On the morning of Aug. 31, 1997, Princes William and Harry woke up to the worst news of their lives. Their mother, Princess Diana, had been in an accident in Paris, and she did not survive the crash. While the world mourned publicly on such a grand, vocal scale—and to an extent, still continues to—one can only imagine what it was like for her two beloved boys, who were only 15 and 12 years old at the time.
This heartbreaking moment, at least Peter Morgan’s interpretation of it, appears in The Crown’s sixth season. Hours after Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is pronounced dead, her ex-husband and the father of her children, Prince Charles (Dominic West), must, in the midst of his own towering grief, break the terrible news to his kids. They’re all currently in the midst of their annual summer vacation at Balmoral Castle with the Queen and Prince Philip. Sometime after 7 A.M. that morning, Charles first wakes William then Harry.
Prince Harry reminisced on that moment in his memoir, Spare, published earlier this year. Charles “sat down on the edge of the bed,” Harry writes. “He put a hand on my knee. ‘Darling boy, Mummy’s been in a car crash.’ He went on, ‘They tried, darling boy. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.’”
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“I remember just feeling completely numb, disorientated, dizzy,” Prince William said in a 2017 BBC documentary on Diana’s death, in which he appeared alongside Harry. “You feel very, very confused. And you keep asking yourself, ‘Why me?’ All the time, ‘Why? What have I done? Why? Why has this happened to us?’”
The Crown’s version of events shows a glimpse of William grappling with those feelings. Played by Rufus Kampa, the young prince overhears Charles, the Queen (Imelda Staunton), and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) debating whether Diana should be honored with a public funeral. When Charles mentions that William “has to behave like” the future king he is and grieve his mother with the public, the teenage royal covers his ears with his headphones and storms off. Later, he disappears for 14 hours, and the family goes searching for him. It turns out he’d run off to the countryside alone, but he eventually returns to his worried family.
Something like this might have actually happened, though not on the day the princess died, and the exact reason is unclear. Tina Brown reports in The Diana Chronicles that, during a call to plan the funeral later that week, Prince Philip interjected. “Our worry at the moment is William,” he said. “He’s run away up the hill, and we can’t find him. That’s the only thing we’re concerned with at the moment.”
William hasn’t discussed that incident in length, but he has talked about finding comfort in the outdoors during that time. “I was in Balmoral when I was told that my mother had died,” he said in a speech in 2021. “Still in shock, I found sanctuary in the service at Crathie Kirk that very morning, and in the dark days of grief that followed, I found comfort and solace in the Scottish outdoors.”
The Queen also tried to help ease her grandchildren’s pain by hiding the widespread news coverage of Diana’s death from the boys, whether it was in the papers, on TV, or on the radio. She was widely criticized for hesitating to publicly acknowledge Diana’s tragic passing, but she was focused on tending to her grandsons as they privately grieved. “I think it was a very hard decision for my grandmother to make,” Prince William said in the 2017 BBC doc, Diana, 7 Days. “She felt very torn between being a grandmother to William and Harry and her queen role.”
He added, “Back then, obviously, there were no smartphones or anything like that, so you couldn’t get your news, and thankfully at the time, to be honest, we had the privacy to mourn and collect our thoughts and to have that space away from everybody. We had no idea that the reaction to her death would be quite so huge.”
He and Harry, of course, saw how huge it was at the public funeral held for their mother a week later. Thousands were gathered in London when they walked behind her coffin in the procession to Westminster Abbey. “It wasn’t an easy decision, and it was sort of a collective family decision to do that. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,” he says.
In The Diana Chronicles, Brown reports that William wept over the idea, protesting, “I’m not going to march in any bloody parade.” But Prince Philip supported him: “If I walk, will you walk with me?”
Decades later, the Prince of Wales thinks differently about that moment, though he still acknowledges how difficult it was. “I have to say that whenever it becomes that personal as walking behind your mother’s funeral cortege, it gets to another level of duty,” he says in Diana, 7 Days. “But I just kept thinking about what she would want and that she’d be proud of Harry and I being able to go through it.”
It was hard to “balance between me being Prince William and having to do my bit, versus the private William who just wanted to go in a room and cry because he’d lost his mother,” he adds.
He confirms some underlying truths about that scene in The Crown here. Even if he didn’t actually disappear into the Scottish Highlands after his mother’s passing, that moment in the story reflects young William’s real-life inner conflict at the time: knowing his duty but wanting to just run away from it all and let his feelings go, like any kid would.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.