In 1966 Frances met Peter Shand Kydd over dinner. The heir to a thriving wallpaper business, he was adventurous, Bohemian and bright. The Althorps and the Shand Kydds met frequently, culminating in a joint skiing holiday. But the attraction between Frances and Peter was at the heart of the friendship between the families. Eventually Peter left his wife and met Frances secretly during her visits to London. She told Johnny about the affair in September 1967, and he agreed to a trial separation. She found a flat in Cadogan Place. In October, Diana, Charles and their nanny went to join their mother in London. Sarah and Jane were by now away at boarding school. Frances had found places for Diana at a local school and Charles at a kindergarten. Their father visited at weekends. It's likely that the children did not know of their parents' separation. The family was united at Park House in Norfolk for Christmas 1967, but then Johnny refused to allow the children to return to London with their mother and she left alone.
On 10 April 1968 Janet Shand Kydd sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of his adultery with Frances Spencer. In September 1968 Frances went to court with her plea for custody of her children. Lady Fermoy gave evidence against her daughter and she lost. A generous view of Lady Fermoy's behaviour is that she felt the children would be better off in Norfolk. A less generous view is that she set a high value on the Spencer connection and was appalled that her daughter had run off with a tradesman. On 12 December Frances sued for divorce. Johnny cross-petitioned, citing her already proven adultery. He won his case and received custody of the children.
Lady Fermoy is one of the minor villains of the Diana story: tough, ambitious, inflexible and steeped in the culture of another era. But since she followed her friend the Queen Mother's policy of remaining 'utterly oyster' and never defended herself on the record, she has made an easy target. The majority of royal writers assume that she exerted a malign influence, and she is damned in most accounts.
It's easy to create caricatures -- Diana modern, classless, open and emotional, the world of her grandmother snobbish, secretive, repressed and sinister; Diana's childhood ruined by the same deadening forces that she would later confront from inside the heart of the establishment.
Except that it wasn't. Certainly there was a nasty divorce, which strained relationships between Frances and her mother for many years, but Diana knew nothing about what had been said in court. And she was to see plenty of both parents, who went out of their way to be civilised about access and not to drag her into their private recriminations.
The divorce was made absolute on 2 May 1969. A month later Frances and Peter Shand Kydd were married. At first they divided their time between Buckinghamshire and Cadogan Place, but soon they bought a house in Itchenor on the West Sussex coast.
In practical terms the custody arrangements did not deprive Frances of visits from her children, and she phoned them every day. The elder girls were free to spend their time where they wished. Sarah chose mostly to go to Park House in Norfolk and Jane to be in London with her mother. Some weekends Diana and Charles Spencer shuffled between London and Norfolk, and holidays were divided equally between the two parents.
Robert Spencer -- Johnny's cousin and close friend -- maintains that the atmosphere was not particularly unhappy:
Well, of course, any divorce is bound to affect children. But I don't think it affected Johnny and Frances Althorp's children or any less than any others. After all, they were not particularly short of cash and they had two loving parents ... They were fortunate in that they had two happy homes, and despite the parents being divorced as far as I can remember they were as happy as could be expected.
Copyright © 2001 by Tim Clayton & Phil Craig and Brook Lapping Productions.
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