Mountbatten, Edwina Ashley (1901–1960)

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Mountbatten, Edwina Ashley (1901–1960)

Countess Mountbatten of Burma who was vicereine of India . Name variations: Lady Mountbatten of Burma. Born Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley in London,England, on November 28, 1901; died on February 21, 1960, in Jesselton, North Borneo; eldest of two daughters of Colonel Wilfred William Ashley, baron Mount Temple of Lee (a member of Parliament), and Maud (Cassel) Ashley; attended The Links School, Eastbourne, Sussex; attended Alde House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk; married Lord Louis Mountbatten, on July 18, 1922; children: Patricia Mountbatten (b. 1924); Pamela Mountbatten (b. 1929).

Born into aristocracy and wealth (much of it provided by her maternal grandfather Ernest Cassel, a German multimillionaire and financial advisor to King Edward VII), Edwina Ashley and her younger sister Mary spent their childhood moving among the family residences, usually in the care of a nurse or governess. "Edwina led an unusually peripatetic life," writes biographer Richard Hough. "During her years of infancy a panorama of faces constantly paraded before her—friends and relatives, friends of friends and relatives of relatives—as she was taken, overwrapped like all children of her generation, from Dorset to Wilshire, to Hampshire, to Sussex, to Norfolk, to Yorkshire, and back to 13 Cadogan Square or 32 Bruton Street, London, or to Broadlands." Edwina's father Wilfred, who had desperately wanted a male heir, had little to do with his daughters, and her mother Maud, a delicate consumptive, died in 1911. Edwina accepted her mother's death like a little adult, taking solace in her pets and in caring for her younger sister. In 1914, Wilfred married Muriel "Molly" Forbes-Sempill , a woman described by one of Edwina's friends as "most unkind." Lord Mountbatten later called her "a wicked woman." Edwina studiously avoided her stepmother, a task that became easier when she was sent away to school in 1916.

At the exclusive Links School, in Sussex, Edwina suffered taunts from the other girls about her wealth and her German-Jewish heritage. She also struggled with the strict routine and sparse wartime meals. "Please take me away, dear Grandpa, if you love me at all," she plaintively wrote to Cassel, who was the adult she most often turned to during her formative years. With his intervention, she left after a year and was enrolled at Alde House, a finishing school of sorts. She left Alde just short of completing the year's course, and then talked her grandfather into a grand tour of Italy. Upon her return, she went to live with him at Brook House in London, serving on his social staff.

Not yet 20, Edwina already possessed enough charm and intelligence to perform admirably in her role as hostess of the lavish Brook House dinner parties. "Her conversation was clever and she spoke quickly, often in the form of questions," said one of her contemporaries. "She had this enormous curiosity about life and the world. And you could see she had this determination to succeed." In her off hours, Edwina enjoyed a rich and exciting social life, which culminated in an extravagant coming-out ball. She then joined the "fast set" of debutantes. one of whom, Grace Vanderbilt , introduced her to Lord Louis Mountbatten, known as Dickie, a cousin of the British royal family and an officer in the royal navy. A whirlwind courtship ensued, marred only by the death of Louis' father, followed closely by the death of Edwina's beloved grandfather.

The Ashley-Mountbatten nuptials were the highlight of the 1922 social season. Edwina spared no expense in planning the wedding, dipping into the cash reserves left to her by Cassel. A six-month honeymoon rounded out the elaborate festivities and included a tour of the United States, where the couple was received by President Warren Harding and also made an eagerly anticipated trip to Hollywood, where they hobnobbed with such stars as Mary Pickford , Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. Returning to England, they settled down in a luxurious mansion in Park Lane. While they were in fact a simple military couple, Edwina's large inheritance allowed them to indulge in a few extras, such as a stable of expensive cars, a yacht, an American speedboat, and a string of polo ponies. In 1926, after Louis was appointed to the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, they purchased a second house in Malta.

For the first ten years of her marriage, Edwina continued to revel in her inheritance, indulging her desires, be it for material possessions or romantic conquests. Even the births of her two daughters, Patricia and Pamela Mount-batten , did little to slow her, though acquaintances noticed that she frequently seemed dissatisfied. One friend of hers remarked at the time: "For Edwina, there was always something missing. She didn't know what it was or where it was but she was determined to find it."

In 1928, Edwina began an intense period of global travel, which was part of her desire to learn more about people and places. Various trips, usually in the company of a woman friend, took her to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran. She visited the archaeological digs of Dr. Ernest Herzfeld at Persepolis, and trekked over the Andes and down to the Chilean side. She examined Inca ruins in Machu Picchu and studied Mayan civilization in the Yucatan. "Edwina's travels were a great mystery to me, and to a good many other men who knew her intimately," said one of her male admirers. "It was as if she wanted to get away from men for a while. She always traveled with women and she always seemed to go out of her way to live 'posh' or very primitively, risking her neck sometimes."

With the outbreak of World War II, Edwina found a true mission in life and underwent nothing short of a transformation. Joining the St. John Ambulance Association in 1939, she quickly rose to the position of Ambulance President for London, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight. One of her early assignments was to inspect the bomb shelters around London, which held hordes of frightened men, women, and children during the Blitz. She threw herself wholeheartedly into her work, becoming a tireless crusader for improved conditions within the shelters, and often trading on her charm and connections with bureaucrats and officials to expedite matters. In 1941, she traveled to America with her husband, undertaking a tour of the country to personally thank those people and organizations which had aided the British war effort. She traveled in 28 states, making speeches in numerous cities along the way. "She spoke from the heart, and her audiences were moved," said one observer. "Her speeches were unadorned but the men and women who listened to this unvarnished prose learned how the British hospitals and ARP and voluntary societies functioned."

By September 1943, Louis had risen to Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia, and both his and Edwina's war-time activities afforded them little time together, although by this point any intimacy between them was already over. When the liberation of France and Europe began in 1944, Edwina traveled to France, where the Red Cross and the Brigade were charged with inspecting the French and Allied hospitals and recommending future policy. The inspections subsequently took her to northern Europe, Italy, and finally, in 1945, to Southeast Asia. Following the American bombing of Hiroshima, Edwina became part of her husband's

"Operation Zipper," which involved the rescue and recovery of the hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. She inspected camps in Rangoon, Bangkok, Sumatra, and Singapore, flying some 33,000 miles in the process and often putting herself in harm's way.

In 1947, her husband was appointed viceroy of India with instructions to negotiate the transfer of power from Britain to the Indian people. Edwina entered the most profound period of her life, which included the beginning of her 14-year relationship with India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was her only great love. Edwina, who had fallen under India's spell upon her introductory visit in 1922, first encountered Nehru in Singapore, in 1946, on the occasion of his initial meeting with her husband. At her insistence, Louis, who had fetched Nehru from the airport, made a detour to the YMCA, where Edwina was touring with some of her workers, just so she could meet him. "Lady Mountbatten was flat on the floor when my father and she met in Singapore," wrote Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi . "When my father went in everyone rushed and they just knocked her down. So the first thing they had to do, Lord Mountbatten and my father, was to rescue her and put her back on her feet." Edwina met Nehru for the second time on March 22, 1947, when she and Louis arrived at the Palam airport, Delhi, to take over duties as viceroy and vicereine of the country. They now found India besieged by turmoil, "on the brink of interracial, inter-religious, and inter-political anarchy," explains Hough. "Now that the old common enemy, the imperial power of Britain, was known to be pulling out, Sikhs, Moslems and Hindus had turned upon one another, communal riots were already raging in many parts—especially in Bihar and Bengal—and Gandhi the man of peace was carrying out his 'repentance tours' through the worst areas." As vicereine of this volatile country, Edwina, with her skills and experience as a politician and humanitarian, was a great asset. Knowing it was necessary to win over the influential and powerful men of the country, Edwina appealed to their wives, daughters, and sisters who were initially highly anti-British and suspicious of the Mountbattens. Slowly she won their trust and friendship. "She was quite marvellous," recalled a member of her staff. "They simply fell under her charm and pledged eternal love. She was almost better with women than men, and that's saying a lot."

Edwina's second task was to ease the suffering of the people in the riottorn country, to provide relief, supervise evacuation, and inspect hospitals, which was much the same kind of work she had done during the war. She attacked her relief work with something akin to religious fervor. "What can one say of this amazing English-woman who goes among the poor and the sick and the suffering like some latter-day Mary Magdalene ?" queried one reporter on the scene. Norman Cliff, another journalist, wrote of Edwina's compassion. "To the disabled and heart-broken there came not a grand lady standing at a distance, but a mother and nurse who squatted in the midst of the dirty and diseased, took their soiled and trembling hands in hers and spoke quiet words of womanly comfort."

On August 15, 1947, the Mountbattens, having now been promoted to Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma (now Myanmar), presided over Independence Day ceremonies, which set off a new round of rioting, more murderous than before. Edwina renewed her efforts, uniting 15 organization under the banner of the United Council of Relief and Welfare as Delhi was turned into a refugee camp. "Her husband's ADCs became chary of going out with her, because she would stop in the midst of sniping to pick up bodies and take them to the local infirmaries," recalled Marie Seton , one of Nehru's biographers. "Her gigantic effort explains Nehru's reference to 'her healing touch.'"

Hough explains that the love between Edwina and Jawaharlal Nehru "was born out of their joint concern for the sufferings of India before and after the transfer of power," but there were also other factors at play. Nehru, lonely since the death of his wife Kamala Nehru , was drawn to Edwina on many levels, says his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit . "He responded to her intelligent companionship and her warm personality. They were always able to talk intelligently to one another. Nehru liked beautiful women, and she was a big influence on his life because she brought warmth and friendship based on a sharing of values and intellectual pursuit." There is still debate as to whether Edwina's relationship with Nehru extended to the physical, although most people in India at the time believed it did. Hough writes that certainly Louis thought they were lovers and was proud of the fact. After Edwina's death, Louis kept the correspondence between the two, referring to them as "the love letters," and confiding that they would ultimately be published. "Letters from him to me were always typed," he added, "But letters to Edwina were always hand-written."

Louis' post in India ended in the summer of 1948, and the couple returned to London. Later that year, they returned to Malta, where Louis took up his post as a simple rear-admiral, and Edwina became an officer's wife once again. She continued to see Nehru several times a year, usually in conjunction with her continuing work with St. John's Ambulance, the Red Cross, and the Save the Children charity. Throughout the 1950s, Edwina increased the tempo of her professional life despite the fragility of her health. In 1956, she began to suffer from angina, and in 1958 she had a small stroke which left a stiffness in her right cheek. Later that year, she contracted a virulent form of chickenpox from one of her grandchildren, from which she never really recovered. Nothing, however, could force her to reduce her frantic schedule, which included attendance at Nehru's 70th birthday celebration in London in November 1959, at which she delivered a tribute.

Edwina Mountbatten died in February 1960, at the last stop of an arduous tour which included interludes in Cyprus, Karachi, Delhi, Malaya, Singapore, and finally North Borneo, where she had been the guest of Robert Noel Turner, senior officer of the Colonial Service and acting governor. In Delhi, she had spent a few precious days with Nehru, who noticed how ill and strained she looked but, understanding her need to persevere, made no mention of it. Louis, who was awakened by a 3 am phone call with the news of Edwina's death, called it "a poleaxe blow," although at her departure he had secretly wondered whether he would ever see her alive again.

As specified in her will, Edwina was buried at sea, her coffin carried out to the site on the frigate Wakeful. Nehru, in a final tribute, had arranged for an Indian warship to accompany the Wakeful on the journey. Much diminished by Edwina's death, Nehru died four years later, at the age of 75. Louis Mountbatten lost his life in August 1979, when an IRA terrorist bomb tore into a family pleasure boat in the Sligo Bay. Also killed was one of his twin grandsons, Nicholas.


Dickins, Douglas. "Mountbatten," in British Heritage. February–March 1984.

Hough, Richard. Edwina: Countess Mountbatten of Burma. NY: William Morrow, 1984.

selected reading:

Morgan, Janet. Edwina Mountbatten: A Life of Her Own. Scribner, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Mountbatten, Edwina Ashley (1901–1960)

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