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