Having lunch around their kitchen table with the Duchess of Abercorn (‘Do call me Sacha’) and the Duke (‘James is fine’) was as informal and warm as the couple themselves. That they have close connections with the Queen and Prince Philip, and come from old and complex nobility, gave them no airs or graces. I had been interviewing the Duchess in the comfortable library at their home, Baronscourt in Northern Ireland, where I admired a painting which turned out to be by her. Typically modest, she dismissed it as insignificant, but the picture was an example of her diverse talents that she used to great effect, particularly in the area where she lived with Duke after their marriage.
Before she met James, then the Marquis of Hamilton, in 1965 she had never been to Ireland. Staying with friends on Islay in the Hebrides, she would look across to ‘a shape in the mist’ which she thought looked fascinating. ‘Little did I know a major part of my life would be here and all we’ve lived through over these years.’
They married in October 1966, in Westminster Abbey. The Queen and Prince Philip attended, as did her godmother, Princess Marina. The Queen Mother was there too, because Sacha’s mother-in-law, Kathleen Abercorn, was her Mistress of the Robes and they were great friends. Prince Andrew, aged six, was one of her pages. Her husband’s great-great grandmother, Louise, was the matriarch of a huge dynasty whose descendants include Princes William and Harry.
Sacha was born Alexandra Anastasia Phillips in 1946 in Tuscon, Arizona, where her part-Peruvian father, Lt-Col. Harold ‘Bunnie’ Phillips, was recovering from tuberculosis, after working in South America in counter-espionage. Before he married, the handsome, clever, and dashing Bunnie had previously enjoyed a relationship with Edwina, wife of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who tolerated the affair because it made her ‘easier to be around,’ said Pamela Hicks (née Mountbatten) of her mother.
Through her mother Georgina (‘Gina’), née Wernher, Sacha was one of the Romanov family, a great-great-great granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. She was also a great-great-great granddaughter of the legendary Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Sacha’s maternal grandmother was born Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby, known as Zia, a daughter of Grand Duke Michael of Russia. She and her siblings were born in Baden Baden in Germany because their parents’ marriage was morganatic so they had to leave Russia. After the Revolution in 1917, the family gradually established themselves in Britain with help from George V. Sacha’s grandmother Zia married the fabulously wealthy Sir Harold Wernher and had three children: Gina (later Lady Kennard), Myra (now Lady Butter) and Alex, a good friend of Prince Philip, who was killed in World War II. ‘I have a very eclectic mix of blood which, like a chameleon, helps you to fit in anywhere!’ Sacha said.
The root of the family’s relationship with the Queen and Prince Philip was partly Sacha’s great-aunt, the Countess Nadajda (‘Nada’). She married George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven and a descendant of Queen Victoria. George was an uncle of Prince Philip, as was his younger brother, Lord Louis Mountbatten (later 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma). Also, Sacha’s mother Gina and the Queen were lifelong friends and shared a love of horses.
Upon marriage Sacha became the Marchioness of Hamilton and lived between London and Northern Ireland, where James was an Ulster Unionist MP under a moderate party leader. But Northern Ireland in 1966 was not an easy place to be. In 1970 James lost his seat. Sacha was ‘glad because it was impossible to be a moderate in the centre.’ He went on to devote his energies to the regeneration of Belfast.
Sacha found her own calling, born – almost literally – from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Her eldest son, Jamie, arrived in 1969, ‘as Belfast was ablaze, with bombs and incendiaries.’ She trained in psychology, studying Jung, and feared for her daughter Sophie, born in 1973, who began having nightmares ‘about the family being attacked and invaded.’ She agonised about all the children in the country, about the ‘corruptive energy’ that terror causes. ‘It makes people perpetrate the same horrors on others.’
Her experiences, together with inspiration from her ancestor, Pushkin, became the driving force behind her deep involvement with the education of children in Ireland. Pushkin’s work, she discovered, could bring people together in a way that politics could not: ‘the realm of the artist is the place of transformation.’ With help from the Education Board she brought together Catholic and Protestant voices. The charity The Pushkin Trust was formed, which encourages children to express themselves through all art forms and, by engaging with the natural world, through their senses. She took children to Russia and also persuaded the authorities to allow the Trust to work with Russian children. In 2008 she was awarded an OBE, about which she was delighted but characteristically modest.
In 1979 she had her youngest son, Nicholas and also became Duchess. She considered the role deeply and noted that when she visited schools, the children were often disappointed that she was not wearing a long dress and tiara; the fairytale-like drawings they made showed ‘a picture that’s deep within ourselves, an archetype of hierarchy.’ It was ‘not about being self-important,’ but meant being ‘in service to humanity’. For Sacha, the role had ‘immense possibility to help the greater good’. Crucially she believed the word ‘nobility’ was misused. ‘Everyone has that noble spirit in them and that’s what I’m searching for in Pushkin, the nobility of the human being within us all.’
After the Omagh bombing in 1998 she became a director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, which went on to connect to many countries world-wide. In 2006 Sacha was honoured to receive from Prince Albert the Ireland Fund of Monaco Princess Grace Humanitarian Award. Her work with other charities too was tireless.
She herself experienced loss. On 27 August 1979 her godfather Lord Mountbatten and several others were killed when his boat was blown up by the IRA on the coast at Sligo, not far from the Abercorns: they had been out on his boat, Shadow Five, many times. Mountbatten had been staying with them beforehand. His grandson, Nicky Knatchbull, aged fourteen, was among those killed; he was Sacha’s godson. His twin brother, Timmy, was critically injured but survived.
Then in 1991 Sacha’s brother, Nicky, died suddenly, aged forty-three. He lived at the family home Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire, where Sacha had enjoyed her ‘coming out’ party in 1964. Thrown by her grandmother, Zia, ‘a great hostess,’ it was ‘possibly the last of the white tie and tails and tiara evenings.’ After dinner Joe Loss played in the ballroom and guests from all generations mingled in the magical floodlit gardens. Although by then debutantes were no longer presented at court, it made little difference because the Queen attended, with Prince Philip. Over the years, Sacha’s name has often been linked with his. She admitted they were close friends and shared intellectual pursuits but always denied that it went further.
In 2015 Sacha put me in touch with her aunt, Lady Butter, who she thought could assist with my book Princess. It was typical of her kindness and generosity of spirit. The Duchess of Abercorn was an extraordinary woman.
Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (pub. 2014 by Blink, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing), where you can find out more about the Duchess of Abercorn and other duchesses.
Jane’s latest book is Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II (pub. 2018 by Thistle Books UK and Lyons Press USA). It is currently long-listed for the People’s Book Prize 2018. More at www.janedismore.com