THE Duchess of Kent is suffering from ME and has had to pull out of all her official engagements, it emerged yesterday.

The 63-year-old duchess is resting at her St James's Palace home on the advice of doctors but was said to be optimistic that she would recover soon.

She was due to have attended the annual awards of the children's charity Childline.

It is organised by Esther Rantzen, whose 18-year-old daughter also has ME and who campaigns for sufferers.

Award winners were told by Childline's executive director, Ms Valerie Howarth, that the duchess had been disappointed not to attend but had been told to cut back by her doctors. The duchess has made the presentations at the BT Childline Awards for the past five years.

Later, a spokesman for the duchess said: ``She has been diagnosed as suffering from ME or chronic fatigue syndrome.''

Other ME sufferers, including the Queen's cousin Lady Elizabeth Anson, sent their sympathies to the duchess.

The spokesman went on: ``She made it known earlier this year, at the time of her visit to India, that she was suffering from a virus which has symptoms similar to ME. She was later diagnosed with ME.''

He said the illness had no link with her earlier bouts of depression, which began after she had to undergo a termination of a pregnancy 21 years ago when she contracted German measles, and then lost another baby two years later when she was 44.

The duchess was optimistic that she would recover before too long from her present illness, he said.

``It is nothing too serious. She is just rather tired in general terms. She has been advised to take it easy, because that will help her recovery.''

As a result, she had with regret declined all other official invitations since the summer, he said.

``In herself, she is fine,'' he said. However, some days she was particularly fatigued.

``Rather than let people down, if she agreed to carry out an engagement and was then `wiped out' on the day in question, she felt it was better not to accept in the first place.''

The last public engagement the duchess carried out was attending the Royal Tournament in July, he said.

Esther Rantzen paid tribute to her tireless work for charity and selflessness. Miss Rantzen said: ``I heard some time ago. The duchess took a great interest in my daughter's health.

``She has presented these awards for the last five years. She sent the most warm and kind messages to this year's finalists.

``I know they will be deeply disappointed not to have been able to meet her but we all understand. It can be a very difficult illness.

``It is very important that people who have had it don't over-work because it is known that that obviously makes it worse.''

She added: ``We send our very best love and wishes, and hope she will soon be back to health.

``She always works unstintingly for other people. She is a deeply loved member of the royal family and everyone wishes her well.''

Miss Rantzen's daughter Emily has been suffering from the illness for two years.

She has been cared for by her mother and father, documentary maker Desmond Wilcox, at their London home.

But in October she was reported to have been admitted to hospital after being weakened to such an extent that she had to use a wheelchair.

There are an estimated 150,000 sufferers in Britain, 24,000 of them children.

Lady Elizabeth Anson, president of pressure group Action for ME, said: ``I'm desperately sorry to hear that the duchess has got ME.

``I wouldn't wish it on my own worst enemy. I'm deeply distressed for her and will do everything to help.''

Lady Elizabeth, sister of photographer Lord Lichfield and the Queen Mother's niece, has suffered from the illness for 10 years.

Ms Kerry Tolley, spokes-woman for Action for ME, said: ``The duchess has our sympathy and support.

``Rest is vital at this stage.

``We advise sufferers to listen to their bodies and learn to pace themselves.''

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was officially recognised as a genuine illness by the medical establishment in October.

Before that, it was known as ME, Yuppie Flu, and a variety of other names.

Experts say the illness is caused by both physical and psychological factors and has no single underlying cause.

The condition causes weakness or fatigue which in the most severe causes can be disabling.

Sufferers also include round-the-world sailor and novelist Clare Francis and former world motorcycle champion Barry Sheene.

A spokeswoman for the ME Association said it was ``very sorry to hear of the duchess's illness.

``The knowledge that such a well respected and hard working member of the royal family has ME will no doubt help to raise awareness of this chronic, disabling condition.

``For 20 years the ME Association has been raising awareness of ME and battling against non-acceptance of the illness by both the medical profession and the public.''