She had been an integral part of the House of Windsor for almost seventy years; she was the oldest ever member of the Royal Family, and she had lived an adventure packed life that broke the regal mould in many ways. The death of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, on October 29th 2004, brought to an end a fascinating and often overlooked royal story. Alice had lived quietly and discreetly, but her role in the Royal Family was vital over seven ever-changing decades.
Princess Alice’s dedication to duty was legendary and had a legend of its own attached to it. In her memoirs, published in 1983, she recounted a life-changing experience which had led her to do all she could to help others. When she was just fourteen, she found herself caught in a strong current in the Solway Firth and prayed for help, promising to devote her life to public service if she survived. She later said that almost straight away, she found rocks which helped her to make her way to shore and then spent years looking for a way to help others until her royal marriage provided her with an opportunity and, as she wrote, ”a very secret pledge was honoured”.
That royal wedding which changed her life forever followed early years which had been a strange mix of the traditional and the unconventional. Born Lady Alice Christabel Montagu Douglas Scott on December 25th 1901, she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing at her family homes in London and Scotland. Her father, John, succeeded as Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry soon after the start of World War One by which time Alice was attending St. James’ School For Girls in West Malvern. After her time there, she enjoyed a stay in Paris before being presented at court soon after turning 18. So far, so very conventional.
However, Alice was never afraid of showing her differences. She described her debut in society, at a ball for King George V and Queen Mary’s only daughter, as ”miserable” and confessed she soon became bored with the seemingly glamourous outings and dances that made up the life of an upper-class young woman. She had also caught the travel bug and her first major trip, to Kenya, resulted in her developing her skills as a painter and selling several works to finance more journeys. Another trip, to India, saw the Duke’s daughter dress up in traditional Afghan clothing and smuggle herself into Afghanistan to experience life among its people.
Alice may well have kept on travelling had her father not fallen ill. She was asked to return to England at the start of 1935 as his health began to fail and, soon afterwards, she renewed her acquaintance with an old friend from her early years, George V’s third son, Prince Henry. Love soon blossomed, and their engagement was announced in August that year with the wedding set for Westminster Abbey in November. However, on October 19th 1935, the Duke of Buccleuch died, and the royal wedding was moved to the private chapel of Buckingham Palace as a mark of respect.
The royal bride began her regal career in a style that would serve her well. Despite her sadness at losing her father, Alice smiled her way through crowd lined streets on her wedding day, November 6th 1935, and proved an instant hit. She was considered an old bride for the time, having reached the ripe old age of 33, and she showed her individuality with her choice of wedding gown. Deciding she was past the age for white, Alice chose a blush coloured bridal dress designed by a certain Norman Hartnell who would become a major part of the Windsor fashion story in the following years.
Henry and Alice, now Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, began married life at Aldershot with every intention of taking a more backstage role in royal life as the prince pursued his army interests. However, just a year after their wedding, the Abdication of King Edward VIII changed everything. They began to take on more engagements and duties to support the new King and Queen, George VI and Elizabeth, with the Duchess of Gloucester adding a wide range of patronages to her royal rota.
During World War Two, Princess Alice joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and became its head in 1943. She was also involved with work for the Red Cross and the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence. The war years also brought change to her family – after two miscarriages, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester celebrated the birth of Prince William in 1941 and Prince Richard in 1944.
Alice took her two young sons to Canberra as the war came to an end when her husband was made Governor-General of Australia, a position he held until 1947. On their return to the UK, Henry and Alice took on further engagements while the Duchess of Gloucester was also Colonel in Chief of several regiments including the Royal Hussars and the Royal Corps of Transport as well as being Patron of the Girl Guides.
She was a permanent fixture at major royal events, always smiling, always calm, always discreetly in the background. But behind palace doors, life proved hard for Alice in her later years. In 1965, her husband lost control of their car as they were returning from Winston Churchill’s funeral and both suffered injuries. The Duke of Gloucester went on to have several strokes in the following years and was so unwell that when their elder son, William, was killed in a plane crash on August 28th 1972, Alice admitted that she hesitated to tell him, writing later that she couldn’t bring herself to break the tragic news to her husband.
Alice continued to lead a busy life as a working royal even after Henry died in 1974, and she also found time to write her memoirs, published in 1983, another royal first. However, in her later years, she began to scale back her role before retiring for good just before she turned 100. That landmark birthday was acknowledged with royal celebrations.
Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester died in her sleep on October 29th 2004. Her contribution to royal life was summed up in a short statement from Buckingham Palace which read “The Queen remembers with gratitude Princess Alice’s service to the monarchy and to the country”. It was a simple but heartfelt tribute to a woman who had embraced royal life and all it brought her with determination while always keeping true to her promise to help others. Alice, the quiet princess, made a big mark on the House of Windsor.