Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma was many things: peerlessly ambitious and well connected, a confidant to princes, a loyal family man, and the last Viceroy of India. He even orchestrated a royal marriage: Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark caught the eye of Princess Elizabeth when she was only 13, after Mountbatten arranged for his 18-year-old nephew to entertain the princess while her parents toured the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.
In Prince Philip's early 'stateless, nameless, and not far from penniless' years, Dickie, as he was known to his intimates, served as a guiding hand. The Duke of Edinburgh went on to remark that, "Most people think Dickie's my father." It didn't stop there. "No one could ever have had such a splendid honorary grandpapa in the history of avuncular relationships," wrote Prince Charles to the man who took him under his wing.
And then, on the August bank holiday in 1979, he set off on a fishing trip off the coast of County Sligo in his 29ft boat, Shadow V, with a party of six, including his eldest daughter, Patricia. The Provisional IRA blew it up. Mountbatten was killed, along with his 14-year-old grandson, Nicholas; Nicholas's grandmother, the 83-year-old Dowager Lady Brabourne; and a 15-year-old boat boy, Paul Maxwell. The Royal family and the world mourned; in New Delhi, shops closed for a week.
The family has been hitherto quiet, hardly discussing either its illustrious history or its great tragedy. But that has now changed. On 24 March Sotheby's will sell property from Newhouse, Patricia and her husband Lord (John) Brabourne's Kentish home, almost four years after her death.
If this sounds surprising, it's not, explains Lady Joanna Knatchbull, Patricia's eldest daughter. "My father died in 2005, and my mother started thinking about what was going to happen after her death, which was typical of her." While at Newhouse, priceless jades had sat on coffee tables next to children's artwork; it was clear the Knatchbull children would not have room in their own homes to divide their mother's possessions between themselves.
"She thought that it would be a nice thing to share these lovely objects with other people," says Lady Joanna's brother, the Hon Michael-John Knatchbull. "We've had the privilege of enjoying them, and now they can have a life with other people."
And very lovely they are too. In a room upstairs in the rabbit warren of Sotheby's on New Bond Street, the wares are spread out. Art deco 'Tutti Frutti' jewels belonging to Dickie's wife, Edwina Mountbatten, stare down a silver, enamel and hardstone Fabergé timepiece. A portrait of the former Vicereine of India is propped up with a painting by Derek Hill, of a dachshund named Rica. Sotheby's specialist Thomas Williams hands me Edwina's well-used tortoiseshell hairbrush, which feels surreal to say the least.
The family story is interwoven with that of the great royal dynasties of the 19th century and beyond, and Dickie revelled in it. "He was very interested in his ancestors, and traced them back to Charlemagne," explains David Macdonald, who is in charge of the Sotheby's sale.
Dickie could boast links to the British Royal family through his mother, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria; to the Greek royal family through his sister Princess Alice; to the Swedish royal family through his sister Queen Louise; and to the Russian royal family through his aunt Alix of Hesse, who in 1894 married the ill-fated future Tsar Nicholas II.
"By the 1970s there was hardly a European monarch who did not look to 'Uncle Dickie' as the 'shop steward of European royalty'," wrote his grandson the Hon Timothy Knatchbull in his memoir From a Clear Blue Sky. "No one in his family achieved much apart from him," says his official biographer, Philip Ziegler. "But they existed, and he thought that was important. He took relationships with royalty very seriously."
When, as a 22-year-old officer in the Royal Navy, Dickie married Edwina Ashley in 1922, his global connections widened. A descendant of Pocahontas, Edwina's mother Amalia Cassel was the daughter of Edward VII's financier Sir Ernest Cassel, one of the richest men in Europe.
When Sir Ernest died in 1921, he left Edwina the bulk of his fortune. Dickie was not the obvious suitor; when they were engaged to be married, the then Vicereine of India, Dame Alice Reading, is said to have remarked that she wished Edwina would marry "someone older with more of a career before him".
Nor was their marriage conventional. Edwina had a succession of lovers, including Coldstream Guards officer Lt Col Harold 'Bunny' Phillips, who, Edwina's daughter Lady Pamela Hicks wrote in her memoir Daughter of Empire, "we loved having in our home. He made my mother easier to be around."
In turn, in 1932 Dickie met French socialite Yola Letellier, who became his mistress. Still, in 1960, he was "devastated when Edwina died", says Andrew Lownie, author of The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves. "She was supportive of him in his public life, and he was supportive of her in her private life - he offered to have a divorce, if she wanted to marry Bunny."
Gift-giving between husband and wife was frequent. Many pieces for sale come with notes from one to the other. A pair of tiny gold and enamel elephants with the note "Edwina from Dickie, 18 July 1946" was an anniversary gift that might feel too personal to sell. But, says Lady Joanna, 2We grew up learning to disassociate our grandparents' public and private personas. Although some of the objects seem private, we feel OK about letting them go."
In 1924, the couple began their family, first with Patricia, followed by Pamela in 1929. The girls' childhood was unusual to say the least. In 1935, Edwina installed her daughters in a hotel on a Hungarian mountainside, then promptly lost the address and left them there for months.
After that, they went to stay with their Great-Uncle Ernie, Grand Duke of Hesse, in Darmstadt, Germany. Back at home in Adsdean, near Chichester, they were visited by Patricia's godfather, Edward VIII, shortly before he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson.
And in June 1940, after war broke out, the girls (who were one-eighth Jewish) were shipped to New York to board with Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue. Near the end of the Second World War, Patricia, by now a signals officer in Ceylon, met Coldstream Guards officer Captain Lord Brabourne, who instantly fell in love with her.
Eventually she accepted him and they were married in October 1946, settling into Newhouse, the dower house on the Brabourne estate at Mersham-le-Hatch, Kent. In time, their children joined them: Norton, now 3rd Earl Mountbatten (the title, created for Dickie in 1947, specified that Patricia could inherit it, and thereafter her 'heirs male') was born in 1947, followed by three brothers (one stillborn) and two sisters, before the arrival of twins Nicholas and Timothy in 1964 completed the clan.
Theirs was a happy home. "Family meals were a riot," says Lady Joanna. "We all talked all the time, over each other, and roared with laughter." Everyone was welcome. "They had their first child in the 1940s," she says, "and the last ones in the 1960s. In that time the world had changed, and they with it." Giving an address at Patricia's funeral, the Prince of Wales recalled one day leaning on the dining table and the table collapsing, causing the entire breakfast to crash to the ground. The general response was gales of laughter.
The Knatchbull children were close to their grandfather Dickie in the years before his murder. "We loved listening to his stories," says Michael-John. "We were on holiday with him in Ireland once, and there was a plan to build a dam across a stream that was running on to the beach. He gave us all spades and stood there trying to direct operations, but none of us were listening to him. He said, 'Bloody family, none of you ever pay any attention to me!'"
He would, says Lady Joanna, "speak to children in the same way that he spoke to adults, which made one feel valued. It came as a surprise to realise that he had a public side to him." Their grandmother, Edwina, by contrast "found us all a bit noisy". Patricia rarely spoke of the 1979 attack in public, but in 2008 she told The Telegraph about her "IRA facelift", the 120 stitches that were required to repair the damage to her face and eyes.
Newhouse, an 18th-century property, was an assembly of Brabourne-Mountbatten possessions, with furniture by Thomas Chippendale and pastels by John Russell. "Both Patricia and John came from families where having possessions was the norm," explains James Miller, the family's art adviser, "and you fitted them in. That gave it this special character."
This set-up is similar to that of Balmoral, says Harry Dalmeny, UK chairman of Sotheby's. "The way Countess Mountbatten lived chimes with the standards of the Royal family: that it's appropriate to incorporate incredibly valuable objects." Many of these have made it into the catalogue, including mementos of the family's Indian history.
Both grandfathers of the Knatchbull children served as Viceroy of India: the 5th Lord Brabourne in 1938 and Dickie in 1947 (he was then Governor-General until 1948). The Imperial Order of the Crown in India, set with diamonds and pearls, which once belonged to Patricia's mother-in-law, Doreen, Lady Brabourne, when vicereine, is up for sale. The only person who still wears this order today, and the last to hold it, is the Queen.
People think they know the story of Mountbatten, and television dramas such as The Crown do nothing to disabuse them of that notion. "There's a danger that historical fact can get mixed with fiction," says Michael-John. He has not seen The Crown, but adds about his grandfather that "I get upset when I hear certain things about him, and when I hear criticism of people depicted in The Crown. There's no platform for them to put it right."
After she died, Patricia was described by The New York Times as a "grande dame of Britain's elite". A family friend recalled her to me as "wise, intelligent, unjudgemental and strong". Timothy Knatchbull remembers his mother rediscovering the cartridge bag that his late twin Nicholas had used when shooting: "She adopted it as her handbag."
But beyond these fleeting appearances, her story has not yet been told. This sale gets us tantalisingly close to who she was. "Each generation of our family brought in the outside world, and left us pieces of it," says Lady Joanna. "That's what I'd like people to have a feeling of."
The sale 'Newhouse: property from the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma' will be held at Sotheby's London on 24 March, with a public exhibition on 20-23 March (sothebys.com)
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