This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In the introduction to A Royal Life, Hugo Vickers, royal biographer and historian, announces: “This book is not a biography or memoir.” I disagree. This book is a new and original kind of biography — one that I have never encountered before. Vickers is like a conductor wielding his baton, controlling the voices of both the Duke and the fourteen contributors who are brought in to speak about his character and his life.
In addition, the Duke’s three children, his wife and his Austrian, Greek, Bavarian and Yugoslav cousins dance in and out of the pages to make their own observations. The text includes excerpts from diaries such as those of the photographer Cecil Beaton, playwright Noel Coward and the journalist Kenneth Rose.
Each chapter opens by informing us of the relevant history of the monarchy, before moving to the Duke’s personal memories — the first of these being the day, when he was just 18 months old, that his sister was born. As time moves on, his children, his cousins and his brother and sister present their views of what has been said and add perceptive and multi-perspective anecdotes.
Of the twenty-one chapters, five — “Early Life”, “Schooldays”, “The Coronation”, “Early Royal Duties” and “The Army” — are most notable. During the war, the Duke attended a little village school near Coppins, the Kents’ family house in Buckinghamshire, and had Latin lessons privately from a retired schoolteacher. Tragically, his father was killed in an aeroplane crash whilst on duty in the middle of the war.
Aged eight, he was sent to Ludgrove for a tough four years. The headmaster was quoted in the newspapers saying of the young Duke, “He will be kicked about as much as any boy,” which turned out to be all too true. Then it was Eton, where he was happier, though after three years his hay fever and sinus problems resulted in him being sent to the multinational school Le Rosey in Switzerland. By the time he took his General Certificate, he was fluent in Greek, Latin and French, and well read in literature and 19th — and 20th — century history.
Aged 17, he had to assume a prominent role in the Coronation. As one of the three royal dukes, he was to give homage to the Queen immediately after the Archbishop of Canterbury, for which there were endless rehearsals in Westminster Abbey. He had been given a fascinating booklet which provided details of every move to be made for those with specific roles, but still he was nervous, given that the event was to be televised all over the world.
He left the nightclub at 4.15am and presented himself on parade at 7am
His brother, Prince Michael, just eleven, revelled in the occasion — “I remember all the wonderful clothes we wore — shoes with buckles, kilts … the spectacle and how glamorous the Queen was … There was an element of magic, certainly for me.”
In 1953, the Duke enrolled at Sandhurst in preparation for life as a regular soldier in the Royal Scots Greys. He went on to serve in Hong Kong, Cyprus, Germany and in Northern Ireland, where the risk of being kidnapped was high. The Queen alerted Edward Heath, then Prime Minister, to ensure his safety.
His love of cars and music, his gaiety and his “youthful wildness” in the 1950s is described in “Recreation” and “The Army”. A newspaper cutting describes him dancing the night away at a London nightclub, leaving at 4.15am and presenting himself on parade at 7am. (I could have supplied Vickers with more colour from my husband’s risqué anecdotes as a Guards officer with him at the time.) He goes to every glamorous party imaginable and indulges his passion for fast cars (Aston Martins, especially), which he crashes dangerously several times.
Of all the impressive charity work he took on, the one that most surprises me is his role of Britain’s Grand Master Freemason. I was brought up to be suspicious of Freemasonry, but the Duke stresses its “principles of brotherly love, relief and truth”. He adds, “I have always seen Freemasonry as a way of improving the world, and alleviating suffering.”
Just before the 2019 lockdown, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia organised a visit for the Duke to celebrate the centenary of the Grand Lodge of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in Belgrade, where he gave a speech assuring us, “We are not a secret society at all … we share a few secrets simply as a matter of privacy, but there is nothing secret, and still less anything sinister.”
The book ends with a moving and now timely final paragraph from the Duke: “The life of the Queen and my cousin Philip set such a remarkable example for all of us — the essence of Royal Service … has been a privilege and a joy to follow all my life.” As he has never vied for the spotlight, the Duke’s life has been little-known. We now have it on record.
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