The Snow Queen: Astrid Of Belgium’s Appeal

The birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid Sofia Lovisa Thyra of Sweden in Stockholm on 17th November 1905, was a cause for celebration. As the third daughter of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland the brother of the popular Swedish King Gustav V, and his glamorous wife, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark, Astrid was born into a life of immense privilege, but with it, also came certain expectations, such as the idea that when she married, it would most probably be for dynastic reasons, like the union of parents, which though happy, as her mother admitted, ‘I married a complete stranger!’

Her childhood at Arvfurstens palats was an idyllic one, and Astrid, along with her siblings Princesses Margaretha and Märtha, as well as Prince Carl, who was born in 1911, was adored by her parents and the household’s staff,  so much so, that the family’s cook created ‘Princess Cake,’ for the youngsters – a cream covered sponge wrapped in green marzipan, which has since become a national favourite.

Considered as a potential bride for the Prince of Wales, it was announced that Astrid was to marry Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium in September 1929, with the Belgian Queen Elisabeth declaring to news reporters who had gathered outside the Royal Palace of Brussels, ‘It is a marriage of love…tell it to our people. Nothing was arranged. Not a single political consideration prevailed in our son’s decision.’ Continue reading

The New Mrs Simpson: Zsuzsi Starkloff And Prince William

On 28th August 1972, at the Goodyear International Air Trophy at Halfpenny Green Airport, in the village of Bobbington, Staffordshire, a crowd of nearly 30,000 people had gathered to watch a dashing pilot put on a skilled display in his Piper Cherokee. Within minutes of take-off, the aircraft began to lose altitude at an alarming rate; clipping a tree, one of its wings was torn off, causing it to crash before it was engulfed by flames.

Horrified spectators raced towards the burning wreckage, but were overcome by the heat, leaving the pilot and his single passenger trapped inside and facing certain death. The passenger was Vyrell Mitchell, an experienced airman and demonstrator pilot who had worked for Piper Aircraft since 1967; the pilot, Prince William of Gloucester, also a highly competent aviator, was ninth in line to the British throne.

Born in Hadley Common, Hertfordshire on 18th December 1941, William was the son of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, the daughter of John Montagu Douglas Scott, the 7th Duke of Buccleuch. As a member of the Royal Family, he served as a page boy for the wedding of his cousin, The Princess Elizabeth, when she married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on 20th November 1947 and also attended her coronation on 2nd June 1953.

Above: Prince William prepares for the Royal Wedding (1947)

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Against The Wind: The Bluster Of James Robertson Justice

A man of many considerable talents, if anyone personified the phrase ‘a life well-lived,’ it would James Robertson Justice. Despite an elaborately concocted tale about how he entered the world in a whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye, Justice was born in Lee, South London on 15th June 1907, to a geologist from Aberdeenshire and his English wife. Throughout his childhood, Justice spent little time with his father, who often worked abroad for months at a time and though Justice senior eschewed his Scottish heritage, his son embraced it as a way to feel closer to his absent parent.

After attending Marlborough College, where he was placed a disappointing 68th out of 89 in his year, Justice briefly read sciences at University College, London before deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps and study geology at Bonn University in Germany. He would later say that he had not only completed his degree at UCL, but had also been awarded a doctorate at Bonn, both of which were untrue. Returning to England, he took a job as a reporter for Reuters and became a colleague of Ian Fleming, but his journalistic career soon fell flat, in small part because he frequently insisted on arriving for work in his pyjamas and dressing gown.

Easily bored and consumed by wanderlust, Justice decided to travel to Canada where he worked as a lumberjack and a gold-miner; yet he was soon eager to return to Britain and paid for his journey home by washing dishes aboard a Dutch cargo ship. Back in London, he embarked upon a new venture as an ice-hockey player for the London Lions; it lasted for one season until he turned his attention to motor-racing. Continue reading

Noblesse Oblige: The Last Of The Mitfords

‘I had letters from you & the Lady (Nancy) & Henderson (Jessica) today, wouldn’t it be dread if one had a) no sisters b) sisters who didn’t write.’        

– Deborah Cavendish to her sister Diana Mosley, July 1965

‘Debo’ as she was known to her loved ones, was always willing to correspond with those wanting to talk to her about her remarkable relatives, and her extraordinary life as the Duchess of Devonshire. With the laying to rest today of Her Grace, in the ducal churchyard at Edensor, the iconic Mitford sisters who came to occupy an almost mythical space in British culture are no more.

In reading the host of obituaries following the death last Wednesday of Deborah Freeman-Mitford, at the age of 94, a more genuine picture of the bonds that united the Mitfords in the face of Fascism, Communism, war and death, emerges from their own personal recollections. The sisters resist any contemporary comparison, because of their background and upbringing within a uniquely select world, one evolving for a thousand years then finding itself undergoing a period of rapid decline.

It was to be a process of radical political change in England, with which history will always associate the Mitford name. As was common in those of their class, the sisters wrote to each other for the duration of their lives, on occasion penning correspondence to their siblings several times a day. Offering a unique record of an age gone by 12,000 letters survive, presenting a profound insight into how their experiences of life in their childhood homes, would shape destinies subject to public notoriety and historical fascination ever since. What also emerges from their letters is the constant role of Debo as peacemaker, the preserver of a pastoral idyll tarnished and faded by crisis. In the life ahead of her she would need all the compassion and tact for which she would become renowned.

The Honourable Deborah Vivien was born on 31st March 1920, the youngest child of what were by then Lord and Lady Redesdale, of Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford and his wife Sydney Bowles. Debo’s elder siblings were Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity and Jessica. Known as Decca, Jessica had been born three years earlier at the sprawling Batsford House estate in Gloucestershire. Batsford was the home of Algernon Bertram ‘Barty’ Freeman-Mitford, David’s father with whom Sydney and their children lived after David joined up in 1914, the family having previously moved around various parts of London and Wiltshire. Continue reading