Activist during the Northern Irish Troubles and holder of ancient Scottish title

Born: February 27, 1946;

Died: December 10, 2018

THE Duchess of Abercorn, who has died aged 72, was not your average aristocrat; born through circumstance in the United States, she was very English, loved spending time in Scotland but spent most of her life in Northern Ireland as a humble and much-admired educationalist and Jungian psychologist. Most notably, she helped give hope and succour to the children of Northern Ireland, both protestant and catholic, through the Troubles.

Her husband’s title, Duke of Abercorn, had originated in West Lothian but became part of the peerage of Ireland when his ancestors moved there. Before the Dukedom, he had held the ancient Scottish title Marquess of Hamilton and she Marchioness.

Via Sophia of Hanover, the Duchess was a direct descendent of King James 1 of England and V1 of Scotland, a fact that made her 630th in line to the British throne. She was also descended from the Tsars of Russia and the legendary Russian poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin, whose legacy she promoted throughout her life. In fact, through her maternal grandmother, Lady Zia Wernher, she was related to virtually every royal family in Europe. “I have a very eclectic mix of blood which, like a chameleon, helps you to fit in anywhere,” she said. Although her birth name was Alexandra Anastasia Phillips, later to become Hamilton, she always preferred, whether by fellow royals or schoolchildren, to be called simply Sacha.

Through her marriage, the Duchess was also related to many British royals, including the Mountbattens and the Windsors, therefore including Princess Diana and Princes William and Harry. In fact, her family affairs were always closely intertwined with the Mountbattens and the Windsors. Lord Mountbatten of Burma was her godfather and she was devastated when he was blown up on his boat by the IRA in August 1979, not far from her own home, Baronscourt Castle in Northern Ireland close to the Irish border. The Duke and Duchess of Abercorn had been out on Lord Mountbatten’s boat, the Shadow Five, many times and her godson, Nicky Knatchbull, aged 14 and Mountbatten’s grandson, was also killed in the blast.

Given the Abercorns’ proximity to the Irish border, they themselves could have been targets of the IRA but their friends, including the poet Seamus Heaney, pointed out to the nationalist extremists that the Duchess was not a British but a Russian royal.

The Duchess’s close relationships with both Lord Mountbatten and Prince Philip were perhaps best described as unconventional. Her father, Lt-Col Harold “Bunnie” Phillips, had had a well-publicised affair with Lord Mountbatten’s wife Edwina but Mountbatten nevertheless gladly accepted being her godfather. She once said that he had been in love with her and that, had she not been married, might have married him once he became a widower. “I loved him without being in love with him," she once said. “It wasn’t the great passion one reads about, but a mutual affection and respect."

Even more distressing to her were rumours, and even media reports that she had been a lover of Prince Philip, whom she had known since she was a little girl. When she was an adult, the Duke of Edinburgh used to visit the Abercorns’ home in the Bahamas as well as their seat at Baronscourt castle where he enjoyed his beloved horse-and-carriage driving. She said they had become close after “riveting conversations” about the work of psychologist Carl Jung. The two were also seen together in Scotland and in Windsor Great Park outside Windsor Castle.

The rumours began in 1987 when a newspaper published a photograph of them together, Prince Philip wearing only a towel around his waist, with his arm around the Duchess who was in a bathing suit. But her husband, James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn, was also in the picture. Talking of her friendship with Prince Philip, she told the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth for his book Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage (2004): "The heart came into it in a big way. There's a hugely potent chemical reaction in him [Philip]. It's a highly charged chemistry.

“He (Philip) is a very special man … It was a passionate friendship, but the passion was in the ideas … It was certainly not a full relationship. I did not go to bed with him. It probably looked like that to the world. I can understand why people might have thought it, but it didn't happen. He isn't like that. It's complicated and, at the same time, it's quite simple. He needs a playmate, and someone to share his intellectual pursuits."

Alexandra Anastasia Phillips was born on February 27, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona, where her father the dashing career soldier Lt-Col “Bunnie” Phillips, half-Peruvian, was recovering from tuberculosis after working as a British spy in South America. It has been said that he was at least partly the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Her mother Georgina “Gina” Wernher was a great-great-great granddaughter of Tsar Nicolas 1 of Russia. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Gina’s family established itself in Britain.

Sacha Phillips spent much of her childhood in Luton Hoo, the Wernher family’s stately country home in Bedfordshire and now a luxury hotel and golf estate. After coming out as a top debutante, she did what was expected of her and “married well.” She was 20 when in 1966 she wed James Hamilton, at the time Marquess of Hamilton, an old Scottish title although the family had long since moved to County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Until then, she recalled, the closest she had come to Ireland was during holidays with friends in the isle of Islay.

Their wedding in Westminster Abbey was attended by the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen mother with a six-year-old Prince Andrew among the page boys. When her husband James, a former Ulster Unionist MP, succeeded as 5th Duke of Abercorn in 1979, he relinquished the title of Marquess of Hamilton to his son. Sacha, now the Duchess of Abercorn, settled into the family seat, Baronscourt Castle and Estate, where she would spend the rest of her life, dedicating it almost entirely to helping others, especially children as the Troubles escalated.

As a trained psychologist, she helped children get through the trauma of the violence while her husband devoted his energy to the regeneration of Belfast. The Troubles affected her personally. Her eldest son Jamie was born in 1969 just as the violence erupted. “Belfast was ablaze with bombs and incendiaries,” she recalled. Her daughter Sophie, born in 1973, began having nightmares ‘about the family being attacked and invaded,” The Duchess said.

Drawing inspiration from her ancestor the Russian poet Pushkin, she became passionately involved in the education of children in the British province and beyond. She found that Pushkin’s work could bring people together – in this case catholics and protestants - in a way that politics could not. She founded the charity The Pushkin Trust, which encourages children to express themselves through all art forms and, by engaging with the natural world, through their senses. She took children to Russia and persuaded the authorities to allow the Trust to work with Russian children. In 2008 she was awarded an OBE. Prince Albert of Monaco presented her with the Princess Grace Humanitarian Award in 2006.

She said that when she visited schools, “the children were often disappointed that I was not wearing a long dress and tiara.” She taught them that the word ‘nobility’ was misused. “Everyone has that noble spirit in them and that’s what I’m searching for in Pushkin, the nobility of the human being within us all.”

After the bloody Omagh bombing in 1998, she became a director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation, which went on to inter-act with similar centres around the world.

Shiela McCaul, chair of the Pushkin Trust, said: “In the 30 years I’ve known her, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by her deep humanity, spirituality and the desire to do good, to make things better. Sacha had a life filled with giving.”

The Duchess of Abercorn is survived by her husband and their children Jamie, the Marquess of Hamilton who runs the family estates, Lady Sophia Hamilton, a former catwalk model, and Lord Nicholas Hamilton, a keen photographer based in New York. She also has three sisters, Fiona, Marita and Natalia (Tally).