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The Princess and I

2013 March 11
by Gordon Reid

 

Princess Lilian of Sweden has just died at the age of 97.

When I was Chaplain of St Peter & St Sigfrid’s, the English Church of Stockholm, Princess Lilian and I became fast friends. Our friendship grew, because she was a devoted Anglican and often came to Mass. But it began only a few weeks after I had arrived in Stockholm, when I was invited to a very grand dinner.

There were two large circular tables, one presided over by King Carl Gustaf, the other presided over by the Queen, Sylvia. I was seated at the latter, surrounded by Swedish aristocrats and a scattering of the British community, including the British Ambassador. (I think the dinner was for the Swedish/British Society, but I have forgotten).

I was too new to the country to know anything of Swedish customs, so when Princess Lilian, from the other side of the table, raised her glass to me and toasted me, saying “Welcome, Father, and Skal”. I thought “How nice of her” and raised my glass, said something like “Cheers” and put it down again.

Well, a hush fell on the dozen or so guests at our table and everybody looked at me. I must have looked like a rabbit caught in headlights, and Princess Lilian erupted into laughter, as did the Queen, the Ambassador and an assortment of Countesses. I hadn’t a clue what  I had done, till Princess Lilian said “Oh Father, I’m sorry. I think you need a little Swedish lesson”

So in front of this grand audience, she led me through the elaborate ritual of how to “Skol” someone (The vowel is an a with an o over it, but my computer skills stop well short of that! It is, at any rate, pronounced skol). She told me to pick up my glass, to hold it precisely over the third button of my waistcoat (I think!), look deeply into her eyes, and then reply Skal. I did all this and was just about to put  the glass down again, when she exclaimed “Stop” and I thought “O Lord, what have I done now?” But it was what I hadn’t done _ Princess Lilian said “You forgot to look deeply into my eyes after you said Skal. Only then can you put the glass down”. So we did it all again, and I got it right. So right that Her Majesty the Queen then picked up her glass and said “Skal” and I passed with flying colours (but sweat on my brow!)

In the next few years, I came to appreciate Princess Lilian’s wonderful sense of humour and her enormous kindness. No wonder she was so loved by the Swedish people who are grieving her death this week. But not just grieving, because they will know she will be deeply content with her reunion with her husband, Prince Bertil, whom she loved and cherished.

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