Courtiers bridge the gap between the public and private existences of the Royal Family. Their world is frequently invisible and, as such, often a source of ill-informed speculation. In his new book, the journalist Valentine Low describes courtiers as looking after money, providing advice and organising palace entertainments: “They exert power, but do not rule.” That their behind-the-scenes existence is beyond the public gaze is occasionally reason enough for fervid curiosity.
Once in a while, the misbehaviour – real or imaginary – of one particular courtier serves to remind the public of this shadowy caste that enjoys royal intimacy, sometimes for decades, or in the case of some families, over several generations. A former aide to the King once described His Majesty’s ex-valet Michael Fawcett as “not a nice person. Not the sort of person I would want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with”, an “abrasive”, “difficult” “Mr Fix-it”. Little has changed, it would appear, from the murky court intrigues of vanished centuries, or the dark machinations that Hamlet railed at. Courtiers inspire strong, not always positive, feelings, including among those they serve. Princess Margaret, Diana, Princess of Wales and, most recently, the Duchess of Sussex have all protested against those the Duchess last year called “the people that are running the institution”.
Low’s enjoyable account, based partly on interviews carried out while reporting on the Royal Family for The Times, is billed as “the story of how the monarchy really works”. Written before the late Queen’s death, it focuses chiefly on royal private secretaries, whom Low characterises as equivalent to CEOs, or diary-holders in charge of policy, and press secretaries. The book is not, unlike many histories of courtiers, concerned with more personal attendants, for example, in the case of Her Late Majesty, the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, among whom were some of her most trusted and trustworthy helpmates, including Lady Susan Hussey and Dame Mary Morrison, both of them in attendance for more than 60 years.
Low’s account chronicles, and explains, the role of those courtiers whose role comes closest to public accountability. As Patrick Jephson, former private secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, explained, he understood his role as reminding his royal boss that “you are under obligations to do certain things, and so am I”.
Courtiers, however, includes a reminder to the more sensationalist reader: these men and women are never more than advisors and “sometimes the sovereign [or any other member of the Royal Family] just won’t do what they say”. As Henry Ponsonby remembered of Queen Victoria, “When she insists that 2 and 2 make 5, I say that I cannot help thinking they make 4. She replies there may be some truth in what I say, but she knows they make 5. Thereupon I drop the discussion. It is of no consequence and I leave it there.” With good reason, Henry Marten, who instructed the teenage Elizabeth II in constitutional history, encouraged his charge to read Ponsonby’s biography.
Courtiers revisits incidents from the first years of the last reign, including Princess Margaret’s relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend, and ends with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tour of the Caribbean this spring. Much here is familiar, though there are tantalising unattributed snippets from private interviews, including a piquant description of the King’s last private secretary as Prince of Wales, Sir Clive Alderton, as “a schemer, a chess player... a figure from Wolf Hall or House of Cards”. Low’s conclusion is a valuable one: “Courtiers at their worst can fan the flames of family dissent… They can also be the voice of conservatism, which… can be a good thing.”
Courtiers is published by Headline at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books.
Matthew Dennison is the author of The Queen (Apollo)