As Meghan Markle prepares to spend her first Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham, her fiancé’s grandmother may recall fondly her own early Christmases at the much-loved Norfolk estate. One such occasion the Queen would be unable to remember, however, is her first one, in 1926, when she was just eight months old.
Christmas 1926 was special in several ways. Until that year, Princess Elizabeth’s grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, had spent the winter months in York Cottage, a smaller house on the Sandringham estate. Its size caused Queen Victoria to ask their children when they were young, ‘Do some of you sleep in the garden or on the roof?’ The ‘Big House’ was occupied by the King’s widowed mother, the Dowager Queen Alexandra, until her death in November 1925, after which the King and Queen enjoyed moving in, spreading out and refurbishing their new residence during 1926.
Also that Christmas they were joined by all their sons: the eldest, known as David, the Prince of Wales; the Princess’s father Bertie, Duke of York, with his wife, Elizabeth; Prince Henry, recovering from having his tonsils removed at the age of 26; and Prince George, whose presence was particularly welcome because he was home after nearly two years serving with the Royal Navy in the Far East. Only their sister Princess Mary was absent, spending Christmas with her husband Viscount Lascelles and their two young sons at their home in Yorkshire; and unusually the King’s two sisters were not there. During the holiday and into the New Year the family were joined by other guests, enjoying shooting and a Hunt Ball.
For the Duke and Duchess of York, however, the Christmas festivities were overshadowed by the knowledge that on 6 January 1927 they would be embarking on their six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand and leaving the Princess behind, her care to be divided between her mother’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and the King and Queen. But for now they tried to enjoy the time they had. The family’s ritual began, as it always did, on Christmas Eve with the distribution of beef to the estate workers. In the chilly coachhouse they collected their gifts, wrapped in white towels, from large tables decorated with holly. On Christmas morning, the family walked across to Sandringham church, which was followed by an exchange of presents in the ballroom. Each person had their own length of table on which the presents were laid out, separated by a line of pink tape. Lady Wigram, wife of the King’s private secretary, noted that the Queen gave the King a picture of the carriage procession at Ascot, and the King gave her a large brooch containing all the regimental badges of the Brigade of Guards. The Prince of Wales received twelve corks for wine bottles, each decorated with his feathers in silver. Among the gifts Lady Wigram herself received were a Kashmir shawl, an antique tea-caddy made of tortoiseshell and an ashtray. A photo of the Princess was a popular gift from the Duke and Duchess of York, who had commissioned a new set of pictures just weeks earlier.
For the Christmas dinner, which was eaten in the evening, the King and Queen gave orders that everything should come from within the Empire. The menu that year was:
Fried fillets of sole
Braised York ham with spinach
Roast Norfolk turkey stuffed with chestnuts
Bowls of Christmas roses and scarlet crackers adorned the table, and everyone except the King wore paper hats; the Queen’s was a mitre, David’s a penguin’s head, and the Duchess of York’s a poke bonnet. After dinner the Princes and the Duchess sang music hall songs, known for their earthiness, in a low tone, which the King at the other end of the room mistook fondly for Christmas carols. He in turn played his favourite tunes on the gramophone, making them all spring to attention when they realised he was playing the National Anthem, and laughed loudly at his own joke.
Of the Princess herself that Christmas, little was recorded. In the care of her devoted nurse, Clara Knight, known as Alah, she would have been brought in at designated times and petted by the company, especially her adoring grandfather. At that stage she was only third in line to the throne and too young to merit any specific mention in the Court Circular, and her mother wanted her kept out of the public eye as much as possible. But the Duchess of York, like her husband, enthusiastically supported Britain’s businesses and knew the benefit that a royal endorsement could bring. Just before Christmas, there was a small ceremony at Bruton Street, London, home of the Strathmores and the Princess’s birthplace. The Duchess was presented with a silver porringer (a type of bowl) for the baby, on behalf of Britain’s silversmiths and goldsmiths. Although the Duchess eschewed anything that was frivolously luxurious or self-indulgent, this had a silver and ivory coronet, which made it a royal piece and thus acceptable. The craftsmen hoped that it might find its way ‘upon the breakfast table of the first baby in the land, and may even be banged imperiously on the table by her infant hands,’ said The Times. As for family presents, the Queen had been seen in Harrods before Christmas buying large dolls, undoubtedly for her granddaughter, and the miniature pieces of which she was famously fond soon formed a sizeable portion of the Princess’s toy collection.
A Christmas tradition that had not yet started was the Sovereign’s speech. Although in 1924 George V was the first monarch in history whose voice was broadcast (from the British Empire Exhibition) and heard by millions, he resisted all requests to make a Christmas speech until 1932. By then Princess Elizabeth was six and listened dutifully with the family. No-one knew then that one day she would become Queen and continue the tradition – just one of those into which Meghan Markle will soon be initiated.
Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain. Her next book is Princess: the early life of Elizabeth II, to be published in 2018 by Globe Pequot (US and Canada)