Hejdå to Sweden's Welsh-born Princess Lilian, who has died aged 97

Sweden’s Princess Lilian captured the heart of a prince – and then an entire nation

Her life was a rags-to-riches love story befitting of a Hollywood movie, which started in South Wales in 1915 and ended yesterday, 97 years later, in Stockholm’s Royal residence.

Born Lillian May Davies in Swansea on 30 August 1915, she dropped one of the ‘l’s in her name during her career as a fashion model. The daughter of William Davies and Gladys Mary Curran spent the last three decades of her life as the much-loved Princess Lilian of Sweden.

Her marriage to Prince Bertil was the final turn in a colourful life that included two marriages, and respective careers as a ballerina, a factory worker and a singer. Her ascension to Swedish royalty was made all the more unlikely given her status as a divorced commoner and her husband-to-be’s duties to the throne.

But in a stranger-than-fiction case of love conquering all, the former factory-worker married Prince Bertil of Sweden in 1976 – some 30 years after they first met – before winning the heart of his nation.

Aged 16, Lillian Davies moved to the bright lights of London to pursue a career in modelling. She made quite a name for herself and featured in magazines including Vogue.

In the throes of war in September 1940, 25-year-old Davies married a Scottish bit-part actor by the name of Ivan Craig, three years her senior, in Horsham, West Sussex. Nine years later, he was deployed to Africa and after a period of separation, the pair divorced in 1945.

Unusually for the time, her own parents had also separated in the 1920s and finally divorced a year before her marriage to Craig, in 1939.

During the war, Ms Davies worked in a factory making wirelesses for the Royal Navy and in a hospital for wounded soldiers, where she became known for her wicked sense of humour and caring nature.

It was a striking combination of heart and grace that would eventually win her the affections of both the Royal family and the Swedish people, despite an initial reluctance to accept the divorced foreigner.

The circumstances leading to Ms Davies meeting Prince Bertil of Sweden in 1943, who was stationed as naval attaché at the embassy in London at the time, are not exactly clear. The story varies from her having met the blue-eyed Duke of Halland at a cocktail party to mark her 28th birthday, to meeting at a nightclub or even on the London Underground.  

What is clear is that the Scandinavian playboy and the not-yet-divorced Welsh beauty fell in love. Though it would be a long time before the couple would win the approval of his family.

After the death of the family’s eldest brother in a plane crash in 1947, Prince Bertil of Sweden, the third son of then Crown Prince Gustaf VI Adolph – and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria through his late mother, Princess Margaret of Connaught – was second in line to the throne, until Carl Gustaf, the son of his eldest brother Crown Prince Gustaf Adolph came of age.

Already there was a strong precedent to suggest that their marriage would come at the highest cost. One of Prince Bertil’s brothers had married a commoner and as a consequence had been forced to renounce his right to the throne.

In 1950, Gustaf VI Adolph succeeded his father King Gustaf V. King Gustaf VI Adolph lived until 1973, refusing to give his consent to the relationship between the two divorcees who had a mutual base in Sainte-Maxime in the South of France.

Following his death, the new King Carl XVI Gustaf approved the marriage of his uncle to the Welsh woman, who had already been privately accepted by the Royal family. Ms Davies appeared at court, but not at public engagements. The wedding took place in Drottningholm, the private residence of the Swedish royal family, on 7 December 1976, in the presence of the King and Queen.

The pair – by then both in their sixties – honeymooned in turn in Kenya and at their French villa on the northern shore of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez.In the following three decades, Princess Lilian became a popular public figure, as notorious for her love of jewels and glitzy heels as she was celebrated for her caring nature. She received The Seraphim Medal, which is presented in Sweden as acknowledgement of “outstanding services of a humanitarian or nature or of general benefit to society”.

Prince Bertil, who was well-loved among his people and had a lifelong passion for cars, tennis and boules, died on 5 January 1997, aged 84, at the couple’s residence Villa Solbacken in Stockholm. Three years later, his wife published her memoirs My Life With Prince Bertil.

Having attended the Nobel award ceremony and banquet from 1976, she stopped in 2005. In 2010, the palace announced that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Until her death at Villa Solbacken on Sunday, the couple’s 1930s home north of Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen, Stockholm, the Princess was cared for by nurses.

With no children of her own, she died the oldest member of the Swedish Royal family. Princess Lilian of Sweden once reflected: “If I were to sum up my life, everything has been about my love”.

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