The Dowager Duchess of Grafton, steadfast confidante of the Queen who performed the duties of Mistress of the Robes with faultless discretion – obituary

·8 min read
The Queen with Prince Philip and, right, the Duchess Of Grafton at the State Opening Of Parliament, circa 1998 - Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images
The Queen with Prince Philip and, right, the Duchess Of Grafton at the State Opening Of Parliament, circa 1998 - Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

The Dowager Duchess of Grafton, who has died aged 101, was the second Mistress of the Robes of the Queen’s reign, the most senior of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and one of her close confidantes.

The Duchess became a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen in 1953, the year of the Coronation (in which she took part), and in 1967, as Countess of Euston, she succeeded the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire as Mistress of the Robes.

Few people in recent years have had such long-standing and close connections with Court. She was on duty on all the most important royal occasions, such as state visits and the State Opening of Parliament, and she was in overall charge of the rota of ladies-in-waiting.

She particularly enjoyed the important visit paid by the Queen to Nigeria in 1956, and was prominently in attendance in Paris in 1972 and in Russia in 1994, among many others.

The office of Mistress of the Robes has always been held by a duchess and has its origins in the reign of Elizabeth I, when the holder had charge of the Queen’s jewellery and clothes, especially her robes of state. By the mid-17th century she had become the senior lady of the Queen’s household and wielded a great deal of power and patronage.

Lady Diana Spencer, fiancée of the Prince of Wales, with the Duchess of Grafton at Royal Ascot, June 1981 - PA/PA Archive
Lady Diana Spencer, fiancée of the Prince of Wales, with the Duchess of Grafton at Royal Ascot, June 1981 - PA/PA Archive

Her importance increased under a Queen regnant (a Queen in her own right, rather than the King’s consort), when she presided over the Office of Robes. Probably the most celebrated Mistress of the Robes was Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, in the time of Queen Anne.

During Queen Victoria’s reign the appointment was a political one which changed with the Government –hence the “Bedchamber Crisis” of 1839 when, following Lord Melbourne’s resignation as Prime Minister, the Queen refused the Conservative Sir Robert Peel’s request that she dismiss her Whig-appointed Mistress of the Robes and ladies of the bedchamber. In more recent times such appointments have been non-political and permanent and a matter simply for the Queen.

The duties of the Mistress of the Robes are now honorary (the Queen has other staff who are responsible for her clothes), but as well as attending the Queen on state occasions, she and the other ladies-in-waiting also have an important though undefined role as a source of companionship and advice.

Ladies-in-waiting are almost always recommended by existing ladies and tend to come from families who have connections with the job and understand it. They are required to be present, but not to be seen; to help, but not to be obvious when doing so. They must never outshine their sovereign in dress or behaviour, and must observe complete discretion at all times.

The Duchess of Grafton performed her duties faultlessly. Over the years she was present at most of the important Royal occasions, including the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Carnarvon, and she accompanied the Queen on many state visits abroad (from which she always returned with a doll as a souvenir for her children).

Yet, although she was often to be seen on the nation’s television screens, she remained largely unrecognised by the general public. Like other ladies at Court, the Duchess prized her association with the Royal family highly, so always kept in the background and never spoke about her responsibilities except in the most general terms.

The Duke and Duchess of Grafton, 1997 - Dominic O'Neill
The Duke and Duchess of Grafton, 1997 - Dominic O'Neill

Undoubtedly, however, there were trying moments. During a visit to Morocco in 1980, the eccentric King Hassan, while behaving with a lack of consideration towards the Queen, also ordered the Duchess of Grafton and Mrs John Dugdale, one of the Queen’s Women of the Bedchamber, to leave the Royal Palace, even though it had been agreed that they should stay there. The two redoubtable ladies drew admiring glances as they marched with great stateliness out of the palace.

The Duchess was born Ann Fortune Smith on February 24 1920, the eldest child and only daughter of Captain Eric Smith MC, of Lower Ashfold, Slaugham, Sussex, a member of the Smith banking family, who was chairman of the National Provincial Bank and also of Rolls-Royce.

She therefore descended from Oswald Smith, of Blendon Hall, Kent, making her a second cousin twice removed of the Queen Mother, whose grandmother Frances, Countess of Strathmore, was Oswald Smith’s daughter. Through her mother Helen (née Williams) she was descended from Thomas Cook, founder of the famous travel agency.

Fortune and her three brothers – John (later Sir John, the Conservative MP and founder of The Landmark Trust), Jeremy and Mark (who became a distinguished eye specialist) – grew up at Ashfold, a large country house which their father halved in size, near Handcross in Sussex.

After schooling, Fortune Smith spent five years at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital training to be a nurse. There she made friends with Princess Xenia, eldest child of Prince Andrei of Russia. She then spent two years working with disabled children.

In 1946 she married Hugh FitzRoy, Earl of Euston, who would become the 11th Duke of Grafton on the death of his father in 1970. They had met when she was 18 at a ball at Euston Hall, the Grafton seat in Suffolk. He was often cited as a possible suitor for the Queen, and his grandmother suggested that Princess Elizabeth was somewhat sad when he married Fortune.

Nevertheless, a long and abiding friendship was forged between them. The Eustons were to have five children and to spend as much of their lives as time and duty allowed at home in Suffolk.

The Duchess of Grafton walking with the Queen Mother, circa late 1980s - Shutterstock
The Duchess of Grafton walking with the Queen Mother, circa late 1980s - Shutterstock

She was not the first in her family to marry a FitzRoy. In 1875 her great-aunt, Margaret Rose Smith, had married Lord Alfred FitzRoy, later Earl of Euston and the 8th Duke of Grafton.

In 1949 she was appointed to the bench of the London County Juvenile Courts and at that time was the youngest female magistrate in the country. She served on the London bench for 23 years, and in Suffolk also sat on the bench of the St Edmundsbury Juvenile Court and the Lackford Magistrates court.

She was involved with many local charities in East Anglia, serving as president of the West Suffolk Mission to the Deaf and of the British Heart Foundation’s branch at Bury St Edmunds. She was vice president of the Suffolk branch of the Royal British Legion’s Women’s Division.

During the 1990s the Duchess put in a great deal of personal effort as president of an appeal which successfully raised £1 million towards the building of a new children’s centre at the West Suffolk Hospital.

Away from East Anglia, she served as a member of the board of governors of Great Ormond Street Hospital from 1952 to 1966, and she was patron of the hospital’s Nurses’ League.

She served as vice-president of the Trinity Hospice, Clapham Common, and was patron of the Clarence River Historical Society in Grafton, New South Wales.

For many years the Graftons were close to the Queen Mother, and they often stayed with her at Royal Lodge or Sandringham. The Queen Mother tended to divide her friends into categories. The Graftons fitted comfortably into both the artistic and cultural, and the racing. They also accompanied her on her trips to France, and were much entertained when one of their hosts had a house filled with frogs in ceramics and many other forms.

After the death of the Duke, the Duchess moved to an apartment in Whitelands House, just off the King’s Road, where she enjoyed the friendship of Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, a retired lady in waiting to the Queen Mother, now aged 103, and was visited regularly by Lady Susan Hussey, a current lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

Residents in the building were occasionally surprised to see the Queen emerging from the lift; just before the first lockdown, the Queen presented the traditional card to a centenarian in person.

The Duchess used to slip into films such as The Young Victoria (2009) in the King’s Road and comment disparagingly about the lapses of court etiquette. Watching the Netflix series of The Crown with another courtier widow, Lady Charteris, her concerned refrain was: “Can the general public see this?”

The Duchess could be formidable; she was also extremely discreet, avoiding involvement with even authorised biographers, though she and the Duke did contribute to the Jonathan Gili film tribute to the Queen Mother. Even her family found it hard to prise any controversial views from her.

The Duchess never formally retired as Mistress of the Robes, though in extreme old age she ceased to attend public engagements, particularly when her sight failed her.

She was appointed CVO in 1965, DCVO in 1970 and GCVO in 1980.

She and the Duke, who died in 2011, had two sons and three daughters. Their elder son, Lord Euston, died in 2009.

The Dowager Duchess of Grafton, born February 24 1920, died December 3 2021