STOCKHOLM — She was one of the better kept secrets of Sweden’s royal household: a commoner and divorcee whose relationship with Prince Bertil was seen as a threat to the Bernadotte dynasty.
In a touching royal romance, Welsh-born Princess Lilian and her Bertil kept their love unofficial for decades and were both in their 60s when they finally received the king’s blessing to get married.
Princess Lilian died Sunday in her Stockholm home. She was 97. The Royal Palace didn’t give a cause of death, but Princess Lilian suffered from Alzheimer's disease and had been in poor health for several years.
She met Prince Bertil in 1943, but his obligations to the throne and her status as a divorced commoner prevented them from revealing their love publicly, and it would be 33 years before they could marry. The couple’s sacrifices and lifelong dedication to one another gripped the hearts of Swedes.
‘‘If I were to sum up my life, everything has been about my love,’’ the witty, petite princess said of her husband when she turned 80 in 1995. ‘‘He’s a great man, and I love him.’’
Born Lilian Davies in Swansea, Wales, on Aug. 30, 1915, the charming blue-eyed beauty moved to London as a 16-year-old to embark on a career as a model and actress, showcasing hats and gloves in ads and taking small roles in movies. She married British actor Ivan Craig in 1940.
When World War II erupted, Craig was drafted into the British army while his wife stayed in London, working at a factory making radio sets for the British merchant fleet and serving at a hospital for wounded soldiers.
At the time, Prince Bertil was stationed at the Swedish Embassy in the British capital as a naval attache. The couple met in the nightclub Les Ambassadeurs shortly before her 28th birthday in 1943. She then invited him to a cocktail party in her London apartment. But it was not until he fetched her with his car following an air raid in her neighborhood that the romance blossomed, she recalled in her 2000 memoir, ‘‘My Life with Prince Bertil.’’
‘‘He was so handsome my prince. Especially in uniform. So charming and thoughtful. And so funny. Oh how we laughed together,’’ Princess Lilian wrote.
She was still married at the time, but the situation resolved itself since Craig, too, had met someone else during his years abroad in the army, and the couple divorced on amicable terms.
Upon Prince Bertil's return to Sweden, however, his relationship with a commoner became a delicate issue. The prince became a possible heir to the throne when his eldest brother died in a plane crash, leaving an infant son — the current King Carl XVI Gustaf. Two other brothers had dropped out of the line of succession by marrying commoners.
Prince Bertil's father, King Gustaf VI Adolf, ordered him to abstain from marrying Lilian, since that would jeopardize the survival of the Bernadotte dynasty.
Instead, the couple let their romance flourish in an unofficial manner, living together in a common-law marriage for decades. They first lived in their house in Sainte-Maxime in France, but later shared their time between the French village and Stockholm, where she discreetly stayed in the background for years.
Despite the royal reluctance to recognize her officially, her warm personality soon won the Swedes over, and magazines depicted the couple playing golf and riding on the prince’s motorbike. When Prince Bertil had to use a walking frame after an operation, she cheerfully nicknamed it his ‘‘Bugatti.’’
In 1976, the new king finally gave them the approval they had been waiting for. On a cold December day the same year, Lilian, or ‘‘Lily’’ as the prince used to call her, became princess of Sweden and duchess of the southern province of Halland in a ceremony at the Drottningholm Palace chapel just outside Stockholm. The bride by then was 61 and the groom 64.
The couple never had children. Prince Bertil died in the couple’s residence Villa Solbacken in Stockholm in 1997 after unspecified lung problems.
Princess Lilian took over some of her husband’s duties, especially as an award presenter for various sports associations.
Health problems forced her to cut back on some of her royal duties. In 2006, she stopped attending the annual Nobel Prize banquet, and the next year she also stopped taking part in the award ceremony. In 2010, the palace said the princess suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, preventing her from attending the wedding that summer of Crown Princess Victoria and Daniel Westling.