Saturday, January 7, 2017

Crawfie and The Little Princesses

by Linda Fetterly Root

The Little Princesses, First Edition 1950

In February 1988, a few months short of her 79th birthday, a somewhat reclusive Scottish woman died in Aberdeen. Her online obituary is skeletal. Considering her background, that should not have been the case. It was as if she had disappeared in the mid-1950’s, never to be seen again. Her name was Marion Crawford, and while her young adulthood had been spent in the service of the House of Windsor, her claim to either fame or infamy, depending on one’s viewpoint, was because of a book.

Marion Crawford, Associated Press, 1949
Until a surprise move by the Queen in releasing her 90th Birthday video, the most noteworthy acknowledgment of Marion Crawford as having lived at all has been the five-page Foreword to a 2003 edition of a book first published in 1950. The author of the Foreword to the newest edition of The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford is BBC Royal Correspondent Jennie Bond, who gently memorializes its author as a woman who had served the Windsors long and well, and parted with the Royals under a cloud of controversy and hints of treachery. Other writers have characterized her as'The Palace Ogre'.  Since the publication of the first edition of her book, Crawford has literally been erased from subsequently authorized accounts of the youth of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Her apologist, journalist Jennie Bond is far more famous than the woman whom she eulogizes.

Yet, it was the elusive Miss Crawford, born in Ayrshire in 1909, who influenced the life of a sixth-grade student at Euclid Park Elementary School in Cleveland, when the school principal gave me a copy of The Little Princesses as a going-away gift when we left for California in 1951. Miss Crawford, you see, had spent the past 14 years of her life as governess to the British Royal Family. The princesses in the story were not characters in a fairy tale. They were flesh and blood. I had seen them on the Pathe Newsreels at the movies.

The book sold relatively well in the thriving American market and was the first notable post-war Best Seller in Britain. That is not the least surprising, since, in the post-WWII years, there was considerable curiosity about the members of the current Royal Family and the King who had never been expected to wear the crown. Rather than the handsome, dashing David Windsor, also known as Edward VIII, who in 1936 abdicated for the American divorcee-times-two, Wallis Warfield Simpson, his younger brother Bertie, known as George VI, and his Scottish wife and sweet daughters were rather commonplace. The book has been called both romantic and sympathetic. Only the most jaded reviewer would call it an expose. The current edition is acknowledged as suitable for all ages.The day to day life of tidy Lillibet,( the way the Queen pronounced her name when she was small) and the antics of rambunctious Margaret are described with affection and discretion. Birmingham Mail reporter Maureen Messent, in an article published in 2012 hinted that even today the book was probably the closest glimpse the reading public would ever get of the Windsors.

2003 Edition with forward by Jenny Bond
Yet, from the day it was published, neither Crawfie’s close friend, the consort, Queen Elizabeth (later, the Queen Mother), or either of the princesses spoke to her again. She was totally ostracized by the members of the royal family, and even now, her role in the childhood of the Queen is not mentioned in most accounts. This might be expected of a British Press that had not covered the pre-abdication rumors of Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Warfield Simpson, which was world news, but even the much more liberal press had little to say when Marion Crawford died in 1988.

‘Crawfie,’ as Marion Crawford had been dubbed by the Queen Consort, had joined the household when she was only 24, and the present Queen was six. Marion had been living in Dunfermline, an ancestral home of Scottish kings. She received her education there and dreamed of a career teaching underprivileged children. Half of her wish came true when friends called her to the attention of the future Queen Consort, then the Duchess of York, who was visiting Edinburgh. At the time, the Yorks were living modestly in Piccadilly with their two young daughters, and had no aspirations of wearing a crown. It is believed the Duke was enthusiastic over the appointment because of Miss Crawford’s youth. He had unpleasant memories of a childhood populated with stiff-necked governesses and tutors and wanted better for his cherished daughters.

Crawfie made a practice of taking the girls to public places and encouraged them to partake in functions appropriate to their station. She was instrumental in having a group of Girl Guides installed in the royal household and was proud of Elizabeth’s activities in support of the war effort. Marion was a shy, pleasant woman, and not without a life of her own. But when the man she later married first proposed and she discussed it with the Queen Consort, it was war time. “You cannot leave us now, Crawfie, not when we need you,' Queen consort Elizabeth is alleged to have said. Marion postponed the wedding until just before she retired in 1948. Like the Royals themselves, she had a strong sense of duty.She put her personal life on hold.
And therein lies the mystery of Marion Crawford. She always claimed she had the permission of the Royal Family to write about them. They, on the other hand, swore she had betrayed a special trust. She never once conceded that the publication of her book was unauthorized. In her book, she writes of the great price the princesses paid for their high positions in terms of a loss of privacy. Even in their public outings, access to the princesses was closely guarded. Crawfie was outraged at the intrusion of the press into discussions of Elizabeth's betrothal to Philip Mountbatten. Never once had she showed a tendency to profit from her position in the household. And yet, two years after her retirement, the book hit the presses, and a relationship that had endured for 14 years ended. From that time hence, when those close to the Crown speak out of school, their behavior is referred to as ‘doing a Crawfie.’ Other than as a subject of scorn, and a symbol of betrayal, Marion Crawford became a non-person in the Queen's childhood.

The inference she violated her position of trust for fame and fortune would appear self-evident if it were not so contrary to her behavior over the years. Recently, reports have surfaced of a plan to permit those closest to the Royal Family during the war years to comment to the American news media, as part of an effort to solidify the alliance between the United States and the Commonwealth. There was, however, a stipulation that those in service of the House of Windsor who published statements or gave interviews do so anonymously. Some of Marion Crawford’s apologists among the press suggest she interpreted the license to speak to be much broader than the Royals intended. But on the other hand, it is hard to picture her as that naive. Some say she felt slighted when other members of the Royal Household had received greater honors than she did when she retired. It is likely we shall never know.

Even her greatest critics agree that nothing in her strong-selling book did anything but elevate the position of the British Royal Family in the minds of those who read it. It certainly did so for me. If popularizing the British Crown with Americans who are both attracted and repulsed by the concept of a monarchy was the objective, the book should have been applauded, and its author should have been made a Dame.

The Final Chapter

The last bit of news on the topic of Marion Crawford comes from a video clip released on the Queen’s 90th Birthday. On January 5, 2017, the on-line edition of the Daily Mail reviews segments of the video and reports a thaw. In posting the queen's video, the Mail displays the film clip with the caption: ' Crawford, who was known as Crawfie and pictured here with the young Elizabeth, is featured in two royal home-movie clips used in BBC1’s Elizabeth At 90 this week — and was, crucially, acknowledged and named by a smiling Queen.’

Linda Root is the author of the novels The First Marie and the Queen of Scots; The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, including Unknown Princess; The Last Knight's Daughter; 1603 The Queen's Revenge; and In the Shadow of the Gallows. It's sequel, The Deliverance of the Lamb is coming this summer.


  1. Goodness, I remember that book! My Dad used to bring home all sorts of second hand stuff he had bought or been given and he brought home the hard cover book without its dust jacket when I was a child. I read it from cover to cover and remember envying their ponies and their life-size cubby-house and wishing that my sister and I could do little plays in costumes like theirs...

    I never realised it was unauthorised. Nice to hear the Queen is thawing, but a bit late for Crawfie!

  2. A wonderful article! I wonder what made her do it.


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