Princess Patricia of Connaught had it all. She was beautiful, intelligent, athletic and artistic. She could have played the traditional role of a princess: dutifully marrying a prince or king in a match acceptable to both families; living a grand, rule-bound life in palaces and castles; and navigating the tumultuous political waves that were soon to crash over most of her relatives in Europe. Instead, she became the first modern princess. She had a high-profile as a working royal woman, her every move tracked by a fascinated public. She was fiercely intelligent and independent. And she waited for years until she could marry for love, and then welcomed the public into her romance by having a large public wedding in London.

As the granddaughter of Queen Victoria—her father, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, was the monarch’s third son who carved out an important role for himself as a military commander as well as royal in three successive reigns—her prospects were good, especially after her older sister Margaret married the future Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden.

That didn’t appeal to Patricia. Instead, she took advantage of the opportunities bestowed on her as a princess. She travelled widely, learning Hindustani during her father’s posting in India, and drawing on those exotic locales to establish herself as an artist.

The Duke of Connaught and Princess Patricia in the winter at Rideau Hall in Ottawa
(Sphere magazine)

Her mother’s precarious health meant the unmarried Patricia often stepped into her shoes as vice-regal hostess, especially during the Duke of Connaught’s tenure as Canada’s governor general from 1911 to 1916. The Connaughts travelled extensively throughout the northern realm—reportedly more than 6,000 km in 1915 alone—and frequently it was Patricia who accompanied her father. Her easy manner was a sharp contrast to the conformist, sometimes stifling etiquette prevalent at the time.

Princess Patricia “was a working princess,” explains Alexandra Kim. “It was a role she took on and did well,” says the former curator for Historic Royal Palaces who has been interested in Princess Patricia for years and who now works in Toronto. She was involved in charities and organizations ranging from the Sunningdale Ladies’ Golf Club near her home in England to the May Court Club to help those in need in Ottawa. Perhaps her most famous association, and the one for whom she is still known in Canada is as the namesake and long-time colonel-in-chief of one of the nation’s most famous regiments, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).

New York Times article, June 11, 1908

Like today’s royals, her every move was actively tracked and recorded by the media. In 1912, the focus of a New York Times story on an invitation for the Connaughts to visit an exposition in Yukon’s Dawson City was on Patricia, with her parents getting second billing. Their 1912 trip to New York was carefully detailed in all the major papers.

The tall athletic royal loved spending time outdoors, especially enjoying winter pursuits so favoured in Canada. She skated at Rideau Hall and tobogganed on nearby hills. In addition, she rode in the Rockies, golfed and played field hockey. She was also a talented artist, often painting botanical studies. Her cousin Princess Marie Louise recounted in her memoir that Patricia was a “gifted and a brilliant artist. Her paintings are rather modern—in fact, very modern—and sometimes I realize that I am not sufficiently ‘up’ in the expression of modern art to appreciate all her pictures, though I know they are brilliantly clever.”

My article in Maclean’s on how Princess Patricia was a trailblazer for Kate and Meghan is here.

Those modern inclinations sparked headlines in 1913, when Patricia silently made known her support for women’s right to vote. As the debate over women’s suffrage raged and papers were reporting that activist Emmeline Pankhurst was preparing for a trip to the United States to promote the cause, Patricia appointing a prominent suffragette as a lady-in-waiting. “Princess Patricia refuses to obey order of queen” blared a front page headline of the Toronto Star in 1913 when a disapproving Queen Mary vetoed her plan to bring her suffragette aide to a prestigious house where the queen would be present.

Perhaps most famously, she was the honorary head of the PPCLI. The regiment was created by businessman Hamilton Gault a few days after war was declared in 1914. It was one of the last privately funded regiments in the British Empire. Patricia was deeply involved in the regiment from the very beginning. On August 23, 1914, she presented its original Colour, the Ric-a-Dam-Doo, which she designed and created, to the regiment’s commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Francis Farquhar in front of more than 1,000 soldiers on parade, while another 12,000 citizens of Ottawa observed the ceremony.

Courtesy National Currency Collection, Bank of Canada Museum

She was so popular Madame Tussauds’s in London advertised having a “lifelike portrait model” of Patricia on display. Even more auspiciously, Canada put her portrait on its one dollar bill in the middle of the war. She was only the second solo non-regal woman on Canadian currency (after the Countess of Dufferin in 1878, according to the Bank of Canada). The bill is dated March 17, 1916, the princess’s 31st birthday.

MORE on the princess and the banknote

Alas, three days before that date, her mother died at Clarence House in London after a series of illnesses including measles and broncho-pneumonia, the Times reported. Patricia herself was also suffering from measles and was unable to attend her mother’s funeral (her sister, Margaret, was also unable to attend due to the difficulty of travelling during wartime). In August, the duchess’s will was published. Of her 125,000 pound estate, she left 50,000 pounds to Patricia, the equivalent of nearly CAD$6 million in today’s money, making the princess financially independent.

It’s said that the death of her mother cleared the final obstacles to perhaps the most famous moment of Patricia’s life: her wedding on February 27, 1919. It was the fairy tale that so many now expect from royal nuptials.  

Princess Patricia and Commander Alexander Ramsay leaving Westminster Abbey on their wedding day,
Feb. 27, 1919

Most famously, Patricia married for love. Over the years, newspapers breathlessly tracked rumoured suitors to her hand, including King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Manuel II of Portugal, Grand Duke Michael of Russia and Adolphus Frederick VI, the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The strong-willed Patricia chose none of them, opting to wait until she could marry the love of her life.

Her choice was the third son of the 13th Earl of Dalhousie. They’d reportedly known each other since 1908, then three years later, their romance was cemented in Ottawa where the career Royal Navy officer—he had entered the Royal Navy as a cadet when he was 13—was appointed aide-de-camp to her father at the start of his term as governor general. Though an aristocrat, his commoner status and lack of title were apparently too much for the royal family, especially when she had rulers vying for her hand. So they waited. Finally, royal author Robert Golden writes “it is said that on her deathbed the Duchess [of Connaught] expressed a wish that all obstacles to their union be removed.”

The Times of London, Feb. 28, 1919

Just after the end of the Great War, on December 27, 1918, her first cousin, King George V, and his wife Queen Mary announced that they had “received the gratifying intelligence of the betrothal of Her Royal Highness Princess Victoria Patricia of Connaught, Their Majesties’ Cousin, to Commander the Hon. Alexander Ramsay, R.N. to which union the King has gladly given his consent.” By then, Alexander Ramsay was 36, Princess Patricia was 32, far older than the typical royal couple.

The engagement came at a tumultuous time, a few weeks after the end of the First World War when an exhausted Empire was grappling with the aftermath of a horrific bloodbath that had thrown the entire world into turmoil. The day before, the royal family had rolled out the red carpet for U.S. president Wilson on the first presidential visit to Britain; he even spoke to huge crowds from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

Even more romantically, Patricia decided to give up her royal title. Four days before the wedding, King George V signed a warrant granting his cousin “his royal licence and authority” that she could “relinquish the style of Royal Highness and the title of Princess of Great Britain and Ireland” upon her marriage.

She wouldn’t be completely stripped of rank. At the same time, the monarch declared that Patricia would “have, hold and enjoy the style of Lady Victoria Patricia Helena Elizabeth Ramsay, and shall have place, pre-eminence and precedence immediately before Marchionesses of England.” The relinquishing of her royal status was interpreted as “a sign of the new spirit of national union which the war and its perils, in which the bridegroom played such a gallant part, have created among the people,” wrote the Illustrated London News. (Patricia may have regretted her decision; when that other royal rebel, Princess Margaret, was contemplating doing the same, Patricia warned that “things are never quite the same,” according to Robert Golden. She also wore the robes and coronet of a princess at the coronations of George VI and Elizabeth II.)

Patricia, her groom, and their wedding captured the imagination of a war-weary populous. Much was made of Ramsay having service with distinction during the war, where he commanded a squadron in Mediterranean and took part in the Gallipoli landing where he was commended for his service in action.

In what the Times called “an almost embarrassing display of good will” Princess Patricia eschewed the typical private wedding in a royal chapel—many of her cousins were married at St. George’s Chapel inside Windsor Castle—and established the modern tradition of a public wedding by choosing Westminster Abbey, becoming first royal to wed there since King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382.

“Nothing could possibly be more popular with the English people than the proposal,” the Times stated in its editorial. “A love-match is always popular, and in this case the bride is one of the best known and most admired of royal ladies.” The populous wouldn’t get enough information about the wedding. A week before the wedding, it was leaked that the lining of her travel cloak would be “blue charmeuse” associated with her birth namesake, St. Patrick. Meanwhile, in Canada, Laura Borden, wife of Canada’s prime minister, was in charge of the nation’s wedding gift. In the end, patriotic Victory Bonds were chosen, though the PM personally gave the couple a mahogany sofa table. Not even the tragic death of the king and queen’s youngest son, Prince John, could mar Patricia’s day. On the order of her cousin, official court mourning was lifted for her wedding.

Princess Patricia was a popular cover subject in 1919, including for her engagement, inspection of the PPCLI and, a few days later, her wedding

It was only natural that Princess Patricia would invite her cherished PPCLI to take a prominent part in her own big day. Patricia devoted considerable time, both during her remaining time in Canada, and on her return to London after her father’s stint as governor general had ended. The troops were “her boys”: “She visited them in hospital, she has sent them gifts, she has received from them messages and even letters,” the Illustrated London News explained in its wedding issue.

Like so many regiments, the PPCLI suffered horrendous losses during the Great War. A few days before her wedding, Patricia, who had officially been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1918, inspected her regiment in its camp in Bramshott, Hampshire. To the torn and soiled Ric-a-Dam-Doo, the only colour carried into action during the Great War, she fastened a bronze laurel wreath. (Of the men who paraded in front of her, the Times reported that just two officers and 42 other ranks were from the original contingent that had formed in Ottawa in 1914.) On the same day as the regiment was guarding their colonel-in-chief on her wedding day, the Montreal Gazette reported that Ottawa had decided the PPCLI would be a permanent unit in peacetime.

Princess Patricia wedding Canada soldiers PPCLI
Princess Patricia’s wedding on the front page of the Canadian Daily Record, March 1, 1919

Not only did the regiment provide the honour guard for her wedding but it presented her with her bridal bouquet, tied with regimental colours. Three days before the wedding, the Lord Chamberlain announced that due to space restrictions, no more tickets to the wedding would be issued. On the day, some 3,000 people crowded into Westminster Abbey for the wedding. After the service, the newlyweds braved a cold, wet winter day as they drove in an open carriage through London. Tens of thousands crowded their procession route for a glimpse of the couple. At times the crowds were so thick they had to be held back by soldiers of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Her Venetian-style dress, a softly draped silk velvet gown with silver embroidery and a historic veil was very modern for the time. “It sets the tone for the next decade or so of royal weddings,” Kim notes. “She was of the time but not leading” a radical rethink in fashion like Lady Diana Spencer did with her dramatically romantic gown in 1981.

For all the royal traditions Patricia introduced, the relationship with the PPCLI is the most intimate. Though Lady Patricia Ramsay largely retreated from public life after her marriage, she was an active colonel-in-chief until her death in 1974. Fittingly, her daughter-in-law, Lady Saltoun, presented her wedding dress to her beloved regiment in 2001. It is believed to be the only British royal wedding dress to reside outside of the United Kingdom. Now, in time for the 100th anniversary of her wedding, the fragile dress is on display in the regimental museum in Calgary until the end of March, reinforcing a connection that endures to this day.

Princess Patricia’s wedding dress on display at the PPCLI Museum & Archives in Calgary (photo courtesy The Military Museums at the PPCLI Museum & Archives)