Sheltering from the rain on a half-term break to Northumberland, I was half-browsing in a second-hand bookshop with no particular aim in mind when a book tumbled from a shelf to my feet. Reaching down, I noticed its title: The Little Princesses.
This was a Royal blockbuster written by a woman whose breach of the Royal Family’s code of silence was so heinous that the author’s name remains a byword for betrayal.
The book was published seven decades ago, yet had a more seismic effect on the Royal Family than Finding Freedom, the indiscreet book about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that has provided an insight into the rivalry, jealousy and strained relations at the heart of the House of Windsor.
Crawfie is pictured above with Elizabeth and Margaret in a miniature car. By modern standards, Crawfie’s memoir seems far too gentle, loving and respectful to have inspired such vitriol
When The Little Princesses was published in 1950, the Royal Family regarded it as tantamount to treason. Never before had anyone dared reveal such intimate and candid details of the Windsors’ private lives.
Worse, its author was the Scottish teacher Marion Crawford, the much-loved ‘Crawfie’ who had been governess to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret for 17 years.
She had been rewarded with a grace and favour home, Nottingham Cottage, the three-bedroom house in the grounds of Kensington Palace where, decades later, Prince Harry proposed to Meghan.
I was captivated from the very first page, where Marion wrote that initially she never had any interest in Royalty.
As a student teacher, she had wanted to work with society’s other extreme, among the children in the notorious slums of Edinburgh. She wished to help close the gap between the haves and have-nots.
The contrast fascinated me. As soon as I finished the book, I delved into Crawfie’s story more thoroughly and it inspired my new novel, The Governess, which is directly inspired by Crawfie’s time at Buckingham Palace.
The fact is that her punishment was swift – and by Royal standards savage. She was shunned and disgraced, made an example of, in order, presumably, to dissuade anyone else from having the temerity to write about The Firm.
The=then Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret re pictured above with Marion Crawford in London in May 1939
After a lonely period in exile and at least one suicide attempt, she ended her life in a house the Royals passed en-route to Balmoral. They never stopped. Even today, among the Royal Family, ‘to do a Crawfie’ is to commit an act of dreadful treachery.
By modern standards, Crawfie’s memoir seems far too gentle, loving and respectful to have inspired such vitriol. She took readers back to the moment, exhausted and newly arrived from Scotland, she was taken by a butler to meet the six-year-old Princess Elizabeth who had insisted on waiting up for her.
The future king’s eldest daughter was sitting up in bed with two dressing-gown cords attached to the bedposts, pretending to drive her horses round the park.
Fifteen years later, Crawfie described her conversation with 21-year-old ‘Lilibet’ – as Elizabeth was known – in her suite at Buckingham Palace on the morning of her wedding to Prince Philip.
The book charts Elizabeth’s life until the final farewell in 1949 when, pregnant with Prince Charles, she kissed Crawfie goodbye at Nottingham Cottage.
The Little Princesses contains not a word of bitterness or insinuation; quite the opposite. She described the blissful life enjoyed by ‘We Four’, as George VI called his family.
Crawfie’s story began with a Royal approach out of the blue. The 22-year-old had a summer holiday job with Lady Rose Leveson-Gower, whose husband was Admiral at Edinburgh’s Rosyth shipyard. Lady Rose’s sister was the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) who had spotted the great rapport Marion had with children and asked her to teach her own two daughters.
However, the young governess was unsure. She had her work to do in the slums and believed the two princesses would be terribly spoilt. Yet that meeting in the night nursery, with the Princess driving her pretend horses round the park, was love at first sight for them both.
The trial-month became 17 years and the bond between Crawfie and Elizabeth came to redefine Royal history. It helped form the Queen we all know. For Crawfie brought her egalitarian ideas from the slums to the Palace.
Appalled at the remote and formal life the little Princesses were leading, she took them outside the Palace gates and on journeys on the London Underground and even set up a Buckingham Palace Guide Pack.
During one outing to Tottenham Court Road, Lilibet caused a scene in a self-service cafe by leaving her tea tray at the counter. The till operator yelled after her, much to the Princess’s delight.
‘Wasn’t she loud, Crawfie!’ Lilibet gasped. No one had ever raised their voice to the Princess before.
Young Margaret, according to Crawfie, took an interest in her looks from an early age while Lilibet ‘never cared a fig’ what she looked like and would wear whatever she was told without argument.
It was Crawfie, of course, who had to break it to Lilibet and Margaret, then ten and six respectively, that their father had unexpectedly become King during one of the biggest upheavals of the Monarchy.
When ‘Grandpapa England’, as Lilibet called George V, died in January 1936, ‘Uncle David’ (Edward VIII) reluctantly took over. As the Abdication crisis built, Crawfie had to comfort and distract her charges as their worried parents dashed backwards and forwards to London from the family home at Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park.
One day, there was a commotion outside as a large flashy car screeched to a halt. At the wheel sat the new King with a chic American in the passenger seat. ‘Crawfie!’ gasped a wide-eyed Lilibet, turning to gawp as she was hurried into the woods. ‘Who is she?’
After the whole country found out about Wallis Simpson, and George VI succeeded his brother following the Abdication, Crawfie moved with the family to Buckingham Palace. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Crawfie then began considering a return to private life. She was still young and had hopes of a family of her own.
But it was Hitler who stopped her and a five-year incarceration with the girls at Windsor Castle (an experience which rather puts the coronavirus lockdown into perspective). Crawfie recalled rushing the Princesses down to the ancient dungeons – serving as bomb shelters – as Hitler’s Heinkels flew overhead.
In the daytime, to divert the girls’ attention from the horrors of war, Crawfie played the piano and sang. She recalled how Lilibet, who she described as ‘a very thoughtful little girl’ would pause and say: ‘Oh, Crawfie, do you think we are being too happy?’
Some of the most charming memories come from Crawfie’s first-hand account of the burgeoning relationship between Lilibet and Philip.
The day 13-year-old Lilibet met Philip for the first time, Crawfie was there. Among other things, she tells us, Lilibet was impressed by the number of prawns he could eat.
She describes Elizabeth standing at 4.30pm every afternoon at the window of her room ‘to see the tall, lean figure coming past the fountain in the centre of the road outside the Palace, or to see his small sports car turn in at the Palace gates. Usually a deal too fast…’
As romance blossomed, Elizabeth ‘began to take more trouble with her appearance’, Crawfie revealed, and would frequently play People Will Say We’re In Love from the musical Oklahoma! on her gramophone.
Fevered speculation spread like wildfire. After visiting a factory in the early days of their relationship, Elizabeth returned ‘rather excited’, saying: ‘Crawfie, it was horrible. They shouted at me, “Where’s Philip?” ’
Within months an engagement had been announced and Crawfie remembered how ‘the romance did something wonderful to the Palace. All of a sudden the gloomy corridors seemed lighter’.
If The Little Princesses has any shocking revelations at all, it is the glimpse of something approaching obsessive compulsive disorder in Elizabeth. Crawfie describes the unerring nightly ritual where Lilibet placed her brogues with their laces precisely straight and laid out her clothes with a clinical neatness under a special protective net.
These were rare glimpses of our often steely-seeming Monarch as vulnerable; a frightened child yearning for order in a chaotic world. Crawfie, whose teacher training had included child psychology, understood all this. But little reciprocal understanding was extended to her.
An attempt to leave was rebuffed by George VI, who told her: ‘Your place is here with us. We really couldn’t do it without you.’ Aged 23 when she joined the Royals, Marion was 40 when, in 1949, they finally let her go.
It was too late to start a family of her own and she married badly, to George Buthlay, a bank manager who proved to be an overbearing husband. It was he who, in part, encouraged her to write that fatal book.
The treatment of Crawfie seems very heavy-handed considering that the idea for The Little Princesses began with the Queen Mother who wanted articles about her eldest daughter to run in an American magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, to benefit post-war UK/US relations.
Marion Crawford is seen above on the royal yacht in 1937 with the princesses and their mother. When Crawfie died in 1988, not a single Royal flower was sent to her funeral. Her book, once so notorious, had long been forgotten
A Palace-approved writer was to produce the reports and Crawfie, who knew Princess Elizabeth better than anyone, was expected to help provide the material.
George Buthlay, no doubt sensing money to be made, thought his wife should write the pieces herself and badgered her to ask permission from the Queen, who refused.
‘People associated with us must be utterly oyster,’ she told Crawfie, referring to the Royal need for privacy. It was too late; by then, The Ladies Home Journal’s unscrupulous editors had teamed up with Buthlay and persuaded Crawfie to write her story.
She did so, wrongly believing that the Queen Mother’s approval would ultimately be obtained.
Indeed, the Queen Mother duly complained to the publisher that Crawfie had ‘gone off her head’ and the governess was cast out into darkness.
The Little Princesses, of course, mentions nothing of this, nor how she fled to Aberdeen and bought a house yards from the road the Windsors took to Balmoral.
I’ve visited the detached villa in grey Aberdonian granite and have been haunted by the image of the elderly Crawfie standing at the window, dressed in her best and hoping against hope that the Royal limousines gliding by year after year to the castle might turn into her road and forgive her.
After her husband died in 1977, she became increasingly lonely, making at least one suicide attempt and leaving a poignant note which read: ‘I can’t bear those I love to pass me by on the road.’
When Crawfie died in 1988, not a single Royal flower was sent to her funeral. Her book, once so notorious, had long been forgotten.
Bringing this long-buried story to life has been the most interesting thing I have ever done. Crawfie’s tale is extraordinary; glamorous, dramatic and tragic by turns.
She had a ringside seat to the greatest show on earth and, during her glory years, lived as few people ever do.
Nearly 90 years after they first met, Crawfie’s legacy remains in the spirit with which the Queen relates to people from all walks of life. Intriguingly, there are signs that Her Majesty has realised the central importance of Crawfie in shaping her life.
For among the pictures and film clips released in April to mark her 94th birthday was a few seconds of grainy footage in which Crawfie and the young Princesses are seen dancing the Lambeth Walk.
I’ll take it as a sign that the Queen has finally forgiven her devoted and loving governess. It is surely the least she deserves.
The Governess by Wendy Holden is published by Welbeck on August 20, £12.99 hardback.