Lady Butter, close friend of the Queen and Prince Philip and founder of the Pushkin Prize in honour of her ancestor, the poet Alexander – obituary

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Lady Butter in 2021 with a portrait of Alexander Pushkin - Phil Wilkinson
Lady Butter in 2021 with a portrait of Alexander Pushkin - Phil Wilkinson

Lady Butter, CVO, who has died aged 97, was one of the last people to have known Prince Philip as a small boy, and she became well known to television viewers in many royal documentaries; it could be said that the mantle of the Queen’s cousin Margaret Rhodes, after her death in 2016, fell on to Lady Butter as she had witnessed so much of royal life.

Myra Butter once observed that the Queen Mother had hoped that Princess Elizabeth would marry a Grenadier Guard – many of whom, such as the future Duke of Grafton, were stationed at Windsor Castle during the war. But Elizabeth had set her heart on marrying Philip.

Myra insisted that he had initially been seen as unsuitable by the courtiers: “He was outspoken,” she said. “They would call him brash.”

But when the couple married, the reaction, Myra recalled was: “Lucky her, we thought, and lucky all of us. Because it was a really good fairy tale, and it remains a really good fairy tale.”

Judging Prince Philip as a father, Myra Butter was robust in his defence. She was staying with the Royal family when he first dropped Prince Charles off at Gordonstoun in 1962. “All I can remember is that when Prince Philip came back… he looked slightly shaken. He didn’t say anything, but he went straight over and poured himself a stiff drink. I do remember that. And I thought: ‘Oh, that has shaken you.’”

When Philip died, she declared that nobody could have done the job of consort as well as he did. He was dedicated and intelligent, she said, adding: “He was a step behind walking, but he was never a step behind as a person.”

Myra Wernher's marriage to Major David Butter, MC, at St Margaret's Westminster, in 1946, with Prince Michael and Princess Alexandra of Kent holding the train - TopFoto
Myra Wernher's marriage to Major David Butter, MC, at St Margaret's Westminster, in 1946, with Prince Michael and Princess Alexandra of Kent holding the train - TopFoto

Myra, who was a descendant of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, was the daughter of Sir Harold Wernher, 3rd Bt, from the South African diamond family, and Lady Zia (Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby), daughter of Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia, a great-grandson of Tsar Nicholas I.

Having pursued and been rejected by Princess May of Teck, Princess Irene of Hesse and Princess Louise (daughter of Edward VII), Grand Duke Michael had entered into a morganatic alliance with Countess Sophia Nikolaievna von Merenberg (Countess de Torby). They lived in England, variously at Keele Hall in Staffordshire and at Kenwood House in Hampstead, and also in the south of France.

Lady Zia married Sir Harold in 1917, and they had a son, who was killed in the Second World War, and two daughters. Myra’s elder sister, Georgina (Gina), married, first, Harold “Bunny” Phillips, former lover of Edwina Mountbatten, and secondly, Sir George “Loopy” Kennard. Through her mother, Myra was a first cousin of David, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, Prince Philip’s best man in 1947.

Myra Alice Wernher was born in Edinburgh on March 18 1925 and was brought up at Thorpe Lubenham Hall in Leicestershire. Princess Elizabeth was a childhood friend, and first came for tea when she was two and a half; the young Philip was also a regular visitor at Christmas time.

It was a strict upbringing, Myra recalled. She was a good mimic, and was musically talented, but was easily bored: “There must be something wrong with you,” her mother admonished her on one occasion. “There is always something to do.”

She loved riding, first appearing on a donkey at a meet of the Pytchley Hunt aged three, and was later a keen follower of hounds. As a child she and her sister sang at a concert at Lubenham, their performance greeted with thunderous applause.

As a childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth, Myra was one of several well-connected youngsters recruited as playmates – “They got hold of some girls to be part of the thing to make it more fun,” she told the Telegraph in 2021. They had swimming lessons together at the Bath Club in Dover Street, London, and Myra joined Elizabeth in the Buckingham Palace Girl Guides, Robin Patrol.

At the beginning of the war she joined the Order of St John and served as a volunteer nurse at Market Harborough and District Hospital for more than two years. Always public-spirited, in 1942 she raised funds for the Lubenham Cadet Nursing Division with a fête at the family home.

On March 5 1946, at St Margaret’s, Westminster, she married Major David Butter, MC, the descendant of a 12th-century Highland chieftain. He was a major in the Scots Guards and had been wounded in Italy; he was knighted in 1991, and was Lord Lieutenant of Perthshire between 1975 and 1995).

Princess Elizabeth, Princess Marina and Princess Margaret leave St Margaret's after Myra Butter's wedding - Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Princess Elizabeth, Princess Marina and Princess Margaret leave St Margaret's after Myra Butter's wedding - Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Police had to control a crowd of 700 in Parliament Square, and the wedding was attended by Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Princess Marina, with Princess Alexandra as a bridesmaid and Prince Michael as a page, carrying the train. Prince Philip and his mother, Princess Andrew of Greece, were also present, as were the Mountbattens.

As it was so soon after the war, the bride was unable to acquire white satin shoes, so she recycled those she had worn at her confirmation some years before. She amused the guests by snatching some icing from the wedding cake before it was distributed.

The following year, the Butter family attended the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip. “The war had been so grey that the Royal Wedding seemed to signify the world coming to life again,” she recalled. Afterwards, she said, she and her family “rushed home and changed, then sped off down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where we stood there shouting to get them out on the balcony. Everyone I know claims the credit for getting them out.”

The Butters lived at their family stronghold, Cluniemore, on the banks of the Tummel, a tributary of the Tay. There she created a much-admired garden and hillside woodland landscape, and grew what those in the know regarded as the best begonias and fuschias in Perthshire.

The estate became a haven for the Duke of Kent when he was courting Katharine Worsley, and for Princess Alexandra when she began dating Sir Angus Ogilvy.

Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, the Earl of Athlone, Mabell, Countess of Airlie, and Queen Mary watch the bridal procession at the Butters' wedding - SuperStock/Alamy
Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, the Earl of Athlone, Mabell, Countess of Airlie, and Queen Mary watch the bridal procession at the Butters' wedding - SuperStock/Alamy

Myra shared with the Queen a lifelong passion for horses, and owned Formulate, who won the Waterford Candelabra Stakes, May Hill Stakes and the Fillies’ Mile in 1978, trained by Henry Cecil. She was co-owner of her family’s Someries Stud in Newmarket, which they sold to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 1990.

In 1987 Myra Butter was instrumental in establishing the Pushkin Prize, a creative writing competition for Scottish schoolchildren, to mark the 150th anniversary of Alexander’s death. Initially restricted to the Tayside area, it was so successful that in 1992 a charitable trust was founded and the Prize expanded to all secondary schools in Scotland, as well as to English-language schools near the poet’s home town of St Petersburg.

In 1998 she was invited back to Russia for the reburial of the remains of the last Tsar’s family at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg; she said the Russian delegation were as interested in her Pushkin ancestry as her Romanov roots. In 2018 she was awarded the Medal of Pushkin for her work with the Prize but returned it in March 2022 in protest at the invasion of Ukraine.

“I regarded the medal as such an honour when it came to Scotland in better times,” she said. “However, to witness the terrible suffering taking place now is unbearable.”

Myra Butter, who was godmother to the Duke of Kent’s daughter Helen, was appointed CVO in 1992, and was a trustee of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. The Queen and Prince Philip both attended her 90th birthday celebrations in 2015.

The Butters had four daughters and a son; Sandra, the eldest child, was a bridesmaid to the Duchess of Kent in 1961; Georgina was a bridesmaid to Princess Alexandra, while Marilyn married the Earl of Dalhousie, Lord Steward of the Household.

Sir David Butter died in 2010, and Myra is survived by their children.

Lady Butter, born March 18 1925, died July 29 2022

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