Who was Lady Fermoy, Diana's grandmother and why was she 'ghastly'?

Who was Ruth, Lady Fermoy? According to one distinguished biographer, Diana’s grandmother was ‘the GHASTLIEST woman’ he had come across in his researches

  • Diana’s grandmother, Lady Fermoy was a confidante of The Queen Mother
  • She also had major influence over the course of Diana’s childhood
  • Don’t miss our brilliant new podcast, The Crown: Fact or Fiction with Robert Hardman and Natasha Livingstone. Listen now on Spotify , Apple or wherever you get your podcasts

According to the late biographer and journalist, Anthony Holden, Ruth, Lady Fermoy was not without her flaws.

Or, to put is more frankly, she was, as he put it,  ‘the ghastliest woman I’ve come across in my researches’.

Whatever else she was, Diana’s grandmother was a notably influential figure at court, a friend and confidante of the last Queen Mother, whose outlook had a profound influence on the future Princess of Wales.

It has been suggested that Lady Fermoy was among those conniving to bring about a dynastically beneficial but inappropriate marriage between her granddaughter and the future King – although this is something she denied.

Lady Ruth Fermoy was a talented pianist who studied with the greats, but is known today as the grandmother of Princess Diana and confidante to the Queen Mother. Biographer Anthony Holden described her as ‘ghastly’

Diana, Princess of Wales, listens to her grandmother while future husband Prince Charles seems happy to check the odds at the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival in 1982

Edmund Maurice Burke Roche, Baron Fermoy and his much younger wife, Lady Fermoy, after  a society wedding in May 1933

She certainly took an uncompromising view when her daughter, Frances, left Johnny Spencer and the family home, siding with Spencer, not Frances – and appearing in court to ram the point home.

Lady Fermoy was born Ruth Sylvia Gill in October 1908 to wealthy Scottish landowners Colonel William Smith Gill and his wife, Ruth.

It is believed that Lady Fermoy had Armenian and Indian heritage. During her youth, Ruth showed early promise as a pianist and studied under renowned French virtuoso and scholar Alfred Cortot at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1920s.

But her musical career came to a halt when she married the wealthy, and much older, Maurice Roche, 4th Baron Fermoy, on September 17, 1931 at St. Devenick’s Church in Bieldside, near Aberdeen.

Together, Lord and Lady Fermoy had three children, including Frances  – later to become Frances Shand Kydd – the mother of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Lady Fermoy was known for her fastidious adherence to social rules and was a paraticularly firm believer in the sanctity of marriage.

This was so much so that when Johnny Spencer, then Viscount Althorp, sued for custody of Diana and her siblings in 1969, their grandmother supported him. 

Lady Fermoy had left her husband for another man – and Spencer won. 

Her royal connections began in 1956 when she was appointed ‘Extra Woman of the Bedchamber’ by the Queen Mother, who had lost her husband just four years before.

Lady Fermoy was introduced to the role through her own husband, who regularly went on shoots with King George VI but had passed away in 1955 . 

The Queen Mother, as she was now known, was said to prefer for appointing widows like her to the household. 

Promoted to ‘Woman of the Bedchamber’ in 1960, she held the post for the next 33 years.

Diana, her father-in-law Prince Philip and Princess Margaret are greeted by Lady Ruth, far left,  in Scrabster, Scotland, in 1985

Lady Fermoy, far left, began her royal career in 1956 when she was appointed ‘Extra Woman of the Bedchamber’ by the Queen Mother, centre

Lady Fermoy would spend much time with the Queen Mother at Royal Lodge, as well as Clarence House.

Because of this it was widely speculated that the two women had ‘set up’ their respective grandchildren, the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.

When asked about it, however, Lady Fermoy remarked: ‘You can say that if you like – but it simply wouldn’t be true’.

She had reportedly advised her granddaughter against the union, in fact, saying, ‘Darling, you must understand that their sense of humour and their lifestyle are different, and I don’t think it will suit you.’

Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton wrote that Diana had later realised that Lady Fermoy’s advice had not been for her sake, but rather for that of Charles as she ‘did not consider her an appropriate match for the future King’.

After her husband passed away, Lady Fermoy resumed her interest in the piano the piano, most notably with Josef Krips in 1950, and with Sir John Barbirolli in 1966.

She founded the King’s Lynn Festival in 1951 and remained closely involved with the Festival for 25 years, persuading the Queen Mother to become its patron.

British conductor and cellist Sir John Barbirolli with Ruth, Lady Fermoy at King’s Lynn in 1962

After her husband passed away, Lady Fermoy resumed her piano playing and founded the King’s Lynn Festival. She is pictured here in 1963

She was appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in June 1966 and a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in June 1979.

Lady Fermoy died at her home at 36 Eaton Square, London, on July 6, 1993, aged 84.

It was reported that she was not on speaking terms with Diana following the ‘War of the Waleses’ as Lady Fermoy reportedly believed the couple should have remained together to avoid scandal.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, told The Times in 1996: ‘Ruth was very distressed about Diana’s behaviour. 

‘She was totally and wholly a Charles person, because she’s seen him grow up, loved him like all the women at court do, and regarded Diana as an actress, a schemer.’

However, Morton claimed they made peace with one another shortly before the 84-year-old passed away.

Lady Fermoy was reintroduced to a global audience in Netflix’s series: The Crown, with viewers meeting the teenage Diana along with her formidable grandmother who trains the future Princess in the run-up to her wedding.

Scottish actress Georgie Glen, best known for her roles in Waterloo Road and Call the Midwife, portrayed Lady Fermoy in The Crown’s fourth season.

While it is unknown whether Lady Fermoy did give Diana any royal lessons, many assumed this considering her closeness to the Royal Family.

Anthony Holden once described Lady Fermoy as ‘the ghastliest woman I’ve come across’

Royal relatives and godparents are amused at the antics of young Prince William, on Prince Harry’s Christening day at Windsor Castle in December 1984. Lady Fermoy is sitting by the side of the Queen Mother, far left

Lady Fermoy died at her home at 36 Eaton Square, London, on July 6, 1993, aged 84

Her role in the life of Charles and Diana has come to the fore once again with the recent death of Anthony Holden, whose second biography of the future king, Charles in 1988 was the first to exposed the emptiness of his marriage to Diana.

In the book, he wrote, Diana ‘has a husband who no longer understands her ? nor even, it seems, much likes her’ – and insight that came some considerable time before Andrew Morton’s  Diana: Her True Story, blew the lid on the couple’s miserable life.)

It provoked a storm, with friends of Charles denouncing Holden for peddling fantasies and one of his senior aides going public to describe the book, published on the Prince’s 40th birthday, as ‘fiction from beginning to end’.

Subsequent events, of course, would prove Holden entirely correct. 

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