The current Duchess of Gloucester was born Birgitte Eva van Deurs Henriksen as the daughter of Asger Henriksen, a lawyer, and Vivian van Deurs, on 20 June 1946 in Odense, Denmark. She was educated in Odense and also attended school in Lausanne and Cambridge. She took on her mother’s name of van Deurs in January 1966 when her parents separated. In due time, both her parents remarried.
She met her future husband, then known as Prince Richard of Gloucester, in the late 1960s at Cambridge. He was an undergraduate in architecture, and he was the younger son of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. After Birgitte finished a three-year term in Commercial and Economic Studies in Copenhagen, she moved to the United Kingdom to work as a secretary at the Royal Danish Embassy in London.
Their engagement was announced in February 1972. The New York Times wrote,
“Queen’s Cousin will wed a secretary
The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester announced the engagement at Kensington Palace today and declared themselves “simply delighted” with the young woman their son had chosen to be his bride. She is a commoner – the daughter of a lawyer – who has studied languages in this country and has been working as a secretary in the Danish Embassy in London since 1970. Queen Elizabeth met Miss van Deurs a few days before she left on her Southeast Asia tour and gave her consent. The engagement was formally approved by the Privy Council on Feb. 41. […] After the wedding, the bride will be known as Princess Richard of Gloucester.”2
The wedding was set for 8 July 1972 at St Andrew’s Church, Barnwell. The New York Times reported the day after, “Informality was the keynote despite the presence of members of the royal family. They were outnumbered by friends and family of the couple.[…] The Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne are in Scotland and did not attend. But Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as well as the Prince of Wales, Princess Margaret and other members of the royal family, were among the 75 relatives and guests.”3
Unfortunately, Prince Richard’s father was not well enough to attend the ceremony but he met up with the rest of the guests at the reception. Birgitte was given away by her father, while Prince Richard’s elder brother Prince William acted as best man. There were no bridesmaids or pages. Birgitte wore a white swiss organdie dress with bands of lace trimming and a white veil. She also carried a bouquet of white flowers. The rain made it impossible for them to do a planned walk to greet well-wishers, and instead, they travelled by car.
Just six weeks after their wedding, Prince Richard’s elder brother Prince William was killed in an aeroplane crash. This meant that Prince Richard was now the heir to his father’s dukedom. Birgitte reportedly commented upon hearing the news, “But what is going to happen to my Richard? I don’t want him to change.”4 Prince Richard had planned for a life outside of the royal family, and his brother’s death meant that he would have to take up royal duties. For a time, Richard and Birgitte combined royal engagements with his job as an architect. Though he found a strong ally in Birgitte, she too disliked the limelight the royal duties brought and especially disliked making speeches. Like her husband, she would grow into her unexpected role.
Prince Henry died on 10 June 1974, and Richard and Birgitte became the new Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Birgitte’s mother-in-law asked to be known as Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, in order to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law.5
At the time of Prince Henry’s death, Birgitte was pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to a son named Alexander on 24 October 1974. He was born via caesarean section, and as the heir apparent to the Dukedom, he has the courtesy title of Earl of Ulster. Under the 1917 Letters Patent, he is not entitled to the style of HRH or the title of Prince. As such, when he succeeds to the dukedom, it will cease to be a royal dukedom. Two daughters, Lady Davina and Lady Rose, followed in 1977 and 1980, respectively. Birgitte reportedly also suffered several miscarriages.6
In 1980, her husband was interviewed about a volume of photographs that had been published, and he quipped about his title of Duke, “That’s rather a shame, really. Not for me, but for my wife. Being a Duchess sounds like someone old and haughty, whereas one thinks of a princess as being young and beautiful and living in a tower.”7
Since becoming a member of the British royal family, Birgitte has represented The Queen on many occasions. She has travelled all over the United Kingdom and the world with her husband to support various charities and patronages.
She was quoted as saying, “As members of the Royal Family and in our public life, The Duke and I have the huge privilege of continuously meeting people greatly committed to their work with charitable causes – many individuals being volunteers, doing all kinds of good works, giving of their time, talents and expertise.”8
And despite now being well above retirement age, both she and her husband are still active members of the royal family. They have even recently completed a month-long walking challenge to raise awareness for prostate cancer. She is also a grandmother of six.
- London Gazette 17 February 1972
- The New York Times – 16 February 1972
- The New York Times – 9 July 1972
- Family royal by Audrey Whiting p.131
- There does not appear to be an official Letters Patent to this effect, but she is referred to in the London Gazette as Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, the following year when The Queen made her Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
- Family royal by Audrey Whiting p.133
- The New York Times – 29 September 1980
- About the Duchess of Gloucester