07 January 2015

Today's Princess: Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott

Some royal ladies almost seem to have lived several lives. Witness Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was Queen of France before becoming Queen of England and then lived a full and productive widowhood. I would place Alice Christabel Montagu-Douglas-Scott in the same category. Her life can be neatly (and almost evenly) divided into three parts: 35 years as a nonroyal, 39 years as a royal wife, and 29 years as a royal widow. That's right: she lived to be nearly 103 years old, surpassing her sister-in-law the Queen Mother to become the royal family's longest lived member in history.

The earliest part of Alice's life was remarkably similar to the Queen Mother's. Just a year apart in age, they were both daughters of Scottish peers and they grew up in the same circles, often meeting. During World War I, both helped out on their father's estates and helped look after wounded men a la Downton Abbey. One key difference, however, was that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon had a somewhat more limited education. Alice actually went to school when she was 12 and studied in Paris before making her debut in 1920. They were both friends of their future husbands' sister Mary Princess Royal. While Elizabeth went on to marry the future King George VI at the age of 22, Alice went around the world. She lived for a time in South Africa, Kenya (even learning Swahili), and India. Along the way, she went on safaris, helped run her uncle's farm, painted watercolors, skied, and even recovered from malaria. It was a jam-packed existence, but by the time she reached her mid-30s, she was ready for something else. In her own words, she felt it was she did something "useful" with her life.

Enter a tall, handsome prince: Prince Henry, The Duke of Gloucester, third son of King George VI. Their lives had crossed path many times; she was his sister's friend and he considered her brother his best friend, but in that summer of 1935, something changed. A glittering wedding was planned for Westminster Abbey but the venue was changed to the Chapel Royal at Buckingham Palace when Alice's father, the Duke of Buccleuch died shortly before the day. Nevertheless Alice showed her own sense of spirit and fashion, wearing a pink wedding gown designed by Norman Hartnell. After the abdication crisis of 1936, the Gloucesters took on more royal duties, and did not start their own family until 1941 when their first son Prince William of Gloucester was born shortly before her 40th birthday. Prince Richard of Gloucester followed in 1944.  For the next 30 years, the couple raised their children and supported first King George and then Queen Elizabeth in any way they could, spending two years living in Australia, where he served as Governor General. Their domestic bliss was shattered in 1972, when their dashing oldest son was killed in a plane crash.

Less than two years later, the Duke died and the title passed to their younger son Prince Richard, who is still the Duke of Gloucester. Even in widowhood, Alice showed her own style. Under royal protocol, she should have been called HRH The Dowager Duchess of Gloucester, but she didn't care to be called a dowager nor did she wish to be confused with her daughter-in-law, the new duchess. She also wanted to be treated more equally with her royal sister-in-law, The Dowager Duchess of Kent, who was HRH Princess Marina (but who had been a princess before she married King George V's youngest son. She asked The Queen if she could be called HRH Princess Alice. It was unprecedented, but Elizabeth granted this favor to her beloved aunt. As Princess Alice, she carried at hundreds of royal engagements, well into her 90s. She was 98 when it was announced that she would only keep engagements within the confines of Kensington Palace where she lived her last years with her son and his wife. For her 100th birthday, The Queen and other members of the Royal Family gathered at Kensington to celebrate with a military parade.

For more about Princess Alice, you may read her own memoirs, revised and republished in 1991 as Memories of a Royal Life or visit her biography on The Official Website of the British Monarchy.

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