Memories of the life of Princess of Wales’ stepmother
PUBLISHED: 18:49 27 October 2020 | UPDATED: 18:49 27 October 2020
Credit: Dave Bagnall Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
Ex-BBC court correspondent Michael Cole recalls life of Countess Raine Spencer, stepmother of Princess Diana
My phone rang. “Hello”, said a friendly voice. “This is Lady Dartmouth. I am chairman of the GLC Historic Buildings Board. We are saving the Coutts Bank headquarters. It’s a good story. Would you be kind enough to bring your cameras down to The Strand?”
I said “Yes”. Of course I did. In 1969, I was a young BBC television reporter. Politicians didn’t ring me. Yet here was one of the most famous women in the country, later to become even more famous as Countess Raine Spencer, bothering to do her own PR work.
And when the camera crew and I arrived, she confided: “And when we have stopped them pulling down Coutts’ lovely façade, we are going to save Covent Garden”.
And she did. Faced with what she called “the excessively destructive plan by the GLC”, she resigned; a very hard thing for her to do because loyalty to the Tory party was second nature. But it had the desired effect.
There should be a statue of her in Covent Garden because the historic market would not exist but for Raine. She acted at a time when very few people were prepared to fight to save our threatened buildings.
I knew Raine for 48 years. I never heard her say a bad word about anyone. That was not her style. From the very beginning, Raine was undeniably a class act.
A notably beautiful child, she was viewed in her cradle by the infant Princess Elizabeth who declared, not unreasonably, “Raine - what a funny name”.
Raine was Deb of the Season and Bride of the Year, with 12 bridesmaids, even more than the grown-up Princess Elizabeth who had married the previous year.
Raine married three titled men - she was famously ‘three times a Countess’. She was the mother of four talented children with eight devoted grandchildren.
Her own great talent was for friendship. She had a wonderful sense of humour. But the jokes were always on her.
I once asked if she could remember all the names and titles she had had since was born Miss Raine MaCorquodale in 1929. She accepted the challenge. She went through the list but suddenly paused: “Then I became Lady Lewisham” she said. “You know, Lewisham, where the buses go to”. Giggle.
I asked her advice once about what I should buy my wife, Jane, for her birthday: Raine looked at me. “People say it’s the thought that counts, Michael, but it’s the jewels that count!”
It is just possible that Raine was the original busy woman to whom you gave a difficult job with absolute confidence that the job would be done. I know little of astrology but I have met a few Virgos in my time and married one. They are all organised, hard-working, conscientious, reliable and loyal.
Raine would always say: “Duty first”. As a member of the British Tourist Association in the 1960s, she created headlines by denouncing the litter and dirty tea cups at London Airport. My mother was one of millions who cheered: at last, a woman who was prepared to speak out, who saw what needed to be done. And did it.
She gave more than 20 years to local government. Raine might have been a Margaret Thatcher, before the Iron Lady herself, had she not decided to give national politics a miss. This followed near riots outside her house in Hill Street, Mayfair, by baying mobs depicting her as London’s Marie Antoinette.
“Gerald was very good about it”, she said of her first husband, Gerald Legge, Lord Dartmouth. “But then, he had been in the Coldstream Guards at Dunkirk.”
Her achievements in public life and for charities are too many to mention but she even amazed herself by being appointed to the BBC National Agricultural Committee. “Oh, Michael, all that mud. The countryside’s not really me. I need the pavements of Mayfair under my feet”.
If ever there was a true Mayfair Lady, it was Raine. But that didn’t stop her playing a full part in Norfolk life when she and Lord Dartmouth divorced and she married the newly divorced Earl Spencer, then living at Park House, Sandringham, with his children, including of course his youngest daughter, Lady Diana Spencer.
Raine certainly did not marry ‘Johnnie’ Spencer for his money. At the time, he was on bad terms with his father who threatened to disinherit him, actually banning him from entering the county of Northamptonshire where he was Lord Lieutenant.
That’s why Diana and her siblings saw little of Althorp, the Spencer stately home in the county, until their father inherited. It was Raine who did much to reconcile Johnnie’s father with his son and eventual heir. Her charm was immense and never more effectively employed.
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The story of how Raine helped Johnnie to recover from a huge stroke that nearly killed him is well known. But perhaps not the telling details. Raine went to the hospital every day but the prognosis was bad.
Lord Spencer was in a deep coma. Raine asked the nurses if there was an optimum time when he might come out of his coma, if that were ever to happen. Armed with this advice, she fetched his Sony Walkman from home, put the earphones on his head, and inserted his favourite CD, Madam Butterfly.
She found his favourite aria, One Fine Day. At the optimum moment, she gently increased the volume. As she did so, she felt his hand clasp hers. The recovery had begun. The rest is history, with Johnnie able to walk his youngest daughter down the aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral to marry Prince Charles.
Raine made Johnnie happy to the end of his life. She made Althorp a happy home for him, which it had not been when he was growing up.
Raine spoke fondly of all her husbands. She told me she loved them all. She remained on friendly terms with her last husband, Frenchman Jean-Francois, Count de Chambrun, until he died the years before she did in 2016.
Even at Nice Town Hall, waiting for their divorce to be finalised by the French Republic, they sat together, crying. “We were in floods”, she told me. “We were getting divorced but we really didn’t know why. I adored Jean-Francois”.
His daughter, the jewellery designer Barbara de Chambrun, told me: “You know, in my life, there was never anyone like Raine. She made my father so happy and she was always so wonderful to me”.
Barbara was not the only step-daughter with whom Raine got on well. In the precious years before her tragic, terrible, early death in Paris, Diana, Princess of Wales, became firm friends with Raine and not just because, as Diana put it, “we have Daddy in common”. Diana came to recognise Raine’s integrity, loyalty and down-to-earth good judgement of things.
But Raine didn’t think she was great. That was perhaps the greatest thing about her: “Who are we?” she once asked me. “The McCorquodales? We were printers from Manchester”.
Like Diana, Raine knew what it was like to be unfairly attacked in the Press, invariably by people who didn’t know her but wouldn’t let their ignorance stop them from being unkind and sometimes cruel. Raine believed it was good manners not to notice.
“Don’t worry about that”, she would say, if I expressed concern. “People never read the words. As long as it’s a nice photograph, that’s all that’s really important”.
And she always did take a good photograph. She had a beautiful complexion and sparkling bright eyes. Perhaps that was because she never touched alcohol.
I told her she was always a “cheap date”. On our last lunch together, in 2015, she surprised me by asking if I would deliver the address at her memorial service. I tried very hard to say no.
“You will live as long as your mother”, I told her. “And BC lived to be nearly 100”. Raine always called Barbara Cartland “BC” and she never uttered a word against her, although I am sure Miss Cartland could not have been the easiest mother to have.
But about her own state of health, Raine knew the truth better than I did and the truth was not good. I could not decline the task of giving the address, however reluctantly I contemplated it.
For the rest of the lunch, not another word was said about eulogies, funerals or the illness that killed her. She was of the generation that was brought up to be stoic and accept the hand that life deals you.
She faced the end, from cancer, just as bravely as she had faced the many challenges in her remarkable life.
My abiding memory of her will be her appearance in a BBC film a few years ago, about Claridge’s, which ended with Raine descending the hotel’s Grand Staircase singing Ivor Novello’s, We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again.
And she could sing too.
In her last letter to me, she wrote, “Life has been a fabulous adventure and I feel so lucky and grateful”.
Her final illness was short and her end peaceful. Raine asked to sit up in bed. She smiled. And she died.
A greatly experienced nurse who was present said: “It was a beautiful death”.
That is right and proper because it truly was a beautiful life and we shall not see its like again.