Sunday, 10 March 2013

At the road’s end: Princess Lilian of Sweden (1915-2013)

The court of Stockholm has announced that Princess Lilian, Duchess of Hallandia died in her home Villa Solbacken at Djurgården in Stockholm this afternoon, aged 97. Princess Lilian, aunt-by-marriage to the King of Sweden and the Queen of Denmark, was much loved and known for her charm, her sense of humour and her regal bearing. As such she was living proof that majesty is not necessarily something one has to be born to.
Her origins were in fact as far from royal as one could possibly get. Born Lillian May Davies, she first saw the light of day in Swansea in Wales on 30 August 1915. She was the only surviving child of William John Davies (1892-1956), a factory worker, and Gladys Mary Curran (1895-1942), a shop assistant.
Hers was not a happy childhood. “We lived in a very poor area, a mining district. I stayed until I turned eighteen. My life there was really sad. We were very poor and had to work hard. There was no joy, no life...nothing”, she was later to tell her second husband’s biographer Fabian af Petersens. In her own autobiography she accorded her childhood exactly one hundred words.
Her misery was increased by the fact that her father left the family at an early date, something she never forgave him. However, her parents remained legally married until 1939, when they were both about to remarry. She refused to have any contact with her father’s two daughters of his second marriage, Sonia Roberts and Janice Rees, who are her nearest living relatives. “All divorces are not happy divorces”, was her comment when a Swedish newspaper tracked down her half-sisters in the 1990s.
Lillian Davies left school at the age of fourteen and took a job in a shop to help her mother out financially. At the age of eighteen, Lilian, who around that time dropped an “l” from her name, had had enough of Wales and left for London to pursue a career as a singer and actress. However, this met with limited success. Strikingly beautiful, she earned some minor roles in films and commercials, but mostly worked as a model and nightclub hostess.
Through acting she encountered the Scottish actor Ivan Craig, whom she married in a civil ceremony in Horsham, Surrey on 27 September 1940. She would later describe it as a typical “wartime marriage”. Her husband had enrolled in the British army, where he eventually reached the rank of major, and was soon despatched to fight in North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy and eventually India. Eventually the couple lost contact.
Meanwhile Lilian took a job in a radio factory as well as doing some volunteer work at the East Grinstead Hospital. In August 1943 she went to Les Ambassadeurs Club and met a man who introduced himself as Prince of Sweden. Never having heard of such a country, Lilian laughed and replied that she was the Queen of Sheba.
But the man was indeed a prince, Sweden was her destiny and this was the beginning of one of the greatest royal love stories of the twentieth century. The third son of the then Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, Prince Bertil had been appointed assistant naval attaché at the Swedish embassy in London. The Prince would later claim that their first meeting had taken place on 30 August 1943, but Lilian disagreed about the date, which would have been her birthday. Nevertheless they stayed in touch.
One night the Prince was having dinner at the Dorchester Hotel with among others Princess Marina of Britain, the widowed Duchess of Kent, when a bomb fell near Lilian’s Knightsbridge home. Prince Bertil telephoned to hear how she was doing and, when realising how frightened his friend was, made his excuses to Princess Marina and left the dinner to be with Lilian.
Because of an unexploded bomb in the neighbourhood, Lilian was ordered to evacuate her house that very night. The Prince took her in. And she stayed for the rest of his life. “We were not a couple when I moved in. But we soon became one”, she was later to recall.
On 8 May 1945 the war in Europe came to an end and thus also Prince Bertil’s service in London. “One day the war ended. And I realised that I loved a prince”, Lilian recalled. The Prince left for Sweden, but soon he returned to his love. Major Ivan Craig also showed up in London, revealing that he had fallen in love with an Italian woman, yet did not want to divorce the wife he had not been in touch with for years.
In the end Ivan Craig and Prince Bertil met at the Ritz Hotel to talk the situation over. Ivan Craig made the Prince promise that he would always take care of Lilian and on 7 November 1947 the Craigs’ marriage was legally dissolved. Ivan Craig later remarried and the two couples remained friends until his death in 1994.
But just as it seemed possible for Prince Bertil and Lilian Craig to marry, their plans were shattered. The Act of Succession of 1810 had stipulated that a royal prince who married a “private man’s daughter” would automatically lose his rights of succession whether he married with or without the King’s consent. In 1937 this had been modified to “Swedish private man’s daughter”, but there was no doubt that Prince Bertil would never get his father’s and grandfather’s permission to marry a divorced Welsh nightclub hostess.
His second oldest brother, Prince Sigvard, and their cousins, Prince Lennart and Prince Carl Jr, had already forfeited their rights of succession when marrying commoners in 1934, 1932 and 1937, respectively. Sigvard and Lennart had both been quite severely punished by their family for breaking ranks in such a way. In February 1946 Bertil’s youngest brother, Prince Carl Johan, did the same thing by marrying a divorced commoner.
The succession thus hung on the eldest brother, Prince Gustaf Adolf, but the problem was that he and his wife Sibylla had four daughters, but no sons, and daughters were not eligible for succession. However, on 30 April 1946 Sibylla finally gave birth to a son, Prince Carl Gustaf.
Thus the way seemed open for Prince Bertil to marry Lilian when her divorce had come through, thus forfeiting his royal rights without putting the future of the dynasty in jeopardy. But nine months later, on 26 January 1947, Prince Gustaf Adolf was killed in a plane crash. Thus the infant Prince Carl Gustaf became next in line to the throne after his 64-year-old grandfather and his 88-year-old great-grandfather.
Thus it seemed more than likely that Prince Carl Gustaf would succeed to the throne before reaching his majority and consequently a regent would be needed. Except for Prince Bertil, the other royal princes were his 62-year-old uncle Wilhelm and his octogenarian great-uncles Carl and Eugen, none of whom had sons with succession rights. The only possible future regent was therefore Prince Bertil.
This naturally put him in a terrible dilemma, but unlike his brothers he chose duty to his family and his country over love. But he did ask Lilian to wait for him and she did wait for him for three decades. Their greatest regret was that they were thus not able to have children.
Prince Bertil moved out of the Royal Palace and bought a house, Villa Solbacken, at Djurgården, a fashionable peninsula just outside Stockholms’s city centre. Shortly thereafter Lilian moved to Sweden and to Villa Solbacken, but the Prince cold not bring her to any public engagements and no-one was supposed to know of her existence.
This was helped by the fact that the genial Prince was on very good terms with the Swedish press, with whom he reached a gentlemen’s agreement promising them the full story one day in exchange for not writing about it until then. With very few exceptions the media kept their part of the deal.
At first Prince Bertil’s family was also kept in the dark about Lilian’s existence, but eventually the secret was revealed. Prince Bertil’s sister, Queen Ingrid of Denmark, and his sister-in-law Princess Sibylla were both very sceptical at first, but eventually came to realise that Lilian was no fortune-seeker and to appreciate her sacrifice and her loyalty. Prince Bertil’s father, who succeeded to the throne as King Gustaf VI Adolf in 1950, also came to like Lilian, but would not hear talk of consenting to their marriage.
Eventually Lilian began being invited to family events; the first time being King Gustaf Adolf’s eightieth birthday in 1962. Meanwhile Prince Carl Gustaf grew up, but his apparent immaturity caused the age of majority for the heir to the throne to be raised twice, eventually to the age of 25, which meant that he would not come of age until 1971, by which time King Gustaf Adolf would be nearing 89.
Eventually King Gustaf Adolf did live to that age and by the time of his ninetieth birthday in November 1972 Mrs Craig was accepted to the degree that she appeared at Prince Bertil’s side wearing a laurel wreath tiara which had been his mother’s. She again accompanied him publicly to the funeral of King Gustaf Adolf in September 1973.
Although he was not called on to act as regent, Prince Bertil was an invaluable support to his inexperienced, 27-year-old nephew Carl XVI Gustaf. Both he and Lilian were also immediately won over when introduced to the King’s girlfriend, Silvia Sommerlath, whom he eventually made his Queen in June 1976.
It had been the late King Gustaf Adolf’s wish that Bertil and Lilian would postpone their wedding until King Carl Gustaf had married. Some months after his wedding the King brought his pregnant wife to Villa Solbacken, and after dinner he took his uncle aside for a private talk. Upon returning, Bertil told Lilian gravely: “Darling, you will have to renounce your British citizenship”. “Never!” she protested. The Prince then told her that she had to, as she would now become a Princess of Sweden. They had waited 33 years.
King Carl Gustaf rewarded his uncle’s loyalty and sacrifice by giving his consent to the marriage and deciding that Prince Bertil should keep all his titles and his rights of succession. This caused some resentment among the ex-Princes Sigvard and Lennart, who asked for their titles back, but was turned down by the King. Indeed, when the Act of Succession was amended in 1980, limiting the succession to the descendants of Carl XVI Gustaf, a special provision was added to ensure that Prince Bertil remained in line for the rest of his life, thus enabling him to act as guardian of the realm when the King was abroad.
Aged 64 and 61 respectively, Prince Bertil and Lilian Craig were married in the small chapel at Drottningholm Palace on 7 December 1976. Having put the ring on his bride’s finger, Prince Bertil kissed her hand. Thus Mrs Craig was transformed into Her Royal Highness Princess Lilian of Sweden, Duchess of Hallandia.
Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian became something of substitute grandparents to the three children of King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia. She and Queen Silvia always got along very well, but the Princess always rejected the idea that she had been some sort of mother-in-law to the Queen, insisting that the Queen had been more of a help to her than the other way around.
Princess Lilian embarked on her royal duties late in life, but no-one could guess that she had not been born to it. The couple travelled frequently on behalf of their country and Princess Lilian’s style, grace and charm made her a great asset to her adopted country and earned her the same sort of popularity as her husband’s.
The Princess’s sense of humour could be somewhat dirty, but she also had a keen eye for practical jokes. One of them involved Ronald Reagan and a bottle of fake ketchup, which earned her the sobriquet “the world’s craziest royal” from George H. W. Bush, but which the Secret Service apparently found less amusing. Her social skills often saved the day at formal events, including an embarrassing Yeltsin moment during his state visit to Sweden in 1997.
Princess Lilian had a wide circle of admirers, among them King Harald V of Norway, Prince Philip of Britain, Roger Moore and Bruce Springsteen. But she also retained something of the humility of the poor girl from Wales. When introduced to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, the latter encouraged Princess Lilian to let her know next time she was in London, but the former British subject could never get herself to invite herself to a cup of tea with the Queen of Britain.
In the first half of the 1990s Prince Bertil began to suffer heart problems and eventually fell and broke his hip, from which he never fully recovered. As he eventually gave up nearly all public engagements, Princess Lilian went on alone.
On 7 December 1996 the couple celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary. A month later, in the evening of 5 January 1997, shortly before his 85th birthday, Prince Bertil died in his home, holding his wife’s hand.
Princess Lilian was devastated and it was nearly half a year before she was seen to smile in public again. But she soldiered on, taking on her share of royal duties and remaining a much-loved member of the royal family. For her birthday that year the royal family gave her a dog, which became her comfort and steadfast companion until its death in the autumn of 2011.
In 2003 Princess Lilian began to show signs of forgetfulness and eventually physical frailty also set in, which caused the court to cut down on her public engagements. Some time after her ninetieth birthday she gave up attending evening events, but she was still to be seen at major family events until 2008.
On 30 April 2008 she fainted in public during the celebrations of King Carl Gustaf’s 62nd birthday and never again attended public engagements, although she could still from time to time be seen in a restaurant or so. She broke her hip later that year and had another bad fall in her home in 2009.
Princess Lilian was particularly close to Crown Princess Victoria, who adored her crazy “Auntie”. In June 2010 Princess Lilian missed the Crown Princess’s wedding to Daniel Westling, which caused her Court Marshal Elisabeth Palmstierna to confirm publicly that the Princess suffered from senile dementia. (It was reported at the time that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, but Baroness Palmstierna claimed to be have been misquoted and insisted that she had only said senile dementia). Recently her physical condition deteriorated further.
King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia were at her bedside as she died this afternoon. So were their three children; Crown Princess Victoria and Princess Madeleine having returned from the latter’s bachelorette party in Switzerland to be at the side of their great-aunt during her final hours.
Following a funeral service in the Palace Chapel Princess Lilian will be laid to rest next to Prince Bertil in the Royal Burial Ground at Haga in Solna, just outside Stockholm.


  1. Thank you for a very good obituary!

    Princess Lillian was a wonderful asset to the Swedish royal family and will be missed by many

  2. Fantastiskt bra och spännande skrivet!

    / Pia

  3. O, Trond, how very well put and what a life HRH had.

  4. Joining the kudos for a very well-written and entertaining tribute to a long and interesting life! (I hope the Bush and Yeltsin incidents will find their way into a future blog post, or we'll all be kept guessing :D)

    1. The Bush incident was a practical joke which involved a bottle of fake ketchup which she appeared to accidentially spill over Ronald Reagan. The Yeltsin incident involved a young minister who Yeltsin, much to everyone's embarrasment, commanded to kiss the 19-year-old Crown Princess Victoria, or be fired from the government. Princess Lilian intervened by telling President Yeltsin that there was a Swedish law forbidding people to kiss young princesses, "but with old princesses like me, go ahead!" So Princess Lilian got a kiss, Yeltsin was satisfied, the minister kept his job and everyone were happy.

    2. Fantastic! What a natural diplomat. :D

  5. What an incredible story of love, duty, and steadfastness.

  6. Jennifer Davidson26 June 2015 at 11:51

    Where can I purchase a bio on Princess Lilian?

    1. I am afraid there is no biography of her. The nearest thing would be "Mitt liv med prins Bertil", a book of reminiscences, written by Omar Magnergård Bjers and Elisabeth Tarras-Wahlberg, which was published on the occasion of her 85th birthday in 2000. It is out of print now, but it might be possible to find second hand copies.


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