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Review by Elaine Simpson-Long

What is a courtier? According to dictionaries I have checked it seems there are two definitions:

  • A person who is often in attendance at the court of a King or other royal personage.
  • A person who seeks favour by flattery, charm etc.

Author Valentine Low makes it clear that in certain cases both definitions can apply. However, what struck me in reading this admirable book is that most of the courtiers or advisers attending the Royal Family over the last fifty years seem remarkably free of self-aggrandisement and are intensely loyal to those they serve.  

Courtiers has been extensively trailed and serialised in the press and, naturally, the papers involved wished to give it as much publicity as possible. From this coverage, you may have got the impression that this book is mainly about the ‘Tiresome Two’, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.  Good clickbait but thankfully, they only form a small part of the narrative.

A story, which may be apocryphal, sets the scene. A senior member of the Queen’s household, who had originally come from Buckingham Palace on secondment from his job working for the Australian government, was on his way back home when he was stopped at immigration control at Sydney airport.  The man at the desk leafed through his passport until he came to the page where the adviser had entered his profession. He looked at it, gave the passport back with the comment “Mate there is no T in courier”

To the contemporary reader the use of the word courtier is an anachronism. If we look back in history we could imagine fawning characters in knee breeches, intriguing in whispers and lurking in corridors. I think the correct word to be used today is ‘advisers’. Heaven knows it is clear there are many of them around, secretaries, press secretaries, permanent secretaries, valets etc., all of whom have a clearly defined role and, in the main, fill them admirably. 

If you have watched The Crown on Netflix at all, you may be familiar with the portrayal of Alan Lascelles (know as Tommy). He began his royal service under Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales. His early impression of Edward was positive: ‘I have a very deep admiration for the Prince and I am convinced that the future of England is as much in his hands as in those of any individual’.  However, his views changed on closer acquaintance: ‘the cold fact remains that it would be a real disaster if, by any ill chance, he was called on to accede the throne now and that none of us see any prospect of his fitting himself any better as time goes on.’ They say no man is a hero to his valet. It is clear that this also applies to those in his service.

Lascelles went on to become the epitome of the old fashioned Palace insider, but courtiers seem to have a rough time of it on the whole. Always on call and not particularly well remunerated but, as they are mostly recruited from a small pool of relations, friends and recommendations, intensely loyal. It is natural that they are chosen from certain circles as they know how things work, how to behave round their boss and are not intimidated by them. This does lead to criticism of a lack of diversity and broader thinking in the Palace and among the family, but this has changed considerably over the last thirty years. Princess Diana chose more informal and interesting advisers, many of whom she discarded as her marriage disintegrated and she came to regard them as “men in grey suits” who were betraying her.  Patrick Jephson was a case in point and fell foul of her mistrust much to his deep distress. It was only in the last year or so when the Bashir interview had been dissected and found to have been a betrayal and deception of the Princess, did he realise why he had lost his job.  

The Queen Mother sounded fun to work for. Her extravagance and love of a gin and tonic or two is well known and it seems she understood her courtiers also need to have a bit of fun now and again. Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, who later worked for William and Harry, had invited friends back to the Equerry’s rooms at Clarence House for a few drinks. The next morning after a heavy night and leaving the room in disarray he managed to crawl into his uniform just in time to attend the Queen Mother as she mounted the carriage to take her to Horse Guards.

“Did you have a party here last night Jamie?” she asked.
“Ma’am I am sorry, I hope we did not disturb you” knowing full well they had.
She replied “I’m so glad to see the place is being properly used.”

I found Courtiers a very informative book and, despite the publicity giving it the air of a gossipy and trivial publication, it is anything but. It is clear there was jockeying for position and intrigue, inevitable in such a position, but as I have already said and it bears repetition, courtiers have an unenviable task, a short shelf life, and a very difficult role to play. According to Patrick Jephson, adviser to Princess Diana:

You might be getting signals that your royal boss expects something quite informal, or is in a jolly mood, or the whole world is their friend. You are not their friend. So you bow and say ‘Good Morning Your Royal Highness’. These were reminders to her and to me and to anybody else who was listening that we are jolly matey today, but this is a formal relationship……the courtier’s job with a royal person is to remind them that they are different. You cross those lines at your peril. They are there for mutual protection. There is an understandable but very dangerous temptation to drop formality and encourage a kind of intimacy which never lasts.

Lord Stamfordham, who served both Queen Victoria and George V would remind colleagues, “we are ALL servants here, although some are more important than others”

Valentine Low has provided us with an exceptionally well-researched and well-written book.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings

Valentine Low, Courtiers (Headline, 2022). 978-1472290908, 384pp., hardback.

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1 comment

  1. I’ve bought this book on a Kindle 99p deal, after reading excerpts in one of the papers – most of which naturally featured the Tiresome Two. After this review I look forward to reading it!
    My father’s best friend was Chairman of the Aberdeen Angus Society, the QM’s favourite breed of cow, and as a child I remember him sharing stories about her when he stayed – one being that she always refilled her drink with her back to you! As a huge Dick Francis fan I loved to hear about him, too, as he was another frequent visitor back then.

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