“…She has the courage of a lion, and has suffered so many cruel blows in the past few years..”The Queen Mother, referring to Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester
Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester was many things: the longest-lived member of the royal family, one of the most well-traveled, most well-liked, and one of the most private. Those who met her characterized her as soft-spoken, and Peter Townsend (of the Princess Margaret fame) said of her, “She 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.”
She was born, in 1901, into the wealthy land-owning aristocracy. Her father, The Duke of Buccleuch, was the largest landowner in Scotland, and her early childhood was one of extreme privilege, moving with the social seasons between one family home and the next. When she was fourteen she experienced a near drowning incident while swimming in the Solway Firth. She promised God that if he saved her, she would live a life of service. Not an unusual thing to do in the moment, however, in her case, she kept the promise.
Alice was extremely beautiful and well-connected, but even after her successful court presentation she showed no inclination to marry. She lived in France, Kenya, and Italy, and became a talented watercolourist. In Kenya, she became friends with Karen Blixen, author of Out Of Africa, and avoided the infamous expatriate Happy Valley crowd known for their sexual escapades, drinking, and drugs. She found them “tiresome”, and she had other interests. She smuggled herself into Afghanistan to see for herself the conditions there – which were as difficult for women as they are now.
In 1934, her father was ailing and she returned to Great Britain. She became engaged to her family’s close friend, Prince Henry, the third son of George V. Whether it was a love match is debatable (the Prince had a long-standing affair with Beryl Markham, another writer), but it would prove to be a long-lived marriage, and one that provided a great deal of stability to that branch of the royal family.
The Duchess experienced a couple of miscarriages before having two sons – both after the age of forty! Prince William and Prince Richard were raised in the 16th-century Barnwell Manor, Northamptonshire, which Alice and Prince Henry famred.
Quiet as she was, she worked tirelessly in service of the royal family for decades, particularly after the abdication of her brother-in-law, King Edward VIII. She was the patron of the Girl Guides, and the Colonel in Chief of the Royal Hussars and the Royal Corps of Transport. She and the Duke lived in Canberra during his stint as the Governor General of Australia.
Returning from the funeral service of Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess were involved in a car accident after the Duke suffered a stroke at the wheel. The Duchess suffered “facial injuries’ and the Duke was thrown out of the vehicle. Both survived, but it was the first of a series of tragedies that would follow the family for the next decade.
In 1972, the couple’s oldest son, William, was killed in an aviation accident. The Duchess could not bring herself to break the news to her husband, who was by then in frail health. She felt he either sensed it or saw it on the news, but they never discussed it. The Duchess herself was in complete shock and in her own words, “never the same person again.” Prince Henry died two years later, in 1974.
The Duchess lived to be 102 years, 309 days. She died in her sleep at her son Richard’s residence in Kensington Palace.