This week, the Royal family took to Zoom to pay tribute to nurses around the world on International Nurses Day.
There, squeezed together on screen in a video montage, broadcasting from their separate homes, were the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Princess Royal and the Countess of Wessex.
But who was the distinguished looking figure in the bottom right hand corner of the screen?
Younger royal-watchers might not have recognised Princess Alexandra. But half a century ago, she was one of the most famous royals in the world. Her 1963 wedding to businessman Sir Angus Ogilvy was broadcast on television to an estimated 200 million people, worldwide.
The Queen’s first cousin, and a bridesmaid at her wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947, the princess is also one of her greatest friends and a dedicated working royal, once dubbed the “unsung heroine” of the family, who has carried out thousands of official duties over the years.
Now 83, she was rumoured to be preparing to step down from public life last year, to make way for the younger generation, in rumours dismissed by the Palace. With fewer front-rank royals available, after the Sussexes self-exiled to LA and scandal-hit Prince Andrew had to take a back seat, no wonder Princess Alexandra, 83, took up that hallowed square on the royal Zoom screen.
Today, she is 53rd in the line of succession to the British throne, but when she was born Princess Alexandra Helen Elizabeth Olga Christabel of Kent in 1936, she was sixth. Her father, the Duke of Kent, was one of George VI’s younger brothers; the King was one of her godparents. Her mother, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, was a glamorous, grand figure, daughter of Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark and Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia, granddaughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia.
“If you were a royal-watcher standing in the street, there’s no one you’d like to see more than her,” says Hugo Vickers, biographer of the Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor. “She’s a sort of national treasure. She’s the genuine article: the most royal of all of them – the daughter of a British prince and a princess with Greek and Russian royal blood.”
一本道理不卡一二三区Princess Alexandra, and her brothers the Duke of Kent and Prince Michael of Kent, became tragically more prominent in the public eye in 1942 when their father was killed in an RAF crash in Scotland, aged 39.
“They were very well-brought up by their widowed mother,” says Vickers. “Princess Marina was very well-known. It was so tragic for her to become a widow so young, at only 35 – she was really lovely. She was only 61 when she died [of a brain tumour]. There was lots of grief among the general public.”
From the late 1950s onwards, Princess Alexandra was an active working royal, conducting around 120 engagements a year; though they’re rarer now, she remains patron or president of over 100 organisations. She went on key missions, such as to Japan in 1961 – she was a forerunner in restoring diplomatic relations with the country after the war, leading to Emperor Hirohito’s state visit in 1971 and the Queen’s to Japan in 1975.
一本道理不卡一二三区“She has never done anything except royal duties all her life – there were not so many members of the Royal family around when she started working,” says Vickers.
一本道理不卡一二三区By the time Princess Alexandra married Angus Ogilvy, son of the Earl of Airlie, in 1963, she was big news. They married in Westminster Abbey, with a full glass carriage procession, a white-tie ball at Windsor Castle the night before and a breakfast at St James’s Palace after the ceremony. “She even featured in a Giles cartoon when it was announced she was having a baby,” says Vickers.
一本道理不卡一二三区In the flesh, the princess is shy, but not painfully so – and was often pictured, chic as they come, at Sixties film premieres and parties. Yet with no desire for the limelight, she has avoided the fate of those younger royals who have alternately been lured to and repulsed by the media glare.
Always good-looking – “she was the royal pin-up, before the glamour days of Diana and now Meghan,” royal author Christopher Wilson recently observed – she grew more beautiful over the years. “She has the wistful quality of her mother and impeccable manners,” says Vickers. “She is quite royal and holds her dignity.”
These qualities are valued by the Queen, who gave her the Garter - a very rare honour - in 2003, and threw her an 80th birthday party at Buckingham Palace in 2016. The princess has been nothing but steadfast in return. The most successful members of the Royal family are those who – like the Gloucesters, the Wessexes and Princess Alexandra’s Kent brothers – are happy to offer HM steady background support. Those who set themselves up as rivals, like the Sussexes, are disasters.
Robin Baird-Smith, publishing director at Bloomsbury Continuum, met the princess recently when he published a book by her daughter-in-law, Julia Ogilvy.
一本道理不卡一二三区“Princess Alexandra gave a dinner party after the book launch in her flat in St James’s Palace,” says Baird-Smith. “I was introduced to her and found her charming, witty and sharp. In conversation, she is enchanting and she listens.
一本道理不卡一二三区“In fact, this was not the first time I met her. When I was eight, Princess Alexandra and Princess Margaret came to a Norman Hartnell dress show at Hopetoun House, outside Edinburgh. My duty, in a kilt and sporran, was to present Princess Alexandra with a bouquet of flowers. When I went up on stage, Princess Margaret thought the flowers were for her and took them.”
Princess Alexandra’s eldest child, James Ogilvy, now a landscaper designer, was born in 1964, the same year as his second cousin, Prince Edward, with whom he went to Heatherdown Prep School and remains close. Her daughter Marina is a goddaughter of Prince Charles and was a regular in the press in the Nineties – “if [she] had not existed, the tabloids would have invented her,” noted historian, Sir David Cannadine – causing a great hoo-hah when she got pregnant by her boyfriend, photographer Paul Mowatt, in 1989. They married in 1990 – the bride wore black velvet – after baby Zenouska was born, though the union ended in divorce after Christian’s arrival, three years later. Zen, as she is known, appears to have inherited her grandmother’s stylish reputation, appearing in the pages of Tatler, as well as on the Buckingham Palace balcony at last year’s Trooping the Colour.
Angus Ogilvy, who died in 2004, got into hot water himself in the Seventies, when he worked for Lonrho – the company, run by Tiny Rowland, called the “unacceptable face of capitalism” by Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1973. It was alleged that Rowland had concealed financial information from the Lonrho board and Ogilvy was criticised in a Department of Trade report of the company’s activities.
Princess Alexandra had nothing to do with his business affairs, though, and by all accounts has conducted her life impeccably, never putting a foot wrong. Apart from a short break due to arthritis in 2013, she has been working on behalf of the Queen for over 60 years. And now, with HM taking a back seat herself, her loyal cousin is clearly happy to step up, to support the Boss.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)