Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester

Centenarian aunt of the Queen who gave an unswerving example of quiet and dutiful royal service

Monday 01 November 2004 01:00 GMT

Alice Christabel Montagu-Douglas-Scott: born London 25 December 1901; CI 1937; GBE 1937; GCVO 1948; GCB 1975; married 1935 Prince Henry, first Duke of Gloucester (died 1974; one son, and one son deceased); died London 29 October 2004.

Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester was the Queen's last surviving aunt. She became the oldest member of the Royal Family at the age of 100, following the death of the Queen Mother in 2002. In her day, she was one of the inner circle of the Royal Family, and she epitomised exactly that unswerving example of quiet and dutiful royal service with which some of the family's younger intake were so often unfavourably compared in the 1980s and early 1990s.

And yet, in recent years, she was not widely known to the general public, partly because she retired from public life, and partly because she never attracted the kind of publicity that attended her sisters-in-law, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Princess Marina or, arguably in the same group, the Duchess of Windsor. She became the oldest ever member of the British Royal Family in August 2003, outliving the Queen Mother's 101 years and 238 days. This matter sometimes interested her and sometimes did not, according to mood. She was known to say "I don't want to break any records" or to ask "How old was Queen Elizabeth? And how old am I?"

Princess Alice married into the Royal Family in 1935 and made a point of following the ways and style of her husband's family. For over 60 years she diligently carried out her royal duties, and to her fell many of the less exciting ones. She used to say that in her younger days as Duchess of Gloucester, wife of a younger son of the Sovereign, her duties were relatively rare, but in her later years she worked much harder: when there was a hospital to be opened, the organisers no longer sought the mayoress or the lady of the manor, but a member of the Royal Family or a star.

When the Duke of Kent was killed in a plane crash in 1942, there was no provision for his widow, Princess Marina, on the Civil List. But such provision was introduced in the case of Princess Alice when she was widowed in 1974. She received an annual £20,000, which had risen to £87,000 by the time of her death, but after 1992 she became one of those whose Civil List expenses were met by the Queen.

Princess Alice was for 38 years the wife of Prince Henry, the late Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V and a man of heavier build and less romantic appeal to the general public than his brothers, Edward, Duke of Windsor, George VI, or George, Duke of Kent. She adored her adventurous elder son, Prince William, and was dealt a cruel blow by his death in a flying accident in 1972. In the three decades of her widowhood, she shared her Northamptonshire home, Barnwell Manor, with her more reserved younger son, Richard, the present Duke of Gloucester, and his attractive wife, Birgitte. From 1970, she occupied a grace-and-favour apartment at Kensington Palace, into which the young Gloucesters also moved in 1972. Though this arrangement demanded certain concessions on both sides, she was surrounded by a growing family and relished being, in her words, "an ancient granny" to the Earl of Ulster (now 30) and his blonde sisters. In July this year, Lady Davina Windsor produced her Maori bridegroom at her grandmother's bedside.

Every Christmas Day until 1994, long after the Queen and her family had migrated to Sandringham for the festivities, Princess Alice brought her family to St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle for Matins, and they then paid their respects to the graves of the late Duke and Prince William at Frogmore. Her last such Christmas pilgrimage was also her 93rd birthday.

Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester was neither as robust or outgoing as her contemporary Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, nor as internationally royal as Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent (nor, like her, at all nightclub-orientated). For many years the Gloucesters led lives of solid public service. The duties they undertook were mostly connected with the armed forces and never engaged the popular imagination; theirs was an endless round of visits to British troops and RAF units and the unveiling of war memorials and the visiting of war graves.

The Duke was a shy man, hiding behind a conventional military exterior. He was a career soldier, and she was his army wife. The Duke once stood so long and still at a parade in the broiling heat of Jordan that the polish on his boots began to bubble.

He loved the countryside and farming and longed for nothing more than to command his regiment, but his career was effectively destroyed by the abdication of his eldest brother, King Edward VIII, which made him Regent designate between 1936 and 1947. As such he did his ablest best to assist his brother, George VI, and later his niece, the present Queen. He served as Governor-General of Australia from 1945 until 1947, but relinquished his post to return and serve as Counsellor of State in the four-month absence of the King on the royal tour of South Africa.

He was held in particularly high esteem by those who knew him well. To outsiders he was less easy; to some commentators in the press, a figure of fun. Group Captain Peter Townsend, who worked for George VI, noted that he was a jovial type: "Gourmand and more carefree about what he ate and drank, he cut a substantial figure compared with the King's lean silhouette." His biographer Noble Frankland wrote of him: "He did not eschew a glass of whisky . . . or the occasional blasphemous oath." T.H. White, the novelist, observed him in Alderney, and judged him "an anxious porker which had escaped from the Cavalry Club", but "a kind, good Englishman, and a king's son to boot".

Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott was born on Christmas Day, 1901, the fifth child of a noisy family of three boys and five girls. She travelled between splendid houses, the great houses of the Dukes of Buccleuch: Montagu House, Boughton, Drumlanrig, Eildon and Dalkeith. At Eildon she was lonely, praying nightly for her teddy bear to come to life. She felt somewhat cheated to have had to share her birthday with Christmas. Her father, the seventh Duke, was a knowledgeable man who never mentioned religion. He wound his watch loudly in church when the sermon bored him; her mother was "a very shy person, ill at ease with a lot of people". The children travelled with dormice in their pockets, which ran to and fro along the family pew.

Throughout their youth, Alice and her sisters compiled a variety of albums of their sketches and photographs. They produced monthly issues of "Our Magazine", to a high standard of design. These recorded family events and mocked the things they disliked.

Emerging from the cocoon of childhood Lady Alice found the social scene of débutantes an irksome imposition - "rather tiresome and boring". She was presented to King George V and Queen Mary at the first presentation court in London after the end of the Great War, in June 1920. Thereafter the social columnists occasionally spotted her "dancing hard" at balls, or forming reels at the Caledonian Ball.

She went to Algiers in 1924, and later to Cape Town, where her sister, Mida, was married to Geoffrey Hawkins, ADC to the Governor-General, the Earl of Athlone (Queen Mary's brother). In her memoirs, Princess Alice recalled that in 1929 she observed a roe-deer jump a fence and gallop to the hills. Bored by the shooting and point-to-point fraternity, she decided that she too would escape. She set sail for the first of several trips to Kenya, deeming herself at this time "a kind of pre-beatnik".

Her trips to Africa proved an adventure. Her uncle, Lord Francis Scott, was an early settler at Deloraine and she often stayed with him. In the days before colour photography, she painted in water-colours to capture the wonderful colours of Kenya, when the monkeys did not steal her brushes. Back home, she held an exhibition at Walkers' Gallery in Bond Street. From this she made enough money to return to Africa.

She travelled widely in Kenya and Tanganyika, learned Swahili, stuck a native's big toe back for him, and took a dislike to Evelyn Waugh, who expressed excitement at the beauty of a raging inferno (which represented the loss of valuable pasture land). She was in no sense a part of the Happy Valley set, nor cared much for Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesen). Once Raymond de Trafford (the man shot by Alice de Janzé at a railway station in Paris) tried to talk his way into her room but was repelled.

A year before her marriage 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. They went higher next day, but adverse weather conditions forced their retreat.

After her last stay in Kenya, she visited her youngest brother, who was serving in India. She found the Indians sadder and poorer than the Kenyans. She paid an illegal visit to Afghanistan, to which women were not allowed. Disguised in an Afghan coat and a cap, which exposed only her nose, she set off. Had she been caught, she knew she would have been sent to prison.

Her marriage in 1935 to the Duke of Gloucester was by no means unpredictable. He was a brother officer of her brother the Earl of Dalkeith, and they moved in the same circles. Their parents were friends. History will probably abstain from revealing the extent to which the union was arranged or a love-match. When pressed, Princess Alice would say that she had enjoyed many years of freedom and felt she should now contribute more to life. That the bride's father died just before the planned ceremony at Westminster Abbey was an obvious blow, though she felt considerable relief at not having to endure the great public ceremony. Instead they were married quietly at Buckingham Palace, a cluster of traditional orange blossom at the throat completing her wedding gown. They honeymooned at Boughton House, the Buccleuchs' Northamptonshire seat, because George V deemed the Duke of Kent's 1934 honeymoon abroad "a rather unnecessary expense".

Princess Alice suffered from overwhelming shyness. Group Captain Townsend wrote of her:

Aunt Alice possessed classic, serene good looks and sincerity shone from her mild face. But she was painfully shy, so that conversation with her was sometimes halting and unrewarding, for you felt that she had so much more to say, but could not bring herself to say it. It was partly that, and partly because she could say what she liked to her sisters and therefore felt little need to communicate her views to a wider circle.

Royal life held little appeal for her, and as a young girl she had presented her Garden Party ticket at the main entrance of Buckingham Palace, and promptly left by the side gate. She experienced numerous miscarriages before the birth of two boys, Prince William in 1941 and Prince Richard in 1944. It is often said that the Queen Mother was one of the last survivors of the stalwart figures of the Second World War. But the Duchess of Gloucester, like her sisters-in-law the Princess Royal and the Duchess of Kent, was equally often seen in the newsreels of those days, visiting military camps and canteens the length of Britain.

At the end of the war the Gloucesters underwent a fraught journey by U-boat from Liverpool to Australia, where he had been appointed Governor-General. The posting was not easy. They were often ill, the Duke suffering a poisoned leg and eye due to surfing, while they both had dental problems and Prince William got nephritis. Nevertheless they travelled all over the country, the equivalent of three times round the world. At Norfolk Island, the entire population joined them for a picnic, where they coped as best they could with yams and the like. (In later life Princess Alice returned annually for a private visit to Western Australia.)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Gloucesters continued their royal duties in an avuncular role to the new Queen. The Royal Family were less numerous than today and for some years the Duke was the only male in the Royal Family, other than the Duke of Edinburgh, performing royal duties. The Gloucesters were often at Sandringham and Balmoral. They joined the Queen and Prince Philip to watch equestrian events in the Olympic Games in Sweden in 1956, accompanied the Queen Mother when she unveiled the Dunkirk War Memorial in 1957, and joined the Queen and Prince Philip for a trip on Britannia after their Italian State Visit in 1961. They had his sister the Princess Royal to stay in Scotland. The Duchess used to send flowers, fruit and vegetables to her husband's old cousin Princess Marie Louise, who referred to her as "my dear little Duchess of Gloucester".

The Duke of Gloucester's later years were dogged by ill-health. In 1968 he suffered a bad stroke and lost the power of speech. For six years he languished at Barnwell, his wife with him as much as possible, though still undertaking her own engagements, and some of his. He died in June 1974 and his funeral procession to St George's Chapel, Windsor, commanded full military honours and rolling drums. Princess Alice re-emerged into public life with the added distinction of being the first ever Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.

The greatest tragedy of her life occurred two years before when, in August 1972, Prince William was killed, taking part in the Goodyear Air Race. That the accident was of his own making (he turned too sharply) added to the unhappiness. Prince William had developed into a refreshingly outgoing character. He had led an adventurous life, and had a stint in the diplomatic service, which was unlikely to take him to the top. 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 one time had a sweet girlfriend, who, unfortunately, was a Hungarian divorcee older than himself with the impossible name of Szuzui Starkloff. In 1970, at the Queen's request, he returned home to run Barnwell and help his family. Prince William's place in his mother's heart was sacred: "I tried to persuade myself that it was better to have had him and lost him than never to have had him at all," she wrote.

In 1983, at the age of 81, Princess Alice published an autobiography. The Memoirs of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester underwent the chequered history of many such enterprises. Having assisted Noble Frankland with his official biography of her husband, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1980), Princess Alice wanted to end the account of her life at the age of nearly 34, when she surrendered her freedom and married, but the publishers persuaded her to bring the story up to date. She was helped by a ghost, and when the book was in page-proof she showed it to her sisters, who spotted some errors and added stories. The last-minute changes meant that the final work was low-key in presentation.

Princess Alice proved, in her ninth decade, to be a master of the wry understatement. It was not at first possible to guess whether the humour was intentional or not: her amusement was deliberately restrained. She refers to a visit to Emperor Haile Selassie. Her maid and valet went shopping but "met two corpses hanging from gibbets, which rather put them off and they returned hurriedly". Then in Sydney, when the Duke of Gloucester was Governor-General, he went to the dentist, whose window had a fine view over the harbour:

Unfortunately a group of passers-by caught a glimpse of Prince Henry entering one day for an appointment and as a result a large crowd of women were soon assembled outside the window, waving to him as he sat in the chair. It really did seem a rather excessive demonstration of loyalty.

Describing the unfortunate car accident in 1965 when the Duke had a minor stroke at the wheel returning to Barnwell from Churchill's State Funeral at St Paul's Cathedral, she writes: "Prince Henry had luckily been thrown through the open door" but then added "into nettles and brambles".

Princess Alice writes touchingly of the long years of her husband's illness and how she had to tell him that Prince William was dead. "I think he understood from watching the television." She adds:

I also found some sort of peaceful happiness driving around the farm with him and all the dogs, while the surrounding scenery changed each year from brown to green and finally gold. When harvest time arrived and the great machines went back and forth we would sit and watch for ages. It seemed to please and satisfy Prince Henry and in some strange way I found it very soothing.

A few weeks later a broadcast with Russell Harty was shown on BBC television, under the direction of Jonathan Fulford. Harty, almost a neighbour of the Princess's in Kensington (he in his basement, she in her palace) no longer quite filled Kenneth Tynan's 1977 description of him as "a dapper North Countryman, who runs the most popular chat show on the British commercial channel". Neither Princess Alice nor Harty were at ease with one another. She sat, clasping and unclasping her hands, on a high-backed chair, rarely looking at him or at the camera. Meanwhile the interviewer leaned forward, a copy of her memoirs at his side, a smile and a laugh at the ready. For all their unease, some interesting stories were related, Princess Alice delivering them as ever in her careful monotone. She spoke of her lack of training as a painter. Harty pressed her: "Are you suggesting, Ma'am [mispronounced Marm] that it's a natural talent?" "Presumably . . ." was her dismissive reply.

A version of her memoirs, Memories of Ninety Years, adorned with many photographs, was published to mark Princess Alice's 90th birthday in 1991.

Princess Alice did not alter or influence the style of the British royal family, but she was a most elegant adornment to it. She was Colonel-in Chief of five regiments (two of which have been amalgamated with others), and patron and president of some 100 organisations. There was a special bond with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, whose Colonel-in-Chief she remained to the end, the regiment having survived threatened army cuts. They brought a refreshing burst of Scotland to Kensington Palace in December 2001 when they came to salute her on her 100th birthday.

But she never overcame her public shyness, only truly relaxing with close family and friends. She accepted the demands of duty as the natural debt of a privileged life. She needed and possessed what the Queen Mother described as "the courage of a lion".

She was no great reader but was knowledgeable of the ways of countrymen in foreign lands. Above all, she loved her garden at Barnwell. The medieval Northamptonshire hamlet nestles in flat land not far from Kettering: a sleepy village with a tall-spired 14th-century church whose parish magazine occasionally berates careless motorists. At least half the village is taken up by Barnwell Manor, an imposing grey building dating from the 16th century, set back from the road on a piece of high ground, near a ruined castle. Only the occasional descent of a helicopter of the Queen's Flight, and the presence of the police, denoted it as a royal home.

Here Princess Alice lived for 57 years. A sprightly figure, dressed in slacks, blouse and red canvas shoes, she would take you on a tour of the garden, beginning by pointing out the ruined castle. "It isn't everyone who has a castle in their garden inside which is a tennis court." She had a way of hardly ever looking you straight in the face, but beautiful blue eyes they were, when they finally turned upon you.

In the spring of 1995, however, the family decided to leave Barnwell and live together in what was her apartment at Kensington Palace. London was a place where she had few interests and which by her own admission she found tiring. But the Duke recreated her Barnwell drawing room for her and at her 100th birthday parade made a speech to say how much he had enjoyed having her living with them for the past eight years.

Princess Alice enjoyed a particular affinity with Princess Anne, a friendship dating back to the 1950s at Sandringham. She gave her some of Prince Henry's saddles and bridles, and Princess Anne always stayed with her for the Burghley Horse Trials. The Princess Royal could be spotted giving her great-aunt, elegantly dressed in purple-blue chiffon and white hat, a gentle hand as she left St George's Chapel after the wedding of another great-niece, Lady Helen Windsor, in July 1992. This proved the last major public gathering of the Royal Family that Princess Alice attended.

Her last public royal engagement was in November 1995, though she still occasionally received official visitors at home in connection with her charities and regiments well into 2004. In September 1997, accompanied by her son, and wearing a headscarf, she was unrecognised as she went out to look at the flowers outside Kensington Palace in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In the quiet days of her 100th year she could be observed walking in the garden outside her home, accompanied by a member of her family or her carer, a tiny figure in grey trousers and sheepskin coat, far removed from the formality of public life.

Unwelcome publicity in a Sunday newspaper in July 2000 prompted the Duke of Gloucester to announce that his mother had retired from public life, having become "increasingly forgetful" and no longer feeling "confident in carrying out official engagements away from Kensington Palace or in coping with the clamour of social gatherings". It was touching that on the eve of her own 100th birthday her sister-in-law the Queen Mother made the journey to Kensington Palace from Clarence House to call on her.

A few weeks after her 100th birthday in 2001, Princess Alice was to be seen sitting under the porch of her home at Kensington Palace to bid farewell as Princess Margaret's coffin was piped out into the night.

Hugo Vickers

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in