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Lady Edwina Mountbatten, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, and the last Vicereine of India

Tijana Radeska
Edwina Mountbatten

Edwina Mountbatten had a fascinating life. First of all, she was born one of the richest heiresses in the world. By the age of 19, she was an admired socialite. As the last Vicereine of India, she accomplished heroic activist work in post-partition India.

Edwina was born in 1901, in Hampshire, England, as the oldest daughter of Wilfred William Ashley. Her father was a British soldier, and conservative politician who served as a Minister of transport from 1924 to 1929. He became 1st Baron Mount Temple in 1932.

Lady Edwina, one of the richest heiresses in the world and descendant of Jewish bankers. Photo credit

Lady Edwina, one of the richest heiresses in the world and descendant of Jewish bankers. Photo credit

 

Gandhi and Lady Mountbatten during prayer. Photo credit

Gandhi and Lady Mountbatten during prayer. Photo credit

 

Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma, with Lady Pamela Mountbatten descending the steps of the Government House just before their departure, and H.E. Shri. C.Rajagopalachari at the front. Shri Jawaharlal Nehru appears behind. Photo credit

Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma, with Lady Pamela Mountbatten descending the steps of the Government House just before their departure, and H.E. Shri. C.Rajagopalachari at the front. Shri Jawaharlal Nehru appears behind. Photo credit

Edwina was a descendant of the Earls of Shaftesbury who had been ranked baronets back in 1622 and in 1661 ennobled as barons. She was also the great-granddaughter of the reformist 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Her grandfather was Sir Ernest Joseph Cassel, an international magnate, and a friend and private financier to the future King Edward VII. Cassel lost his beloved wife very early, he also lost his daughter (Edwina’s mother), so his granddaughter was the only remaining heir of his to whom he left all his fortune.

Lady Edwina as a child. Photo credit

Lady Edwina as a child. Photo credit

After her father had remarried, Edwina was sent to a boarding school and then to another and thrived in neither. In the end, she went to live with her grandfather in one of his mansions, and later his other estates, Branksome Dene and Moulton Paddocks, would become a part of her Cassel inheritance.

In 1920, Edwina, already a leading member of London society, met her future husband, Lord Louis Mountbatten. The following year, her beloved grandfather died, and she inherited £2 million (£80 million in today’s money). Among the property she inherited was also Cassel’s townhouse, Brook House. When she got married in 1922, her husband’s salary was £610 per annum (£20 thousand in today’s pounds). Also among her inheritance was the country seat of Broadlands in Hampshire, but this time from her father, Wilfred William Ashley, 1st Baron Mount Temple.

Edwina and her husband, early 1920s. Photo credit

Edwina and her husband, early 1920s. Photo credit

 

Lord Mountbatten swears in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India at the ceremony held at 8.30 am on August 15, 1947.

Lord Mountbatten swears in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India at the ceremony held at 8.30 am on August 15, 1947.

 

Lord Mountbatten, Edwina Mountbatten, and Nehru – 1st Independence day celebration. Photo credit

Lord Mountbatten, Edwina Mountbatten, and Nehru – 1st Independence day celebration. Photo credit

Oh, Edwina’s wedding! It happened at St. Margaret’s Church, and among the many guests, the wedding was attended by many members of the royal family, including Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, David the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). There were also 8,000 curious people who followed the proceedings and hence, it was called “the wedding of the year.”

Now, Edwina’s love affairs were widely followed by the media. She never stopped having lovers, and her husband accepted that even making friends with some of them. Later, he also found himself a long-term mistress and settled with her into a type of “ménage à quatre.” At the same time, Edwina started her affair with Prime Minister Nehru of India. Also, according to the gossip among the wealthy at the time, the couple were both bisexual.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. Photo credit

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. Photo credit

Louis and Edwina Mountbatten had two daughters – Pamela and Patricia. Pamela Mountbatten had published a memoir of her mother where she described Edwina as “a man-eater” and her many lovers as a succession of “uncles” throughout her childhood. Pamela described her mother as a detached, never present mother who always preferred traveling with her current lover over spending time with her daughter.

The Mountbatten family. Photo credit

The Mountbatten family. Photo credit

 

Edwina Mountbatten. Photo credit

Edwina Mountbatten. Photo credit

When the WWII started, after a visit to the States, Lady Mountbatten decided to raise funds for the British Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. She was appointed as superintendent-in-Chief of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade serving extensively with the Brigade in 1942. The following year, Edwina was awarded a CBE, and in 1946, she was made a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (DCVO).

Countess Mountbatten pictured in the Uniform of the St John Ambulance Brigade with the Officer Commanding 78 Wing RAAF, Group Captain Brian A Eaton DSO, DFC of Canterbury, Vic, after the Anzac Day service in Malta. The Wing was stationed in Malta for the garrison.

Countess Mountbatten pictured in the Uniform of the St John Ambulance Brigade with the Officer Commanding 78 Wing RAAF, Group Captain Brian A Eaton DSO, DFC of Canterbury, Vic, after the Anzac Day service in Malta. The Wing was stationed in Malta for the garrison.

 

Lady Mountbatten at the Police Hospital, Delhi, which she visited on June 10, 1947.

Lady Mountbatten at the Police Hospital, Delhi, which she visited on June 10, 1947.

 

Women at War, 1939-1945, Nursing: Close-up of Lady Mountbatten, wearing the uniform of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, sitting next to a small round table in the drawing-room of her house in Belgrave Square, London.

Women at War, 1939-1945, Nursing: Close-up of Lady Mountbatten, wearing the uniform of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, sitting next to a small round table in the drawing-room of her house in Belgrave Square, London.

However, Edwina is mostly remembered for her service in the post-partition period of India. Lord Mountbatten was sent to pre-partition India by the British government so that he would arrange the independence of British India. Lord and Lady Mountbatten, therefore, were the last Viceroy and Vicereine of pre-partition India.

Lord Louis talks to released Indian prisoners of war in Singapore. Lady Louis stands behind him. Photo credit

Lord Louis talks to released Indian prisoners of war in Singapore. Lady Louis stands behind him. Photo credit

 

The Mountbattens with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder and first Governor General of Pakistan.

The Mountbattens with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder and first Governor General of Pakistan.

 

Mahatma Gandhi with the Mountbattens.

Mahatma Gandhi with the Mountbattens.

 

Mahatma Gandhi with the Mountbattens.

Mahatma Gandhi with the Mountbattens.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, outside Government House, New Delhi, 1947.

Mahatma Gandhi, preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, outside Government House, New Delhi, 1947.

 

Lady Mountbatten photographed at the Relief Centre Gurgaon, during her visit on June 26, 1947. Photo credit

Lady Mountbatten photographed at the Relief Centre Gurgaon, during her visit on June 26, 1947. Photo credit

 

Lord and Lady Mountbatten with Jinnah and his sister, Fatima, 14th August 1947.The end of the empire came in carefully managed ceremonies in Karachi on 14th August at the Legislative Assembly and the subsequent day in Delhi. The Viceroy flew back to Delhi on 14th August: late in the evening the Legislative Assembly passed the resolution proclaiming independence and invited Lord Mountbatten to be the first Governor-General of India. The following day, after being sworn in, the principal ceremony saw the unfurling of the flag of the new dominion of India in Princes Park. Photo credit

Lord and Lady Mountbatten with Jinnah and his sister, Fatima, 14th August 1947.
The end of the empire came in carefully managed ceremonies in Karachi on 14th August at the Legislative Assembly and the subsequent day in Delhi. The Viceroy flew back to Delhi on 14th August: late in the evening the Legislative Assembly passed the resolution proclaiming independence and invited Lord Mountbatten to be the first Governor-General of India. The following day, after being sworn in, the principal ceremony saw the unfurling of the flag of the new dominion of India in Princes Park. Photo credit

 

Photograph taken at the reception given at the Chinese Embassy on October 10th, 1947, on the anniversary of the Chinese Republic. Left to right: Lord Mountbatten, Miss Maniben Patel, Lady Mountbatten, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Pamela Mountbatten, Prince de Ligne (Belgian Ambassador), and Dr. Tsien (Chinese Charge d Affaires). Photo credit

Photograph taken at the reception given at the Chinese Embassy on October 10th, 1947, on the anniversary of the Chinese Republic. Left to right: Lord Mountbatten, Miss Maniben Patel, Lady Mountbatten, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Pamela Mountbatten, Prince de Ligne (Belgian Ambassador), and Dr. Tsien (Chinese Charge d Affaires). Photo credit

In the post-partition period, Lord Mountbatten, for a brief period, served as one of the two Governor-Generals of India, while his wife was praised for heroically assisting in alleviating poverty and misery in the country. Edwina remained active in her service to India and also to the St John Ambulance Service.

In 1949, Lady Mountbatten served as a governor of The Peckham Experiment. Even though the Mountbatten’s private life remained part of the “rich men’s gossip”, people and the media concentrated on their activistic work, especially Edwina’s service.

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Lady Mountbatten, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Pamela Mountbatten, and Maulana Azad watch the flames of the funeral pyre consuming the remains of Gandhi on the bank of Jamuna on January 31, 1948. Photo credit

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Lady Mountbatten, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Pamela Mountbatten, and Maulana Azad watch the flames of the funeral pyre consuming the remains of Gandhi on the bank of Jamuna on January 31, 1948. Photo credit

Promiscuous until the end and indifferent to parenthood, Edwina found her calling in her work, and that is how she is remembered.

Read another story from us: Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Burma- A sacred golden rock that defies gravity

She died in her sleep in 1960, at the age of 58. At the time, she was in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), British North Borneo (now Sabah) inspecting a tour for the St John Ambulance Brigade, and the causes leading to her death remain unknown. Lady Mountbatten’s wish was to be buried at sea, so her husband buried her just off the Portsmouth coast. At the funeral, her lover Nehru sent two destroyers from India to accompany her body.