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Diana, Princess of Wales, lived her life as she was born on 1 July 1961: amid intrigue, ambition, privilege, passion, pain and pleasure. Throughout it all, she would be pulled in many different directions, some of them diametrically opposed. She believed that this conflict started before her birth. "I was a disappointment. My parents were hoping for a boy. They were so sure I'd be a boy they hadn't even thought of a [girl's] name for me." She was finally registered as the Honourable Diana Frances Spencer, named after the eighteenth-century Lady Diana Spencer, who nearly married Frederick, Prince of Wales, and after her own mother, Frances.
In yet another show of what she took to be her diminished status as a girl, Diana, who later developed a heightened interest in status as a result, was the only one of her siblings to be christened without a royal godparent. On 30 August 1961, unlike her eldest sister, Sarah, whose godmother was Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, or her elder sister, Jane, whose godfather was the Duke of Kent, or her younger brother, who would boast the Queen as his godmother, Diana had to content herself with the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk's wife, Lady Mary Colman; her cousin Alexander (Sandy) Gilmour, younger brother of Tory baronet and life peer Ian Gilmour; Christie's chairman, John Floyd; and two neighbors, Sarah Pratt and Carol Fox.
If her parents stamped her with the mentality of a victim, Viscount and Viscountess Althorp had no intention of doing so. They were merely hoping for the heir to the Spencer earldom held by Johnnie Althorp's father, Jack, the 7th Earl Spencer. Along with the earldom came a fortune of some $140,000,000 in present-day terms. This consisted of a portfolio of stocks and shares and Althorp House, which is one of the most beautiful stately homes in England. Built in 1508, it was modernized by Henry Holland, the Prince Regent's architect, who added the white brick facade which gives the house its shimmering lightness. Set in its own 600-acre park and surrounded by a 13,000-acre estate, Althorp House was even more beautiful inside than out. It had vast rooms with magnificent moldings and high ceilings. Blindingly large chandeliers gave light to two of the finest collections in private hands: a houseful of eighteenth-century furniture made by the finest craftsmen of the day, and wall after wall of portraits and landscapes painted by such masters as Van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Kneller, Reynolds.
Under the English rule of primogeniture, titles passed from father to son, with the estates entailed upon (legally restricted to) the title. If Frances did not provide a son and heir, after Johnnie's death the earldom and all the wealth accompanying it would therefore pass to his cousin Bobby Spencer. Johnnie's daughters would not even have a right to stay in Althorp House any more, and their inheritance would be limited to the savings from the earldom's income that their father had managed to accumulate in his lifetime. To Johnnie Spencer, it was unthinkable that he would leave his daughters in relative penury.
For that reason, Johnnie Althorp was preoccupied with having a son. Although he loved the seven-pound eleven-ounce baby Diana, and she would always remain his favorite child, he steered Frances to Harley Street as soon as she was on her feet. "He wanted to find out what was wrong with her," Diana later said, while her brother, Charles, maintains that the stress of this quest for a son was what ruined his parents' marriage.
Like most of the Spencers, Johnnie took great pride in his heritage. The Spencers were originally businessmen who made a fortune out of the quick transportation of sheep to the cities in the fifteenth century. Sheep farmers were the computer billionaires of their day, and by 1508 the ambitious John Spencer had managed to acquire the title Sir and to build Althorp House. Thereafter, there was no stopping the Spencers. They remained rich, married well, and gradually climbed up the peerage. One became Earl of Sunderland, another the Duke of Marlborough when his uncle, only son and heir to the great John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, died. The result was that the Churchill family are not really Churchills at all, but Spencers who added the surname Churchill to their own.
There was another, less fortunate, result of the marriage of the Churchill heiress to the Earl of Sunderland. The Churchills were so much more famous and eminent that the Spencers became the secondary branch of their own family, and even lost their earldom, which was absorbed in the dukedom of Marlborough and has subsequently been used by the eldest son of the duke's heir, the Marquis of Blandford.
That loss notwithstanding, the Spencers flourished throughout the eighteenth century. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, the great duke's widow, had for many years been regarded as Queen Anne's closest friend and lover. She was therefore used to wielding power, not only as a result of her husband's position as the most famous general in the world, but also because of her own political influence. One of the richest women in England, she offered the cash-strapped King George II 100,000 [pounds sterling] (about $50 million today) for the hand of his son and heir Frederick, Prince of Wales, for her favorite granddaughter Diana Spencer. Although the Prime Minister forbade the marriage, thereafter the Spencers remained close to the throne, enabled in no small measure by the vast fortune Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, left to her favorite grandson, the second Spencer grandson who lost out on the titles of Sunderland and Marlborough.
Thereafter, generation after generation of Spencers were appointed equerries and ladies-in-waiting to royalty, culminating with Diana, Princess of Wales's father being an equerry to King George VI and, later, to Queen Elizabeth II, and her grandmother Cynthia, Countess Spencer, being a Lady of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's Bedchamber as well as the love of the then Prince of Wales's life before she accepted Diana's grandfather Jack Spencer's proposal of marriage in 1919.
When Diana's brother, Charles, the present Earl Spencer, made his funeral oration lambasting the Royal Family and stating that his sister needed "no royal title" to weave her particular brand of magic, commentators decreed that his contempt for the throne was a Spencer tradition, in keeping with the indifference to royalty which the great Whig aristocrats had traditionally displayed. The evidence does not support that contention. For the two hundred and fifty years that separated the abortive and the successful Diana Spencers' possible assumption of the position of Princess of Wales, the Spencer family was assiduous in cultivating any link that brought them closer to the throne. They understood that the fount of all honor and privilege was the Crown. And they did their utmost to garner as much of its prestige for themselves as possible. Nor did they fuss whether the connection was legitimate or illegitimate. They therefore took pride in the fact that Lady Georgiana Spencer, who became the most glamorous female of her day as the celebrated Duchess of Devonshire, had a long affair with the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and gave birth to his child. They took greater pride in being descended five times from King Charles II, even though four of those lines of descent were illegitimate, and when the second Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1981, they were thrilled that it was through them that Stuart blood was being reintroduced into the royal line.
Yet it was not the Spencers at all who actually ensured that Lady Diana Spencer was placed upon the road to royalty. Credit for that rests with Frances's parents, Lord and Lady Fermoy, whose proximity to the throne was based on personal, not courtly, relationships. And they were altogether a more interesting and accomplished couple than any of the Spencers.
Maurice Burke Roche, the 4th Baron Fermoy, was the son of an American heiress named Fanny (Frances) Work and the Honourable James Roche, later the 3rd Baron. The Roches were an exceedingly good-looking family, with two of the most beautiful ancestral homes in Ireland--Cahirguillamore and Kilshanning--but, through high-living and gambling, they had dissipated their fortune and would have been completely broke had the 2nd Baron's heir not married Frank Work's daughter in the late nineteenth century.
Frank Work was one of New York's most successful stockbrokers of the day, with clients such as the Vanderbilts and Astors. Unfortunately for the Roches, he loathed foreigners and cut Fanny out of his will when she married one, reinstating her only after she left her husband in 1891 and returned home with her two young sons in tow. His proviso while doing so was that she cease using her titled married name and agree not to return to Europe for the remainder of her life. He then carried this interdict further, and left her twin sons, Maurice (the Princess of Wales's grandfather, the 4th Baron Fermoy) and Francis, portions of his fortune only if they became American citizens and remained in the United States for the remainder of their lives.
When Frank Work died, however, his Harvard-educated grandsons overturned his will through the courts. Maurice, who became the 4th Lord Fermoy in 1921, then returned to live in England with the $3,000,000 which he had inherited from his indomitable but controlling grandfather. He avoided Ireland, which was on its way to full independence from Britain, settling in England, which was then at the pinnacle of its power and prestige. Only too soon, he struck up a friendship with King George V's second son, Bertie, the Duke of York, who became King George VI in 1936. So close did they become that the King leased Maurice Park House, a ten-bedroomed-house on the Sandringham Estate which his father, King Edward VII, had built to accommodate the overflow of guests on shoots. Maurice was now literally living on royal property as a friend and neighbor of the King and his son. With his money and international panache, he fitted well into the upper echelons of British society, especially after becoming Conservative Member of Parliament for King's Lynn, something that was possible because he was an Irish peer with no rights to sit in the House of Lords.
Maurice's wife, Ruth, was the perfect foil for him. Although the product of a middle-class background her father was a Colonel from Bieldside in bleek Aberdeen in the North of Scotland--the former Miss Gill was bright and beautiful. The famous flautist Richard Adeney knew her well and remembers "her perfectly symmetrical face and huge eyes. She was awfully nice. Very, very nice." She was also a gifted musician. According to the Scots photographer and socialite Brodrick Haldane, "I knew her before her marriage. In those days, she was far more free-wheeling than she later became. She was wonderfully talented, both as a singer and a pianist. She was at the Paris Conservatoire, and was very highly rated."
It was while Ruth was a student at the Paris Conservatoire of Music that she met Maurice Fermoy. She was more than twenty-five years his junior, but that did not prevent her from encouraging this rich and urbane nobleman with royal friends. In a day and age when women were reared to marry well, this ambitious young woman understood that marriage to Lord Fermoy would be a definite step up in the world. And so, at twenty, she married him and went on to have a wonderful life in the lap of luxury. She produced three children and had something no Spencer had managed for hundreds of years: a happy marriage. She also made a useful contribution to the world of music, founding the King's Lynn Festival after the Second World War and importing musical friends such as Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Richard Adeney to perform. She continued living beside the Sovereign until she was widowed, at which point she turned over the lease of Park House to her son-in-law, Johnnie Althorp, so that he and Frances and their children could enjoy the advantage of genuine proximity to the Royal Family.
Ruth, Lady Fermoy, was more than just Diana's grandmother. She played a pivotal role in raising Diana to royal status, and in sowing the seeds that would ultimately destroy this granddaughter who accomplished all the dreams and ambitions her Spencer forebears had held for themselves. "She always had a strong character," Brodrick Haldane told me. "She was never grand, but she became frightfully correct. She knew the rules and played by them." Richard Adeney remembers an instance which highlights that. "She knew what was appropriate. She could be very relaxed, but she also knew when to stand on her dignity. I remember once I was in King's Lynn eating an ice cream on the street. She came by with some royals. We agreed through eye contact that it would be more suitable for her to pass by without us acknowledging each other. To me, that summarized how impeccably mannered she was. It would just have been awkward for her, for the royals, and for me if she'd acknowledged me. She really did have the most exquisite manners."
Appointed a Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1956, Ruth functioned in a world where breeding and good behavior were all-important. While she could adopt the latter, there was no way she could invent the former. Her family was neither grand nor impressive. In fact, the only thing that put them beyond the ordinary was the secret they kept hidden. This was that her great-great grandmother Eliza Kewark was a dark-skinned native of Bombay who had lived, without benefit of matrimony, with her great-great-grandfather Theodore Forbes while he worked for the East India Company. Unsavory as the taint of illegitimacy was, even at that distance in time, it was nothing compared with the stigma of what was then known as "colored blood." Had it been generally known that Ruth and her children were part-Indian, they might never have made good marriages. Eliza's true race was therefore expunged from the family tree and she reemerged as an Armenian. This fiction was maintained even when Diana married the Prince of Wales.
Of all Diana's grandparents, Ruth was the strongest and most resourceful. A good friend of the Queen Mother's since her days as the Duchess of York, Diana's grandmother was as status-conscious as her granddaughter would become. She appreciated that there was no better position to occupy in British society than that of an adjunct to the Royal Family. She and her socialite husband worked to maintain the royal link, never putting a foot wrong in their conduct. While Maurice was alive and their children young enough to be living at home, the Fermoys were rewarded with invitations from the King and Queen on a regular basis--especially during the shooting season, between the Glorious Twelfth of August and the end of February, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in residence at Sandringham House. Then, invitations flowed from the "Big House" for shooting parties and to tea and dinner, for the children as well as Ruth and Maurice, who was such an integral member of the King's circle that he was present on the shoot the day before George VI died in his sleep in February 1952. Although the Spencers were undoubtedly a grander family in terms of lineage and wealth, in terms of a close royal connection they were easily outstripped by the Fermoys: It was one thing to attend upon the Royal Family in an official capacity as an equerry or lady-in-waiting, but quite another to take part in their everyday lives as personal friends.
No one lives in an environment without absorbing its written and unwritten rules, and this was especially true of people in Court circles. It was heady stuff being around the royals. Whilst you were in their actual presence, you were waited on hand and foot and treated as if you were an extension of royalty yourself. And when you were away from them, everyone who knew of your connection courted you in the hope that some of the reflected glory of royalty would run off on them. This was, and is, the way of life in royal courts, and both Johnnie and Frances, who were reared in this atmosphere, knew the score. They understood that there was a lot more to the royal way than wearing formal attire to funerals, silk dresses for tea, and white tie and tiaras at state balls. Both before they were married and afterwards, they had to live lives that seemed to be above criticism. They must be invariably polite. They must never gossip about the Royal Family. Any problems they had, must be kept hidden away. Life in royal circles had to seem to be perfect.
Of course, both Johnnie and Frances grew up seeing what happens when even the mighty fall out of favor. They witnessed at first hand how ruthlessly the Royal Family and their courtiers closed ranks to cast Edward VIII out of the hallowed circle when he dared to try to swap the top job for the secondary one of royal duke upon abdication. They could not have remained ignorant of how quickly the disgraced King's nemesis (and Private Secretary) Alex Hardinge followed him into the abyss when he managed to work his way onto the wrong side of Queen Elizabeth. The royal way was one of absolutes. You were absolutely in or absolutely out. You were absolutely spotless or absolutely sullied. There were no half-measures, and while people frequently failed to measure up to the standard in their private lives, fallibility was fine as long as no one saw any evidence of it.
Johnnie Spencer and Ruth Fermoy showed the extent of their ambition, and their courtiers' mentalities, when the Prince of Wales displayed a romantic interest in Diana's older sister Sarah in 1977. "When Lady Sarah Spencer started going out with the Prince of Wales, you could see how elated her whole family was," a lady with senior connections at the Palace said. "This was their chance finally to acquire a legitimate royal connection." Sarah, however, was in the midst of fighting a battle with anorexia nervosa, which left her without the emotional resources to cope with a prince who blew hot one day and cold the next. In an attempt to jerk his chain, she made the mistake of speaking to the press about her feelings, ending up by declaring that she would marry only a man she loved, whether he was a "prince or a dustman." Charles, who had an abiding loathing of the tabloids and one inflexible rule--you're out on your ear if you speak to the papers--promptly dumped her. Neither her father nor her grandfather let their loyalty to their flesh and blood get in the way of their relationship with the future King of England. Sarah must pay the price for her indiscretion.
Although Sarah blew her chance of an alliance with a royal, her twenty-one-year-old sister Jane--"so plain even a mouse would look like Joan Collins beside her," said a relation--did the family proud the following year, in April 1978, when she married thirty-six-year-old Robert Fellowes. The son of the Queen's Land Agent at Sandringham, Sir William Fellowes, he was Her Majesty's Assistant Private Secretary. Although the most junior of the three Private Secretaries, he was nevertheless well placed in Court circles. The family was exultant. "The marriage meant that invitations would be coming through two separate conduits: Ruth Fermoy in Queen Elizabeth [the Queen Mother]'s household and Robert Fellowes in the Queen's," a royal private secretary said. "It was no secret that Robert Fellowes was ambitious." Time has shown that assessment to be accurate. In 1986 he was appointed Deputy Private Secretary to the Queen, and in 1990 Private Secretary.
Robert Fellowes and Jane Spencer were married in splendor at the Guards Chapel opposite Buckingham Palace. Their wedding reception was held at St. James's Palace. After the honeymoon, the newlyweds returned home to Kensington Palace, where they still live at the time of this writing. Diana was as happy as the rest of the family for Jane's coup. Thanks to Jane's new position as the wife of one of the most influential courtiers at Buckingham Palace, her--and their--ambitions were that much nearer being realized.
Up to that point, all of them harbored ambitions that Diana might one day marry Prince Andrew, whose photograph she had kept beside her bed throughout her years at West Heath School, as one of her schoolmates confirms. The prospect of a union between Andrew and Diana was more than mere idle fantasy, though there was no certainty that it would ever materialize. Marriages between the Royal Family and aristocrats were never arranged. They were simply encouraged. That meant that the courtiers had somehow to ignite the particular royal's interest for matrimony to follow. The Spencer family was so convinced that Diana would end up as the consort of the Duke of York (the title customarily bestowed upon the Sovereign's second son) that they nicknamed her Duchess, or Duch for short. For the rest of her life, Diana's sisters and her closest friends, including Sarah, Duchess of York, called her Duch.
Diana and Andrew had a history which the Spencers found hopeful. Andrew, who was a year older than Diana, and his younger brother, Edward, had been friendly with Diana and her younger brother, Charles, when they were children and she was living at Park House, first with both her parents and, after their separation in 1967, with her father. Although the family vacated Park House upon Johnnie's accession to the Spencer earldom in 1975, three years was not so large a gap that Andrew would have forgotten Diana. Yet it was big enough to lend a spark of excitement. They hoped that all she needed to do was visit her sister and be visible before her rangy attractiveness caught the eye of the girl-crazy second son of the Queen. Then she just might become the Duchess of York.
In the interim, Diana's family issued invitations which put her in the royal line of vision and "talked her up," as one courtier told me, "so that the Royal Family, Queen Elizabeth [the Queen Mother] especially, would push her into Prince Andrew's path when the time for marriage came."
The best-laid plans come a cropper, but seldom with such unexpected improvement. In July 1980, the Prince of Wales, who barely knew Diana when she was a little girl, became reacquainted with her at the Sussex house of a distant cousin of mine. Commander Robert de Pass is a member of the Royal Household and his wife, Philippa, is one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting. Diana was a friend of his son, Philip, whom she had met via that most exclusive of circles, the courtiers' network. Diana, reared from birth to captivate any royal who might fly into her patch, acquitted herself in exemplary fashion. "She moved me," Charles later confided to a friend.
Could it really be that Diana might be able to pull off the unimaginable and become the Princess of Wales? "Like a well-trained army, Diana's family closed ranks," a courtier told me at the time of the divorce. "The Queen and the Prince of Wales still cannot believe that not one member of Diana's family tipped them off about how unsuited she was to the life ahead of her." Ruth, Lady Fermoy, later told a friend, "I had reservations about how Diana would cope. To my lasting regret, I kept them to myself."
This was not surprising. Had the Royal Family understood how ambitious both the Spencers and Ruth Fermoy were, they might well have listened less as Ruth encouraged Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to push the young lovers ever closer, and Diana's own family talked Ruth out of the misgivings she had. "The Prince feels that they let him fall into a trap," one of his cousins told me.
The trap, however, was not Charles's alone, but Diana's as well. And he at least has survived it, while Diana lies in isolation on a tiny island called The Oval near Althorp House.
Posted February 16, 2009
Posted July 11, 2014
I had always been a fan of Princess Diana. This book reveals a lot of things I never knew about her; some of them negative. I'm glad I took the time to read it now I have a more realistic view of the woman instead of the idealized princess.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 27, 2014
No text was provided for this review.