Read an Excerpt
Princess Margaret was born, appropriately enough, during a violent thunderstorm. Equally dramatic was the setting for her birth: Glamis Castle, ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Her mother, the Duchess of York, had been born Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the ninth child of the fourteenth Earl of Strathmore, and it was to her family's Scottish seat, Glamis Castle on Tayside, that the Duchess of York had come to give birth to her second child in the late summer of 1930.
With its turrets, battlements and impregnable red sandstone walls, Glamis is an impressive pile, both romantic and menacing. In its time it has played host to such significant historical figures as Mary, Queen of Scots, James Stuart, the Old Pretender, and Sir Walter Scott. It is for its more blood-curdling associations, however, that Glamis is chiefly remarkable. Its story is one of violent deaths, gruesome murders and terrifying ghosts. Macbeth is said to have slain Duncan in the guardroom: 'Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore ... Macbeth shall sleep no more!' ring Shakespeare's lines. The castle has witnessed other equally grim, and better authenticated, deaths. King Malcolm's Room is where the murdered King Malcolm II of Scotland died; its floor is still stained, it is claimed, with his blood. The Hangman's Chamber takes its name from the two desperate men who had hanged themselves within its dank walls. In the Room of Skulls captured members of the Ogilvy family, bitter enemies of the Lyons, were walled up alive and, despite gnawing at their own flesh, finally died of starvation, their corpses rotting away into a pile of bones.
Among the many ghosts that apparently roam its rooms and corridors is the tormented spirit of Jane Douglas, burned as a witch in the sixteenth century; another, that of Earl Beardie, is doomed to play endless games of cards with the Devil as a penance for having staked his soul in a card game. Most chilling of all is the legend of the famous Monster of Glamis – the hairy, hideously deformed, egg-shaped creature, heir to one Lord Glamis – who was kept hidden under lock and key in some secret part of the castle for decade after decade. The whereabouts of this monster was known only to each succeeding earl, who, as his own death approached, would pass on the secret to his heir, and to one or two trusted retainers whose duty it was to shove food into the creature's prison. It has been said that on one occasion a party of sceptical house guests, determined to disprove the monster's existence by making a methodical search of the entire castle, took advantage of their host's temporary absence to visit every one of its rooms, of which there are more than a hundred. To mark their progress, they hung towels out of each window. When, afterwards, they trooped outside, it was to make the disconcerting discovery that there were seven windows without towels.
Many villagers in Glamis firmly believed the rumour that a maid, having stumbled across the monster's place of incarceration, had had her tongue cut out to prevent her from revealing the dreaded family secret. Indeed, as a child, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had been warned by a kitchenmaid that 'if she dared look out of the night nursery window late at night, she would see the tongueless woman running across the park, pointing in agony to her bleeding mouth'.
Presumably no such frightening images were being entertained by the Duchess of York as she waited at Glamis for the birth of her second child during that August of 1930. For the thirty-year-old Duchess the castle held happier memories. Her mother, Lady Strathmore, born Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck, had transformed the rebuilt nineteenth-century wing of the house in which the family now lived into a comfortable and flower-filled home, one to which the Duchess, strongly conscious of her Scottish ancestry, always felt drawn. When, in 1923, she had married the Duke of York, second son of King George V and Queen Mary, the young couple had spent part of their honeymoon at Glamis. And although their first child, Princess Elizabeth, had been born, on 20 April 1926, in the Strathmores' London home, 17 Bruton Street, it was to Glamis that the Duchess decided to come for the birth of her second child. The baby was due to be born during the second week of August.
For this proposed Scottish accouchement, the King's permission had to be sought and granted. The birth of a child to the Duke and Duchess of York was, after all, a matter of national – indeed, international – importance. Because the Heir Apparent, King George V's eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was still unmarried, the Prince's younger brother – the Duke of York – was next in the line of succession, with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, third. If the baby were a boy, it would replace Princess Elizabeth in the order of succession; if a girl, it would rank fourth. In the event of the thirty-six-year-old Prince of Wales remaining unmarried and childless, there was a strong possibility that one of the children of the Duke and Duchess of York – perhaps even the expected infant – might one day succeed to the throne. Glamis Castle, therefore, might well prove to be the scene of the birth of a future British monarch.
Into these matters of international significance there now entered an element of farce. By tradition, all royal births had to be witnessed by a minister of the Crown, usually the Home Secretary. The custom had its origins in the famous 'warming-pan' plot of 1688, when it was widely – and quite wrongly – believed that Mary of Modena, Queen Consort of King James II, had had another woman's baby smuggled into her bed in a warming-pan; this baby had then been passed off as the legitimate heir to the throne. Ever since then, in order to prevent any uncertainties about the legitimacy of royal offspring, it was ordered that a government minister should be present at any such birth. To this outdated custom, the Duke and Duchess of York were obliged to agree. (The tradition was finally abolished in 1948 by the Duke of York himself when, as King George VI, he spared his daughter Princess Elizabeth any such indignity while she was giving birth to Prince Charles.) At least, by 1930, the ministerial witness no longer had to be present in the very room where the birth was taking place; he could wait outside. 'If there has to be a gentleman waiting outside my bedroom door,' remarked the Duchess of York wryly, 'I hope it's someone we know.'
The gentleman proved, in fact, to be someone whom the Yorks would not, in a social sense, have 'known'. The Home Secretary of the day was J. R. Clynes, a former millworker who was now a minister in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government. Clynes was to be accompanied by Harry Boyd, the Ceremonial Secretary at the Home Office. It had been suggested that the two men should be accommodated in a hotel in Perth, and that as soon as the Duchess of York went into labour, they could take a train which would get them to Glamis in time for the birth. Although this suggestion did not bother Mr Clynes unduly, it 'horrified' poor Mr Boyd. A fussy, anxious, meticulously neat little man, the Ceremonial Secretary was 'overwhelmed' by the responsibility now thrust upon him. The very fact that the Duchess of York had decided to have her baby at Glamis was deeply disturbing to his bureaucratic mind. He felt sure that the public would suspect that the affair was being conducted in 'an irregular hole-and-corner way'. How risky, then, to rely on the train from Perth to get Clynes and himself to Glamis. 'Just imagine if it should occur in the early hours of the morning, and the Home Secretary could not get to Glamis in time,' wailed Boyd. 'This child will be in direct succession to the Throne and if its birth is not properly witnessed, its legal right might be questioned.'
It was to the Countess of Airlie, one of Queen Mary's ladies-in-waiting, that Harry Boyd poured out these doubts and fears. To quell them, she suggested that he and the Home Secretary stay with her at nearby Cortachy Castle; she assured him that it was close enough to Glamis to prevent any 'calamity'. Boyd agreed, and to make doubly certain of not missing the birth, the two men, without waiting to be summoned to Scotland, left London to arrive at Cortachy on 5 August.
For no fewer than sixteen days they sat cooling their heels while the baby, unpredictable even before birth, kept them waiting. 'I feel sorry for Mr Clynes having to be here so long,' wrote the Duke of York to his mother, Queen Mary, on 10 August. 'I always wanted him to come up when he was sent for, which would have been much simpler.'
But the Duke should have been feeling sorry for Mr Boyd rather than for Mr Clynes. Unlike Boyd, the Home Secretary was a shy though imperturbable man, quite content to be shown round the countryside by Lady Airlie and to be entertained in various great houses in the district. 'I discovered under his homely exterior,' wrote Lady Airlie, 'a deeply sensitive mind, touchingly appreciative of beauty.' No amount of country-house visiting could distract Mr Boyd, however. As day after day passed with no news from Glamis, he became progressively more frantic. Not even the specially installed telephone line nor the waiting motorcyclist could put his mind at ease. He began to suspect some sort of plot. By the morning of 21 August – fifteen days after the baby had originally been due – looking 'wild-eyed and haggard after sitting up all night', Boyd telephoned Glamis yet again, only to be assured by the admirably long-suffering Comptroller of the Duke of York's household that there was still no news.
Finally, as Lady Airlie was dressing for dinner that evening, her telephone rang. The call was for Mr Boyd. Still in her dressing-gown, she ran to his room and banged on the door. 'A telephone call for you from Glamis,' she shouted. She heard, she reports, a tremendous opening and shutting of wardrobes and then a wail of anguish. 'I can't go downstairs,' cried Boyd, I'm not dressed and I can't find my suit.' 'Then put on your dressing-gown and take the call in my room,' Lady Airlie yelled back. 'I'm not dressed either but it doesn't matter.' Boyd dashed out of his bedroom wearing a dark blue kimono and, snatching up Lady Airlie's bedroom telephone, exclaimed, 'What! In an hour? You haven't given us much time. We must start at once.'
While the anguished Boyd scrambled into his clothes, Clynes was 'calmly waiting at the door in his big coat and Homburg hat'. As Boyd hurried him out to the waiting car, Clynes paused to look up at the dramatically stormy sunset sky. 'Just look at that Boyd,' he mused. '"In such a night did Dido from the walls of Carthage. ..."' This was too much for Boyd. Cutting Clynes short, he bundled him into the car and the two of them went racing off through the night towards Glamis.
They arrived with half an hour to spare. By that time a violent storm had broken. With Shakespearian theatricality, the thunder rumbled, the lightning flashed, the wind howled and the rain lashed down. The Duchess of York had been prepared for delivery in the Tapestry Room by her three physicians, Sir Henry Simpson, Dr Neon Reynolds and Dr David Myles. At 9.22 pm on 21 August 1930, the Duchess gave birth to a daughter weighing 6 pounds 11 ounces. Only after this weighing was Home Secretary Clynes allowed into the room to verify the birth. 'I found crowded round the baby's cot the Duke of York, Lord and Lady Strathmore and Lady Rose Leveson-Gower, the Duchess's sister,' he wrote. 'They at once made way for me, and I went to the cot and peeping in saw a fine chubby-faced little girl lying wide awake.'
'Yesterday evening at twenty-two minutes after nine o'clock,' read the official announcement on 22 August 1930, 'Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York was safely delivered of a Princess.' The birth of another grandchild to the sovereign was greeted with due honours. Gun salutes thudded out from Hyde Park and the Tower of London and the bells of St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey pealed out in celebration. Congratulatory cables flooded in from all over the British Empire.
It was not until the night after the birth, however, when the storm had died down, that the event could be celebrated by the villagers and tenants at Glamis. To the skirl of bagpipes, they surged up Hunter's Hill where three specially chosen young girls set fire to the brushwood beacon. The celebrations were considerably enlivened by the barrels of free beer supplied by the baby's grandfather, Lord Strathmore. The blazing bonfire, visible for miles around, was watched from a window set high in one of the castle's towers by the newborn's four-year-old sister, Princess Elizabeth.
Particularly gratifying to the local people was the fact that the baby had been born in Scotland. Because of this Scottish birth, Princess Margaret was often to be described, in the years ahead, as being typically 'Stuart', in contrast to what was regarded, in the same journalistic shorthand, as Princess Elizabeth's stolid, more 'Hanoverian' appearance. And indeed, for a while, the younger princess's looks did seem to reflect something of the elegance and romance of the ill-starred Stuart dynasty. Only in the face of Princess Margaret's increasingly Hanoverian appetites did such references begin to die.
Not until two weeks after the baby's birth was her name decided upon. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that the parents had been hoping for a boy. So, apparently, had the King and Queen, though that royal couple seemed pleased enough with the arrival of a second granddaughter. Not long after they had arrived at Balmoral for their annual autumn stay, they visited Glamis. Queen Mary pronounced, 'E looking very well and the baby a darling.' As the child's name was still undecided, the Duchess later wrote to Queen Mary to say, 'I am very anxious to call her Ann Margaret as I think that Ann of York sounds pretty, and Elizabeth and Ann go so well together. I wonder what you think? Lots of people have suggested Margaret [as a first name] but it has no family links really on either side.'
This was not quite accurate. Although there may have been no immediate family links to the name, Margaret had been a royal name for centuries, particularly popular in Scotland. (It had been the name of the eleventh-century queen of Malcolm III of Scotland, who had been canonized as Saint Margaret.) It was not, however, to Margaret but to Ann that King George V objected, and the couple therefore had to bow to the King's wishes. But when next the Duchess wrote to her mother-in-law on the subject, it was with an unmistakable firmness. We 'have decided now to call our little daughter "Margaret Rose", instead of Margaret Ann, as Papa [the King] does not like Ann – I hope that you like it. I think that it is very pretty together.' It undoubtedly was: 'Margaret Rose of York' had a decidedly mellifluous ring.
According to Scots law, Princess Margaret's birth should have been registered within twenty-one days. But the Duke of York, although no more superstitious than the next man, delayed the registration because the birth certificate would have been numbered 13. Not until 2 October did he present himself at the Glamis post office-cum-sweetshop to register the birth. By then, there had been another birth in the village and the delay ensured that the Princess's number in the register was 14.
Princess Margaret's religious, as opposed to her civil, naming was a far more splendid affair. She was christened in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace on 30 October 1930 by Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury. Dressed in the cream-coloured silk and Honiton-lace robe first worn by Queen Victoria's eldest child, Victoria (later the German Empress Frederick), she was carried to the gold, lily-shaped font which had been filled with water from the River Jordan. Her five sponsors, or godparents, were Edward, Prince of Wales, for whom his brother Prince George, later Duke of Kent, stood proxy; the future Queen Ingrid of Denmark, for whom her aunt, Lady Patricia Ramsay, stood proxy; Princess Victoria, the second of King George V's three sisters; Lady Rose Leveson-Gower, one of the Duchess of York's sisters; and the Honourable David Bowes-Lyon, the Duchess's adored younger brother.
Although, throughout her childhood, the Princess was to be known as Margaret Rose in public, in the family she was called simply Margaret. Unlike her sister, Princess Elizabeth, whose nickname was Lilibet, Princess Margaret had no family version of her name; not, that is, until a younger generation began to call her Aunt Margot. Even as a child, she hated the double forename. 'You gave Lilibet three names,' she once complained to her mother. 'Why didn't you give me three instead of only two? Margaret Rose!'