Editing a newspaper some years ago, I had to rebuke a reporter who had written about the House of Windsor using the terms “Royal Family” and “Royal Household” interchangeably throughout. To most, I hope, the distinction is obvious. The family are those related, by blood or marriage, to the Sovereign; the household is that army of people, from courtiers at the high end to flunkeys at the bottom, who ensure that the institution of monarchy continues to function. Some of their posts date back centuries—there is still a Grand Hereditary Carver, though, as Adrian Tinniswood points out in this superb book, he doesn’t do a great deal of carving—but these days Queen Elizabeth II also has in her entourage press officers and IT experts, something Queen Elizabeth I, with whom Tinniswood begins his account of life behind palace doors, could not in the first instance have imagined necessary or in the second have believed possible. The journey of 450 years between the two Glorianas makes Tinniswood’s story. It combines accounts of family and household, showing the distinction between, but also the interdependence of, the two.
The author relates how Elizabeth I, never less than majestic, learned much about attitude from her father, Henry VIII. Lacking husbands to decapitate, she nonetheless asserted her authority by deeds and by her simple presence. She would smack round the head any courtier whom she found disobliging, and when she came before her court, bewigged and in dresses that dripped with jewels, grown men would fall on their knees. That was in the age before constitutional monarchy; part of Tinniswood’s tale is how the English (and later the British) monarch came to hold his or her place by consent rather than by the potential for brutality.
Henry VIII had owned fifty houses: Tinniswood tells how some more came, and many went, over the years, either because they were given away, used as grace-and-favour residences for extended family or for the court, expropriated, or sold. One continuing saga has been the tussle with parliament about money: until the time of King William IV (r. 1830–37) virtually no year passed without the monarch living beyond his or her means. Some were ostentatiously lavish. William’s elder brother, the porcine and unlovely George IV, commissioned extravagant building projects and lived high off the hog. His father, George III, paid the then-astronomical sum of £161,000 to settle a part of his son’s debts in 1787, and raised his allowance by £10,000 a year in the hope of its never happening again—this at a time when the average working man made, if he was lucky, £25 a year. The first episode of George III’s madness, which Tinniswood also catalogues, occurred shortly afterwards.
The Hanoverians especially were bad managers of people and of cash. William IV was an exception. Perhaps conscious of his late brother’s reputation, he had used money he had saved to refit Buckingham Palace—only in the family since 1820—so that when his young niece Queen Victoria inherited she would at least have a comfortable home in which to base herself. Once Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, she acquired a husband whose ideals of economy and responsibility exceeded even those of her late uncle. Staff were fired, sinecures ended, and pointless divisions of labor and petty bureaucracies streamlined. The sinecures were a particular problem: the wet-nurse for the future George IV managed to stay on the books until the boy was twenty-one. Conspicuous consumption was also encouraged in the household, especially in the kitchens, because the servant class made money out of it: they could collect the stubs of candles and sell the tallow on, in addition to tons of leftover food, animal skins, and down from swans and geese. Albert introduced, among other things, a directive ordering that candles be burned down properly before being decommissioned.
In the early days, money was spent in huge quantities on court entertainments such as masques; with the Hanoverians, however, the main extravagance was music—George I brought with him one Georg Frideric Handel. Until the Hanoverians, the court and the political class were often indistinguishable: the Cecils who attended Elizabeth I and James I and VI were half–private secretary to the monarch, half–prime minister. Because George I spoke no English, he had to rely on a political class to run his country for him, and Sir Robert Walpole, from 1721, became what we now know as Britain’s first prime minister. This led directly to the “constitutionalising” of the monarchy, a process that had begun when Charles I lost the English Civil War—and his head—and which was accelerated by the Glorious Revolution, which settled for all time that a Roman Catholic could not occupy the English throne.
Yet politics still intruded in court life down to the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. The immature and, frankly, ignorant Victoria caused a constitutional crisis when she refused to accede to Sir Robert Peel’s demands, on his becoming her prime minister, that the Whig ladies with whom she surrounded herself at court be replaced by Tory ones. Victoria also caused one of the greatest court scandals, shortly after her accession, when she accused one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings, who was unmarried, of being pregnant. Lady Flora’s swelling was abdominal cancer, of which she died. London was outraged and the Queen kept her head below the parapet for some time.
But it was also under Victoria that some sort of modernization of the court began. A series of senior military men became private secretaries and assistant private secretaries, and were often succeeded by family members; the royal family liked to employ as their most trusted servants those who had grown up in the atmosphere. The household expanded with Victoria’s family (she had nine children) to include nursery staff and tutors. The importance of keeping expenditure under control meant that ancient offices, such as the Keeper of the Privy Purse and the Master of the Household, took on new significance. But the courtiers also came to reflect the need for the monarchy to change its ways in an era of democracy, when—as Walter Bagehot might have put it—daylight had finally been let in on the magic. When one of the more legendary figures at court, Sir Frederick “Fritz” Ponsonby, played against George V at real tennis, the King was annoyed to lose, but Ponsonby counseled other courtiers not to “kowtow” to the Sovereign, and instead to treat him like a normal human being.
The early twentieth century was a time when the monarchy, as a means of developing its relevance and appeal, became increasingly reliant on display and ceremony, and Tinniswood describes well the army of staff and functionaries that became essential to maintain the show. There is a wonderful tale of a Guards band having to scale the walls of Windsor Castle to be able to play at a dinner given by Queen Victoria, thereby avoiding having to walk through the dining room itself. The 1953 Coronation is described in meticulous detail, with the people participating being managed by the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, while the Minister of Works, David Eccles—known as “the Abominable Showman”—handled the infrastructure.
What also changed in the twentieth century was that royal servants began selling their stories to the press. Marion Crawford—“Crawfie,” the present Queen’s nanny—caused outrage among the Windsors when she published a book of entirely harmless memoirs in 1949, and many of her successor colleagues followed suit. Perhaps most damaging were the recollections of Paul Burrell, the rather sleazy factotum to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who made the cash register ring loudly after his mistress’s untimely death, when, it seemed, anything went. They said in Victorian times—apparently in reference to the unbowdlerized representation of Cleopatra on the stage—“how different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen!” Our own dear Queen, in 2019, in her ninety-third year, maintains impeccable standards others have long disregarded; yet one cannot exactly know whether Tinniswood is describing an enduring state of affairs or something that may be on the cusp of changing forever.
1Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household, by Adrian Tinniswood; Basic Books, 416 pages, $32.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 6, on page 61
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