A VERY PRIVATE PERSON
Hugo Vickers meets
Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, who will be 90 on Christmas Day
PRINCESS ALICE, Duchess of Glouces- ter, will be 90 on Christmas Day. She is the Queen's only surviving royal aunt, and was for many years a very close member of the inner royal family. She is the first ever Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and for 11 years her husband was third in line to the Throne and for ten of those regent designate of Great Britain. She is an air-chief-marshal, colonel of five regiments (two of which are to be amalga- mated with others), and patron and presi- dent of some 100 organisations. To royalty watchers she is the small, elegant figure on the balcony at the Birthday parade, or watching the Remembrance Day service. She is the mother of the present Duke of Gloucester. But she is not widely known to the general public, and she causes anxious fumbling of notes by ill-informed television commentators on state occasions.
Conventional life never much appealed to her, though it has been her lot. She is not as outgoing as her sister-in-law, the Queen Mother. She spends as much time as possible at Barnwell Manor, her Northamptonshire home for 53 years.
I first visited Barnwell two summers ago, on what might be called a social call. Princess Alice began an agile tour of the garden with the engaging line: 'It isn't everyone who has a castle in their garden, inside which is a tennis court.' There is indeed a splendid ruined castle in the gar- den. And it is the garden which affords Princess Alice her greatest interest today. She believes in working there herself and is knowledgeable about it. Amongst its fea- tures are the Blesma (British Limbless Ex- Servicemen's Association) rose, and camellia plants from Eryldene in Sydney, Australia. It also features a variety of secu- rity devices, magic eyes, video cameras, all a vital part of royal life, like the presence of police round the clock (many of whom have allotments at Barnwell). During tea that day Princess Mice evinced no surprise when two policemen and a tracker dog suddenly marched through the drawing- room and out into the garden.
My second visit was a formal call, so Princess Alice knew I had come to talk about her forthcoming birthday and her new book, Memories of Ninety Years. She had planned another tour round the gar- den but I had brought a downpour of rain, so we talked in her study. She was infor- mally dressed in skirt and dark maroon cardigan, her bright eyes, pretty steel-grey hair and finely chiselled features belying her 90 years. The country-house scene was completed by an old labrador, who shuf- fled in and snuffled a brief greeting before
nestling into a dog basket near a crackling fire. The room contained a great number of royal photographs in frames, including the last press photo of her son, Prince William, taken just before his death.
My first sight of Princess Alice was at the Garter ceremony at Windsor in June 1965 and I was struck by the way she waved. From my roof-top vantage I could only see her white-gloved hand at the car window, waving with a friendly wiggling of all fingers. She is still nervous in public, a victim of that shyness which only other shy people can understand. She clasps and unclasps her hands a lot (just as the Queen twists her ring, and Prince Charles his cuff-links). Group-Captain Peter Townsend wrote of her: 'She was painfully shy, so that conver- sation with her was sometimes halting and unrewarding, for you felt that she had so much more to say, but could not bring her- self to say it.' I suspect she only relaxes with very close family, friends and staff. Nor will her reserve let go save with that inner circle. She has no need to impress outsiders, having been brought up in a hap- pily exclusive, close-knit, aristocratic fami- ly. She does not philosophise about life, but accepts the demands of royal duty as the price for a privileged life. 'One gets on with it,' is her attitude. The Queen Mother once said of her: 'She has the courage of a lion.' Princess Alice was born a Montagu-Dou- glas-Scott. Her father, the 7th Duke of Buccleuch, was an old naval friend of George V. There were plenty of brothers and sisters to play with and, in that particu- larly Scottish way, she was related to every- one, descending from Charles II amongst others. They lived at Montagu House, Whitehall, which had a large garden going down to the Thames, and is now the site of the Ministry of Defence. At the end of July the family went to Eildon Hall, in the Scot- tish Borders, where, somewhat 'starved of affection', Princess Alice prayed nightly for her teddy bear to come to life.
In September they moved to Drumlanrig, the ancient stronghold of the Douglases, and then to Dalkeith for Christmas, con- veying an enormous entourage of servants, ponies, carriages and luggage by special train, and thence by the same means to Bowhill, their 19th-century Border home. In time for Easter, the family made their way to Boughton, Northamptonshire, one of the great houses of Europe and a trea- sure-house of fine paintings, furniture and porcelain. Princess Alice's father did not care much for fine possessions and spent his youth aiming cricket balls at the ances- tral statues. 'Hitting them accurately was quite a test,' noted Princess Alice. 'Never- theless every nose had gone by the time I arrived.'
Princess Alice used to see Queen Alexandra as a child, and remembered one particular party at Marlborough House at which some naked pygmies danced about. When I asked her about Queen Alexandra, she found my interest curious, and laugh- ingly said: 'We were more interested in the pygmies really.' But she did see her in church at Marlborough House, where the old Queen worshipped: 'there was always a very short service and no sermon'.
Princess Mice was nothing if not a reluc- tant debutante. The season was of no inter- est to her. 'A bore,' she said. She was delighted to escape to South Africa and later to Kenya. One day in 1929, she observed a roe-deer jump a fence and gal- lop to the hills. Tired of the shooting and point-to-point fraternity, she decided to do the same. She set sail for the first of sever- al trips to Kenya, deeming herself at this time 'a kind of pre-beatnik'.
'My uncle was one of the first people to build a house there with a second storey,' she said. She travelled all over Kenya and Tanganyika, taking photographs and paint- ing landscapes (when the monkeys did not steal her brushes). The results were exhib- ited in London and sold well. In 1933 she made an attempt to climb Mount Kenya, at that time unassailed by a woman. Her party spent a cold and clammy night in a cave at about 14,000 feet; with snow falling outside and a snow leopard on the prowl. Next day adverse weather conditions forced their retreat. She knew Baroness Blixen, and some of the racier characters in the Happy Valley set, notably Raymond de Trafford, who one night made spirited (but unsuccessful) attempts to join her in her bedroom.
Other African adventures included stick- ing on the big toe of a native. 'Yes, they were always doing that sort of thing. He chopped off his toe, and came into the house. He seemed quite unconcerned about it.'
Despite being very happy in her travels, she returned home and married the Duke of Gloucester in 1934. Thereafter she was destined for a life of duty. Royal life seemed hardly her thing. As a young girl she used to escape from Buckingham Palace garden parties by handing in her card and promptly leaving by the side gate. After her marriage this was no longer pos- sible. must have been to a very great number of them since then,' she said.
Her wedding took place at Buckingham Palace, privately, due to the recent death of her father. The prospect of missing a great ceremony at Westminster Abbey did not worry Princess Alice: 'No, it was a great relief.' The Gloucesters lived at first at Buckingham Palace, where she often sat next to. George V at dinner. But he died early the next year, and there soon fol- lowed the trauma of the Abdication. I got the impression that she had not disliked Mrs Simpson? 'Well, no. You see, she was a very good hostess. She was all right as Mrs Simpson. Less so as the Duchess of Windsor or whatever she became.'
Though they saw the Windsors from time to time, the Duke of Gloucester had no reason to respect his brother. Not only did the Abdication propel the Yorks onto the throne, but it ruined his chance to command his regiment, the 10th Hussars.
The Duchess had several miscarriages before her sons were born. Fortunately the Duke proved a kinder father to his boys than George V was to him.
After the war the whole family went to Australia where the Duke was Governor- General from 1945 to 1947, but the Duke had to come home in 1947, because the King was going to South Africa and he was needed as a counsellor of state (another way in which the Abdication frustrated his career). Back in England they soldiered on with the relentless royal duties throughout that reign, and well into the next.
In 1965 the Duke caused a bad car acci- dent returning from Churchill's funeral and, while he was 'lucky to have been thrown clear', as Princess Alice put it, 'into some nettles and brambles', she was very badly hurt, sustaining many broken limbs, and could easily have been killed. Then the Duke fell victim to a series of strokes, which left him virtually paralysed and unable to speak. He lingered on in that state until his death in June 1974. Princess Alice cared for him with the help of nurs- es, and aware of the many commitments he still had, undertook numerous engage- ments on his behalf.
In the midst of this distressing time, Princess Alice lost her elder son, Prince William, in a flying accident which many viewers witnessed on television.
Prince William was more outgoing than most members of the royal family, and refreshingly natural. Had he not been born royal, he could have led a normal and happy life. As it was, he was forever facing conflicts, and at ohe time had a sweet girlfriend, who was, unfortunately, a Hungarian divorcee older than himself with the impossible name of Zsuzui Starkloff. While Prince Richard was per- haps a cosier character, Prince William would have been any mother's favourite, dashing son. Princess Alice was devoted to him. Of his death she says poignantly: 'I was completely stunned and have never
'Hello, honey, I'm home.'
been quite the same since, though I have tried to persuade myself that it was better to have known and lost him than never to have had him at all.'
A new phase of her life began in 1974, for soon after her husband's death her daughter-in-law, Birgitte, gave birth to a son, followed presently by two daughters. Princess Alice shares her home at Barnwell with the young Duke and Duchess and their growing family. Sometimes she will show visitors a wonderful room at Barn- well, piled high with machines and Airfix models in various stages of completion where the present Duke and his son spend many happy hours. In London, too, she lives at Kensington Palace with her family. Thus, in old age, she has watched numer- ous films such as ET and possibly some confusing videos of the space-invader vari- ety. It has given Princess Alice the reward- ing role of being in her own self-deprecating words 'an ancient granny'.
Princess Alice's memoirs, first published in 1983, were generally deemed fascinating about her early life, the travels from one stately home to another, and her life in Kenya. She did not wish to write of the years following her marriage, but I am glad she did. As I came to the latter part, her particular, under-stated sense of humour gripped me and I laughed a great deal. I found her dead-pan descriptions of mud- dled Heads of State most appealing, like- wise her stories of primitive life in Ethiopia in 1958: 'Our maid and valet set off as soon as they could to do some shopping in the bazaar. They met two corpses hanging from gibbets, which rather put them off, and they returned hurriedly.' I suspect that Princess Alice has spent a lot of time being quietly amused by the pomposity of the whole business, and just managing not to laugh at the many mishaps.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Princess Alice's year has been filled by a heavy round of royal engagements. She has escaped to Western Australia each Jan- uary, though, to stay with a nephew, delighted to be able to travel about without a maid or lady-in-waiting. This year, with her 90th birthday, has been particularly busy. She has been associated with so many organisations for over half a century, and not unnaturally, they wish to celebrate her. She now finds London tiring, and eagle- eyed students of the court circular will note that one of her concessions to age is to give state banquets a miss.
The village of Barnwell is as sleepy as any grey-stoned Northamptonshire hamlet, but every now and again the peace is momentarily disturbed by the arrival of a red helicopter of the Queen's Flight, which descends on the lawn behind the manor. At an age when many nonagenarians have put their feet up, Princess Alice is whisked away for the day to York or Scotland for a royal duty. 'It's a good way to get around,' she told me. 'And it means I get there on time.'