Princess diaries

JUST as one royal scandal, at least, seemed to have been left to rest in peace, it is being resurrected, returning to haunt the Windsor family once more. For long before Paul Burrell touted tabloid tales of what the butler saw of the warring Waleses, there was a Scottish governess, Marion Crawford, whose gushing outpourings in the 1940s and 1950s about "the little princesses" - Elizabeth and Margaret Rose - left the late Queen Mother feeling betrayed.

She never forgave "Crawfie", as she was affectionately known in the royal family, for publishing her gauchely written personal reminiscences of the girlhood and alleged lack of higher education of her two daughters. It was in 1933 that Marion Crawford, the daughter of a mechanical engineer's clerk, born at Gatehead in Ayrshire, and who had attended Moray House Training College in Edinburgh, joined the Household of the Duke and Duchess of York, four years before they became King and Queen.

The Duchess, says the Queen Mother's biographer Hugo Vickers, was pleased to have found a governess young enough to share the youthful games of Princess Elizabeth, then just six, and Princess Margaret, not yet two. Although Crawfie admired the Duchess, she was not impressed by the way the Yorks approached the education of their children, a complaint supported by Princess Margaret, who, in later life, asserts Vickers in his revelatory book, Elizabeth The Queen Mother, wished she had had an education more suited to her undoubted intelligence. Crawfie was so frustrated by the Yorks' lack of interest in matters intellectual that she even became conspiratorial with Queen Mary about expanding the education of her granddaughters.

"To Crawfie, the Duchess appeared disinterested and gave little guidance," writes Vickers in his book, which provides a marvellously rounded, very personal portrait of the surprising woman Sir Harold Nicolson once called "one of the most amazing queens since Cleopatra", but whose enigmatic personality has evaded many previous biographers.

Although versions of the story of Crawfie's decision to share her recollections about the little princesses with millions of readers across the world have been told many times, the full truth about how, through endless misunderstandings on both sides, she incurred the Queen's displeasure and left Princess Elizabeth "deeply shocked and hurt and furious" has finally been unearthed by 54-year-old Vickers, an acknowledged royal expert and the award-winning biographer of Cecil Beaton, Vivien Leigh, and Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough, among others.

The distinguished, silver-haired Old Etonian, who discovered a cache of significant letters relating to the Crawfie affair in Princeton University Library, has been a royal watcher for more than 40 years. They've fascinated him virtually from the moment he emerged from his pram since he was delivered into the world by the Queen's gynaecologist Sir John Peel, and his mother's maternity nurse, Sister Thomson, went on to look after Princess Margaret at Clarence House when Lord Linley was born.

"She was the first person with direct knowledge ever to talk to me about the Queen Mother," says the writer and broadcaster, who covered the Queen Mother's funeral in 2002 for ITN.

Thanks to his connections, Vickers, who even counts Madonna among his acquaintances - she told American Vogue recently that she bought her 1,200-acre Ashcombe estate, the former home of Cecil Beaton on the Wiltshire and Dorset border after hearing about it from the writer, who also happens to be Beaton's literary executor - was often able to observe the Queen Mother at close hand.

He was invited to many public functions at which she was present, and later to a great many private ones. "But I was an outsider, an observer; I'm one of life's watchers," he insists, adding that a biographer must always remain on the outside looking in. "That's very much the spirit in which I approached the book."

"Do you think it's a help to know the subject?" the Queen Mother once asked Vickers when they were discussing biographies. He replied that he thought it was a help to have met them, but perhaps not to have come from the same world.

She had no idea, he confesses, that he was actually researching her own long life at the time, for his exhaustive 600-page tome, which he begins by revealing that her father, Lord Glamis, was late in registering her birth - and could neither remember where she was born, "nor, it is said, even the date. Unaware of the destiny of his ninth child, he recorded St Paul's Walden Bury, Hertfordshire, and 4 August".

The son of a stockbroker, Vickers has spent 17 years working on the biography - the authorised version is still being written by William Shawcross - and has had unprecedented access to several elderly ladies-in-waiting, some of the Queen Mother's more ancient contemporaries and friends, as well as members of the Royal Household.

The infinitely courteous Vickers may have conducted hundreds of interviews with the aged, but he also used his collection of hundreds of royal scrapbooks, his own diaries, explored countless archives, pored over many private papers, letters and unpublished memoirs, as well as certain very personal missives written by the Queen Mother herself and other royals, which offer unique insights into her girlhood at Glamis Castle in Scotland, when Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was pursued by a string of suitors.

Her marriage to "dear Bertie", the Duke of York, the abdication crisis, her views of the Duchess of Windsor, "an adventuress whom she did not consider significant enough to 'hate'," her iconic status during and after the London Blitz, her long widowhood, her uneasy relationship with her younger daughter, and the many stormy scandals that have beset all who sail in the ship of state nowadays, are covered in fresh and enthralling detail.

Vickers even suggests that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon may have had her eye on the Duke of Windsor as a possible husband before she accepted his younger brother, but only after he had proposed three times. "I suspect that she wasn't as keen to marry the Duke of York as he was to marry her," says Vickers.

Intensive research has enabled him to reveal the tortuous facts behind the Crawfie scandal, in addition to coming up with some wonderful gossipy quotes from candid interviews with the likes of the aesthete Stephen Tennant - that languid, lipsticked scion of Scotland's tragic Glenconner dynasty and whose brother Christopher was one of the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons' suitors - who said of the Queen Mother: "She looked everything that she was not: gentle, gullible, tenderness mingled with dispassionate serenity, cool, well-bred, remote. Behind this veil she schemed and vacillated, hard as nails."

But perhaps it took one old queen to recognise another one, for the ineffably bitchy Cecil Beaton described her in his devastating diaries, as "a marshmallow made on a welding machine".

"The one chapter that I am most proud of, however, is the one on Crawfie," Vickers admits, when we meet for lunch near his London home in leafy Kensington. It's the sort of smart restaurant where we're surrounded by the rich and titled, some of whom even feature in Vickers' book, he whispers, standing to greet Lady Stuart of Findhorn. Lord Snowdon, the late Princess Margaret's former husband, has a regular table here.

We discuss the Crawfie affair, which by today's tabloid standards has a certain naivety and innocence, although Queen Elizabeth was devastated by Crawfie's treachery. "And it was very shocking at the time. But I think I have cracked it and discovered what really happened. I feel great sympathy for Crawfie, who also felt betrayed by the royal family, although she was actually stitched up by a couple of absolutely awful American editors.

So what was Crawfie's crime? She had lived with the royal family on intimate terms. She was adored by their friends, had been involved with their pantomimes, and even captained the Buckingham Palace troupe of Girl Guides. All had gone well until, in 1947, two months before Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Prince Philip, the 38-year-old spinster married George Buthlay, a divorced, unemployed major, with a shady past, who was found employment with the Bank of Scotland by Sir Ulick Alexander, Keeper of the Privy Purse, thus enabling him to suggest that he was a bank manager. (He wasn't.)

By 1949, Crawfie and her husband had retired to a grace-and-favour residence at Kensington Palace. Buthlay was a philanderer, both before and after the marriage. Prodded by him, she became irritated by her pay, felt that her pension was inadequate, was even unhappy with the meagre wedding presents she received - a coffee set from Princess Elizabeth, three bedside lamps from Princess Margaret, "a complete and very beautiful" dinner service from Queen Mary, and a visitors' book from the Princess Royal. "In her book, The Little Princesses, Crawfie mentions nothing from the King and Queen, which may be significant," notes Vickers.

Buthlay sniffed the chance that his wife might make a lot of money by telling her own story in her own words, ensuring that the husband-and-wife team of the Goulds, unscrupulous joint editors of Ladies' Home Journal in the United States, heard that Crawfie was "definitely huffy" with the Palace.

She asked permission to write for the magazine about the education of the princesses, but Queen Elizabeth wrote to her: "I do feel most strongly that you must resist the allure of American money and persistent editors, and say No No No to offers of dollars for articles about something as private and as precious as our family."

The Queen's advice was not heeded. Crawfie published and was damned. The full saga, told in fascinating detail in Vickers' book, has more twists and turns than a classic whodunit, but, claims Vickers, Queen Elizabeth does not appear ever to have considered "the odious role" played by Crawfie's husband, which led to the governess's long ostracism. On publication of Crawfie's confessions, the Ladies' Home Journal put another 500,000 on its circulation, reaching two million. By November, 1950 the Buthlays had enough money to buy a large house in Aberdeen, to which they retreated. In the words of one courtier: "They were shunned by colleagues, from top to bottom." Crawfie went on to write other grovelling books about the royals and sold her name to a series of saccharine articles, all ghosted by the staff of Woman's Own.

Her own story ended badly. For the magazine she wrote an account of Trooping the Colour and Royal Ascot in June, 1955. Both events were cancelled due to a national rail strike in the six weeks between press date and publication. Crawfie became a figure of public mockery and was never heard of again.

Despite provocation she remained loyal to Buthlay, who died in 1977, and she stayed on in Aberdeen, making at least one suicide attempt in old age. She died in an Aberdeen nursing home in 1988 at the age of 78. Her Royal Household pension was paid until she died. Her funeral was lonely, with no wreaths from the royals.

Some will argue, maintains Vickers, that the Queen Mother was unduly harsh on the governess. He reserves his opinion. For somehow, he has stripped away the flurries of ostrich feathers, the clouds of powder-blue chiffon, the diamonds and pearls to reveal the real woman behind "the much-loved national treasure" - a woman who, for all her incessant smiling and gracious twinkling, had cold blue eyes, "as cold as ice - I twice saw that in my life".

And finally did the Queen Mother really sit in the car on her way to church, smiling to the crowds, while mouthing: "That's why the lady is a tramp"? "I feel sure she did," responds Vickers, "just as she once told an Ambassadress, while pulling on her gloves before entering a drawing room, 'Right, let the show commence!'"

• Elizabeth The Queen Mother, by Hugo Vickers, is published by Hutchinson, priced 20.