Today is the 95th birthday of Princess Lilian of Sweden. Born into poverty in Swansea on 30 August 1915, Lillian May Davies is one of the unlikeliest grande dames of the European monarchies and was at the centre of one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century.
Her first marriage, to the actor Ivan Craig, was what she herself described as a typical wartime marriage, which was dissolved in 1947. She met Prince Bertil of Sweden in London in 1943, but by marrying her he would forfeit his right to the Swedish throne. This he was prepared to do and two of his three brothers had already done so by the time the eldest brother, Prince Gustaf Adolf, was killed in a plane crash in 1947. This left Prince Bertil as the only possible regent for his infant nephew, the current King Carl XVI Gustaf, in the all too likely event of his succeeding his grandfather on the throne before reaching his majority.
For the sake of duty, Prince Bertil and Mrs Craig decided to postpone their wedding until the future of the dynasty had been settled. In the event they were to wait 33 years, which was no small sacrifice as they thereby forfeited the chance to have children of their own.
Aged 64 and 61 respectively, Prince Bertil and Lilian Craig married in Drottningholm Palace Church on 7 December 1976. King Carl Gustaf rewarded their loyalty and sacrifice by giving his consent to the marriage, which meant that Prince Bertil, unlike his brothers, retained his royal title and succession rights, and that Mrs Craig became Her Royal Highness Princess Lilian of Sweden, Duchess of Halland.
The former actress and model from the poor mining districts of Wales became one of the greatest assets to the Swedish royal family, combining grace and a regal dignity with timeless elegance and a great sense of fun. With Prince Bertil she was often called up on to perform important duties on behalf of the Swedish royal family, which she continued to do following her husband’s death in 1997.
With no children of their own, Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian came to look upon King Carl Gustaf, Queen Silvia and their three children as their surrogate family. Crown Princess Victoria has always been tremendously fond of her “Auntie” and chose to wear a brooch given to her by Princess Lilian to the press conference when her engagement to Daniel Westling was announced last year.
Some seven years ago Princess Lilian sadly began to show signs of senility and increasing physical frailty caused her to withdraw from public life in 2008. Earlier this year her Court Marshal, Elisabeth Palmstierna, confirmed that the Princess suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which caused her to miss the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel. As recently as last month I heard that Princess Lilian is still living at her house, Villa Solbacken at Djurgården in Stockholm, where she receives around-the-clock care.