The death of Patricia, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, strikes me as sad despite her great age (93). Born on Valentine’s Day 1924, into one of the great families of the twentieth-century; she was a last link to a generation that will soon be extinct, and a reminder of the lost world in which the Mitfords and their ilk lived. She was the eldest daughter of Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (born Prince Louis of Battenberg) and Edwina (nee) Ashley, an heiress to her grandfather’s fortune. The relationship between the infant Patricia and her mother was strained, and Edwina has often been accused of being neglectful – I have written about it in The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne. The aforementioned reference is due to the fact Edwina ‘stole’ Doris’s man and benefactor, Laddie Sanford, a millionaire polo player and man about town. But, of course, as with the Mitfords, it would be unfair to judge Patricia solely on her family.
As Countess Mountbatten’s obituary in the Telegraph states, she was a great-great granddaughter of Queen Victoria, a first cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh, and a third cousin to Queen Elizabeth II. ‘A divine little daughter. Too thrilling,’ Edwina wrote of her daughter’s arrival. On the morning of Patricia’s birth, fifty letters arrived and flowers were delivered every fifteen minutes, and Edwina was given a bracelet, from her mother-in-law, that had once been Queen Victoria’s, and Dickie gifted her a ruby ring. Dickie himself was overseas with the Royal Navy, and upon hearing the news went ashore to Madeira to begin his long journey home. When the excitement was over, Patricia was sent to the nursery and placed in the care of Nanny Woodward, and Edwina concentrated on regaining her health and figure, and was determined to slim down for the latest Parisian fashions. The baby, however, became the centre of Dickie’s world: he photographed her, took her to see ponies, and gave her a hedgehog which he had found down the lane from their home. She was fourteen-months-old when Edwina finally referred to her as Patricia, rather than ‘the baby’, and two or three times a year (when nanny was on holiday) she lunched with her in the nursery. Edwina’s biographer, Janet Morgan, states that, while it was true Patricia lacked maternal love, she was safe in the nursery, away from kidnappers, journalists, and prying eyes. Five years later, a sister, Pamela was born.
It was a childhood of wealth and privilege, owing to her mother’s trust-fund and her father’s royal relatives. Patricia went to schools in England, Malta and New York, unusual for a girl from her background, for upper-class girls were usually taught by a governess. Perhaps Edwina enjoyed the freedom of her children being away from home. There were holidays abroad, although spent a safe distance from her mother, and always in the care of nanny. One holiday in particular was memorable, due to the frivolity of Edwina. The children and nanny went to the Hungarian mountains and, deposited in a small hotel, Edwina and her lover motored off on their own adventure. She lost the piece of paper which had the name of the hotel, and it was months before she returned for her children. Patricia was in her teens when the Second World War began, and Edwina decided Patricia and Pamela would be better off in America. Patricia and her sister were to travel as evacuees, and they would stay as the house guests of Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III. ‘Too sad and all in tears,’ Edwina noted in her diary, after taking the children to have their hair cut and to buy winter clothes. But the tears soon turned to smiles, and Patricia had become something of a social butterfly among the gatherings at New York apartments and Gilded Age mansions in Newport. She was, after all, an English evacuee with royal connections, whose mother knew everyone on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Nearly everyone we meet knows you,’ she wrote to Edwina. The only downside to American life was the absence of her French governess, ‘Zelle’, but she was soon shipped over and it put an end to the high life. Zelle taught the girls how to wash and mend their clothes, and they were no longer taken to luncheon parties to be gawked at by enquiring Americans with a thirst for British aristocrats. Patricia was enrolled in Miss Hewitt’s, a progressive establishment run by an Englishwoman and the former school of Margaret Whigham and Barbara Hutton. She turned eighteen while in New York, and missed out on a debutante ball like that of her English contemporaries, and she took off to Colorado by Greyhound bus to explore the country. The trip was varied; she picnicked with students from the School of Mining in Denver, and went to Washington to spend the night as the guest of President Roosevelt.
In 1942 Patricia left America and returned to England to join the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service). She served in Combined Operations in England, working in a tunnel one-hundred-feet below ground and was later commissioned as a third officer in the Supreme Allied Headquarters in South East Asia. It was during this latter post that she met her husband, John Knatchbull, who inherited the Barony of Brabourne after the death of his elder brother in 1943. They married after the war, at Romsey Abbey in 1946, and lived at Mersham, the Brabourne family seat in Kent. Despite an eccentric childhood and parents who, as they grew older, shared a partnership rather than a traditional marriage (both had lovers), Patricia was to devote her life to her family and to public service – something which her parents were also committed to. She served as Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia’s (her distant cousin and namesake) Canadian Light Infantry for thirty-three years, until her retirement in 2004. ‘When I turned 80, I said for goodness sake, I can’t drive a tank any longer,’ she remarked. In 1973 she was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Kent, and she served as a magistrate, was a Dame of the Order of St John, and was patron of the Countess of Mountbatten’s Own Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth. Although her father had been appointed Viceroy of India in 1947 – he was to be the last one, with a mandate to oversee British withdrawal – Patricia had her own family to contend with. She would go on to have eight children, including a set of twins; and her husband, despite his title, juggled a successful career as a film director.
The summer of 1979 was to become a turning point for Patricia. She, along with members of her family, were on a boat which was blown up by an IRA bomb, off the shores of Sligo. It killed her 14-year-old son, Nicholas, her father, her mother-in-law, and a 15-year-old boat boy from Co. Fermanagh. Patricia, her husband and their son, Timothy (Nicholas’s twin), were injured but had survived the blast. She was pulled from the boat’s debris onto a rubber dinghy, and she remained unconscious for days; her face needed 120 stitches, and she would refer to it as ‘my IRA facelift’. Following the death of her son, she supported the Child Bereavement Charity and became patron and later president of The Compassionate Friends.
Patricia Knatchbull, the 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma and Lady Brabourne, died on 13 June 2017. ‘I would love to feel that when I die I shall be reunited with my husband and son. Sadly, I can’t say I do believe it. But I think it’s a lovely thought.’