In an extraordinary life, the Welsh miner’s daughter became in turn a popular model, a prince’s secret love, and finally the grand old lady of the Swedish royal family and honorary grandmother to a future queen.
For many Swedes, she is best known as the diminutive princess from Britain who turned up every year, without fail, to the Nobel Prize Banquet and other state occasions, glittering in silk dresses and diamond tiaras. Despite usually speaking English, not Swedish, the reputed fan of Bruce Springsteen and Sunset Beach became a much loved member of the Swedish royal family.
Her beginnings could not have stood in starker contrast to her later life. Born in 1915 into a mining family in the industrial town of Swansea in south Wales, Lillian May Davies grew up far from the gilded halls of Stockholm’s Royal Palace. Her father, William, left when Lilian was still young, and she grew up with her mother, Gladys.
After moving to London at the age of 18, she became a fashion model and actress, appearing in magazines including Vogue and acting in minor film roles (dropping the second ‘l’ from her name in the process.)
In September 1940, at the height of the Blitz, she married actor Ivan Craig in a civil ceremony in Horsham, England. Craig was shortly afterwards dispatched to North Africa, where he fought under Montgomery in the desert war against Rommel’s Africa Corps.
Meanwhile, like many other British women at the time, Lilian worked on the home front, first in a factory that made radio antennae for the navy and later in a hospital for wounded soldiers.
It was against this background of the tumult of war that Lilian met Sweden’s Prince Bertil. Grandson of Gustav V and son of Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf, heir to the throne, Bertil was serving as naval attache at the Swedish Embassy in London.
The pair met at a London nightclub. According to her memoirs, upon being told that the man staring at her from across the room was His Royal Highness Prince Bertil of Sweden, she replied: “And I’m the Queen of Sheba!”. Her initial scepticism overcome, she and Bertil exchanged telephone numbers.
A strong attraction developed, but the couple were forced to be discreet – the strict Swedish royal court would not tolerate a prince openly courting a married, working class British model.
A long courtship ensued, with Bertil once rushing to Lilian’s side from a dinner at the swanky Dorchester Hotel after the windows of her Knightsbridge flat were shattered by a German bomb.
Lilian’s marriage to Ivan Craig proved to be little obstacle to the match. Craig himself had had an affair and the couple arranged an amicable divorce in 1945. So amicable was the separation that Craig remained friends with Lilian and Bertil, later visiting them in Sweden.
Bertil and Lilian had every reason at the outset to hope that they might one day be able to marry.
As the third of four brothers (his sister became Queen Ingrid of Denmark), Bertil seemed destined for life of relative freedom as a minor Swedish royal. His older brother Prince Gustaf Adolf was expected to ascend the throne after their father.
However, the death of Prince Gustaf Adolf in a plane crash in Denmark in 1947 changed everything for Bertil – and, in turn, for Lilian. The new heir, Prince Carl Gustaf (now King Carl XVI Gustaf), was less than a year old. By this time both his brothers, Carl Johan and Sigvard, had been forced to give up their royal titles after marrying commoners, according to the strict practice of the Swedish Royal Court at the time.
With Bertil now the only member of his royal generation still in line to the throne and with the ever-present chance that the old king would die before Carl Gustaf had reached 18, he saw no possibility of marrying Lilian. This would inevitably have led to him, like his brothers, being forced to give up his right to the throne and could have precipitated a constitutional crisis.
The couple therefore chose a radical path: they lived together as cohabitees. Helped by a respectful press, the couple’s relationship was allowed to continue as an open secret in Stockholm society. In the early years they spent most of their time in Prince Bertil’s house in Sainte-Maxime on the French Riviera. In Stockholm they lived at Villa Solbacken, a modern house in the quiet Djurgården district of the capital. Lilian was frequently seen in Stockholm nightspots with Prince Bertil, but on official occasions she was forced to stay at home.
Lilian’s reception by the royal family was mixed at first, but her considerable charm – and her discretion – won them over. She was introduced to Gustav VI Adolf in Copenhagen, where he told her “You can call me ‘uncle'”, to which she replied “Yes sir!”.
But this private acknowledgement didn’t extend to official occasions:
“I was never invited. I officially did not exist. I had to sit at home and watch my darling on TV while he went to Nobel parties and so on,” she said in her memoirs.
By the 1970s, the royal court’s attitude to Lilian started to soften, and she was invited in 1972 to official celebrations of Gustaf VI Adolf’s 90th birthday.
But it was only after the death of the old king that the couple were able to marry, with the full support and blessing of the young new king, Carl XVI Gustaf. From then on, Lilian Craig was titled Her Royal Highness Princess Lilian, Duchess of Halland, and was one of the most senior members of the Swedish Royal Family, after the King, Queen and their children. After decades of invisibility, she was now a public figure and started taking on royal engagements. These she carried out mostly in English, despite the fact that by this stage she spoke Swedish quite well, according to reports.
The announcement of the couple’s engagement was tinged with sadness, however. In the official engagement interview, Bertil pointed out that by putting the monarchy before their desire to marry, they had passed up the chance to have children:
“There is of course one thing, maybe, that we regret, and that’s that we haven’t been able to get married before, so that we haven’t been able to have children. That’s something that’s rather sad, but after all, we’re still very happy, aren’t we,” he said.
With no children of their own, the prince and princess developed a close attachment to King Carl Gustaf, Queen Silvia and their family. For Crown Princess Victoria, Princess Madeleine and Prince Carl Philip, Lilian was a substitute grandmother (their own paternal grandmother, Princess Sibylla, having died before any of them were born).
When Prince Bertil died in 1997, Queen Silvia stayed at Villa Solbacken to look after the grieving Lilian – staying, according to Lilian’s biography, by her bed on a camp-bed on the floor.
“The Queen is my very best friend,” she said at the time.
Of Crown Princess Victoria, Lilian once declared: “She will be an excellent queen – so ambitious, interested and clever”. The closeness of the relationship between the two was demonstrated when Victoria was visibly moved at being presented with a portrait of her ‘Auntie Lilian’ ahead of her wedding in 2010.
Following her marriage, the Princess took on a number of official roles, taking over more patronages after Prince Bertil’s death. She was particularly engaged in organizations promoting Swedish sport, handing out the prize at the Stockholm Open tennis tournament. She was also patron of SOS Barnbyar, a children’s charity, to which she donated the proceeds of her biography, ‘My Life with Prince Bertil.’
Less predictably, she was also known to be a big fan of popular music, attending a Bruce Springsteen concern in Stockholm’s Globen arena at the age of 87. Springsteen and the princess struck up a rapport after sitting next to each other at an earlier Polar Prize banquet. Former royal press officer Elisabeth Tarras-Wahlberg, and Lilian’s biographer, described Springsteen as one of Lilian’s ‘idols’.
Lilian withdrew from public life in 2006, as age started to take its toll. In 2010 the palace confirmed that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She died at her home, Villa Solbacken, on 10th March 2013.