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Exclusive: Lady Anne Glenconner on her friend Princess Margaret... from partying in Mustique to their husbands' affairs

The two friends at Sandringham
For 30 years, Anne Glenconner was close friend, confidante and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret Credit: Courtesy of Anne Glenconner

For 30 years, Anne Glenconner was close friend, confidante and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. Here, she shares what life was really like touring the world together, partying on Mustique… and supporting each other through their husbands’ affairs

‘Have the chair Princess Margaret used to sit in,’ Anne Glenconner says, waving towards a deep armchair with green loose covers and chintz cushions. It’s to the left of the open fire that her royal friend, wearing her own rubber gloves, would set about laying. It sounds overly diligent behaviour for a guest, but this guest was on retreat from grandeur, duty, public scrutiny, and often from controversy, too. This old Norfolk farmhouse, close to the beach at Holkham where Princess Margaret and Lady Anne had played as children, offered the Princess the novelty of ordinariness. ‘As she had been a Girl Guide, she felt she could lay fires better than me. So doing this job, along with cleaning my car, which she loved to do, were two highlights of her holidays with me.’

The farmhouse is a few miles from Lady Anne’s family seat, Holkham Hall, the fifth largest estate in England with 27,000 acres. She can see its boundary wall from her bedroom window – but as a daughter, she was unable to inherit it. Early in her marriage, her father wisely persuaded her to buy a redundant farmhouse as a stable base in case things got rough. ‘If I hadn’t bought it, I have no idea where I’d be now.’

Inside, every table is crowded with family photos, the dresser with blue and white china, the walls with oil paintings, the settle in the hall piled with enough hats to stock a shop. On a bookshelf in what’s still called the nursery, there’s a jug in the shape of a smiling Queen Elizabeth II, with a corgi’s head for a spout, coming out of her right ear. Outside, half-hidden in foliage, is the summer house where the Princess and Lady Anne, who later became her lady-in-waiting, used to sit and watch the sun go down after pottering in the garden. If Princess Margaret walked in now she’d probably find everything exactly as she remembered. Only the chandelier that she dismantled and washed in the bath has been removed.

Lady Anne has written a sprightly, amusing but underlyingly dark memoir, Lady in Waiting, about life with Princess Margaret. On the day we meet to talk about it, the house is all bustle; she’s having her hair and make-up done for our photo shoot. ‘It’s almost like having a lady-in-waiting myself,’ she says. ‘I’m terribly spoiled. It must be because of my age. They think I can’t do anything for myself at all. It’s wonderful.’

Princess Margaret styles Lady Anne’s hair Credit: Courtesy of Anne Glenconner

At 87, Lady Anne is a tall, age-defying presence, practical and upbeat, with English-rose skin and honey-coloured hair. She has spent the last four days reading from her memoir for an audiobook recording, an ordeal that made her tongue swell up and, to her slight shame, caused her to break down.

‘I was ready to be stiff-upper-lip about it,’ she says, ‘but when I got to the bit about Henry, my second son, dying [from an Aids-related illness, aged 29, in 1990] and the last Christmas we spent together, I couldn’t go on.’ She recalls visiting him in the London Lighthouse hospice, with Princess Margaret. ‘It was long before Diana, Princess of Wales went with her posse of photographers,’ she says. ‘Nobody knew [Princess Margaret] had gone. She wasn’t tactile. She didn’t stroke [patients] or hold their hands, but she made them laugh. And they loved her. She made them forget.’

In a surprising rush of emotion, she calls her book ‘a love letter to Princess Margaret’.

She wants to show that the Princess wasn’t the selfish, imperious socialite portrayed in the first two series of The Crown, but a warm and witty friend. ‘I feel she has been misrepresented. A lot of rubbish has been written about her.’ Lady Anne claims to have seen The Crown ‘only occasionally’ and declines to give her verdict, but is nevertheless pleased that in the third series, Helena Bonham Carter takes over the role of Princess Margaret, and Lady Anne will be played by Nancy Carroll. Both actors spent hours with her, learning about their characters’ mannerisms and voices.

Anne Glenconner at home Credit: Ben Murphy

‘Helena is the right height and figure, and although her eyes aren’t blue, there’s a similar glint of mischievous intelligence,’ she says. ‘I think she’ll make a wonderful Princess Margaret. It’s rather lovely to think that, after so long apart [Princess Margaret died in 2002], we’ll be reunited on screen.’

It was a strange, symbiotic partnership. They travelled the world together for almost 30 years. On trips abroad, when work was over, the Princess would invite Lady Anne to her room. ‘We’d have a drink and a laugh, and we’d relax.’ On Mustique, the Caribbean island bought and developed by Lady Anne’s husband Colin Tennant (later Lord Glenconner), the Princess liked the ritual of untangling Lady Anne’s hair after a swim. For a year, she even lived with the Princess at Kensington Palace. Life, they agreed, was much easier without their volatile, misbehaving men around. Lady Anne looked after the Princess devotedly in her final year of ill health and diminishing sight, reading to her for hours on end. And yet, for all these intimacies, formalities were always observed.

‘I wouldn’t have dreamt of calling her anything but Ma’am. That’s the way I was brought up. When I was out with Princess Margaret, it was much better for me to call her Ma’am. It set a barrier for other people. I wouldn’t have liked to call her Margaret.’

Lady Anne’s family and the Royal family were so close you couldn’t put a blade of grass between them. The eldest child of the 5th Earl of Leicester, Anne Veronica Coke was brought up at Holkham Hall, 10 miles from Sandringham House, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were playmates with her and her younger sister Carey. ‘Margaret was naughty, fun and imaginative. The Queen, who was four years older, would say: “Margaret, you mustn’t do that. Anne, what are you doing?”’

Her mother, fun-loving Countess Leicester, was a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen, and her father was equerry to the Duke of York, later King George VI. Prince Charles was ‘like a younger brother’, and came to stay when he had chickenpox. ‘He was the sweetest boy. My mother taught him to drive and my father how to catch eels in the lake. He has been the kindest friend to me.’

Prince Charles holds Lady Anne’s son Henry in 1960, with Princess Anne (front) and Lady Leicester Credit: Courtesy of Anne Glenconner

Lady Coke, as she was then, was a maid of honour at the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – and almost fainted during the ceremony. Years later, she saw a private behind-the-scenes film of the day and remarked to Princess Margaret: ‘“Ma’am, everyone looks so happy except for you.” She said to me: “Well, Anne, of course I wasn’t happy. I’d just lost my beloved father, and really my sister because she was going to be so busy, and I’ve got to live with my mother.”’

She recalls how the Duke of Edinburgh (who had holidayed in Holkham as a boy, along with his sisters) fussed around the maids of honour before the coronation. ‘He got out of the carriage and told us what to do. Well, we knew exactly what to do! We’d been trained like soldiers by the Duke of Norfolk.’ Then she watched in trepidation as he clashed with Cecil Beaton, the society photographer beloved of the Queen Mother. ‘[The Duke of Edinburgh’s] frantic behaviour only added to the tension,’ Lady Anne writes in the book – but she understands now that he was simply frustrated at not having a clear role.

‘I liked him, though I was always a bit nervous because you never knew quite what he was going to say.’

Lady Anne belongs to a formidable generation of women, tempered by the Second World War and brought up to believe in the overriding virtue of endurance. ‘Not dwelling’ on adversity, infidelity or anything unfortunate is the precept they lived by. ‘We were taught not to overthink,’ she says, ‘not to look back or question.’ In a life of extremes – tragedy, high drama, dazzle and despair – she thinks it has served her well.

In marriage, great powers of resilience were needed. For all his charm and charisma, Colin Tennant was a man of ungovernable rages. ‘I did see his temper once or twice before we were married,’ she admits, ‘but he said he would change.’ She didn’t know he’d already had two nervous breakdowns. Nor did she know, until many years later, that Princess Margaret had written to Lady Anne’s mother saying she was right to be concerned about her daughter’s choice of husband, as he was ‘a fairly decadent fellow’.

She goes into the dining room to fetch a framed photograph of her 23-year-old self on 21 April 1956, resplendent in her wedding dress on the marble staircase at Holkham Hall. ‘Here I am waiting on the staircase,’ she says, ‘a little bit apprehensive about this honeymoon, you know, because in those days we girls were all virgins.’

Lord Glenconner, Princess Margaret and Lady Anne at a ball in 1986 Credit: Corbis

They arrived at the Hôtel Lotti in Paris at 2am to find that their room had two single beds. Lady Anne suggested pushing them together. ‘Well, Colin refused and completely lost his rag,’ she tells me. ‘The tiny French night porter was terrified of him. The only thing we could think of was to lug a huge double mattress, not very clean, up all these flights of stairs. Puffing and panting, Colin threw the mattress down. The little man was underneath. We got him out, then Colin lay down and went to sleep. I thought, “God, my night of passion has sort of gone.”’

There was worse to come. The following day, Tennant announced a surprise and she dressed up thinking they were going for dinner at the Ritz. ‘As the taxi got to the seedy outskirts of Paris,’ she says, ‘we stopped at this ghastly hotel, which I suppose was a brothel. We went upstairs to a bedroom where a couple were already on the bed, squelching away. There were two red-velvet chairs, luckily wing-back, and I sat in one and closed my eyes. They kept saying would we like to join in. Being very polite and well brought up, I said, “That’s very kind of you, but actually I don’t think so, thank you.”’

After what seemed like hours, she says, the couple got off the bed and left. ‘Was that your treat?’ she challenged Tennant. ‘I was so upset. How could he think I would have enjoyed this on the second day of my honeymoon?’

Later, in Cuba, another stop-off on their world tour, he took his wife to a cockfight, and one of the birds attacked her. ‘We were in the front row. One of them thought my hair was straw, I suppose, and sank its talons into my head. There was blood dripping down my face. Colin was furious with me – they all were – because I’d ruined their bets.’

The final act of the honeymoon from hell took place on a train to Wyoming. ‘We were playing cards – I prayed I’d get bad cards every time so he would win.’ When he didn’t, he flipped and pressed a lever to raise the bed to the wall, trapping his wife inside with her legs and arms poking out. The couple let the attendant think it was an accident.

After three months, Lady Anne became pregnant, and the honeymoon ended. ‘Thank goodness… we had to come home.’ Eventually the ‘endless, endless rages’ drove her back to her mother, Lady Leicester, who responded with a finality born of centuries of dutiful wifely submission. ‘She just said: “Anne, you married Colin. You go right back.” And I did and I was there for 54 years. That’s how we were brought up. To fold the towels neatly, bite the bullet.’

Yet there were good times, and she sums up their married life wryly: ‘Apart from his infidelity and his temper, we got on so well.’ Against this background, the bond between Lady Anne and Princess Margaret strengthened. By inviting her friend to become her lady-in-waiting, the Princess was effectively giving her an escape. Both husbands were having affairs.

‘She didn’t dwell on things,’ says Lady Anne. ‘Or spend hours complaining about Tony [Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon]. She told me enough to allow me to understand her position. I think she had a worse time than I did. Hers was so public.’ Lady Anne admired the Princess’s restraint. ‘She walked in a measured way. She didn’t give way as people seem to do nowadays. There’s nothing very private any more.’

On Princess Margaret’s first visit to Mustique, which was then still a mosquito-infested rock, she showered, like everyone else, using a bucket with holes in it, suspended from a tree and screened by a piece of sailcloth. They lived off fresh fish, tough lobster and tinned food. ‘She didn’t seem to mind. It was all an adventure to her, something she’d never had in her life.’

Later Lord Glenconner built Princess Margaret a Georgian-style colonial villa, Les Jolies Eaux, which became a refuge during the break-up of her marriage to Lord Snowdon. The parties hosted by the Glenconners were lavishly eccentric, attracting celebrities, socialites and rock stars including Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry.

Lady Anne on Mustique in the mid-’80s with Mick Jagger and Rupert Everett  Credit: Courtesy of Anne Glenconner

One day, to make up the numbers, the Glenconners invited Roddy Llewellyn to a house party at Glen, Colin’s ancestral Scottish estate, never imagining the coup de foudre that would ensue when he and the Princess, 17 years his senior, met. They had an eight-year romance and remained friends for life. Anticipating a scandal, Lady Anne remarked to her husband: ‘Oh gosh, what have we done?’

‘We had introduced them, though he wasn’t meant for her,’ she says. ‘Tony was behaving appallingly, with all his mistresses, and being not at all kind to her. He was spiteful in creative ways. We were actually very pleased [about the relationship], but thought the Royal household probably weren’t, so it was very nice when the Queen thanked me at the wake for Princess Margaret.’ She acknowledged that Roddy Llewellyn and Les Jolies Eaux had made her sister happy.

Lady Anne happened to be at Kensington Palace when Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend, the divorced man she’d loved, had a secret reunion in 1993. She and the former equerry to her father King George VI hadn’t seen one another since the 1950s, when the Princess was forced to choose between him and her royal life. ‘I knew he was coming to lunch and I rather naughtily watched him from the window. He looked a very old man. He got out of the car slowly. After he left, Princess Margaret rang for me. “How did it go, Ma’am?” I said. “He hasn’t changed a bit,” she replied. It was a touching response, given the 40 years that had passed.’

Roddy Llewellyn, Princess Margaret, Lady Anne and eldest son Charlie in 1971 Credit: Courtesy of Anne Glenconner

The Glenconners had five children – three sons and twin daughters – but the sons were struck by tragedy. The eldest, Charlie, a former heroin addict, died of hepatitis C in 1996; Henry contracted HIV and Aids; and Christopher, the youngest, almost lost his life following a motorcycle accident in 1987, while on a gap year in Belize.

‘We nursed him on a mattress on the floor, which was unheard of, with all his tubes. I sat with him on me, so he could feel my heart. It was very primitive – the warmth, my arms, my voice. It was like giving birth to him all over again. I was desperate. I’d tried everything. I knew my other sons were going to die and I just wasn’t going to let Christopher go.’

Helped by the boys’ former nanny Barbara Barnes (who was also nanny to Princes William and Harry) and a rota of friends, Lady Anne embarked on a daily regimen of sense stimulation to try to bring Christopher out of his coma.

After four months, she arrived at the hospital to find her son still unconscious, but crying. ‘Somewhere, something was making him unhappy.’ She hugged him. ‘Come on,’ she urged. ‘Let’s think about getting out of hospital. I know, I’ll buy you a racing car.’

‘The first word Christopher said when he woke was “Lamborghini”.’ No one is in any doubt that Lady Anne saved his life. He’s now recovered, married, and living with his wife Johanna in Norfolk.

‘Anne has enormous strength and determination along with an incredibly positive attitude towards life,’ says Johanna. ‘Christopher has inherited these strengths from his mother, and without them would never have made such a remarkable recovery.’

Prince Charles was a constant support –both then and later, when Lady Anne was dramatically disinherited by her husband in favour of Kent Adonai, a St Lucian fisherman who was his long-serving valet and personal assistant. Lord Glenconner died at the age of 83 in 2010. Lady Anne relives the ‘shock and humiliation’ of the will-reading on the day of her husband’s wake in St Lucia. ‘One bit of paper was brought out,’ she says. ‘“I leave everything to Kent Adonai, and I trust he will carry out my wishes towards the family.” He [Adonai] said to me, “I don’t know what Lord Glenconner meant.” I knew then that we truly stood to lose everything.

‘I don’t scream. I don’t shout,’ she continues. ‘I don’t do that sort of thing. Well, that night I did. I screamed and screamed into the pitch-black night and got rid of my anger and fury and humiliation.’

She says she has no idea what was in her husband’s mind when he wrote it. ‘It was either a horrible stunt because he never wanted to be forgotten – he always wanted to do something outrageous. Or on the other hand, he wasn’t well, he was muddled. It’s possible that he didn’t understand what he was doing. I’ll never know.’

She supported the court case brought by her grandson and heir to the title, Cody [Charlie’s son], who, after seven years, was granted some of the land.

Lady Anne’s belief in ‘not dwelling’ has been seriously tested by writing the book. ‘Suddenly, I’ve seen the whole thing, and all the good times. And the bad times have thankfully faded a bit. Colin never wanted to divorce. He was so proud of me in a way. He couldn’t do without me. I had to be there. He opened the doors – but I kept them open. I made things possible for him.’

Lady in Waiting, by Anne Glenconner, is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)