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British Royals

The duchess who has been a constant at The Queen’s side

Queen Camilla continues to maintain a packed diary of royal engagements but with The King stepping back from public engagements as he is treated for cancer, another royal has been at Her Majesty’s side for many of her duties. In recent day, the Duchess of Gloucester has been a constant at The Queen’s side. It’s put a new spotlight on this discreet duchess. But in reality, this HRH has been a hard working royal for decades.

Birgitte Eva Henriksen was born on 20 June 1946 in Odense, Denmark, the youngest child of Asger Preben Wissing Henriksen and Vivian van Deurs. When her parents separated in 1966, Birgitte took her mother’s maiden name of van Deurs.

She was educated in Odense, and at finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, before arriving in Cambridge. It was in Cambridge that she met her future husband, Prince Richard of Gloucester, who was attending the University of Cambridge and reading architecture.

She returned to Denmark to pursue a three-year diploma in Commercial and Economic Studies and returned to London in 1971, where she worked at the Royal Danish Embassy.

In February 1972, her engagement to Prince Richard was announced, and on 8 July, the couple were married in a low-key ceremony at St Andrew’s Church in Northamptonshire. It was such a quiet affair that the Queen didn’t attend, the media wasn’t invited, and the ceremony wasn’t televised.

At the time, the couple wasn’t expecting that they would become the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Prince Richard had studied architecture, and seemed poised to make that his career, while he and his wife lived as lesser-known members of the Royal Family.

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On her wedding day, Birgitte was styled as Princess Richard of Gloucester. She held that title for just over seven weeks.

On 28 August, Prince William, the heir to the Gloucester dukedom, was killed in a flying accident at the Goodyear International Air Trophy competition near Wolverhampton. He was 30 years old at the time (and so close to the Prince of Wales that the Duke of Cambridge is named after him).

The Duke of Gloucester, Prince Henry, was in such poor health by this time – too ill to even attend the wedding, only attending the reception afterwards – that his wife hesitated to tell him about his son’s death. She wrote in her memoirs later that she did not, but allowed that it was possible the Duke learned about it elsewhere, perhaps television coverage.

This propelled Prince and Princess Richard into higher profiles than they’d anticipated, and when Prince Richard succeeded his father as the Duke of Gloucester in 1974, the couple became full-time working royals who still represent the Queen.

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The Duke and Duchess have three children: Alexander Windsor, Earl of Ulster (heir to the dukedom), Lady Davina Lewis, and Lady Rose Gilman; and six grandchildren. All of whom are in the line of succession.

The Duchess lives with her husband at Kensington Palace.

The Duchess of Gloucester has represented the Queen extensively on overseas tours. Her very first, in 1973, was to Mexico. She also attended birthday celebrations for King Olav of Norway that year.

Since then, she has represented the Queen in Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Luxembourg, Nepal, New Zealand, Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Tonga, Tunisia, and the United States.

She is patron or president of at least 75 charities and organisations, as per the British Royal Family website, including the Royal Academy of Music, Prostate Cancer UK, and the Lawn Tennis Association.

The Duchess of Gloucester has several orders and medals for her service to the Crown and the Queen. In 1973, she was awarded as a Member of the Royal Family Order of Queen Elizabeth II, and in 1989 was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. She has received the Queen’s Silver, Golden, and Diamond Jubilee Medals in 1977, 2002, and 2012.

Her military appointments span the Commonwealth. In Australia, she is Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps; in Bermuda, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Bermuda Regiment; in Canada, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Canadian Dental Corps; and in New Zealand, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal New Zealand Army Educational Corps.

Her domestic military appointments include Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Army Dental Corps, Deputy Colonel-in-Chief of the Adjutant General’s Corps, and Royal Colonel of the 7th (V) Battalion The Rifles.

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The Duchess of Gloucester once reflected on the charitable aspect of British life, stating, “In this country, there is a firmly grounded tradition, and a freedom, to help one’s fellow men in many different forms, and I think we should be proud of that and grateful for it also.”

About author

Jess Ilse is the Assistant Editor at Royal Central. She specialises in the British, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Royal Families and has been following royalty since Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Jess has provided commentary for media outlets in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Jess works in communications and her debut novel THE MAJESTIC SISTERS will publish in Fall 2024.