Alice Christabel Montagu Douglas Scott was born on 25 December 1901 as the daughter of John Montagu Douglas Scott, 7th Duke of Buccleuch and Lady Margaret Bridgeman. Alice was a descendant of King Charles II, through his illegitimate son James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth. She was to be one of eight siblings, and her elder brother eventually succeeded her father as Duke of Buccleuch.
Much of her childhood was spent travelling between grand estates. From the age of six, she spent her days in the schoolroom and with a governess. A turning point in her life came at the age of 14 when she nearly drowned. She wrote in her memoirs that she prayed, “Oh God, give me life. I promise I’ll make use of it if you give it back to me.” She then felt rocks beneath her feet and managed to get out. She also attended a boarding school – St James’s School for Girls – during the First World War and was still there when peace was declared in 1918. Afterwards, she attended a finishing school in Paris.
The early twenties were a carefree time for Alice. She hunted during the winter months and her future husband, Prince Henry, the third son and fourth child of King George V and Queen Mary, was often among her brother’s friends during these hunting parties. She got her first glimpse of Africa when she accompanied a friend in 1924. She would return there in 1926, but she had a frightening experience with cerebral malaria. In 1929, she left for Kenya where she would spend a year on her uncle’s farm. She later went to India to visit her brother, George, before returning to England – just as she received word of her father’s ill-health.
Once back home, it became clear that Prince Henry wanted to be more than just an acquaintance. He was terribly shy, but they finally became engaged during a walk. Alice was already 34 years old, and she wrote, “I had had very good innings.” Alice was delighted with the prospect of getting married and doing something useful with her time. King George V was also very happy with the engagement and wrote to her father, “I must send you a line to say how delighted the Queen and I are that my son Henry is engaged to be married to your third daughter Alice.” Shortly after, Alice and her mother were invited to Balmoral. The wedding date was selected, but Alice’s father would not live to see it. He died on 19 October 1935. Though there was some talk of postponing the wedding, it also seemed likely that the King should die soon, so it was decided to let the wedding go ahead on 6 November. It was moved from Westminster Abbey to the private chapel at Buckingham Palace. Alice was only too glad not to have a grand wedding.
Nevertheless, the crowds came out to see the bride. After the wedding ceremony, there was a wedding breakfast. The only hitch that day was the fact that the cake could not be cut because the icing was too hard. The newlyweds went onto the balcony to greet the crowds and soon headed to St Pancras in an open coach. Alice was now Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Gloucester. They spent a quiet honeymoon at Boughton. Three weeks later, the court was plunged into mourning by the death of the King’s sister Princess Victoria, followed by the death of the King himself in January. Then came the abdication of the new King Edward VIII, throwing Alice’s new life into turmoil. Alice and Henry were invited to dinner with the new King and Wallis Simpson, of which Alice wrote, “This was awkward, as we were as unhappy with the liaison as the rest of the family, but as a brother, Prince Henry felt obliged to go. Mrs Simpson was always charming and friendly and, being American, also a wonderful hostess.”
Now that King George VI had succeeded as King, Prince Henry was promoted to the position of Regent Designate – meaning he would have to act as Regent should something happen to the King before Princess Elizabeth’s 18th birthday – and their royal duties increased. Alice soon accepted her first patronage – an organisation called “Invalid Kitchens”, the forerunner of “Meals on Wheels.” Meanwhile, Alice suffered a second miscarriage – it is unknown when she suffered the first one. The doctor ordered rest and Henry and Alice decided to visit Kenya. On their way back to England, they stopped in Paris to see the abdicated King Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor, and the Duchess of Windsor. War now began to approach.
Prince Henry was appointed Chief Liaison Officer and was soon in France. Alice accepted the Presidency of the Hospital Supply Branch of the Red Cross, and in 1940 she was also appointed Air Chief Commandant of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In May 1941, Alice found out that she was once again pregnant. Queen Mary wrote to her, “I was so thrilled and delighted at your good news this morning that I nearly fell off my dressing table stool with excitement.” Alice gave birth to Prince William on 18 December. Henry was allowed to return home for a few days but was soon back in Scotland with the 20th Armoured Brigade. William’s christening took place on 22 February with the Archbishop of Canterbury performing the ceremony. In 1943, she fell pregnant once more and gave birth to a son named Richard on 26 August 1944.
From 1945 until 1947, the family lived in Canberra after Henry was appointed Governor-General of Australia. The family was plagued by health problems while there, but young William proved to be a star attraction. They travelled all over the country, focussing on the capital cities in the first year. Shortly after returning to England, Henry and Alice went on a State Visit to Malta and arrived home just in time for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip. The following year, they headed to Ceylon and Denmark.
The King’s death in 1952 came as a shock and was a great blow to Prince Henry. They were again plunged in sadness with the death of Queen Mary the year after. The Duke of Windsor stayed with them for the funeral. The coronation of the new Queen Elizabeth II lifted their spirits somewhat. In 1958 and 1959, Henry and Alice made extensive visits to Africa and continued to travel the world.
In 1965, Prince Henry suffered a stroke while Alice was in the car with him. He came out relatively unscathed, but Alice had a broken arm and extensive injuries to her face that required 57 stitches. Her face was so bruised that she could not open her eyes. She also had a broken nose and a cracked knee. A trip to Australia had to be postponed, but Alice was well enough to go with just a short postponement. While in Australia, Henry probably had another small stroke. Alice too had overdone herself and suffered from a delayed concussion. By 1968, further strokes had made Prince Henry almost a complete invalid.
On 8 July 1972, her younger son Richard married Birgitte van Deurs, but just one month later, her elder son William was killed in a plane crash. She wrote in her memoirs, “I was completely stunned and have never been quite the same since, though I have tried to persuade myself that it was better to have known and lost him than never to have had him at all.” Henry would follow his son to the grave just two years later, on 10 June 1974. She wrote, “Prince Henry no longer with me, William no longer around – no more annual holidays in Scotland, no horses to ride – I seemed bereft of so much that had brought happiness into my life.” After her husband’s death, she requested permission from The Queen to use the title and style HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester instead of becoming HRH The Dowager Duchess of Gloucester. This permission was granted.
The arrival of three grandchildren brought some happiness back. Once the immediate pain of the grief had passed, she took up her royal duties again, and she was warmly received everywhere she went. She even returned to travelling overseas.
In 1994, Alice moved in with her son and daughter-in-law at Kensington Palace and officially retired from royal duties at the age of 98. In December 2001, Alice celebrated her 100th birthday, and it was also her last public appearance. When Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died in March 2002, Alice became the oldest living member of the British Royal Family.
Alice died on 29 October 2004 at the age of 102. Her funeral was held on 5 November 2004, and she was interred next to her husband at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore. The Dean of Windsor paid tribute to her “sense of fun and her love of people, particularly the young” during the service.1
One of the unsung heroines of the modern monarchy. She quietly did her duty with dignity and grace for 6+ decades. She definitely earned her HRH.