HER ROYAL HIGHNESS PRINCESS ELISABETH OF DENMARK was, before a change in constitutional law, in direct line for the Danish throne. For the rest of her life she combined royal duties with her ‘day job’ as a diplomat…
Princess Elisabeth was a month short of her fifth birthday when Hitler launched his invasion of her country on 9th April 1940. Her grandfather, King Christian X, decided that, unlike his brother, King Haakon of Norway, he would not go into exile in Britain. Instead he chose to remain at Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen with his wife, Queen Alexandrine, and the rest of the royal family, including Crown Prince Frederick, and Elisabeth’s father, Prince Knud.
One of the young princess’s most enduring memories was of the king setting off each morning, alone, on horseback, to ride through the streets of the capital, where he was greeted as a hero, apocryphally assured that all of Denmark was his bodyguard.
The occupation, increasingly oppressive as the war dragged on, ended on May 5, 1945, when Elisabeth was ten years old, causing her not only to loathe totalitarianism and antisemitism, but to look to diplomacy as the best means of resolving the world’s problems.
As a princess in line of succession to the throne, she could have been expected to choose a representative role in public life. Alternatively, having studied fashion as a young woman, she might have embarked on a discreet career in haute couture. Her choice, however, which she combined with her royal duties, was to serve as a member of the Danish foreign service, which twice posted her to the embassy in Washington and, later, sent her to the UN mission in Geneva.
In her private life she was equally determined to go her own way. She never married and had no children, but lived for many years with her partner, the late film-maker Claus Hermansen.
“Princess Elisabeth never married and had no children, but lived for many years with her partner, the late film-maker Claus Hermansen.”
Elisabeth Caroline-Mathilde Alexandrine Helena Olga Thyra Feodora Estrid Margrethe Désirée, hereditary princess of the House of Glücksburg, was born in Copenhagen in 1935. Her father, Prince Knud, was the younger son of Crown Prince Christian (later King Christian X) and his wife, Princess Alexandrine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, formerly the ruling house of the grand duchy of the same name in northeast Prussia.
She had two younger brothers, Prince Ingolf and Prince Christian, both of whom, amid much furore, were forced to relinquish their royal titles when they married commoners. Her father was heir presumptive to his brother, who had three daughters but no sons. Had Knud become king after the death of Frederick in 1972, Elisabeth, as next in line, with no males to supplant her claim, would have been crowned in her own right four years later. In the event, Knud, who died in 1976, aged 75, found himself knocked back in the line of succession after a change in the law that replaced him with his niece, now Queen Margrethe II.
As it was, Elisabeth continued to work for the foreign office while living, intermittently, in a wing of the Sorgenfri Palace, north of Copenhagen, where she had grown up and where she always thought of as home.
It was at Sorgenfri that Elisabeth began her education, advancing, first, to a privately run secondary school, then to Brillantmont, an exclusive academy in Lausanne, Switzerland, before concluding with a year spent at the Suhrske Husholdningsskole, where she studied cooking and domestic economy. The irony of a princess of the blood learning how to follow recipes and mend clothes was not lost on the royal student, who in old age remarked that she was glad not to have to think about household matters that were properly the prerogative of palace staff.
Approaching twenty, by which time it might have been supposed that she would be looking towards a suitable royal match, Elisabeth broke with tradition by enrolling at the pioneering Margrethe Skolen in Copenhagen, that today, as the Scandinavian Academy of Fashion Design, enjoys an international reputation.
While accomplished by now at cooking, household economy, fashion and, as an afterthought, touch-typing, Princess Elisabeth felt ready to follow her first love: diplomacy. She joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Udenrigsministeriet, in 1956, as a trainee, working her way up over the years to the rank of head of section. From 1973 to 1976, during the Cold War, she was posted to Washington, where Denmark was under heavy fire for its decision to cut defence spending by 8 per cent.
“Accomplished at cooking, household economy, fashion and, as an afterthought, touch-typing, Princess Elisabeth felt ready to follow her first love: diplomacy.”
Her second stint in the US, from 1981 to 1985, during the Reagan years, proved happier. Denmark by now was a strong supporter of the Atlantic Alliance, and the opportunity to invite a bona fide royal to dinner was rarely passed up by Washington’s powerful network of society hostesses.
Princess Elisabeth’s last foreign posting was closer to home, in Geneva, where she was a senior member of the staff at the Danish mission to the UN, co-ordinating work on trade, development aid and humanitarian affairs.
Although she never married, her relationship with Hermansen, sixteen years her senior, was central to her life for more than two decades, until his death in 1997. Hermansen, a director, screenwriter and sometime actor, was a respected figure in the Scandanavian film industry. As a member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation, he had made several short films exposing the reality of German rule. He would go on to work on comedies as chief cameraman for the director Peer Guldbrandsen, but found time as well to make documentaries, two of which won awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Throughout the second half of her career, during which she continued to maintain close relationships with the royal family, Princess Elisabeth lived with Hermansen in the fashionable suburb of Furesø, northwest of Copenhagen. After his death she moved back to the Sorgenfri Palace, where she was content to receive friends and family and to pass on her accumulated wisdom to younger members of the monarchy. “I watch everything possible on TV,” she told the newspaper Billed Bladet. “Nature programmes, entertainment and series. That means I never read a book. I’m rarely in the [palace] rooms because I find it hard climbing stairs.”
She spent a lot of time, she said, with her nieces, Camilla and Josephine, who helped her with the shopping and other jobs. “It’s not easy to grow old,” she confessed. “For me, the worst is not that health fails. The worst thing is missing my dearest one and the many friends who are not here any more.”
HER ROYAL HIGHNESS PRINCESS ELISABETH OF DENMARK was born on 8th May 1935. She died, after a long period of ill health, on 19th June 2018, aged 83.
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This article has also been published in The Times.