When they were together there was always a lot of laughter. It was a jolly, infectious humour, often wry but never cruel, and based on shared experiences going back decades. And no one spanned the Queen’s life quite like her lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey.
The earl’s daughter who arrived at Buckingham Palace as a 21-year-old to help with the royal postbag after the birth of Prince Andrew was still there more than 60 uncomplaining years later, accompanying the Queen to Prince Philip’s funeral and, after Her Majesty’s death, leading members of her personal staff to the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall.
Unflappable, loyal and discreet, it was inevitable that Lady Susan, a godmother to Prince William, would be among the handful of the late monarch’s most trusted staff invited to serve the new Queen Consort Camilla.
After her decades at the Queen’s side, Lady Susan was recognised as a consummate go-between for the royals and the people they meet. ‘She was as skilled as any diplomat and never put a foot wrong,’ says one person who worked closely with her
So however unfortunate her comments, her sudden resignation yesterday for repeatedly asking a black British charity boss where she originally came from has stunned her closest friends and reopened the toxic debate about alleged racism within the Royal Household.
The speed of the announcement revealed the Palace’s extreme sensitivity over the issue just days before the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Netflix documentary, which is widely expected to rekindle the couple’s inflammatory accusations that a member of the Royal Family had made a remark they construed as racist by speculating what their son Archie would look like when he was born.
But it also triggered a heated debate about what many described to me yesterday as the ‘unjust’ treatment of an 83-year-old widow who devoted her life to the royals, with some accusing King Charles’s aides of acting with ‘indecent haste’ in announcing her departure.
As one veteran courtier said: ‘Where is their duty of care and compassion towards a much-loved member of staff who has led an exemplary life of service and dedication to the monarchy?
When they were together there was always a lot of laughter. It was a jolly, infectious humour, often wry but never cruel, and based on shared experiences going back decades. And no one spanned the Queen’s life quite like her lady- in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey
‘The speed with which this has taken place does not just damage Lady Susan’s reputation but that of the institution as well. Shouldn’t there have been some kind of calm, considered investigation? Instead it looks like the reaction has been driven by social media.’
Royal insiders suggest the urgency was partly motivated by the arrival of the Prince and Princess of Wales in the U.S. city of Boston and fear that the fallout from the ‘race row’ incident would overshadow their visit.
Certainly, Prince William’s spokesman was unequivocal. ‘Racism has no place in our society,’ he said. ‘The comments were unacceptable and it is right that the individual has stepped aside with immediate effect.’
But a former close aide to the Queen told me: ‘No question, Lady Susan has been thrown under a bus and it is a massive overreaction.
‘Where was anyone standing up saying, ‘Wait a moment, this is a woman who has travelled to every corner of the planet and met people from every ethnic background. Is it really likely that she would be deliberately, provocatively racist?’ I don’t think so.’
After her decades at the Queen’s side, Lady Susan was recognised as a consummate go-between for the royals and the people they meet. ‘She was as skilled as any diplomat and never put a foot wrong,’ says one person who worked closely with her.
She had all the skills necessary for a royal confidante — caution, a deep understanding of etiquette and a sociable personality.
And all those qualities were required as, on Tuesday lunchtime, she welcomed guests to the Palace reception hosted by Camilla for victims of sexual violence. It was an international occasion with three queens, a princess, a countess and two First Ladies.
Proud wife: Marmaduke Hussey’s bride in 1959
Unflappable, loyal and discreet, it was inevitable that Lady Susan, a godmother to Prince William, would be among the handful of the late monarch’s most trusted staff invited to serve the new Queen Consort Camilla
In such circumstances, say those close to her, it would have been entirely normal for her, on approaching charity founder Ngozi Fulani, to ask about her background. She might initially have assumed — wrongly — that she was a visitor from overseas. The gathering, after all, was to raise awareness of the global pandemic of violence against women.
Ms Fulani’s original tweet of the admittedly prolonged exchange between her and Lady Susan was posted at 7.25am yesterday and re-tweeted worldwide, sending waves of panic through the Palace. By 12.37pm — five hours and 12 minutes later — Lady Susan had resigned.
Last night, her friends condemned the Palace’s reaction. One who spent years watching Lady Susan at work, says: ‘She was trying to do what she has always done, making people feel welcome and breaking the ice. Often guests are overwhelmed in the presence of royalty, and the ladies-in-waiting are very good at relaxing people.’
Insiders also believe Lady Susan wanted to know about Ms Fulani’s background in case she needed to introduce her to the Queen or any of the other royals, who included the Countess of Wessex and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.
‘That is exactly what she used to do for the Queen, who would always be very grateful for a little preparation before meeting people.’
Over the years, she had been a reassuring presence in the Queen’s life. When the Queen needed a £1 coin for a Big Issue seller, Lady Susan provided it. And when a tube of Clarins anti-ageing cream caught the Queen’s eye in a duty-free shop during a stopover at Singapore airport, it was her trusty lady-in-waiting who purchased it.
When the lights went out in a power cut as the Queen dressed for a reception in Jamaica, Lady Susan came dashing in with candles to ensure the royal tiara could be put on correctly.
And who but Lady Susan could be trusted to write to inmates at Dartmoor prison after an affectionate letter following the death of Princess Diana was received at Buckingham Palace.
But there was always more to her than mere aide and companion. And evidence of her elevated status came in 1982 when she was asked by Prince Charles and Diana to be a godmother to William alongside Princess Alexandra and the Duchess of Westminster.
The prestigious appointment barely raised an eyebrow because, by then, Sue Hussey was more family than staff.
As mentioned previously, her first duty when she arrived at the Palace in 1960 was to help out with the Queen’s postbag following Andrew’s birth. But despite the 13-year age gap between the youngest daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave and the Queen, the two hit it off immediately.
There was always more to her than mere aide and companion. And evidence of her elevated status came in 1982 when she was asked by Prince Charles and Diana to be a godmother to William alongside Princess Alexandra and the Duchess of Westminster
To 12-year-old Charles, she was a shoulder to cry on and an escape from his bullying father. The young Prince Andrew loved to play hide-and-seek in her office and Princess Anne could be an amusing if moody teenage companion.
Years later, Lady Susan was among the very few non-family guests at Anne’s second wedding to naval officer Tim Laurence at Crathie church, near Balmoral.
A mother of two, her daughter Katharine, who is married to baronet Sir Francis Brooke, followed her into royal service and is one of the Queen Consort’s lady companions.
As a colleague says: ‘Susan had all the right qualities for the job. She is frightfully jolly, full of common sense and never panics. She was able to talk intelligently to the same people as the Queen, but knew never to upstage her by dressing too boldly, or to look bored.’
When Lady Diana Spencer arrived on the scene, the Queen asked Lady Susan to prepare her for Palace life. Later, Diana found herself being ‘advised’ in no uncertain terms by Lady Susan that she had better accept the life she had married into because, no matter what she did or how much she complained, nothing would ever change. The Royal Family had their own rules of duty and behaviour and no 20-year-old upstart would alter it, even if she was the Princess of Wales.
The warning, alas, did not work.
A few years later, Lady Susan was asked to roll out the same welcome mat for the Duchess of York. Sarah was a little more receptive than Diana, although her marriage was equally disastrous.
And Lady Susan was never afraid to say what she thought. When the then separated Duchess of York appeared with her children on Ascot racecourse to watch the royal procession, Lady Susan told her in no uncertain terms what a thoughtless thing it was to do.
As a colleague says: ‘Susan had all the right qualities for the job. She is frightfully jolly, full of common sense and never panics. She was able to talk intelligently to the same people as the Queen, but knew never to upstage her by dressing too boldly, or to look bored.’ When Lady Diana Spencer arrived on the scene, the Queen asked Lady Susan to prepare her for Palace life
Even in recent times, her advice has been sought. The Queen asked her lady-in-waiting to explain the complexities of royal life to the former Meghan Markle. The ex-actress is said to have declined the offer, failing to appreciate just what a repository of wisdom Lady Susan could be.
Her relationship with the teenage Charles, though, was a great success. He used to say she understood him. She certainly supported him and his causes and thought nothing of intervening on his behalf with his mother — a sure sign of strength. She was a guest at his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969.
A few years ago, he showed his own affection for his mother’s right-hand woman with a special gift: a gold, silver and enamel brooch featuring the ostrich feathers and coronet of the Prince of Wales.
Lady Susan was one of six women, including Camilla, who received the jewel. The brooch was a proud and permanent symbol of closeness to the future king. Not unnaturally, the women who possessed one were privately known as Charles’s Birds Of A Feather.
Another of their number was the former Tiggy Legge-Bourke, once the bouncy nanny to William and Harry who was hired on none other than Lady Susan’s advice.
Perhaps the latter’s greatest accomplishment was her understanding that, even if the Queen seemed to be ignoring her, she knew where she was.
‘When she stared at her, she needed something done,’ says a former staff member.
‘She also knew from her body language when she was ready to move along, when to step in to pick up the conversational thread. The cues were subtle, the result of learning to read her over the years.’
She also had finely attuned antennae for what aides called the ‘Awkward Squad’; those who needed to be calmed before meeting the monarch. ‘Lady Susan was expert at that.’
Last year, on the death of Philip, it was Lady Susan whom the Queen asked to sit beside her during the lonely drive from Windsor Castle to St George’s Chapel for the funeral. In quiet contemplation, with rugs over their knees, the two women faced the cameras and the watching world with dignified calm.
Lady Susan had her own experience of grief, having lost her own husband, Marmaduke — ‘Dukie’ to friends — 15 years earlier. A former Chairman of the BBC governors, Hussey was in the eye of the storm over the BBC Panorama interview with Diana in 1995.
He had been deliberately excluded from being given any prior knowledge of the programme because of his wife’s Palace connection.
‘If Hussey had known beforehand, the Palace would have known and they would have taken steps to stop it,’ was the official line.
Lady Susan never ventured an opinion — but when her husband was being attacked over his stewardship of the Corporation, she showed her mettle.
‘We are not indignant. We don’t care what people say — sticks and stones and all that,’ she said.
Even so, this brutal ending will be a devastating blow for a woman who had devoted so much of her life to royal service.