Hundreds gathered today to honour Duchess Elizabeth of Northumberland, not just for a distinguished life, but – as Bishop of Newcastle the Rt Rev Martin Wharton said – as woman, mother and grandmother.
Her grandson, Earl George Percy, told the congregation at St Michael’s Parish Church in Alnwick: “I could not have asked for a better grandmother.”
The Duchess, who died on September 19, aged 90, was born Lady Elizabeth Diana Montagu-Douglas-Scott, elder daughter of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch and his wife Mary (Mollie) Lascelles. Charles II and Mary, Queen of Scots, are in Duchess Elizabeth’s lineage. The family motto was Amo – I love – and she took that to heart in her family life.
Her marriage to Hugh, the 10th Duke of Northumberland, was a union of the coronets, bringing together families who centuries earlier had been at war.
Their wedding in 1946 was attended by the King and Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, was Duchess Elizabeth’s aunt.
But the memorial service heard from George she had a complete lack of snobbishness.
Born into great wealth, she was ‘the least spoilt person in the world’. There was laughter when he recounted her apparent attempt to instil that in the rest of the family – Christmas gifts demonstrating her ‘lack of extravagance’ such as a Red Cross diary three years out of date.
She had always hated public speaking and in her anxiety at the Duchess’s High School speech day had once advocated capital punishment for unruly pupils.
Earl George said: “I only knew Granny for the last 28 years of her life, but all that time she has played such an important role in my life as the matriarch of the family.
“She meant so much to so many – her children, her grandchildren, her godchildren, friends and relations, those acquaintances and all who came in contact with her through her charities, the Church and Armed Forces.
“A woman of strong and unwavering faith, she dealt with tragedy and illness with strength and resolve. She never looked down on anyone and would always see good in people.”
Duchess Elizabeth had known tragedy. She outlived two of her children. Louise was only two days old when she died in 1962. Duke Harry died in 1995. And she had been a widow 24 years.
She had seven children – Caroline de Cabarrus; Victoria Fellowes; Julia Craig Harvey; Harry, the 11th Duke; Ralph, the present Duke; Louise and James.
She had a happy but strict upbringing in the Scottish Borders. George said: “I always got the impression that for her really life started with the onset of war at the age of 17.”
After a time nursing soldiers, she joined the WRNS and worked aboard the liner-turned-troopship Mauretania, on hazardous missions crossing and recrossing the Atlantic to bring US troops to Europe. She became godmother to a daughter of the ship’s captain.
George recalled: “She was extremely brave in many ways, verging on reckless. Out hunting, the higher a fence was, it was seen as a challenge, no matter how frightened she was.”
She had a lifelong love of the hunt, though it was years since she had been able to follow on horseback.
The last time she saw the Percy hounds in full cry she had exclaimed: ‘Oh, I can’t wait for my next life when I can go hunting again!”
As the memorial service ended, huntsman Robert McCarthy took the Percy hunting horn into the churchyard and blew Gone Away.