynthia Spencer and her mother Ruth) to be seen by specialist obstetricians in the belief that there must be something wrong with her.
When Frances became pregnant again (after a miscarriage that she kept secret) there can be little doubt that both parents were hoping for a boy. At each successive confinement Jack Spencer had built bonfires at Althorp to celebrate the birth of an heir. But the result was Diana. She later told her biographer Andrew Morton that she had felt unwanted from a very early age because her parents so clearly wanted her to be him. Frances says that this was an idea implanted in the adult Diana by therapists. And since an heir, Charles Spencer, was finally born on 20 May 1964, when Diana was still only three, she had little time to develop such an understanding of her parents' secret feelings of disappointment when she was young.
Charles Spencer's birth did not cure the tension at Park House. Johnny and his wife had drifted apart. Perhaps, having finally produced a son, Frances felt that she had discharged her responsibilities and could look to her own happiness. Still young and financially independent, she began to spend more time in London.
Copyright © 2001 by Tim Clayton & Phil Craig and Brook Lapping Productions.
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