The author is delighted that Her Majesty the Queen agreed to accept a copy of her book, ‘Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain,’ as a gift for her 90th birthday in 2016.
Today’s non-royal duchesses enjoy titles bestowed upon their husbands’ ducal ancestors by previous monarchs. The last non-royal dukedom (Fife) was created by the Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in 1900. The duchesses who feature in the author’s book enjoy their own diverse connections with the monarchy.
- Royal friendship: ‘What shall we do if the Queen comes to tea?’
This anxious question, often posed only part in jest and not always rhetorical, will be most familiar to those with friends or relations born between the wars. Between 1936 and 1952 the term ‘the Queen’ applied to our present Queen’s mother; as Queen Consort, she and George VI endeared themselves to the British people in World War II, especially during the Blitz. To see them on newsreels picking their way through the rubble of London’s East End, commiserating with the suffering of its residents, was to make ordinary people imagine it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that their monarchs might pop in for a chat. And in 1953, when the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was televised, it brought the Royal Family visually into the homes of the British public for the first time. With the feeling of familiarity engendered by television, plus a post-war yearning for glamour and a growing affection for the new Queen and her young children, it was not surprising that some people daydreamed of meeting her and having a cosy chat.
In reality, of course, it hardly ever happened. But when young Sacha Phillips, now the Duchess of Abercorn OBE, was growing up, she was quite familiar with such visits, as was her younger sister, Natalia ( later Duchess to the 6th Duke of Westminster and, since 9 August 2016, the Dowager Duchess). Princess Elizabeth was a close friend since childhood of Sacha’s mother, Georgina ‘Gina’ Phillips , née Wernher. They came to share a love of horseracing, which Gina may have inherited from her own mother, known as Zia, a Countess descended from Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. There was a family connection with Prince Philip, too. Sacha’s great aunt, the Countess Nadajda, married George Mountbatten, Marquess of Milford Haven. George and his younger brother, Louis, 1st Earl Mountbatten, were Prince Philip’s uncles.
Sacha’s mother and grandmother were both used to hosting the Queen for private visits. At the family’s 18th century Leicestershire home, Thorpe Lubenham Hall, Gina and her husband, Lt Col. ‘Bunny’ Phillips, sometimes hosted Elizabeth at weekends. Privacy could be guaranteed on the 1,500- acre estate. The birthplace of the National Hunt Chase, the area was home to many famous racehorses, a major attraction for the Phillips family and surely irresistible to the horse-loving Queen. With Prince Philip, she also stayed at the family’s Bedfordshire home, Luton Hoo.
In March 1962 when Sacha was 16, a visit by the Queen to Thorpe Lubenham while the Duke of Edinburgh was in Brazil nearly caused a commotion in their little village. On the Sunday the Queen had gone to a service in the local church with her hosts, as she had done before. The vicar was furious to find that police had prevented around 300 people from attending the service, even though the church was not full. He heard that police had told the would-be congregation that he, the vicar, always issued little green tickets when the Queen was attending in order to limit numbers, and that the church was full. It was a story, said the vicar, which was always told when the Queen was there, and it was ‘rubbish’. Next time, he told The Times, he would personally ‘drag [the crowds] in past the police’. He preferred the church to be comfortably full, ‘and I know the Queen would.’
Who was responsible for the misunderstanding was not clear. The local police inspector said he was following instructions; his boss denied all knowledge of any such ticket system. Certainly such embarrassment would not happen again.
In 1960, Gina became a godmother to Prince Andrew; later he would be a page at Sacha’s wedding. The Queen is herself a godmother to Sacha’s cousin, Sandra Butter, daughter of Gina’s sister Myra.
When Sacha had her ‘coming out’ party at Luton Hoo, thrown by her grandparents, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were guests, as they were in 1966 at her wedding to James Hamilton in Westminster Abbey. Sacha’s father died in 1980 and in 1992 her mother Gina remarried, becoming Lady Kennard. Until her death in 2011 aged 91, she remained a close confidante of the Queen.
- Royal duties
– The Duchess of Argyll is sometimes required to act as lady-in waiting to Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. Eleanor Argyll says it is ‘a great honour’. Previous members of her husband’s family have also served the royal family in similar roles.
– The Duchess of Northumberland is the Lord Lieutenant of that county, the Queen’s appointed representative there, and the first woman in that role. Today it includes organising all official royal visits to the county and escorting the member of the royal family, and presenting decorations where the recipient cannot attend an investiture with the Queen. During 2014, the centenary of the start of World War I, Jane Northumberland as Lord Lieutenant arranged a Service of Commemoration in Hexham Abbey. As well as remembering all the war dead, it commemorated the county’s own regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers, which lost over 16,000 men in that war.
– Further south, Louise, the Duchess of Bedford, is one of several Deputy Lieutenants appointed to help the Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire (currently also a woman) to carry out her duties in that county.
– At the State Opening of Parliament, at which the Queen delivers a speech outlining her government’s proposals, only two dukes, and therefore their duchesses, are entitled to attend since the reforms of 1999. One of them was the Duchess of Montrose, who sadly died shortly after the book was published. Before the reforms, the Duchess of Somerset sometimes found herself as the most senior duchess there, and had the nerve-racking task of leading the curtsey to the Queen. She may yet be back there: in December 2014 the Duke was elected to the House of Lords as a cross-bencher.
- Discretion and loyalty
– Notable features shared by the duchesses are loyalty and discretion. Discretion, in these days of ‘kiss-and tell’, of wanting to look important by sharing with the world a secret imparted in confidence, is an increasingly rare virtue. Those duchesses who have contact with the Queen or other members of the Royal Family exercise it in spades. Apart from praising the Queen and the example she sets, they will not be drawn on any detail about time they have spent, or still spend, with any members of the royal family.
– When Lady Melissa Percy, second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, married Thomas van Straubenzee in June 2013, Princes William and Harry were wedding guests, being old schoolfriends of the groom. Having royalty to visit or stay at Alnwick Castle is not unusual; Prince Charles, for example, has stayed with the Duke and Duchess while visiting the region. Again discretion prevails.
- Royal Blood
– The Duchess of Buccleuch’s children are related to Charles II: her husband, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th Duke of Queensbury KBE, is descended from Charles and his early mistress, Lucy Walter. Rumour at the time, which persisted for centuries, suggested Charles had secretly married Lucy. If that were ever proved to be true, the current Duke may have a better right to the throne than Elizabeth II.
– The Duchess of St Albans says she loves ‘the romantic fact’ that her husband, the 14th Duke of St Albans, is a direct descendant of Charles II and Nell Gwyn.