Frances Shand Kydd

Mother of Diana, Princess of Wales

Frances Shand Kydd was the mother of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the grandmother of Prince William and Prince Harry. She was thrust into unexpected prominence in the middle and later years of her life, being otherwise rather unknown to the general public.

Frances Ruth Burke Roche: born 20 January 1936; married 1954 Viscount Althorp (succeeded 1975 as eighth Earl Spencer, died 1992; one son, two daughters, and one son and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1969), 1969 Peter Shand Kydd (marriage dissolved 1990); died Seil, Argyllshire 3 June 2004.

Frances Shand Kydd was the mother of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the grandmother of Prince William and Prince Harry. She was thrust into unexpected prominence in the middle and later years of her life, being otherwise rather unknown to the general public.

In the early 1920s it was made clear to George V that there must be a revised attitude to marriages into the Royal Family. Following the First World War, the idea of princesses from foreign houses was less attractive as a prospect and, of course, the idea of a German princess unacceptable. This paved the way for the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to the Duke of York (who was to become King George VI). This marriage was supremely successful, and the satisfactory dilution of royal blood with richly aristocratic stock appealed to those who felt that there had been too many cousinly unions.

The wedding of the present Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer appeared to fulfil the same demands. The Spencers were a long-established aristocratic family and the genealogists were able to trace descent from various Stuart kings. In a sense the theory was good, if the reality less so.

It was also noted that both the bride's grandmothers and four of her great-aunts had served as ladies-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. One of these was Ruth Lady Fermoy, widow of the fourth Lord Fermoy and the mother of Diana's mother Frances Roche. Frances was born in Norfolk in 1936, her birth exactly coinciding with the death of King George V, in the "Big House" at Sandringham. In a stalwart moment, Queen Mary deflected her own grief by sending an enquiry about Ruth Fermoy's baby, born that day. This story was told to Queen Mary's biographer, James Pope-Hennessy, as a "signal instance of Queen Mary's self-control and consideration for others". The teller was Captain Sir William Fellowes, the Land Agent at Sandringham, whose son Robert was to marry Diana's sister, Lady Jane Spencer, and to become the Queen's Private Secretary. The links appeared close and the omens good.

In 1954 Frances married the then Viscount Althorp in Westminster Abbey. Two daughters, Sarah and Jane, were born and then a son, John, who died the same day, in January 1960. Diana was the next daughter, born the following year, and Charles, the present Earl Spencer, was born in 1964.

The Althorps lived for some time at Park House, Sandringham, on the Royal Family's estate and the young children were often in the company of their royal counterparts. There seemed no reason to suppose that family life would not continue in happy mode, but then Frances eloped with Peter Shand Kydd, whom she later married.

There was an unpleasant court case in 1968 in which Lord Althorp obtained custody of his children, and it was noted that Lady Fermoy took his side against her daughter, whom she considered to be a bolter. Thereafter the young Spencer children had a disorganised upbringing. This was further complicated when their father inherited the earldom and the estate of Althorp in 1975, and soon afterwards married Lady Dartmouth (Raine, the daughter of Barbara Cartland).

Frances Shand Kydd retired into private life, but was propelled into the public eye when the press began to focus on Diana as a potential royal bride in the autumn of 1980. As the press hounded Diana on her daily peregrinations to the kindergarten where she worked, Shand Kydd took the unusual step of writing to The Times to appeal for some respite in the media pursuit.

She was happy when the engagement was announced in February 1981 and took a full part in the highly popular wedding at St Paul's Cathedral that July, sitting with her former husband, Earl Spencer, opposite the Royal Family, and returning to Buckingham Palace seated beside the Duke of Edinburgh.

It would be wrong to suppose that the Wales marriage was unhappy or doomed from the start. That it later collapsed slowly, publicly and with great unhappiness on all sides is a matter of record. It did not appear that Diana had ever been able to turn to either her mother or maternal grandmother for the kind of support she might have expected.

The media focused on Frances Shand Kydd again at the time of Diana's death in 1997. By this time she was leading a remote life, her second husband having left her, and she had adopted the Roman Catholic faith. At Diana's funeral in Westminster Abbey she appeared a lonely figure, as she had done the previous evening at a Catholic service in Westminster Cathedral, accompanied by another Catholic convert, the Duchess of Kent.

It was harder for her to escape media attention following this tragedy. It was inevitable that the media would press for supposed grievances and occasionally these were voiced, whether accurately or not is uncertain. She spent her last years in isolation on the isle of Seil, near Oban, and involved herself in charity work.

Her last prominent appearance was when she came to London to serve as a prosecution witness in a court case against Diana's butler Paul Burrell in the autumn of 2002. So much out of the public eye had she been for so long, that it was a surprise to many to find that she had become an old lady with white hair, walking lamely on a stick, supported by her daughter Sarah.

It was impossible not to sympathise with her, frail in health, when she was asked to declare how long the estrangement with her daughter Diana had been. Shand Kydd admitted she had had no contact with Diana for four months before her daughter died. This had no relevance to the case in hand, but was an example of the courts being unable to resist digging pruriently into such matters - having her there and under oath in the witness box.

Equally pathetic was what followed, a burglary at her house while she was known to be in London, more sordid details of arguments and bitterness revealed in the tabloid press frenzy that followed the collapse of the Burrell case and a car accident a few weeks later marking the decline. She became a concern to her family, and her last years were lived out in the aftermath of her daughter's death.

Hugo Vickers

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