Back in the 1950s, my mother brought me up to cope with a fundamental truth of my class and time: women must put up and shut up.
It’s no wonder some aristocratic husbands treated their wives as servants or chattels.
My own father, the Earl of Leicester, could be very difficult but my mother made it clear that we must adapt to him, make endless allowances and never rebuke him.
She was preparing me for a lifetime of mollifying difficult men.
I don’t blame her. Just about every other woman I knew was told she had to soldier on and not complain. Even the Queen, whom I’d known since childhood, worked hard to make sure her husband was kept happy.
So I knew that my role as the wife of Colin Tennant — later Lord Glenconner — was all about doing what he wanted, sorting out his messes and appearing cheerful while I did it. That much had been made very clear.
You may remember my late husband as the English aristocrat who bought the island of Mustique in the West Indies, turning it into an exclusive resort for the likes of Princess Margaret, Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
He was a clever, talented man who loved our five children. And he had a great gift for friendship; he could flatter and amuse, was restless and inventive, outrageous and silly, and often incredibly generous.
But he was also an incredibly selfish, damaged and occasionally dangerous man. The simple truth is that I lived with domestic violence and abuse for most of my marriage.
On some level I always knew that, but I didn’t allow myself to think it. Colin was Colin. His violent rages and outbursts were just his character and I simply had to endure them. I had to be a ‘good wife’, subservient and uncomplaining.
It was publishing my autobiography, three years ago, that made me look again at our tempestuous marriage. I can see now that I wrote about it in a rather breezy way, playing up the absurdity of Colin’s behaviour in order to laugh about it.
When my friends used to ask me about Colin’s antics, and I swapped stories with Princess Margaret — to whom I was lady-in-waiting — about our difficult husbands, it had seemed much healthier to laugh about it all.
In fact, being Colin’s wife was frightful at times and very, very difficult.
The greatest shock when I married him was the violence. It started with screaming and quite soon went on to spitting, shoving and throwing things.
He used to hurl things at me like a naughty child who knows he doesn’t want to go too far but wants to do something outrageous. I found it so unexpected and upsetting, and I hardly ever knew what I’d done to deserve it.
So I knew that my role as the wife of Colin Tennant — later Lord Glenconner — was all about doing what he wanted, sorting out his messes and appearing cheerful while I did it Pictured: Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, and his wife Anne, on the island of Mustique, which he owned privately, in March 1973
Party people: The Glenconners on Mustique in 1973 and Princess Margaret with the couple on the island in 1986
The wedding of Lady Anne Coke and Mr Colin Tennant at St Withburga’s Church in Holkham, Norfolk
He only beat me once, many years later — a terrifying attack I shall come to later. Nevertheless, I remained married to him for another 30 years.
These are aspects of my marriage I have kept to myself for a very long time. I never told any of my friends; in truth, I was having too much difficulty myself in coming to terms with it.
No one, however, should be expected to put up with the kind of treatment I got from Colin. That is a lesson it took me a long time to learn, because it ran counter to so much of my training.
It’s telling that in the early 1970s, I became involved with the pioneering work of Erin Pizzey, who established the first domestic-violence shelter in the UK. I felt privileged to be able to help with fundraising and visited the shelters frequently.
This may seem very odd now, but it never occurred to me that my interest might be founded on my own experiences with Colin. I think now that Erin Pizzey perhaps saw something in me that told her I should get involved.
But it’s only lately, in today’s more open climate, that I’ve felt able to admit what really happened to me. I am very grateful to the friends and family who have recently encouraged me to talk about my experiences.
I have also been inspired by [Camilla] the Queen Consort, who has made the prevention of domestic abuse one of her causes.
One thing that being Colin’s wife taught me is that no one, however glamorous their existence might look from the outside, is immune to ill-treatment, or the feelings of doubt and shame that come with it.
Life with Colin was so fraught that I sometimes wondered if he was simply doing all this to test me. Early on, he had said ominously: ‘I’m going to break you, Anne.’
He failed to do so, and he was proud of me for that. He said to me another time: ‘I knew you’d be able to take it.’
That was the paradox inside Colin. He wanted to break me and needed me to be unbreakable.
Some of my ability to cope with his ill-treatment I put down to the resilience I learned as a child, but I had many unusual advantages, too. Thanks to my marriage, I was constantly surrounded by interesting people, travelling frequently and had a very busy social life.
I also had enormous amounts of practical help in looking after the children and our various houses.
That meant I had places to escape to, a nanny to sweep the children out of harm’s way, staff to share the burden of catering to Colin’s extravagant demands and, very importantly, friends with whom I could relax.
Nevertheless, life with Colin, particularly in the early years, almost destroyed me.
Just three months after we married, in April 1956, I went to my mother in a panic, telling her I didn’t think I could carry on with Colin and his terrible tantrums. She told me I’d made my choice and should stick with it. No complaining was allowed, to our husbands or to anyone else, so I got very short shrift.
And when I tried to turn to Colin’s mother for advice on how to handle his outbursts, she said that the best thing to do was to give him a nice cup of cocoa at bedtime!
In those early days, when I was pregnant with our first child, I had almost no sleep as, night after night, Colin lay in a foetal position on the floor, or sat rocking back and forth, wailing non-stop for hours about how awful his life was, and how it was everybody’s fault but his. I listened patiently and sympathetically, but it didn’t seem to do any good.
Lady Anne Glenconner (pictured) served as Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting for three decades
Lady Anne Glenconner (centre) at the book launch of Lord of the Isle – the Extravagant Life and Times of Colin Tennant in Mayfair, London alongside Lady Annunziata Asquith and Countess Davinia Alexander
Just three months after we married, in April 1956, I went to my mother in a panic, telling her I didn’t think I could carry on with Colin and his terrible tantrums. She told me I’d made my choice and should stick with it. No complaining was allowed, to our husbands or to anyone else, so I got very short shrift. Pictured: Lady Anne Coke and Colin Tennant pictured as they announce their engagement, December 16 1955
I felt utterly wretched. I also suffered from physical pain — so agonising that a surgeon took out my appendix when I was six months’ pregnant. It turned out, however, that there was nothing wrong with my appendix.
After Colin died in 2010, I was shocked to discover something he’d written to the effect that I’d had the operation on purpose, which might have endangered our son’s life. It was perhaps the most hurtful thing he could have said, and I’m glad he was no longer alive when I read it.
I now think all that physical pain was a symptom of the shock and strain of finding myself married to Colin, and the effort involved in coping with it all.
Even so, as time went on, there would be moments of vivid happiness. Dancing was one of them; we loved jive and rock and roll and would let rip in various clubs.
To me, those were really magical times when I could forget myself and all the tensions between us. I also learned to treasure the many moments of joy and laughter we shared with our family and friends, and appreciate the times Colin was at his best, charming the people around us.
That was until a great change came in our marriage. It would test me to my very limit.
Buying Mustique, in 1958, was a great leap into the unknown, and I had some marvellous times on the island, even when we had no running water or electricity.
Spending so much time out in the West Indies, however, was not good for Colin.
His arrival had improved the lives of the islanders a great deal. He built a new village, installed electricity and created a lot of well-paying jobs by attracting many wealthy new landowners. Over the years, he also sank a lot of his personal fortune into the island.
As a result, he regarded himself as the King of Mustique and behaved accordingly, as a monarch with absolute power. In his rages, he would attack people physically.
I’m afraid that many of the islanders simply accepted this as what white men did. He’d often be very generous, paying for medical treatment, setting people up in business or funding the education of their children, so they accepted his awful behaviour as the price to be paid.
This meant he got used to being able to indulge his worst rages without facing any consequences. It wasn’t just the islanders who indulged him: even the wealthy men and women with homes on the island simply ignored his behaviour — a battle with the King of Mustique simply wasn’t worth having. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised then that when he finally did attack me, it was on Mustique. It was November in the late 1970s, and we were celebrating the birthday of our twin girls.
Buying Mustique, in 1958, was a great leap into the unknown, and I had some marvellous times on the island, even when we had no running water or electricity. Pictured: Princess Margaret, Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner and Anne Tennant, Lady Glenconner wait on the jetty for Queen Elizabeth ll and Prince Philip’s arrival to Mustique on Britannia in 1977
Lord Glenconner in Mustique with life-long friend Princess Margaret
Colin Tennant and Princess Margaret, at a gold themed 50th Birthday Party of Colin Tennant on Mustique, West Indies, November 22 1976
We’d gone down to Basil’s Bar to celebrate over a high tea with a few friends, including Barbara Barnes, the girls’ nanny, who later became nanny to Princes William and Harry.
Colin was having drinks with clients, while I sat with the children. After a while, he came over and asked me to meet the people he was talking to, no doubt to soften them up for his business deal.
I didn’t really want to, but I left the children with Barbara and went over. I said a nice hello and chatted for a few minutes, then explained politely about the birthday party and went back to the twins.
A little while later Colin marched over, white with fury. Through clenched teeth, he commanded: ‘Come with me.’
Before I could say anything, he grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the bar with him. Not wanting to make a fuss, I didn’t resist.
On the way back to our house in the car, a journey of about ten minutes, Colin was shaking with anger. I stayed very still and quiet, my usual tactic when he was in a rage, hoping he’d calm down.
Drawing up at the house, I got out of the car and before I knew what was happening, he hit me across the head from behind with his shark-bone walking stick. It knocked me straight to the ground. And then he launched in on me.
I lay there, trying to protect my head and begging him to stop.
He didn’t: he was in a frenzy, quite out of his mind. I was utterly terrified, convinced he might actually kill me.
I have no idea how long it lasted, but eventually he tired himself out. I lay there until I heard his car drive off, then crawled into the main house and locked myself into the bedroom.
I was petrified he might come back and finish me off. Later, I learned that Colin had gone back to the bar and told a friend of ours, without a trace of remorse: ‘I’ve just given Anne a thrashing.’
And the friend did nothing. He didn’t alert Barbara or fetch any help. Perhaps he had that old idea of not wanting to interfere between husband and wife. Perhaps he thought it wasn’t his place — but, then, whose place was it?
I try not to dwell on it now, but the idea of Colin going back to the bar and actually boasting about what he’d just done is truly horrible. I was alone all night and in agony.
By the following morning, I realised something was seriously wrong. The pain in my ear was terrible. I was covered with blood — I could feel it matted into my hair but I didn’t dare look at myself. I was too scared to open the bedroom door in case Colin was waiting outside. I was certain he’d gone completely mad.
Instead, I crawled out of the window as dawn was breaking and reached Barbara’s chalet nearby in the grounds.
I will never forget the look of shock and horror on her face when she saw me. She took me back to my room, phoned the doctor, and then I heard her give Colin absolute hell.
‘How dare you?’ she shouted. ‘How dare you treat Lady Anne like that? It’s unforgivable!’
It was very brave of her, but then she’d always been able to deal with Colin when he was at his worst while I never could.
Colin slunk off, and the island’s doctor arrived and examined me. He was very concerned, but I didn’t tell him what had happened and he didn’t ask. Perhaps he guessed.
My eardrum had burst, and I have been deaf in that ear ever since.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Colin knew he’d gone too far. He wanted to see me but Barbara forbade it. Instead he left a small bunch of flowers outside my door.
I kept to my room. I didn’t want the children to see me until the bruises had healed. Barbara looked after me — goodness knows what she told them.
Once I was able to emerge, Colin was allowed to see me, and said a meek ‘sorry’, like a little boy. ‘I won’t do it again,’ he said. ‘I will be good, I promise.’
It was one of the only times I saw any real remorse from him about his behaviour. I said nothing.
He was sorry he was in trouble, and that he’d gone too far. That was all.
I stayed away from the children for about ten days until my bruises had faded. The day before I was able to fly home, I went down to the beach and one of the better-known people on the island, a woman I counted as a friend, came up to me.
She looked at my face and arms, where bruises were still visible despite the make-up I’d put on to cover them. ‘Have you been a naughty girl?’ she asked.
‘Of course not,’ I said, but couldn’t say anything else. It was so painful and humiliating. Did she expect me to joke about it? I’m afraid I really hated her in that moment.
On my return to England, I told my mother everything. He could easily have killed me, I said. Did she still feel I’d made my bed and had to lie in it?
She was horrified, and asked if I wanted to leave him. But even though something in me had irrevocably changed towards Colin, I still believed in marriage and in the virtue of putting up with things and getting on.
I’d noticed when I worked with Erin Pizzey that the wives often blamed themselves for their husbands’ behaviour, and I’m afraid — even on this occasion — I began to think I was partly to blame. After all, I knew how volatile Colin was, so perhaps I should have avoided making him angry.
It was an attempt, I suppose, to rationalise the whole thing, as if I could make it better by, to some extent, blaming myself.
When I told my mother there would be no divorce, she issued an ultimatum to Colin. ‘If you ever do anything like that to Anne again, that’s it. She’ll leave and we will support her in every way.’
Colin grovelled. I believe he was ashamed of what he’d done once someone he respected confronted him with it.
In different circumstances, he could have been arrested for what he’d done to me, and for the casual assaults he perpetrated against others. It seems incredible now what we allowed him to get away with.
I could have gone to the police myself, but I was too ashamed to make public what had happened.
In the end, he wrote me a proper apology, saying in effect: I can see why you’d leave me, but please don’t because I will be good from now on. I don’t think people understand how hard it can be to leave someone who can be so awful at some moments, then so sad and sorry at others.
Despite the apology, things were never the same between us. That extraordinary and unprovoked rage had shown me a sadistic streak and a depth of cruelty I could never forget.
Colin never hit me again, although he did still push me and spit at me when furious. He knew enough never to go further than that. And no matter how badly he treated me, he needed me. He used to threaten to kill himself if I left him, and I didn’t see that as an idle threat.
Lady Anne, then 23, in her wedding dress as she married Colin Tennant in 1956
The christening of baby Charles Edward Pevensey, the son of Colin Tennant and Lady Anne in 1957
I knew I was important to him as a point of stability in his life, and as mother to his children. In his own strange way, he loved me.
Once I found I could speak openly about Colin’s attack, the shame I’d carried with me was gone. I felt physically lighter, and I’d encourage anyone who has been through something similar to talk about it.
This is not the same as dwelling on one’s problems, or making oneself into a victim; it is simply a case of being honest, and that is very liberating. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I had left Colin. Perhaps the children would have been happier — he caused a lot of stress in their lives as well as mine.
When I’ve asked them since, they’ve said they were glad we didn’t divorce. But I think they also understood that the only way for me to get through it was to learn to put myself and them ahead of his endless, taxing needs.
I’m proud that things which may have weakened me, were even intended to destroy me, have in the end made me stronger. But I can’t help feeling a little wistful for what life might have been like with a strong, secure marriage of equals, each looking out for the other, and living a life of mutual respect, love and kindness.
In general, however, even when a marriage among my contemporaries started with love and affection, it was often impossible to maintain for long, given the unequal way in which men and women were brought up.
The very worst of all was when cruelty was coupled with a charmless, boorish personality. My poor sister Carey experienced this, with a husband who — for years on end — would only talk to her through the dog. So, I shan’t pretend my life was like hers, with a husband ordering the Labrador to ‘tell that awful woman the fire needs some logs’.
It is a sad reflection on society that, because of Colin’s wealth and family, the position of power he enjoyed in the West Indies, and the feeling of complete entitlement he was brought up with, he got away with so much.
Nevertheless I do believe that in the end the person who suffered most was Colin himself. The people he abused in public were no doubt shaken and annoyed, but then carried on with their lives while he lived with his terrible dark feelings every day.
Did he ever realise that? I suspect not.
- ADAPTED from Whatever Next? Lessons From An Unexpected Life by Anne Glenconner, published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 17 at £22. © Anne Glenconner 2022. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid until November 15, 2022; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.