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What happened to Princess Diana’s aunt – and why it’s now normal for the aristocracy

roche and diana
Princess Diana, right, was the niece of Mary Roche, left, who is pictured during her wedding day in 1954 - Shutterstock

There has been a collective gasp of surprise that Princess Diana’s aunt, Mary Roche, left a relatively small estate of £425,983 when her will was published this week. Ten months after the aristocrat’s death in March 2023, aged 88, the implication is that Roche somehow suffered a financial fall from grace.

What happened to the grand Belgravia homes of her past? How could a woman whose family have long been inextricably linked to the Royal family, and who once ferried safari passengers around Kenya in her own planes, have ended up in a position where she did not leave any of her financial estate to her twin daughters, Anya and Jo? Daughters whom, in spite of their noble forebears, lived modestly on a housing estate in Frome, Somerset, until recently.

She only bequeathed her son, Edward, and elder daughter, Alexandra, which some have unkindly interpreted as evidence of familial disharmony.

Why there has been naysaying and shaking of heads I cannot fathom – especially when aristo penury is commonplace these days. Of course, penury is a relative term, but barely any aristocrats lead the lives of extravagance and elegance that once defined them.

Instead, they rush around their stately homes trying to stem leaking roofs or airing damp drawing rooms before hiring them out for corporate shindigs and weddings. It’s only Silicon Valley billionaires, Indian maharajas and new money flaunted by the likes of Michelle Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, with their super yachts, Manx mansions and Mayfair homes teaming with security and staff that can afford to live like aristocrats used to.

Roche sounds like a cracking character. Her nephew, Earl Spencer, wrote of his aunt on Instagram, “Aunt Mary was many things – a free spirit; an intellectual; an adventurer; and, above all, an enormously fun inspiration to all generations of her family.”

'A free spirit and an intellectual': Mary Roche
'A free spirit and an intellectual': Mary Roche - Edward Berry

Instead of critics carping that she left two of her daughters out of her will, her son Edward’s explanation to the Daily Mail that “my mother gave various things to my sisters at different times and, in the interests of fairness, that’s how it ended up,” makes sense. Aristocratic chattels, such as rare paintings or objet d’arts, can be as personally meaningful as financially valuable.

Mary Cynthia Burke Roche was born in Peterculter, near Aberdeen, in 1934. She was the eldest daughter of Maurice Roche, the 4th Baron Fermoy and his wife Ruth. Queen Mary was her godmother and her mother, Lady Fermoy, was part of the Queen Mother’s household.

It was Lady Fermoy and the Queen Mother who encouraged the idea that Mary’s niece, Diana Spencer, would be a suitable bride for Prince Charles. Mary’s sister was Frances, Diana’s mother, and they had a brother, Edmund Roche, who became the 5th Baron Fermoy.

So entwined were the Fermoy’s and the Royals, that Mary’s father, Maurice, rented Park House, Sandringham from the Royal family and was shooting with George VI at Sandringham that day before the King’s death in 1952.

Mary Roche (centre) with her niece, Princess Diana, and Lady Fermoy
Mary Roche (centre) with her niece, Princess Diana, and Lady Fermoy - Alamy

As so often happened amidst the aristocracy, Mary’s grandfather married into immense American wealth. Cash for the cachet of a British title. Pure The Gilded Age. James, 3rd Baron Fermoy, married American heiress Frances Ellen Work in New York in 1880. Mary Roche’s father, Maurice, and his twin brother, Frank, were brought up amidst the rarefied society of Newport, Rhode Island.

The American aristocracy. Their maternal grandfather, Frank Work, made a fortune working with the famed business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who created his fortune building railways and through shipping.

A condition of Maurice’s inheritance was that he should retain the name “Work” instead of “Roche” and refrain from travelling to Europe or marrying a European. He defied both when he succeeded the Fermoy peerage in 1920, moved back to Britain and in 1931 married Mary’s mother, Ruth.

Society interior designer, Nicky Haslam, was a school friend of Mary’s brother, Edmund, at Eton. “The Roches weren’t rich by the standards of their American relations,” he says. “They had a wonderful home, Eddington House in Hungerford, which I remember well.

“Like so many members of the aristocracy, they would have had precious objets d’art that had been passed down through the generations but not mountains of cash.”

Mary studied at Heathfield and my alma mater, St Paul’s Girls’ School. She came out as a debutante in 1952. Two years later, she married the Hon Anthony Berry, the son of the newspaper publisher, James Gomer Berry, 1st Viscount Kemsley who once owned the Daily Telegraph as part of his portfolio. The Queen Mother was a guest at the wedding at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster.

The Queen Mother attends the wedding of the Hon Anthony Berry and Mary Roche in 1954
The Queen Mother attends the wedding of the Hon Anthony Berry and Mary Roche in 1954 - Shutterstock

Lady Fermoy married off both her daughters impeccably. Mary’s wedding took place only five months after her younger sister, Frances, had married Viscount Althorp, later the 8th Earl Spencer, at Westminster Abbey. Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and Princesses Margaret and Anne were all in attendance when Diana’s mother married her father.

Mary had four children with Berry. During her early marriage she lived in Wilton Crescent, moving to Chester Terrace in Regent’s Park in the Sixties after her marriage failed. Sadly, in 1967, her sister, Frances also left her husband after 13 years of marriage.

Society scandal engulfed the family when Frances began a relationship with Peter Shand Kydd, the heir to a wallpaper fortune in Australia. His wife, Janet Shand Kydd labelled Frances as “the other woman”.

It must have been an incredibly difficult time for the Roche sisters when, in 1969, their mother, Ruth, testified against her own daughter, Frances, in her divorce proceedings. This enabled Diana’s father to win custody of his children when Diana was eight-years-old.

Diana’s deep-seated fear of abandonment was understandable, creating complexity in their mother-daughter relationship.

When Diana married Prince Charles in 1981, her aunt Mary’s views proved prescient. She thought that her niece looked “unhappy” at a pre wedding reception. Mary was sceptical of the union. “They were at very different stages of development,” she once said.

“Diana was young and had limited life experience, and Prince Charles was already a great thinker. He read a great deal. They were, perhaps, different people.”

Further tragedy befell Mary when her brother Edmund took his own life, aged only 45. Mary was staying with him to celebrate her 50th birthday party when Lord Fermoy, who had suffered depression, shot himself.

Mary had by then gravitated towards academia. She became a mature student in her late thirties, achieving a degree in classics from University College London. There she met Denis Geoghegan, a divorced tutor. They were married in 1973. The union did not last as Geoghegan prioritised his thesis and his flute over his wife. Their marriage was dissolved in 1980 and Geoghegan went on to become a monk.

Mary retrained as a teacher in her forties. She worked at a school in Camberwell, south London. She married in 1981 for a third time, to Michael Gunningham, head of classics at a Jesuit school in north London. After eight years, her restlessness prevailed and the couple divorced.

Her nephew, Earl Spencer, said at her funeral: “Aunt Mary’s endless love of life is summed up by her declaration, the day before she died, that she was going to get on with writing her memoirs. It would have been a fascinating tale.” Indeed. It would have been a textbook tale of aristocratic penury.

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