Tributes paid to only female Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret

Lady Juliet Townsend in 1991
Lady Juliet Townsend in 1991

Tributes have been paid to a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret who was the only ever woman to be Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire.

Lady Juliet Townsend gave up the role of Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, which saw her become the Queen’s representative in the county, in June this year.

She had been in the role since being appointed in 1998 and, until this year, was a familiar face in the county at every significant civic event.

Her appointment made her the first, and so far only, woman to take the title since its creation 450 years ago.

At the time of her appointment, she told the Chron that she felt she was “breaking new ground” but did not believe it made any difference whether the office was held by a man or held by a woman.

Her husband, John, a district councillor, said she was just pleased to get on with a job she grew to adore.

“You couldn’t do the job of lord lieutenant for so long without having a love of talking to people and that description fitted her completely,” he said.

“She could have a good converstaion with anyone, from the man on the street to the Queen.

“I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met her and been married to her for 44 years.”

Lady Juliet, who died on Saturday morning aged 73, has an illustrious family history.

Her grandfather was FE Smith, the esteemed Conservative statesman and former Lord Chancellor, who was a great friend of Winston Churchill and so featured prominently in the former Prime Minister’s diaries.

And her father was the Earl of Birkenhead, who was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Halifax as well as Lord-in-Waiting to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

Lady Juliet grew up in the south Northamptonshire village of Charlton and went to Westonbirt boarding school in Gloucestershire before studying English literature at Oxford.

Official functions later made her very familiar with every part of Northamptonshire, but her knowledge had been significantly deepened in 1964 when, fresh from university, she wrote a Shell guidebook about the county.

During her impressively-thorough three years of research - encouraged by the her friend, the former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, who had helped do something similar for Oxfordshire - she visited every town and village in the county, sometimes up to 30 different places in a week.

In 1966, she became a lady-in waiting to Princess Margaret, probably the most famous and glamorous woman in the world at the time.

Working full-time for six years and later in a part-time capacity, Lady Juliet told the Chron in 1998, she had to possess lots of stamina to keep up with the Queen’s sister.

She said: “We did some wonderful things you wouldn’t be able to do today.

“I remember on one tour we went to Japan, Thailand, Cambodia and Iran.

“It was very,very tiring. There would be engagments all day and a ball in the evening.

“Princess Margaret would retire at 1am but I’d have to stay up and deal with all the correspondence after that.”

Lady Juliet lived at Newbottle Estate, a working farm which she ran with husband John.

The couple, who have three children, have also owned the Old Hall Bookshop in Brackley since 1977, the enterprise chiming perfectly with Lady Juliet’s keen interest in antiquarian books.

Before becoming Lord Lieutenant, she held many other posts, including county chair of the NSPCC, county chair of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, County Commissioner of the Northamptonshire Guides Association and the position of High Sheriff.

The latter gave her great pleasure, particularly the swearing-in ceremony in March 1991 - where unlike the male incumbents, who had to wear Court Dress, the women could wear what they liked, which Lady Juliet did with great gusto.

She told Image magazine days beforehand: “I have a wonderful cream jacket and skirt worn with a cream shirt.

“I’ve chosen a hat with a dark green cock feather and will wear the lace jabot my grandfather wore as Lord Chancellor.

“As a final touch I have little Northamptonshire roses embroidered in black on the satin trims of the outfit.

“You could call me a walking Rose of the Shires.”

A public service of memorial will be held for Lady Juliet at All Saints Church in January.