“I had a really happy childhood, but I could never tell my parents I was gay,” Lord Ivar Mountbatten recalled in an intimate interview last year. A third cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II (and a first cousin once removed of Prince Philip), the 56-year-old went on to explain, “Where I grew up, gay men were called ‘poofs,’ ‘queers,’ everything derogatory under the sun.”
But in September 2018, the second son of the third Marquess of Milford Haven did what would have been unthinkable not so very long ago: He married another man. Surrounded by friends and family, he and James Coyle, an airline cabin services director he met at a ski resort in Verbier, Switzerland, in 2015, tied the knot at his 100-acre Georgian estate, Bridwell Park, in Devon.
“People will look back and say, ‘What’s the big deal?'” he’s said. “But for our generation, it was.”
In a touching twist, Ivar’s ex-wife, Penny—with whom he shares daughters Ella, 23, Alexandra, 21, and Louise, 17—gave him away, in the flower-filled ceremony only slightly dimmed by rainy English weather. “It was the girls’ idea,” he said at the time. “It makes me feel quite emotional.”
It was the extended royal family’s first same-sex wedding. A great-great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, Ivar is also reportedly a godfather of Lady Louise Windsor, Edward and Sophie’s daughter, the Earl and Countess of Wessex (the couple is also godparents to his two eldest daughters). Yet none in the immediate royal family attended the nuptials.
Sophie and Edward, Ivar noted, were otherwise engaged.
“Their diaries are arranged months in advance,” he explained at the time, adding, “but they adore James. Everyone adores him.”
The lack of an official royal presence by no means indicates any kind of censure, however.
In recent years, from the queen down, royals have made a point, both formally and informally, of addressing LGBTQ issues. For example, the queen pledged in her speech at the 2017 State Opening of Parliament that the government would “tackle the gender pay gap and discrimination against people based on their race, faith, gender, disability or sexual orientation.” On a more personal note, William responded thoughtfully when asked how he would react if one of his three children came out as gay during a visit to an East London LGBT charity.
The prince said it would be “absolutely fine by me,” and that he and Kate would “fully support any decision they make.” Still, the king-to-be acknowledged that coming out as gay might not be so simple for a royal family member.
“The one thing I’d be worried about is how they, particularly the roles my children fill, is how that is going to be interpreted and seen,” he mused. “So Catherine and I have been doing a lot of talking about it to make sure they [are] prepared.”
Ivar didn’t quite have that luxury. He knew from the age of eight that he’s attracted to males. “I definitely think it’s in the genes,” he stated. “You’re either gay, or you’re not.”
Educated at Gordonstoun School, formerly all-boys institution known for its harsh conditions, cold showers, and morning runs (which had also been attended by Prince Philip and Prince Charles), he graduated from the liberal arts Middlebury College in Vermont.
After studying to be a geologist, he had a brief relationship with a man while living in Venezuela. Upon returning to England in his late twenties to run Moyns Park, his family’s country house in Bumpstead, Essex, he met Penny (née Penelope Anne Vere Thompson), the daughter of a Sotheby’s representative, now 53.
“When I met Ivar, he seemed so alone,” she’s recalled. “So, I kept inviting him to all the parties and events I was organizing.” For his part, Ivar was struggling with his sexuality. “I sort of had to suppress those feelings,” he’s admitted. “Particularly in my position.”
As the two became closer, Ivar confided in Penny, telling her about his relationship in South America.
“I could sense he was quite relieved sharing his secret, particularly with someone who was so receptive,” she later said. “Because I have lots of gay friends and cousins, I’m very open-minded about sexuality. He seemed like he’d offloaded a huge burden. It definitely made us closer from that moment onwards, because he trusted me.”
The two wed in a lavish ceremony in April 1994, with the late Princess Margaret stepping in to help Penny secure the huge family tiara in her updo. “That was the best day of my life,” Ivar still says. “I loved it.”
And the early years of their marriage were happy — trips around the world, holidays in Bermuda, and the arrival of their children — but the cracks began to show as Ivar began to explore his sexuality privately.
“Ivar had told me he was bisexual before he proposed,” Penny recalled. “I didn’t have any fears about it, because I loved him, and love conquers all, doesn’t it?”
“What I hadn’t realized is how jealous I would feel down the line when he was finding men attractive and how, ultimately, that made me feel that I wasn’t good enough.”
Penny, now a successful brand ambassador with a new relationship of her own, turned to drink.
“When I started feeling lonely and depressed, I dulled those feelings with alcohol, and of course that made me more depressed,” she’s admitted, adding, “But I always asked for and demanded complete honesty from Ivar. Perhaps that is a self-destructive part of me, but I wanted to know. I gave him his freedom because I wanted him to be happy.”
Her happiness, she soon realized, was out of reach. Fifteen years after they wed, Penny left Ivar.
“There was quite a lot of judgment” in their social circles, she’s noted, “‘ Why has she done this?’ — because hardly anyone knew about Ivar’s sexuality, which was hard to swallow. But I was approaching 40 and thought, it’s now or never.”
The once-happy Mountbattens divorced amicably in 2011, leaving both free to follow their hearts.
For Ivar, falling for the fun-loving James was a bit of a surprise. “I basically told everyone: ‘I’ve found somebody — it’s a bloke.’ They just started laughing. Then they met James, and one particular mate said: ‘If I was gay, I’d certainly go for him.'” Even so, he admitted that his life would have been easier had he been heterosexual. “Being completely truthful, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me that I am going out with a man,” he said shortly before the wedding.
“I’ve lived my whole life as a heterosexual. So, all of a sudden having a bloke around is unusual — even now. It’s brilliant, but I suppose in an ideal world, I would prefer to have a wife because that’s always been the norm.” (That’s not to say he’s unaware of other same-sex relationships in the family tree. “They were quite wayward in the 1940s,” he’s revealed. “My aunt Nada [Nadejda Mountbatten, second Marchioness of Milford Haven] was a lesbian. You’ve got to try everything once, that’s what my mother always said.”)
But Penny sees nothing but good in her ex’s coming out. “Ivar is so much more relaxed these days. He’s so much kinder,” she told one interviewer. “He probably wasn’t aware that by keeping his sexuality a secret it was really quite tormenting him. Now it’s ‘out,’ he’s a completely different person. Everybody says they’ve never seen him happier.”
Years now into the marriage, Ivar, who rents out his estate for weddings and other events, is proud to have been the first in the extended royal family to live his truth openly. The rest of the blue-blooded clan, alas, is still catching up. “They don’t really talk about it,” he dryly once said. “I mean, the royals, they don’t communicate very well.”