Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Princess Lilian, Duchess of Halland

Bells are tolling and flags are flying at half mast in Stockholm for the most unlikely member of the country's royal family

A life the most romantic novelist might reject as excessively far fetched, which began in 1915 in a tiny terrace house in Swansea, has ended in front-page news on the Swedish royal family's official website, with flags flying at half mast across Sweden and bells tolling in mourning for the outsider who became a much loved princess.

Lilian Davies, a soldier's daughter from a coalmining family in Swansea, was largely brought up by her mother, Gladys. She was already exceeding expectations when she moved to London, aged 16. With her dazzling looks, she became a model and an actress, and married a handsome young actor, Ivan Craig.

In 1943, in a nightclub, she met an even more handsome young prince, and her life changed forever.

The offical portrait on the royal website of a stately, elderly woman with a magnificent head of immaculately dressed white hair, wearing an impeccably cut lilac suit and discreetly expensive gold jewellery, looks every inch a royal.

The short announcement gave away nothing of her extraordinary backstory: "Princess Lilian passed away on Sunday March 10 at the age of 97", it read. "Princess Lilian died peacefully during the afternoon at her home on Djurgården in Stockholm. Princess Lilian was married to Prince Bertil, The King's uncle."

Princess Lilian and Prince Bertil were indeed married – in 1976 when they had already been living together discreetly for more than 30 years in France, and she was safely too old to have children.

In a rare television interview before their marriage, as the couple sat holding hands on a sofa, Bertil said: "There is one thing maybe that we regret: that we have not been able to get married before so that we haven't been able to have children. That's something that's rather sad."

He gave a huge, rueful shrug, turned to her, and said: "But after all, we're still very happy, aren't we?" "Very," she said firmly, "very happy."

When they married, on a cold December day in 1976, in a royal chapel at the Drottningholm palace, he was 64 and she was 61.

They met first in the smoky glamour of Les Ambassadeurs nightclub. According to her memoirs, My Life With Prince Bertil, published in Swedish in 2000, when told the man staring at her across the dance floor was His Royal Highness Prince Bertil of Sweden, she responded: "And I'm the Queen of Sheba."

Though she liked him enough to invite to her 28th birthday cocktail party, Lilian later recalled that their relationship only began when a bomb fell near her flat in Knightsbridge, and he came to rescue her in a Swedish embassy car.

Her husband had also met somebody else, and they were divorced. But, as with Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson a decade earlier, the fact that Lilian was not merely a commoner but also a divorcee made it impossible for her to be accepted in royal circles. Her situation became worse when Bertil's eldest brother died in a plane crash, leaving a one-year-old as heir and the prince third in line to the Swedish throne.

When Bertil eventually won permission for them to marry, unlike Wallis Simpson she was given the royal titles of princess, and Duchess of Halland in southern Sweden. But the titles did not bring instant acceptance: she recalled waving to her husband on the television screen as he attended a annual Nobel prize banquet to which she had not been invited.

However, her charm and liveliness won over both press and public, and after her husband's death, in 1997, she took on much of his charity work, particularly favouring children's and sports charities. A regular guest of honour in blazingly bright silk gowns at the Nobel banquets, she was also renowned for her broad tastes in music, becoming a big fan of Bruce Springsteen and attending one of his concerts in Stockholm at the age of 87.

A Welsh Born Icon if ever I heard.

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