'Fergie' & the Duke of Edinburgh - setting the record straight

Sarah, Duchess of York, is in the news again.  'Fergie', the Queen's ex-daughter-in-law and mother of the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, has been invited to next week's royal wedding - and she is thrilled about that.  She will be there, with six hundred other guests, when Harry and Meghan marry in St George's Chapel, Windsor, and she will there for the reception afterwards.  However, Sarah has not been invited to the smaller, post-wedding evening party (for just 250 guests) to be hosted by Prince Charles - and she is sad about that.

Sarah still shares a home with her ex-husband Andrew (at Royal Lodge, Windsor) and is devoted to him and to their two daughters.  They will be going to the evening party.  She won't be - and that's upset her very much.

There has been lots in the press about this in recent days - and most of the reports have included an inaccuracy that has dogged this story for years.  Whenever Sarah is excluded from a royal event it is repeated that it's in part because her ex-father-in-law, the Duke of Edinburgh, can't bear to be in the same room as her and regards her as 'pointless'.  It's there again today in the Daily Telegraph where it is reported that Prince Philip allegedly described her as 'having no point'.  

Well, once and for all, let's put the record straight: he said no such thing.

The Duke of Edinburgh has only ever talked on the record about this once - in an interview with me in May 1999.  

I said to him: 'And Sarah?  There's a knee-jerk reaction out there that if the Duchess of York isn't being treated generously, somehow you're behind it.'

He shook his head and replied: 'I try to keep out of these things as much as possible.'  He pulled  a wry face.  'Her behaviour was a bit odd.'  He sighed - as you might after a lifetime of being misreported.  'But I'm not vindictive.  I am not vindictive ... I don't see her because I don't see much point.  But the children come and stay.'

That's it.  That's all he said on the subject.  He never said she was 'pointless'.  He never accused her of 'having no point'.  All he said was that, having divorced Prince Andrew and left the Royal Family, he didn't see her because he didn't see much point in seeing her.

Some while later, when I saw Sarah and she said to me, 'The Duke of Edinburgh thinks I'm pointless', I told her, 'That's not what he said' and I think she understood.  In fact, it prompted her to tell me how she had sent him a birthday present - it was a set of china, I think - and he had sent her a nice thank you note, signed 'with love from Pa'.

Whenever I have met Sarah, I have always liked her.  Unfortunately, when I interviewed her, in the run-up to Mothering Sunday in 2001, I reduced her to tears.  Seventeen years on, I think the interview is more revealing than I realised at the time.  It gives a good flavour of what she's like and - given her own childhood - why.

Mothering Sunday, March 2001

‘What have you done to her, Gyles?   She’s crying.’  Kate Waddington, friend and public relations adviser to Sarah, Duchess of York, has come into the room – a modest suite on the third floor of the Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge – to find me cooing over her gently blubbing client. 

Kate raises an eyebrow and shakes her head.   She decides it is not safe to leave us on our own and settles herself discreetly in a far corner of the room.  Sarah looks at me.  Her face is grey, her eyes are puffy, her famous red hair seems suddenly to have lost its bounce and sheen.  ‘I have given you my heart,’ she says.

I have come to talk to her about motherhood.   Whatever the follies and indiscretions of her twenties and thirties (toe-curling toe-sucking with an American money-man in the South of France, for example), I admire the way Sarah Ferguson, now 41, and five years divorced from the Queen’s second son, has turned around her troubled finances (in the United States she is an A Grade celebrity with a reputation for delivering the goods and an income to match), and no one can doubt her devotion to her daughters, the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, now 12 and 11, and fifth and sixth in line to the throne.   Sarah lives with them (and a new Norland nanny, Ellie, 22, ‘our dragon-tamer’, she calls her) at Sunninghill Park, Ascot, the home she shares with Prince Andrew, her former husband and ‘bestest, bestest friend’.  

’We’re celebrating Mothering Sunday,’ I explain at the start of our conversation, ‘so can we talk about you as a mother?   Shall we begin at the beginning?’

‘Conception was the easy bit.’   We laugh.  She looks strained, she speaks quietly, but her manner still has something of the hectic gosh-golly Sloane Ranger of the 1980s about it. 

‘What about pregnancy?’

‘Being pregnant?’ she grins.  ‘I loved it.  I liked lemon puff biscuits and smoked mackerel sandwiches from Marks & Spencers.  I remember ballooning up to a great 14 stone 7 lbs.’  (She is now a trim size 12 and earns much of her money as a spokeswoman for Weightwatchers International.  While I tuck into the sandwiches, with her fingers she picks at small slivers of chicken breast.)

‘What about their births?’

‘Beatrice had to be induced.  I was married to a naval husband, a serving officer who only got two weeks’ shore leave for the baby.  There was no special treatment.  He was based in Hong Kong and came back for a fortnight and the baby had to be born then.  I remember the day, the eighth of the eighth eighty-eight, walking through Windsor Park, all 14 stone 7 lbs of me, trying to get through a barbed wire fence to avoid the press.  It took three men with great clodhopping boots to break the fence to let me through.  Then I got into the car and went to the Portland Hospital in London.  Andrew nearly fainted when he saw the epidural needle.  He was holding my hand when I was having it done.  He’s a deeply sensitive person.  He’s so sweet.  He’s so kind.

‘Anyway, Beatrice was born and she was fine. And Andrew did his two weeks with us, then he had to go back to sea.  And I wanted to go with him.  That’s when the criticism started.  I hadn’t seen my husband for nine months.  The last time he’d seen me I was 14 stone 7 lbs.  I felt I needed to work on the marriage, so I left Beatrice in the hands of a wonderful nanny and went off to be with him.  And the press thought that was not on.  They said I should have taken my baby with me, but the Palace refused to let me take her.  They said, “No, she must stay at home.”  That was very difficult for me.  I had to make a choice between husband and child.  I made the decision I felt was right.’

‘What about Eugenie?’

‘Just before touchdown with Eugenie – this was March, 1990, three weeks before she was due – I was called in front of three men from the Palace and was given a telling off for doing something wrong – yet again – using the wrong car at the wrong time in the wrong place.

‘Eugenie was connected, ready to go for natural childbirth, head down and all that.  I got such a fright.  I hated it so much.  I came out of that meeting, I came up the stairs and I felt Eugenie turn round.  She didn’t want to come out.  She was frightened.  I nearly fainted.  She went into a breach and she turned round and they had to do a Caesarean section.  There are really sad memories for me with all that, because it was so unnecessary to be so hard on me at a time when I was very emotional.  When you’ve done your time and you’re ready to have your baby, it’s very sad not to have it naturally.’

‘Were you any good at the domestic side of bringing up babies?’

‘No, I was hopeless, hopeless.  The maternity nurse, Esmee, aged sixty, came for six weeks and taught me things.   “You don’t put cold milk back in a jug that’s been washed up with hot water. It has to be washed up with cold water.”  That was one of her rules.  I thought, “Do I have to remember all this?”  I didn’t breast-feed.’

‘Do you feel guilty about that?’

‘No, no, no.  Good heavens, no.   I didn’t do it because, quite frankly, I didn’t want to.  I wanted to get on, to get everything sorted.  I am a perfectionist.  I like everything neat and tidy.  And breast-feeding . . .  I’m not very patient and I like my sleep.  They talk about breast-feeding and bonding – well, my girls are bonded to me at the hip.  We are so close.’

‘Would you like to have another child?’

‘As long as it’s a boy.  I couldn’t have another girl.’  

‘Do you think a lot about the way in which you are bringing up your daughters?’

‘Yes.  My mother brought me up never to look in the mirror because she said that was vain.  She taught me never to cry, but to grin and bear it.   She also taught me to believe that you shouldn’t worry about yourself: you should see how others were doing.  And that’s how I looked on everything too, until one day, when I was in a hotel in New York, it was the Plaza Athene, and I saw Beatrice – she was about three – looking at herself in a mirror.   Suddenly I heard myself saying, “Beatrice, don’t be so vain,” and then I thought, “I don’t believe I said that.”

‘Later that same day I went to visit Mother Hale, this huge, wonderful Afro-Carribean lady who runs a home for abandoned children in New York.  I went into her house and all the way around I saw little mirrors at children’s height.  I said to Mother Hale, “What’s all this about?” and she said, “It’s so important for children to be given a sense of self-esteem, so that they know that in themselves they have the strength to achieve anything.”   From that day forward, I changed my approach with my children.  I broke the pattern set by my mother and grandmother.  And my children have blossomed. I say to them, “Aren’t you pretty?  Aren’t you lovely?  Aren’t you special?”’

While Sarah takes a gulp of tea, I offer my own two cents’ worth.  ‘Freud says somewhere that a mother’s favourite child keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, “that confidence of success that often induces real success.”’

Sarah looks directly at me.  ‘Gyles, I promise you even to this day I walk into a room and think I’m ugly, fat and my hair is silly, red and curly.  I have absolutely no confidence.  I can stand up in front of a room of five thousand people and they tell me they’re pleased to see me, but I think they’re only saying it.  I won’t feel it because I haven’t learnt it yet.  I’m getting better.  And my mother meant no harm.  She loved me and she gave me other things.  For example, she gave me her great Irish energy and her magic.  The pixie dust.  The belief that Tinkerbell does exist.  And that Alice in Wonderland isn’t just a story about a girl going down a rabbit hole.  It’s about how you can go into your mind and really see the Cheshire Cat.  You can see magic anywhere if you look hard enough.’

I know exactly what the Duchess is getting at, but I would hazard a guess that Prince Philip, if he’s got this far, has now thrown the Sunday Telegraph into the fireplace. 

Sarah no longer believes in the virtues of the stiff upper lip.  She reckons bottling up your feelings is positively harmful.  ‘My mother’s generation said “Don’t speak.   Don’t say you’re unhappy.  Don’t say you’re angry.”  I think that’s all wrong.  I say to my girls, “Go on, tell me.  Are you angry with me?  Have I annoyed you?”  We sit down and talk.  “Was that a grubby day?  Why was it a grubby day?”  Or I’ll make them stand in the middle of Sunninghill Park and scream – which is what I do.’  Sarah suddenly goes ‘Aargh!’ for me.  ‘I make them scream.  They say, “Mummy, we can’t.”  I say, “Why not?  Who’s going to hear?  Scream.”’

Knowing that some readers may dismiss this as so much self-indulgent psychobabble (Sarah spends a lot of time in America these days), I ask her where she has learnt these ideas.  ‘From talking to therapists?’

 ‘No, not therapists,’ she says firmly.  ‘Talking to children, talking to wise people like Mother Hale.  I’m lucky, I meet a lot of remarkable people.  If I was asked to have a dinner party, who would I have to sit next to me?  Rudyard Kipling.  I carry that poem If with me wherever I go.  It’s in my handbag now.  The philosophy expressed in that poem – that is what I think is right.’

We agree that Mr Kipling writes exceedingly good poetry.  We exchange favourite lines, we laugh and move on.  ‘What, for you, have been the best moments so far in being a mother?’ I ask.

‘In a nutshell?  Every single night – not so much now, but when they were small – at five o’clock, when I was able to shut the nursery door.  I literally closed everybody out – my bank manager, my bad press, everybody – I went into that room with my children and that was it.  No one could get me.  We were safe.  And I was playing.  I had magic.  I did colouring, we watched telly.  I loved it because I could absorb myself totally with my children.   And then at seven o’clock it was bath time and then at 7.30, every single night – come what may – we would pile into one or other daughter’s bed and read three books.  On a busy night, two books.  Without fail.’ 

‘What about the worst moments?  The first time they were ill – do you remember that?’

‘I do admire so much parents who cope with children who have leukaemia or cancer.  My children have a cold and it freaks me out.  But when they’re ill I get on and fix it as best I can.’

‘When Beatrice went off to school for the first time, was that traumatic?’

‘Not at all.  I was very proud of this naughty little thing with her hat on, with her funny little walking shoes, with everything so sweet and so little, and her little tiny satchel.  I just loved her, like a doll.  I still call them my dolls.  They are my dolls.  They’re just talking dolls.  My children are talking dolls.  I dress them, I brush their hair, every day.’

‘You don’t dress them in identical outfits any longer?’

‘I did for ages.  I got criticised for that.  But Beatrice wanted to dress like her sister.  When she said she didn’t want to any more, I changed it.  She loved it to a certain point.’

‘Isn’t one of the pleasures of motherhood going shopping with your daughter?’

‘Yes.  I wish my mum had taken me shopping and taught me her style.  Mum had tremendous style and’ – Sarah hesitates and pulls a quirky face – ‘I obviously didn’t quite inherit that at the beginning.  I made some huge blunders.  But the great thing with my girls is that we chat, we talk, we discuss.  There’s nothing taboo.  And I’m not over-suffocating with them.  I’m the opposite.  I believe they are God’s children and I’m just there to guide them in a certain way.  I don’t believe they’re mine.’

‘Are you an active believer then?’

‘Yes, oh, yes.  Didn’t you know?’

‘You’re a proper Christian, not just a spiritual person?’

‘Yes.’  She looks over to Kate.  ‘Can I say that?’

Kate is at the far end of the room, head down, staring into her coffee cup.

I decide to move on.  ‘What about schools?’

‘They’re both going to be at day schools for the forseable future, which is what I like and they like.  If they want to board they can board – we’re easy.  I didn’t like boarding school.  I missed my mum.  And I needed to be with my ponies.  They were consistent and safe.  The ponies understood me.  That’s another story.’

There is a silence.  I look down at my list of questions.  ‘How do you keep your daughters real?  You’ve had an unreal life in many ways –‘

‘Totally.’

‘So how do you keep them normal?’

‘They do sleepovers.  They stay the night with friends.  They know exactly how other people live.  They also have a mother who works.  If you want to be real: I am a single working mum with two girls who has to meet the budgets every month.’

‘Do they get pocket money?’

‘Yes, and they have to keep a little account of it.  I do about £ 1 a week at the moment.  It needs to go up a bit, but it’s not just hand-outs when they need it.  They really have a great sense of responsibility, especially Beatrice.  She’s much more responsible than I am.’

‘Do they watch TV?  Do you let them see Friends?’

‘Yes.  Andrew makes them watch the National Geographic Channel.  With me they watch Disney.’   She laughs.

‘Do you have house rules?’

‘Monday to Friday during term time we don’t allow fizzy drinks and crisps, and we keep to lots of greens and good home cooking.’

‘Do you cook?’

‘No, don’t cook, shan’t cook, won’t cook.  And I don’t have any qualms about it.  I know what tastes good, but I just will not do it.  Because we live at Sunninghill Park we have His Royal Highness [Prince Andrew]’s cook.

‘We have three sets of table manners – this is very important.  Table Manners A is for Granny – their granny in particular – the Boss.’

‘The Queen?  And what does that involve?’

‘If we go to tea at Windsor or Balmoral, we do it properly.  We have our little napkin.  We offer granny the sandwiches first, before we take the whole lot onto our plate.  We don’t take the raisins out of the scones half-way through a conversation – or flick them across the table.  We don’t ask for ketchup when the Duke of Edinburgh is sitting there.  We don’t say, “Oh, the Ribena tastes old” which it probably is.  We don’t say, “We don’t eat pate sandwiches”.  We just shut up and eat what we’re given.  We can have fish fingers when we get home.’

‘Speak when you’re spoken to?’

‘No, I encourage them to speak up actually – even on Table Manners A.  It keeps the conversation going, and saves me having to do it.’

She rolls up another piece of chicken breast and takes a bite.  ‘I know this is for Mothering Sunday, but if we’re voting for the best granny in the world I have to tell you the Boss is the best granny.’

‘You’re keen on Her Majesty as a granny?’

 ‘And as a person.  She’s my icon.  I look up to her.  I think she’s the finest woman I know.’  Sarah’s eyes are glistening.  ‘Don’t make me blub again.  HM has got a wonderful sense of humour.  She loves to sing.  She is the widest-read woman in the world and yet she has this wonderful compassion and total and utter understanding.  She is very forgiving.  She doesn’t poke her nose in.  She lets you have free rein, but she doesn’t miss a trick.’

‘Do you think she is better as a grandmother than as a mother?’

‘My father is a much better grandfather than he was a father.  I just think – I wrote this down before I came to talk to you – that 1945, the end of the war – I think it must be very difficult as a mother and father to have gone through that time bringing up children – everything was different, there was rationing, you didn’t have television.  We’re different now.  Not that she does [she is referring to the Queen here], but you might regard my behaviour as very extravagant and completely over-the-top because you’re coming from that sort of look on life.  So when you see this redhead, you think she’s very greedy and over-the-top . . .  ‘

She runs to a halt.  The sentence trails away.  She hasn’t answered my question, but I don’t press it because I sense she is trying to say something else that is important to her.  She knows there are still those at Buckingham Palace – senior members of the Royal Family, courtiers of the old school – who regard her as beyond the pale.  She wants me to know she understands where they are coming from.  She only wishes they would try to understand her too.

At the far end of the room Kate stirs and Sarah gets back on track.  ‘Table Manners B is for in a restaurant, especially when you’re being watched.   You can have fun, but always remember people are looking at you.  That will go for the future as well.  I tell the girls always to smile – because it costs so little and it means so much. 

‘Table Manners C is for at home, when it’s just Andrew and me.  We like to have lunch together always on a Sunday.  It gets kinda funny.  Anything goes.’

Famously Lord Charteris, for many years private secretary to the Queen, described the Duchess as ‘vulgar, vulgar, vulgar’.   Canny old bird that he was, in this instance I think he was wrong.   Headstrong, impetuous, naïve, worldly but not wise, eager-to-please but so often getting it not-quite-right, touchingly hungry for love, the v-word that first springs to mind when I think of Sarah is ‘vulnerable’.   I try to put the next question to her as kindly as I can.   ‘Do you feel when your marriage fails that you have also failed as a mother?’

She frowns and says, after a long pause, ‘In my particular case, no, not at all.  When we got divorced, the girls knew they had our total devotion, they felt the love of us both, in separate ways.  Andrew and I communicated so well they didn’t feel there was a loss because the sense of loss comes from antagonised talk or the terrible tear of going between one house and another.  There was none of that with us.  We just stepped into another room for a few years.  Now we’ve stepped back into the same house again.  The girls know exactly how mummy and papa are, how they talk to each other, how they hug each other, how they are very happy to be in the same room as each other.’

‘You were twelve when your mother left home?’   Sarah mother’s, Susan Wright,  married Major Ronald Ferguson in 1956.  They were divorced in 1974.

‘Yes.  Mum fell in love with Hector [Barrantes, an Argentinian polo professional] and followed him to Argentina.  It was an obsession.  She couldn’t stop herself.  I was angry.  I wanted to tell her I loved her and I missed her desperately, but I couldn’t because I didn’t want her to worry about me.  She’d just found her love and I didn’t want to hurt her because she was so happy, and I’d seen her unhappy, so I just ate my emotions.   I ate my feelings – which is why I had weight problems from the age of twelve.  I want to teach my girls not to have to hide from their feelings.’

Susan Barrantes was killed in a car crash in Argentina in September 1998.  ‘Now she is dead, are you still angry with her?’

‘May I say it a different way?  I look at Beatrice at the age of twelve – as she is now - and I think, “How could my mother have ever left me?”   If I left Beatrice now . . .  I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t.  She’s my world.’

‘Do you miss your mum now?’

‘I think of her every day.  It’s awful.  I miss her energy.  I miss the excitement of thinking she’s going to arrive.  She had a special necklace – it had a tiger’s claw on it that she’d been given in India, and a coffee bean she’d been given in Brazil.  She used to come clanking down the landing and you’d hear her coming with the sound of the necklace.  I sort of wish she’d taken me with her to Argentina, but dad said I had to be schooled in Britain and he was right.’

‘You were brought up largely by him?’

‘And the housekeeper.  And then he married Sue [Deptford], my wicked stepmother.  I loved her with all my heart.  She taught me about petticoats under skirts and the contraceptive pill and what I was to do when boys kissed me.  Because my mum was out in Argentina and it was the Falklands war, I had three years without talking to her.  I had Sue instead.  She’s the born mother.  She’s so loving and giving.  She wouldn’t harm a fly, so much so that you’d walk over her if you weren’t careful.  She just made magic for me,  in her homely way.’

‘So we should salute stepmothers as well as mothers on Mothering Sunday?’

‘Oh yes.  And mothers-in-law.  I had the best mother-in-law.  I always send her something on Mothering Sunday – a card and a little bunch of flowers.’

‘And Her Majesty likes that?’

‘I don’t know, but I do it.  I love her to bits.’

Kate is hovering.  It’s time to go. 

‘One last question.  What is the single most important thing a mother has to do?’

Sarah looks at me.  She shakes her hair.  ‘Okay, I’ll tell you.’  She brushes her skirt and stretches her arms out wide.  ‘The lap is always open and the arms are always there.  All you need is that.  And my mum had great difficulty in doing that.’  The tears are tumbling down her cheeks.

Gyles Brandreth