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A Year After Diana's Death, Royals Have 'Learned a Lesson'

They rub shoulders with their subjects. And bowing is optional. The monarchy may yet have a future.

Far fewer bouquets and handwritten messages adorned the gates of the former London home of Diana, Princess of Wales, than a year ago, when the grounds of Kensington Palace became a vast carpet of flowers.

But on the anniversary of the car crash that ended Diana's life last Aug. 31, some of the cards placed on the wrought-iron bars of the gate were revealing. One read: "They made life hard for you. Now they are copying you."

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"They" means Queen Elizabeth II and her family, and the message is a reference to a statement from Buckingham Palace a few days earlier saying that the royal family had "learned a lesson" from public reaction to Diana's death. There would be more informality on royal occasions and less attention to protocol. People meeting the queen need no longer bow or curtsy, unless they want to.

This is quite a turnaround.

In the days immediately after Diana's death, it seemed the monarchy was tottering and might even fall. A grieving public attacked the royal family for their perceived heartlessness in the face of human tragedy. The family was forced to return from holiday in Scotland and join the London crowds.

By angry public demand, the queen, in a symbolic decision and with obvious reluctance, ordered a flag to fly at half-mast from Buckingham Palace.

Prince Charles, Diana's former husband, was a target of savage public criticism. He was widely perceived as aloof and uncaring. There was talk of excluding him from the succession and passing the crown to his elder son, Prince William.

One year later, all that appears to have changed.

A late-August opinion poll put public support for Charles at 63 percent, compared with 42 percent at the time of the Paris crash. The queen scored 73 percent. Only 15 percent of those surveyed said Britain would be better off without a monarchy.

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One reason for the turnaround may be that, for the first time in her reign, the queen is taking advice on how to foster better communication between her family and the public. She has given up her special train and dispensed with the royal yacht, Britannia. And in another echo of Diana's style, a Buckingham Palace spokesman says it was now royal policy to meet more "ordinary people."

Charles also has been hard at work trying to project a sympathetic image. He has appeared more frequently in public with his two sons and showed an interest in some of the charities Diana supported.

Seasoned royal-watchers continue to take a skeptical view of the changes, but most acknowledge that the monarchy has escaped the Diana tragedy in surprisingly good shape.

Ben Pimlot, author of "The Queen," a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, says the monarchy has been saved by adroit media relations but is still "in a bind."

"The royal family has to say they have learned lessons from Diana's death, as the public demanded," Mr. Pimlot says. "But they don't want to be seen to be on the run, so they say they were modernizing anyway, and Diana's death has nudged that process along." Pimlot adds that Charles has benefited from a public mood that demanded sympathetic coverage of him as the single parent responsible for Diana's "human legacy," Princes William and Harry.

Royal historian David Starkey concurs. "I thought Prince Charles might be finished," he says, "but it hasn't worked out like that."

A young mother with two children at the gates of Kensington Palace reflected where public opinion has begun to move.

"I was angry when Diana was killed and the royal family seemed so cold-blooded about it," she says. "I'm still quite critical of Charles. But his two sons represent the future, and I think it is time for us all to look forward."

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